Every year we do something during break but we usually have two stipulations: 1. We choose a destination in driving distance and 2. We choose a place within a reasonable budget. While we would love to pick up and go visit our family in the UK more than anything in the world, it’s just not feasible this time of year. We wanted some place exotic and adventurous so Montreal immediately came to mind.
There are so many reasons to take your kids on a trip to explore Montreal. For one thing, it’s the Europe of North America and you can introduce them to French culture without actually going across the ocean. If you’re not a lover of traveling long distances with kids, you’ll love the fact that you can jump on a plane and go on a relatively short flight, or you can drive…like we did.
Secondly, Montreal has a heritage that you will want to teach your kids about. The signs are in French, the natives speak French and English and the city has a rich history that is easily taught walking the streets or going to its various museums. You can introduce them to French food like croissants and crepes, or they can feast on the city’s famous bagels or smoked meat, two of Montreal’s delicacies.
Lastly, and most importantly if you are looking to travel without breaking the bank, Montreal is not nearly as expensive as taking the kids to Europe…and it’s not that different. When you are walking down the streets of Montreal, you’ll be transported into another world via the architecture, cobblestone streets, boulangeries, patisseries and much more that is reminiscent of Paris or another city in France.
We were game for all of this with one caveat – we knew it would be bitter cold. The temperatures would drop below zero during most of our visit, but having been to Montreal, we knew it was a walking town full of museums, architecture to ogle at from the car and warm restaurants to drink hot chocolate in. The weather would not deter our plans.
Our trip started on a Sunday and ended on a Sunday. We drove up from NY in the late afternoon and stopped in Lake George for the night. It’s just over halfway and was a good middle point to get us to Montreal by lunchtime the next day. Upon arrival, we drove right to Old Montreal for the first part of our stay at Springfield Suites Old Montreal, on rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste, right on top of the Old Port, Chinatown, the Science Museum and Pointe-a-Calliere.
It’s a conveniently located hotel, with comfortable rooms and a hearty breakfast. Our only complaint was that its pool and Jacuzzi were small and poorly heated, but the hotel was still excellent value.
After a few days, we moved on to the Hyatt Regency Montreal , which is located in the downtown area. A notch above the last hotel, the room was slightly more posh, the pool bigger and more beautiful and better amenities. Each hotel has a pro and con – we liked the Springfield Suites for its location and the Hyatt for its better bedding and pool. No matter where we stayed, we still had to pay enormous amounts for parking.
Being in Montreal during Christmas/New Year was an absolute treat. The Old City and Port were all decked out in lights and baubles and it was decadent! Here are some of the highlights of our trip, oriented for children but enjoyable to us all:
Pointe-a-Calliere: This is a great stop to make with kids to introduce them to the history of Montreal. It focuses on the early periods of Montreal’s history and shows how the city grew from an Iroquoian village to a missionary colony to the French empire in America to a world-class metropolitan city. You start with a 3-D multimedia show and then head down to the museum’s archaeological remains, which enables visitors to take an underground archaeological tour. Models set in the floor reveal how Place Royale evolved through the centuries and the exhibits include displays of artifacts found there, including dice, crockery, old combs and beer caps.
Virtual historic figures also pop up to chat about their era. Even kids who hate museums won’t help but be intrigued and leave with a better understand of how this city has evolved over the centuries. You’ll also see Montreal’s first Catholic cemetery, which dates from 1643.
Address: 350 Place Royale, Corner of de la Commune, Old Montréal (Quebec)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day from December 21, 2013 to January 5, 2014; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Fees: $6 adult, senior & student; $4 kids ages 6 to 12; free for kids under 6; $15 family pass (2 adults with 2 kids ages 6 to 17 or 1 adult with 3 kids ages 6 to 17); $29 season pass; $58 family season pass (2 adults with 2 kids ages 6 to 17 or 1 adult with 3 kids ages 6 to 17, $11 for each extra child)
Ice-Skating in the Old Port: From now until March 9th, you can take a spin around the ice rink in the Old Port. We went on our first night and it was the perfect way to get exercise whilst surrounded by Montreal’s views of the Old City. Located near Old Montreal’s picturesque de la Commune Street, the Bonsecours Basin outdoor skating rink is the perfect place to skate with your friends and/or family. The skating rink plays music as of 7 p.m. every night of the week and the music is wonderful. It was the perfect intro to our week spent in this grand city.
Address: Quays of the Old Port, Old Montréal (Quebec)
Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., every day from December 21, 2013 to January 5, 2014; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., December 31, 2013 through January 1st, 2014 Fees: Adult $20; Children 13-17 $9.50; Seniors $16; Child 6-12 $7 (Canadian dollars)
Montreal Science Center: The Science Museum has permanent collections that offer educational activities, both traditional and digital, an interactive movie game and an IMAX theater. As a bonus, the museum offers all types of cuisine in its various food courts. We spent a long time in their current exhibition, Truth or Lie? About critical thinking and how science can help us see through the many illusions that surround us. There are over 40 fun and interactive activities and it runs through March 9th.
Address: Old Port of Montréal, 333 de la Commune St. West
Hours: Monday – Friday 9am-5pm; Saturday 10am – 9pm; Sunday 10am-6pm
Fees: Adult $14.50; Children 13-17 $13; Seniors $13; Child 6-12 $8.50 (Canadian dollars)
Biodome: The Biodome was built to keep kids in touch with nature. It’s housed as part of the city’s Space for Life, the institution that includes the Botanical Gardens and the Insectarium. The Biodome is an amazing piece of architecture that houses five eco-systems with plants, birds and animals native to particular regions. It holds over 4800 animals from 230 different species and 750 plant types that coexist under the same roof. We started our tour in the lush tropical rainforest where we observed lynx, beavers and otters in the Laurentian Maple Forest. Then we observed birds and underwater fauna inhabiting the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and our journey concluded with the auks in the Sub-Antarctic Islands. The penguins’ section in the Sub-Polar Region at the end is awesome really made our experience. Our kids loved walking the long pathways of the Biodome, going through one ecosystem to another.
Address: 4777, avenue Pierre-De Coubertin, Montréal
Hours: Daily 9am-6pm (summer hours)
Fees: Adult $18.75; Children 5-17 $9.50; Family $52.50 (regular exhibitions/Canadian dollars)
There are packages – check the site for details.
Montreal’s Planetarium: The Planetarium is actually part of the Space for Life, as well. It offers multimedia shows for people of all ages, designed to reveal the fascinating world of astronomy and space exploration. It is one of the few Planetariums in the world to still present shows with live narration. Original scripts skillfully adapted to various audiences explain the sky in its entire splendor to children and adults. The Planetarium’s astronomers generously share their passion for the sky through observation sessions and some very interesting astronomical events. While you’re waiting for the show to begin, you can tour educational exhibits on stars, galaxies and other astronomical phenomena.
Address: 4801, avenue Pierre-De Coubertin
Hours: Check schedule.
Fees: Admission $18.75 adults, $14 seniors and students, $9.50 children 5-17, free for children 4 and younger (Canadian dollars)
Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal: The Notre Dame is a fantastic structure located in the Old Port area and you can’t get in unless you book a ticket for a tour, we booked tickets to the evening performance of “And Then There Was Light” that is promoted as celebrating the founding of Montreal and the Notre Dame Basilica. It is a truly remarkable experience. This magnificent show uses today’s most advanced multimedia techniques to (literally) highlight the Basilica’s historical, cultural and architectural legacy…and its many outstanding works of art. The show represents the work of 150 artists and skilled technicians. During the show 26 silent motors move the screens, projectors and curtains in this superb, highly automated production. When the curtains go up that cover the church’s ark and beautiful stained glass windows, you can’t help but feel awe-struck.
Address: 110 Notre-Dame Street West, Montréal
Hours: Check schedule.
Fees: Admission $10 adults, $9 seniors, $5 children 17 and under (Canadian dollars)
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: The MMFA is a beautiful art museum whose holdings have grown to almost 36,000 objects—paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings, photographs and decorative art objects—from antiquity to today since its inception in 1860. We were there to see their temporary exhibit Splendore a Venezia to learn about Venice’s art and music during the city’s renaissance period. We viewed the exhibit listening to music from a headset, which kept my kids very entertained. Afterwards, we visited permanent exhibits including Monet, Matisse, Dali and more. My kids, both budding artists, were both quite mesmerized.
Address: 1380 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Hours: Check schedule.
Fees: Admission $20 adults, $12 13-30 years old, Free 12 years and under (Canadian dollars)
Skating at Atrium Le 1000: This impressive interior skating rink is located in the heart of Montreal. Open year-round, the Atrium Le 1000 is an original, lively and ideal activity for families and friends. We enjoyed it but it was kind of crowded, small and our skates weren’t that comfortable, but it was a nice break from the outside cold.
Address: 1380 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest
Hours: Check schedule.
Fees: Admission $7.50 adults, $12 13-30 years old, $5 children, $6.50 student/senior (Canadian dollars)
Jean Talon Market: In the heart of Little Italy, the Jean-Talon Market is one of the oldest public markets in Montreal. Known for its numerous local fruit and vegetable vendors as well as the cultural diversity of its shopkeepers, the market is one of the largest public markets in North America. We loved gawking at the fruits and vegetables, but also flowers, spices, oils, cheese, meat, fish and artisanal bakery goods and the regional products from Quebec! Our mouths delighted in the most amazing tastes and aromas imaginable.
Address: 7070 Avenue Henri Julien
Hours: Check schedule.
Hungry? It was so cold that we stopped to eat a lot. Here are some good choices:
Schwartz’s (3895 Saint-Laurent Boulevard) Nestled in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, Schwartz Deli specializes in smoked meat and has been around for a long time, making it legendary enough that the lines start forming when they open and stay long until closing. The meat is not Kosher but there is definitely a Jewish vibe. I was surprised to hear that Celine Dion and her husband bought the institution last year for 6 million dollars. But judging from the lines, they aren’t hurting for cash.
Village Mon Nan (43 Rue De La) It’s true that the Chinese food in Montreal is very good, and Village Mon Nan was a good choice for us. The restaurant offers some of the best pan-fried dumplings, Peking duck and General Tao chicken in town. For me, as a vegetarian, there were plenty of really good tofu and vegetable options.
Juliette et Chocolat (various locations) is a superb chocolate restaurant. We went to the Saint-Laurent location which was beautifully decorated for the holidays. My kids ordered the nutella crepes which were just sublime.
La Creperie Du Marche 7070, Henri-Julien, Tel: 514-238-0998 Located in Jean Talon Market, this creperie serves up traditional French crepes, both sweet and savory. The crepes, which come in two general categories (Savory or Sweet), are made of products only from Quebec, such as sarrasin (gluten- free buckwheat flour), fresh eggs and famous local cheeses. I opted for the ‘Atlantic Smoked Salmon with Spinach and Goat Gheese’ option, and was initially impressed by the size and the freshness of the ingredients. We actually liked it so much, we went back the next day and my kids indulged in sugar and chocolate crepes, which were out of this world.
Fairmount Bagels (74 Avenue Fairmount Oues) Montréal-style bagels are hand-rolled, boiled in honey-infused water, and baked in wood-fired ovens. In contrast to their American counterparts, the ones in Montréal are smaller, sweeter, and denser, with a crisp and smokey crust. They are absolutely delicious, so we had our fix at Fairmount Bagels. It’s open 24/7 and at 11am we got fresh hot bagels to snack on and take home without a line. The sesame bagels are classic.
Jardin Nelson (407, place Jacques-Cartier Vieux-Montréal) We ate dinner while listening to live jazz and took in the French culture and ambience in the heart of the Old City. Jardin has an extensive menu with options for everyone, from pasta and pizza to more eclectic choices like lasagna and eggplant.
Eggspectation (1313 De Maisonneuve West) This great breakfast/lunch cafe has a complete family-friendly menu, featuring 160 items. It’s not all eggs either. They have yummy salads, steak, pasta, sandwiches, chicken, soup, as well as a variety of egg dishes.
Guido & Angelina (690 Sainte-Catherine Street West) Located right on Sainte-Catherine Street, is this child-friendly restaurant, offering pasta and other traditional Italian dishes.
Pizzadelic has various locations around the city. If you like pizza, pasta and starters with a psychedelic flare then you’ll like this place. They have traditional and more modern options, with a host of thin-crust possibilities, from basic tomato sauce and mozzarella to black tiger shrimp and pickled ginger. They also have a lovely assortment of salads and burgers, and they also serve breakfast daily.
Brit & Chips (433 McGill) is a conveniently located traditional fish & chips shop in the heart of the Old City. Served in newspaper just like they do in the UK, the fish & chips is as authentic as it gets. The menu also features Tandoori popcorn shrimp, a variety of pasties and other British foods including pork pies, and sausage rolls.
Creperie Chez Suzette (3 Rue Saint Paul Est.) is a lovely creperie in the heart of the Old City with crepes and fondue. We chose this restaurant, a hop and a skip from our hotel, to sample chocolate and cheese fondue, which was a treat for both my kids. They now want to open a fondue cafe in my neighborhood! Oh, well, if that doesn’t happen, we’ll have fondue parties!
On that note, I’ll sign off. I will leave you but I do hope you are planning a trip to Montreal this year. It’s a beautiful city, full of grandiose architecture, art, culture and history. I want to return during the summer for Jazz Fest.
Disclosure: Holly worked with Tourisme Montreal on her itinerary and received complimentary tickets to many of the city’s museums, but she paid for everything else. As always, all opinions are her own.