While most travelers flock to warmer destinations in the winter, Montréal is one of those special cities worth the colder temperatures. The city makes it easy to enjoy classic winter activities, but also find refuge indoors.
If you’re wondering how to spend a couple days in Montréal in the winter, here are some things to do and places to stay.
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Things to Do in Montréal in the Winter
Note: travel is currently uncertain due to the pandemic. Please check travel restrictions, follow local health guidelines, and refrain from doing anything risky (which could include traveling to Montréal in the first place; I visited in February 2020 and want to get this post up before I forget everything!).
1. Enjoy a classic winter activity on Mont Royal
It’s not winter without some classic outdoor activities! Right atop Mont Royal, you can get active and enjoy the snow in many different ways, including showshoeing, tubing, ice skating, and cross-country skiing.
Don’t have equipment? That’s no problem at all, as there are rentals at the Beaver Lake Pavilion for a reasonable price. Check the opening hours and costs on the Mont Royal park website. As some examples, adult skis cost 20 CAD for 3 hours, skates are 12 CAD for 2 hours, and snowshoes are 14 CAD for 2 hours.
You can even get private cross-country skiing lessons starting at 52-62 CAD per person!
I personally went snowshoeing for the first time, and had a lot of fun, though I didn’t get very far in that couple hours. The trails are well-marked, though the area can be hilly, so expect a workout.
2. Browse the many thrift and vintage stores
Montréal is home to several unique thrift and vintage stores. One of the best-known stores is Eva B, which has an eclectic interior, with knickknacks and even bras hanging from the ceiling.
For a large selection of vintage jackets and worksuits, stop by Haido – Friperie Vintage.
Another popular thrift store in the city is Le Magasin du Chaînon, which is known for its affordable home goods.
3. Taste maple taffy (tire sur la neige) and poutine
Maple taffy is the quintessential winter treat in Québec. It’s made by pouring boiling maple syrup onto a bed of snow, and then wrapping the cooled syrup around a wooden stick. It can be overwhelmingly sweet, so make sure you have some water with you! I got mine at Délices Érable & Cie in the Old Town, which is a tourist spot more than anything else, but had a wide selection of organic maple syrup delicacies.
There’s also nothing like a generous serving of poutine to warm you up. Poutine is another classic Québecois dish, made of fries, gravy, and cheese curds. As someone who’s plant-based, I enjoyed the sweet potato vegan poutine at La Panthère Verte.
4. See the famous Aura light show
Aura is a show that illuminates the famous Notre-Dame Basilica, creating vivid scenes to dramatic music. While I personally didn’t find it the most impressive (you can read my full review), many people are moved to tears by it. If you haven’t experienced a light show before, I think it could be worth the higher price tag (~30 CAD).
The experience lasts around 30-40 minutes, with the actual show lasting just under 20 minutes. If you’re planning to visit the famous Basilica anyways, why not spice up the visit with tickets to Aura?
5. Have a warm drink in a cute cafe
Escape the cold and plop down in a cozy interior. My personal favorite spot was Le Petit Dep, a local cafe and convenience store with the loveliest decor, featuring stained glass lamps, antique paintings, and marble tables. There are a couple locations, but I stumbled upon the main one next to the Notre-Dame Basilica, and I was immediately enamored.
If you’re not interested in having a drink or bite to eat, Le Petit Dep is still fun to browse. It’s actually called “une épicierie fine,” which is kind of like a fancy convenience store with artisanal goods. You’ll not only find snacks, but also local gifts.
Another lovely spot is Pastel Rita with its colorful, modern interior. The cafe is in Montréal’s Mile End neighborhood, which is known for its art, music, and food.
6. Browse the Jean Talon covered market
There are a few covered markets in Montréal, but Jean Talon is one of the oldest and most popular. There, you’ll find fresh produce, local goods (stock up on some maple syrup!), and flowers. In December, there’s also a Christmas market.
7. Explore the Underground City
Montréal’s underground network spans an impressive 20 miles and features metro stations, shops, restaurants, and more. To locals, the Underground City is known as RÉSO, a play on words of the French word réseau, which means network.
While the Underground City sounds like some romanticized, mysterious place, the truth is that many Canadian cities have some sort of underground network to help pedestrians avoid the cold temperatures. In fact, you’re likely to end up walking through the RÉSO even if you’re not intentionally looking to do so (some parts are even above ground).
While there are countless activities within the Underground City, here are some ideas to start with:
- Atrium Le 1000 indoor ice rink
- Museum of Contemporary Art
- Cinéma du Parc independent movie theater
Where to Stay in Montréal
In the winter, you’ll want to minimize time walking around outside, so it’s important to pick a home base that’s close to all the major sightseeing spots. Here are some options:
Budget: Auberge Alternative
This hostel is right in the Old Town and just a few blocks from the Notre-Dame Basilica. You can book a shared room, or a triple room as a group (or by yourself). Prices are pretty reasonable even if you book a triple room for one person.
You can also find more affordable stays on sites like VRBO and Airbnb.
Moderate: Hotel Bonaventure
This hotel is right next to the train station and is a short walk from the Old Town and downtown Montréal. They have a heated outdoor pool open year-round, plus a hot tub and sauna.
Fancy: Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth
Also next to the train station, this historic hotel offers sweeping views of the city. It’s even connected to Montréal’s Underground City, meaning that you’ll be able to explore without ever stepping a foot outside in the frigid weather.
What to Pack for Your Trip to Stay Warm
I’ve lived in New England for the last few years, and even I’ll say that it gets pretty cold in Montréal in the winter. January’s average temperatures are a high of 24°F (-4.4°C) and a low of 11°F (-11.7°C).
You’ll want to pack warm winter layers like:
- Fleece-lined leggings/pants
- Thermal turtleneck
- Thick winter jacket
- Winter boots (I just used waterproof hiking boots)
- Accessories like gloves, a hat, and a scarf
If you don’t own any of these items, I’d recommend checking out your local thrift store, borrowing from friends, or going to a sporting goods store like REI. If you forget anything, Decathlon is an affordable sporting goods store in the city.
If you’re coming from a different country, it’s also helpful to have a travel credit card that waives foreign transaction fees. If you need cash, I recommend the Wise free borderless account. It allows you to hold 50+ currencies and withdraw the equivalent of 100 USD from ATMs for free each month. If you don’t have the local currency in your account, they’ll draw from the currency that’s the cheapest for you and use the real exchange rate.
Depending on your current cell service provider, you’ll also likely need a Canadian prepaid SIM card if you want to use mobile data.
For even more winter activities, you can’t miss Québec City! In particular, there’s nothing more wintery than the Hôtel de Glace, a hotel made completely of ice and snow, which is only a 40-minute drive from Québec City.
If you’ve been to Montréal, let us know what you’d add to the list!