I grew up in Ottawa but my dad was raised in Montréal and still had a lot of friends there, so we’d visit all the time while I was growing up. I can still feel the excitement that tingled in my body every time we went. Montréal was, and is, so thrilling, from the language locals speak (French with a distinct Québécois accent) to the roads (the drivers are super aggressive and you can’t turn right on a red) to the overall fun-loving vibe. So as soon as I could, I moved to Montréal at age 17 to attend Concordia University and I’ve spent much of the last 15 years there.
While construction can make Montréal tough to navigate and rhetoric battles between native French and English speakers persist (I am bilingual so I hear it from both sides), I love this city so much – it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
That said, there are plenty of rules about living in Montréal that took me years to understand. So even if French is your native language, here’s a little cheat sheet of 13 things to know before you visit, including whether you can get by in English (you can) and how cold it gets (really cold, but not always).
1. Plan at least three days to visit
If you’re splitting your time between Montréal and Québec City, leave more time for Montréal. There’s much more to see and eat, and some of the city’s best moments involve hanging out on a terrasse or in a public park watching the world go by.
2. Go in early summer or fall to escape the cold
Yes, Montréal gets really cold. In January and February, temperatures can drop to -40°C/F with the wind chill, and the city is blanketed in snow and slippery ice. Locals survive by layering up and popping into heated cafes and other venues. And no, locals don’t spend all winter in underground tunnels as some might lead you to believe, but there are some that connect malls downtown.
Montréal isn’t always frigid, though. In June, July and August, the mercury can shoot up to the 30°C (86°F) range and everyone gets particularly excited about the warmth after a long, harsh winter. September and October are great, too, as you’ll get to see tree leaves transform into majestic yellows and reds.
November and March can be rainy and gray, and there isn’t much to do but complain about how long winter is in Montréal.
3. Bike or metro around
I’ve driven in plenty of countries around the world, and I’d have to say driving in Montréal is one of the worst experiences behind the wheel. Drivers will cut you off without notice and if roads aren’t blocked by dozens of infamous (and highly meme-able) orange construction cones, they’re closed for pedestrians in summer. Plus, parking involves a PhD in physics – check all the signs carefully and park where the arrows are not pointing.
So, ditch the car and get around on foot or by bike. Montréal has an excellent, affordable bikeshare program called Bixi, which has both regular and electric-assisted bikes available for one-way trips or with a cheap monthly pass. You can also take the metro (subway) to get a feel for life as a Montrealer.
If you do drive, note that you cannot turn right on a red light on the island of Montréal.
4. Don’t spend all your time downtown
Montréal is designed to stuff all the tourists into the Old Port and Downtown, but so much of the city’s magic is in its neighborhoods like Le Plateau, Mile End and St-Henri. Be sure you leave time to explore outside the city core.
5. Make restaurant reservations and prepare to line up
One thing that surprised me when I started living in Montréal is that there are always lineups outside restaurants, regardless of the weather and especially at food institutions like Schwartz’s Deli (smoked meat) and La Banquise (poutine). Leave time to wait in line for establishments that don’t take reservations, and book ahead at those that do. Some restaurants, like Joe Beef, require reservations months in advance.
6. Montréal has its own definition of east and west
Montréal streets are often marked ‘est’ (east) or ‘ouest’ (west), indicating where the road is in relation to Blvd St Laurent aka The Main – hence Rue Sherbooke O and Sherbrooke E. However, if you look at a map, these streets aren’t really east or west. They’re actually northeast and southwest due to the angle of the island. Don’t ask questions and just go with the local lingo.
7. You aren’t required to speak French (but it’s appreciated)
French is Montréal’s official language, but you can get by in English as a visitor without a problem. After all, nobody can expect you to know every language of all places you visit. That said, it’s friendly to sprinkle in a bonjour or a merci where you can, or to practice any other French vocabulary you may have. Don’t be surprised, however, if Montrealers switch to English – they’re not being mean, they’re just trying to make your life easier.
8. You need to tip
You should tip at least 15% on your total bill after tax unless the service was atrocious. Servers are paid less than the minimum wage because tips are expected, so they rely on your generosity. Is it a screwed up system? Absolutely, but it’s the way it is and your personal tip boycott won’t fix anything.
9. The drinking age is 18, for cannabis it’s 21
Montréal has the lowest drinking age in Canada at 18 years old. You may be asked to show your ID (a driver’s license is fine) to prove your age when buying alcohol at the dépanneur, aka “the dep,” a convenience store that sells snacks, beer and cheap wine. Same goes for the SAQ (government liquor and wine store).
Cannabis is legal in Montréal for those over age 21 and can only be purchased at an SQDC government store. Smoking weed in any public spaces, including parks and on the street, is illegal.
10. Have a boozy park picnic
Want a quintessential Montréal experience? Buy a bottle of wine and share it with friends or family in a lovely public park like Parc La Fontaine or Parc Jarry. But note that you can only legally drink alcohol at a picnic table and while eating a meal (ie. a baguette and brie cheese, not simply a bag of chips) or else you could be fined.
11. Cheer for the Habs
Montrealers go crazy for their local National Hockey League team, the Montréal Canadiens – aka the Habs – and the atmosphere at Centre Bell games and sports bars across the city is electric. If cheering for the opposition, prepare for light-hearted bickering and plenty of taunts, especially if your team is the rival Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs. In fact, if you’re a Bruins or Leafs fan, just stay home (joking, sort of).
12. Montréal is safe, but healthcare isn’t free
Montréal is safe to walk around, but it’s always a good idea to walk in pairs at night no matter where you are.
If you need to go to the hospital, make sure you have travel insurance – Quebec healthcare is only free for RAMQ card holders and prices will be extremely high if you need to pay out of pocket.