When I told people we were headed to Montreal for Christmas Vacation I got a lot of quizzical responses. Yes, it is cold in Montreal in winter, but Canada knows how to do cold weather well and there’s lots to make Montreal merry for the whole family.
Montreal is a popular destination for people looking for a taste of the Old World any time of year. French is the native language as well as the culture and cuisine in all of the Quebec Province. A trip to Montreal means great food, great museums, and, surprisingly, lots of outdoor fun, even in winter. Especially during the holidays, Montreal becomes a sparkling city of lights with lots of wintry fun.
Getting There — Car vs Public Transit:
From the Northeast, Montreal is easy to get to by car, rail or plane. If you are a car-free city dweller, like me, you can fly to Montreal in an hour or take Amtrak. Getting around the city by public transportation is easy. The metro system is clean and efficient and bus routes can get you directly to any destination. The Downtown and Old Montreal are very walkable and the best way to see the city is on foot. However, if you are traveling with small children, be aware that snowed over streets make strollers very impractical. Locals carry little ones in backpacks. A car may make travel with small children a lot easier and it will make the logistics of getting around the city a little smoother (and warmer) for everyone.
Best Ages for a Montreal Family Trip:
Walking cobblestone streets, visiting museums, eating great food—the charm of Montreal is what draws adults to Montreal, but may not excite most kids. A successful family vacation in Montreal will balance fun stuff for the kids with the best of the city for adults. Depending on your children, that may make Montreal a better destination for when the children are old enough to handle nice meals and museums, as well as some city schlepping.
When to Go:
If you are planning a trip to Montreal for the holidays, make sure to check for holiday hours and closings. Many restaurants, museums and other attractions completely shut down or have limited hours during the end of December and the beginning of January. Also check our list of festivals below or check Montreal Tourism website for updates.
We had a huge range in weather during our stay in Montreal, from a relatively balmy 40 degrees to a frigid minus 3 (Fahrenheit). The week before we arrived there had been a huge snowstorm dumping about a foot of snow. So, anything is possible; the only thing you can be pretty sure of is that it will be cold, or possibly, super-cold. But don’t let that deter you from a winter visit. Read on to find out what makes a winter visit to Montreal special.
Best Things to Do in Montreal with Kids
Explore the Space for Life - This complex on Montreal’s Olympic Park offers a Biodome, Plantarium, Insectarium and Botanic Garden. A must-do for anyone visiting Montreal with kids, the Biodome, basically an indoor zoo, will please everyone in the family. Directly next door to the Biodome is a small, but state-of-the-art planetarium that offers two space shows and one permanent exhibit. If you plan on visiting the planetarium, it’s important to look up times for English showings and buy your tickets either online or when you arrive, before heading to the Biodome or it may sell out. The Insectarium is a 15 minute walk away and better visited on a separate day and going directly there, if you have time, unless you have super stamina and a car.
Navigate the Underground City - A network of corridors links many of the buildings in Downtown Montreal that can be used on cold days to get across town. Finding your way around can be a little confusing—it took us about 15 minutes to get oriented—leading us to pretend we were on an episode of Amazing Race as we navigated from our hotel to Old Montreal through the underground pathways.
Winter Sports at Mont Royal Park - Mont Royal Park is the Central Park of Montreal with almost 700 acres of nature accessible right from downtown Montreal. During the winter months, families flock to the park for sledding, ice skating, snowshoeing and cross country skiing. Visitors can enjoy all of these winter sports thanks to a rental facility that offers all the equipment needed for all ages to participate. There’s even cross country ski lessons for kids.
Ice Skating and Fireworks at the Old Pier - Perhaps the most scenic spot to skate in Montreal is at the Old Port where you can enjoy views of the harbor and skyline. Stick around on Saturday nights during the holidays for fireworks at 8pm.
Indoor ice skating at Atrium Le 1000 - If you can’t take the cold, but don’t want to miss out on winter sports, head to Atrium Le 1000, Montreal’s indoor skating rink. The gallery also has shops and restaurants and connects to the Underground City.
Visit Notre Dame Basilica - Montreal’s Basilica Notre Dame is one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen and definitely worth a visit. During the holidays you can visit the church and hear the 7000 pipe organ play at no extra charge at 2pm Tuesday-Saturday or buy tickets for the evening sound and light show (recommended for 7 and up).
Christmas Displays Along Saint Catherine Street - It would probably be hard to avoid this main shopping corridor in Downtown Montreal, so a special trip isn’t needed. But whether you head to Rue Ste. Catherine for some holiday shopping, to take advantage of post holiday sales, or just to stroll the bedazzled street, lit up with holiday lights. Make sure not to miss the animated Christmas windows at department store Maison Ogilvy.
Get Some Luminotherapie - One way Montrealers keep the winter blues at bay is with sparkling light displays. During the Holidays the entire city is lit up with spectacular lights, but the central spectacle is Luminotherapy, an annual light installation, that’s a great spot for wintry photo-ops.
Take a Horse-drawn Carriage Ride in Old Montreal - What better way to explore the cobblestone streets of Montreal’s old city and learn about its history than on a horse-drawn carriage tour.
Catch a Holiday Show like The Nutcracker or Cirque du Soleil (in their home town).
Montreal Science Centre - By the old port. Best for little ones.
Grevin Wax Museum - An upscale Madame Tussauds.
Pointe A Calliere - Built on the site of the first settlement of Montreal, explores the history of Montreal, including an excellent hands-on children’s exhibit, Pirates or Privateers.
Chateau Ramezay - While not a barrel of laughs, this historic site is an interesting place to learn about the early history of Montreal and Quebec. Downstairs kids can dress up in period costume.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Museum of Contemporary Art - Both offer good collections and family programs.
Sir George-Etienne Cartier National Historic Site - Step back in time at this sumptuous Victorian home decorated for a Victorian Christmas.
McCord Museum - Learn Canadian history through thousands of artifacts including toys and period costumes. On Free Family Sundays offer games and workshops for all ages.
Redpath Museum - Closed during the holidays, but kids will enjoy the dinosaurs and mummies at this natural history museum if you come later in the winter.
Fete des Neiges: Weekends mid-January through early February a snow festival takes over Parc Jean Drapeau with every imaginable winter activity including dog sled rides, cross country skiing, skating, tubing, sleigh rides and more.
Best Places to Eat in Montreal with Kids
One great way to enjoy the unique French and Quebecois flavors, literally, of Montreal is to visit the many excellent eateries.
Eat your way through Jean Talon Market - Getting out of the cold into a giant food hall/farmer’s market? That’s my idea of a perfect destination. We grazed at stalls selling local treats from macaron to crepes, cheeses, sausages and smoked fish. The sausage sandwich from Balkani was one of the best things we ate in Montreal. This is also a great place to pick up cans of maple syrup to bring home for gifts at better prices.
Sample Poutine - Serving 25 varieties of Quebec’s quintessential dish, La Banquise is considered the go-to place for poutine in Montreal. But if you can’t get there, find an outpost of La Belle Province, a fast food chain owned by the same company that serves several of the same poutines.
Chow Down on Smoked Meats - Schwartz’s Deli is considered a must-do for their famous smoked meats. Visitors line up outdoors even in the coldest weather to sample a famous sandwich. Locals skip the line and head to The Main, right across the street, with more seating and equally excellent smoked meat.
Try Montreal’s Famous Bagels - As a native New Yorker, I was skeptical that Montreal could produce bagels on par with NYC. Montreal has two famous bageleries, St Viateur and Fairmount. Both are equally acclaimed and produce crusty, chewy bagels worth seeking out. I recommend the sesame over plain.
Indulge Your Chocolate Lover at Juliette et Chocolat - Another highlight of our visit was Juliette et Chocolat, a restaurant with multiple locations that serves chocolate in every form, including 12 varieties of hot chocolate. The cocoa is thick like a sauce; kids will probably like the traditional, but you can also sample flavors made with chocolates from around the world. Try the great crepes or an individual Buche de Noel, two foods that should be on your Montreal bucket list.
Patisseries, Biensur - One of the things that adds French flair to Montreal is the abundance of excellent bakeries. We enjoyed Premiere Moisson, but there are too many terrific patisseries in Montreal to list.
Dining Out - Montreal is packed with excellent restaurants. If you can’t get a table try showing up early. Since families often want to get in and out in an hour or less sometimes you can snag a table between reservations. I noticed that even the best restaurants in Montreal welcomed children. Our favorite meal was at Deville Dinerbar, an upscale burger joint that serves giant burgers, salads and more. If you go, don’t miss the ahi tuna taco starter, which is big enough for a light entree and delicious.