Ever need a break from life and feel like the only way to achieve it is to go on a solo road trip for several days to a bunch of places you’ve never been? I reached that point and decided to spend a week driving from New York City to Bellville, Ohio via some cities that have long been on my list (Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston) and some places I’ve been wanting to experience (Adirondack Mountains, Allegheny National Forest).
It took me a day to grab my rental car in Newark and drive north through the Adirondack Mountains to the Canadian border and onto Montreal. The ride was uneventful until I reached the mountains and some snow flurries that grew increasingly intense as I headed toward the border. For the first time ever I was seriously questioned while crossing—apparently a 30-something-year-old woman driving solo in the dark and the snow to a city she had never visited without plans to meet anyone was questionable at best. The agent actually got out a flashlight and checked my backseat and around my car before making me reconfirm my plans multiple times and eventually (and reluctantly) letting me proceed!
I arrived in Montreal around 7 p.m., navigating down the cobblestone streets of the old town until I found my destination—Le Petit Hotel. I grabbed my bag and headed inside where a friendly front desk clerk helped me with valet arrangements, recommended some nearby spots to grab dinner, and assured me it was very safe for a woman to walk around after dark by herself.
The hotel was in the perfect location—right in the middle of the old town. My room was lovely, comfortable and quiet, the staff were friendly, there was free coffee in the morning(!), and the surrounding area was full of shops and restaurants. Highly recommend!
I rushed my things up to the room, headed across the street to an intimate spot called Bonaparte to grab a quick but delicious dinner at the bar (can you say creme brulee fois gras?!), and then walked a few blocks to the Place d’Armes Square to take in La Basilique Notre-Dame lit up at night.
In fact, the entire area was lit up with twinkle lights and absolutely beautiful—I wandered around taking pictures and getting a feel for the architecture and area. Several other people were out walking around doing the same and as the clerk had promised, I never felt unsafe.
The next morning I woke up early and set out to pack as much as possible into my day in the city. If you only have 32 hours in Montreal, here are the highlights I recommend you prioritize, all of which can be easily accessed via metro and good, old-fashioned walking.
Top of my list was exploring Old Montreal, the city’s historic district, founded in 1642. My hotel was in the heart of this area and only a couple of blocks from the St. Lawrence River. I set out early, bundled up against the 15 degree Fahrenheit weather, and enjoyed a quiet and quaint walk along the cobblestone streets to the port.
The weather had been so cold that the river had frozen over in sections, leaving bays full of thick ice. I imagine the port is busy during warmer months, but it was silent and still as I wandered along the water toward the Old Port Clocktower.
A walking trail next to the railroad tracks led me along the river and rows of incredible old homes and businesses. The architecture is iconic and a must-see when you visit. I ducked into the 150-year-old Bonsecours Market, the oldest and largest in Montreal, but was too early to look around–everything was still closed and only a few people were beginning to set up their shops for the day.
I also stopped to admire the nearby Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel and Accueil Bonneau, both beautiful buildings that were not yet open. Across from this area by the river are all kinds of amusements–a ferris wheel, outdoor patios– all of which I imagine are well used during the summer time.
While the old town was never what I would call bustling while I was there, when I circled back later in the day to walk through Place Jacque Cartier and stop in some of the shops, things were much more lively. Depending on the vibe you’re seeking, I would recommend exploring Old Montreal at different times of day.
City Hall and Chateau Ramezay
In my search for Montreal’s City Hall, I discovered the Chateau Ramezay, and 18th-century residence turned museum that covers 500 years of city history. I didn’t know anything about this museum but enjoyed learning about Montreal’s history and seeing some of the artifacts.
In particular, I was impressed with one of the special exhibits, which focused on scent. Each story and exhibit area was accompanied by a small panel with a button you pushed to release the scent. The scent was specifically designed to bring forward certain emotions as you read each story–I had never experienced anything like it!
Mile End Neighborhood
My good friend recommended I take the metro to the Mile End district during my visit to check out a few restaurants and get a feel for one of Montreal’s neighborhoods.
The area was an eclectic mix of high-end urban shops, street art, religious buildings representing a variety of faiths, residential homes, and small businesses. I saw quite a contingent of homeless people in a park near the metro, a number of construction workers taking their lunch breaks, and a variety of families and students heading from one activity to another.
After some brief window shopping along St. Laurent Boulevard, I explored several foodie stops (mentioned at the end of this post) before catching the metro to downtown Montreal.
While there were countless religious buildings all throughout Montreal, there were two I visited and recommend– St. Patrick Basilica and Notre Dame Basilica.
St. Patrick Basilica was actually somewhat hard to find, hidden by tall buildings and road construction smack-dab in the middle of downtown Montreal.
While the exterior of the building was not quite as notable as the nearby Notre Dame, the interior was massive and quite impressive. From vaulted ceilings to carved wood entries to incredible shamrock stained glass windows, I found myself spending quite a bit of time roaming around and taking it all in.
Although I had seen Notre Dame Basilica’s exterior at night, I wanted to see the interior of the church where Celine Dion was married. This church has an admission fee, but once I was inside and able to adjust my sight to the darkness, I realized the experience was well worth the expense.
Everything about the inside of this church is dramatic– from the incredible lighting to the towering pipe organ to the ornate furnishings. While I was there the choir began practicing in the rear balcony by the organ–I took a seat in one of the pews and just enjoyed the sights and sounds while tourists all around me whipped out their phones to start recording videos for their Instagram feeds. Alas, I did not–I walked away with a few pictures and some incredible memories.
Mount Royal Observatory
The next morning as I was leaving town (still within the 32 hours!), I drove up Mount Royal to the observation deck/overlook. This stop is well worth it if it’s a clear day and you can spare a couple of minutes!
Once in the park I found a paid lot where I was able to find a spot and walk up to the overlook. Despite all of the cars and people, no one was really headed toward the observation deck and I nearly had the place to myself!
It was still early and a fairly clear morning, allowing me to catch the tail end of the sunrise and wonderful views of the city. One other couple joined me during my visit and the gentleman was kind enough to take my picture–the only one of me from my 32-hour whirlwind tour of Montreal!
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few restaurants I visited during my time in Montreal. Whether you’re looking for a sit-down meal or a quick bite for the road, I recommend the following:
- Bonaparte, Old Montreal, hotel restaurant with a fancy dining room and more casual bar area, wonderful fois gras
- Modavie, Old Montreal, wine bar with live music, low-lit and good energy (try a glass of the Lirac, Chateau Mont-Redon 2015, Rhone France)
- Crew Cafe, downtown Montreal, bank-turned multi-use building, which includes this great coffee shop that operates out of the old teller stations under the beautiful frescoes of the vaulted ceiling
- Fairmount Bagel and St. Viateur Bagel, Mile End, having tasted both, I recommend you do too and pass your own judgement!
- Wilensky’s Deli, Mile End, note: cash only! Grab a stool at the counter, talk to the owner who is continuing her family’s legacy, and order the Wilensky Special: “all-beef salami with all-beef baloney grilled to mouth-watering perfection on a tasty roll with a hint of mustard.” Don’t forget a side of pickles!