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Best Things To Do in Montreal

AOL PICK from our Editors
A visit to Old Montréal—with its gracious 17th century buildings and irresistibly charming old-world streets—is one of the top things to do in Montréal, but there is a slew of stellar, less tourist-overrun sights in nearby neighborhoods. Downtown is the destination for museums. Parc Jean-Drapeau on Sainte-Hélène and Notre-Dame islands should be top of your list for swimming, water sports and winter sports such as snowshoeing. Depending on your preference, you can do a lot or very little in this city. Montréal is one of those cities where we feel perfectly content whiling away mornings over coffee and croissants, idling afternoons away on the slopes of Parc du Mont-Royal, and indulging in evening drinks on sidewalk patios. It’s a conveniently compact city, easily explored on foot or by public transit, and most places are within a 20-minute walk of downtown. But don’t set too strict a schedule. The pace is laidback and there are cafés, bars and parks dotted throughout each neighborhood—and they’re all calling your name.

Montréal Science Centre

Neighborhood: Old Montréal
When you’ve had your fill of the past in Old Montréal, fast forward a few centuries at the city’s Science Centre—one of the best things to do in Montréal on a rainy day with the kids. Perched on the edge of the Old Port, the science center packs in crowds of school kids on weekdays and families on weekends, many of them to watch IMAX screenings. Exhibitions range from temporary attractions like the no-holds-barred interactive “Sex: A Tell-all Exhibition” exhibition that runs until March 6, 2011, for those over 12, to basic science exhibits and play areas for the wee ones. The bulk of the exhibits are geared toward youth, but even the grown-ups will pick up a few tips.

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Jardin Botanique

Neighborhood: Pôle des Rapides/Southwest Montréal
The Planetarium and the vast, 22,000-species Jardin Botanique (botanical garden) share Parc Maisonneuve with the Parc Olympique—home of the distinctive “Big O,” the doughnut-shaped Olympic Stadium that locals sometimes wryly call the “Big Owe” on account of the Olympics’ rather large bill. While, in our opinion, the Jardin, with its trails between 30 themed gardens and 10 greenhouses, is the main attraction, there is easily enough to do in Parc Maisonneuve to fill a day. In the 185-acre Jardin—one of the world’s largest botanical gardens, the precise, calm Japanese Garden is our favorite, but the Alpine and Chinese gardens are stunning, and the City and First Nations Gardens are thought-provoking. The Jardin has a rather unimpressive cafeteria, so take a taxi to Little Italy if you get hungry.

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Jardin Botanique  

Notre-Dame of Montreal Basilica

Neighborhood: Old Montréal
The vast Gothic Revival basilica has been presiding over the city on this spot since 1829. The interior is dramatically opulent with black walnut woodwork, finely carved pine statues, an ornate raised pulpit and a 1,648-pipe French classic organ. If visiting a nearly 200-year-old church seems a little dusty, think again: Notre-Dame has both God and technology on its side. Giant screens descend from the church vaults and act as stages for the story of the basilica during the striking “And Then There Was Light” sound-and-light show. Despite some initial begrudging, we found it really brought the church to life—and at just half an hour long, it didn’t drag on. The show usually runs twice a night, Tuesday through Saturday. It’s an easy one to slot in before or after a dinner booking, although the lines snake down the cobblestone block on nights in July and August.

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Parc du Mont-Royal

Neighborhood: The Plateau, Mile End, and Little Italy
At the top on a clear day, we love the gorgeous city views from Parc du Mont-Royal, which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, of New York’s Central Park fame. Whatever the season, there are fun ways to get about the city’s beloved 768-foot-high mountain park. In summer, amble about on two feet or two wheels. In winter, cross-country ski along the trails that lace through the 200-hectare park or hit the ice on skates. We love snowshoeing (en raquettes in French) along the park’s 12 miles of cross country trails. Admire the skyline and river from the east-facing lookout or reward yourself for getting up the hill with treats from the lofty Bistro Le Pavillon at Beaver Lake.

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Parc du Mont-Royal  

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Neighborhood: Downtown
Founded in 1860, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts moved to its current location—a palatial neoclassical building on the north side of Sherbrooke—in 1912. Canada’s oldest art institution, it was joined in 1991 by the Moshe Safdie-designed modernist Jean-Noël Desmarais Pavilion. Behind the imposing oak and bronze doors of the original building lie works by the Great Masters. If you don’t have time to see the whole museum, the museum boutique has treasures aplenty—from Canadian-designed jewelry to prints. Safdie’s addition welcomes visitors through a dramatic white marble arch—but if the weather’s inclement, take the underground passageway instead and check out the striking exhibition of Ancient Cultures that is displayed in between.

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McCord Museum of Canadian History

Neighborhood: Downtown
Once you’ve strolled through Old Montréal, sauntered over Mont-Royal and through the Plateau, and seen the furious Lachine Rapids, the McCord really helps make sense of the city. Established in 1921, the McCord was a labor of love for Montréal lawyer David Ross McCord; today’s collection includes 15,000 items collected by the McCord.. With a staggering 1.4 million artifacts, the compact, three-story McCord traces Montréal history (and that of Québec and Canada) from its ancient aboriginal past to the 20th century. We love the collection of three centuries’ worth of women’s dresses—it’s the leading collection of Canadian dress, with 18,845 items—and the Inuit sculptures on the second floor. If you happen to be in town the first Saturday of the month, admission is free from 10AM to noon. The museum’s elegant café is a nice spot to lunch in—with its black-and-white city photos and simple salad and sandwich menu, but it’s unpredictably busy. If you’re set on lunch (11:30AM to 2PM only), call ahead that morning or the day before. They serve coffee and desserts until 3PM.

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Parc Jean-Drapeau

Neighborhood: Old Montréal
In the fast-flowing St. Lawrence River east of the Old Port, Parc Jean-Drapeau is the city’s year-round playground. Set on the islands of Sainte-Hélène and Notre-Dame, the park started life as the site of Expo 67—the World’s Fair that brought so much attention to the city. Still the site of big, showy events—the Canadian Grand Prix and huge outdoor concerts happen here—a wealth of other distractions also lure locals across the water. With an aquatic park, a sandy river beachfront, the Montréal Casino, La Ronde Amusement Park, and summer weekend festivals, you could spend your whole vacation on the 662-acre islands.

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Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montréal

Neighborhood: Downtown
Sitting right in the midst of downtown in the specially designed Place des Arts, Montréal’s 7,000-piece contemporary art collection casts light on the art of Québec and, to a lesser extent, Canada. The museum offers really excellent guided tours in both English and French in the early evening on Wednesdays and on weekend afternoons. The tours make sense of some of the less-obvious artworks and, we find, really add immeasurably to the experience. There are nice places to sit by the fountains outside in Place des Arts if you need a little time to process what you just saw. In summer, festivals take over this outdoor space.

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Lachine Canal/Lachine Rapids

Neighborhood: Pôle des Rapides/Southwest Montréal
Forget what you’ve heard about this being a laidback city, in Lachine, in the southwest part of the Island of Montréal, life is definitely a rush. The rapids that posed a dastardly challenge to the early explorers and subsequent shipping efforts (hence the construction of the canal and the locks) provide one of the most exhilarating things to do in Montréal. Whether you choose to shoot the rapids in a whitewater raft Montréal raft or plunge through the whitewater on a speedboat or jet boat with Les Sautes-Moutons, Lachine’s frothy fun won’t leave a dry eye on board. It’s one of the best Montréal things to do.

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Lachine Canal/Lachine Rapids  

Old Port of Montreal

Neighborhood: Old Montréal
Running the full length of Old Montréal, between Rue de la Commune and the St. Lawrence River, the quays of the old port are a good place to take the kids. In summer, they can pilot remote-controlled sailboats at Bassin Bonsecours, hop on Segways, or pedal to the metal aboard a paddle boat. In winter, ice-skating rinks open. Those without young ones in tow can dine al fresco at a riverside café, or grab a coffee and catch up with the world, courtesy of free Wi-Fi.

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