When the week our daycare was closed coincided with my husband’s transition between jobs, we decided to take a brief, last-minute vacation to spend some quality family time together. With little time to plan a getaway within driving distance, I researched a few options and landed on Montréal. I had only been once before as a teenager visiting with my family, and all of Craig’s recent trips were for bachelor party weekends. We figured it would be a great spot to explore as a family. It is less than 5 hours away from where we live, just north of Boston, and even closer to where we were dropping off our dog with Craig’s parents in Vermont. Here is our itinerary for long weekend in Montréal with a toddler.
Montréal felt somewhere between New York City, where I grew up, and a Western European city with both old and new architecture. On our first night, I said aloud that this was the first city I’ve traveled to in awhile (maybe ever) that really felt like home. There was something so familiar to me about the street grid that is somewhere between modern industrial office buildings and small blocks packed with street art and hidden gems.
Our accommodations canceled on us as we were driving, about an hour away from crossing into Canada. If it had to happen, I was happy it happened while we were on the US side of the boarder and I still had cell service to make new reservations. One of the other hotels I had debated still had one room left that I booked immediately on the Expedia app, and worked with a helpful Expedia customer service rep to ensure I wouldn’t be charged for the room canceled by the hotel. I guess if you set out on an adventure, you have to be ready for an adventure!! It could not have turned out better. Hotel Casa Bella is centrally located – one block away from a bus stop and metro stop – it was incredibly clean and spacious for a budget hotel, AND had free off street parking! There was no coffee in the room and no breakfast available but for $84/night including all the taxes, fees, and parking, I’ll skip hotel coffee any day.
A friend recommended that I check for last minute dinner reservations at some of the more popular restaurants that are worth the visit to Montréal alone. We were in luck that Liverpool House had a 5pm dinner spot for the 3 of us that I booked at 4:15 as soon as we settled into the hotel. The food was spectacular (get the lobster spaghetti!!), the service was very friendly and no one gave us the crazy-side-eye for bringing our toddler to a restaurant.
One of the perks of a 6:15 wake up is that popular breakfast spots like Beauty’s Diner are almost empty when you get their right after opening. Almost everyone who offered up recommendations for Montréal mentioned Beauty’s. Their smoked salmon bagel was exactly what I was looking for in a Montréal breakfast. Benton double fisted his waffle, which I thought was solid, but average, diner fare. As a pair of heavy coffee drinkers who skip the cream and sugar, we loved their coffee, and a smoothie is also a must.
Mont Royal Park, designed by the same person who designed Central Park in New York City, is a few blocks away from Beauty’s and helped us work off breakfast. You could easily spend all day exploring the park, enjoying the lake, views and small museums. Benton lucked out meeting 3 police horses on the walk to the top. It was an overcast morning but we still got some great views of the city from Mont Royal Chalet.
As we headed back in the direction of our hotel, we stopped for lunch at a spot recommended by local friends. Café Santropol is an eclectic sandwich shop with an extensive vegetarian selection, modern bohemian vibe and lots of books and games that make it a wonderful spot for families to enjoy a relaxing meal. We read the most Canadian children’s book ever from the café shelves about a young girl who builds an skating rink on the frozen river behind her house in order to play ice hockey. The food was fresh and delicious, and the environment was so comfortable we could have stayed all afternoon to read books if not for toddler nap time.
After naptime, we took the bus back down St Laurent St to Jean-Talon Market. We walked every row of fresh produce as the market was winding down, picking up some fresh strawberries and poppy seed bread to eat at one of the tables in the food court area. If we’d had a cooler, I for sure would have stocked up on a selection of cheeses and smoked meats.
On our walk back from Jean Talon Market we stopped at Thazard – Taverne Asiatique because they had great outdoor seating (read: our toddler wouldn’t disturb too many other people) and we still had 15 minutes to cash in on their happy hour specials. On top of their drink specials, they have happy hour specials including shrimp tempura, gyoza and dollar oysters. We also got some pork boa buns and a side of rice which went over well with Benton. I didn’t take any food pictures (gasp! did we even eat there?) but it was easy and delicious, and had the added benefit of being right around the corner from Kem Coba, a must visit ice cream spot. Be warned, Kem Coba is a popular spot with a quickly-moving line during popular times and only accepts cash. It was hard to make a decision on flavors with so many great options. Benton and I got a cone of their special rotating soft serve twist, rose and raspberry lychee, and a cone of 72% chocolate and passion fruit. There is a reason this place has a line, it is definitely worth the wait and ATM fee to enjoy their unique flavors of high quality ice cream.
We started our 2nd full day with breakfast at Eggspectation, which was two blocks away from our hotel and in the same direction as the metro we needed to get to the Botanical Gardens. For a restaurant with locations all over the world, it had the wonderful service of a corporate chain but the quality food of a local joint.
Boy did we pick the best weather to visit the Botanical Gardens! We arrived 30 minutes after opening and, with no line to get in, we had the place almost to ourselves. The grounds of the gardens are massive, separated into multiple different themed sections. We spent over three hours walking (toddler running) around the Botanical Gardens and didn’t cover all of it.
We made our way to the Chinese Gardens. Even though part of the garden was under construction, it hard to imagine that the rest of the Botanical Gardens could compete with the beauty of the bright blue waters, bonsai courtyard with trees up to 140 years old, and bright yellow flower fields. The lotus filled moon cake we bought from a cart vendor also helped sway my feelings about this section of the garden.
The Japanese garden had a coy pond that was a big hit with our animal loving toddler. We also spotted some small turtles in the lily pond!
The structures garden offer a great place for toddlers to run around and explore, working off that non-stop toddler energy. There are many more playground-like structures that Benton thoroughly enjoyed monopolizing. I am not sure who was more ready for a nap after 3 hours of exploring the garden, me or Benton!
We were hoping to go the famous Schwartz’s Deli for lunch but the line out front did not look friendly to a toddler who was already 30 minutes past nap time. We wound up a few doors down at Charcuterie Hongroise, a deli and grocer with a sandwich counter and a few seats out front, great looking options, and most importantly, no line. We bought 3 different sandwiches that fully satisfied our smoked meat cravings and at $14 for 3 sandwiches, drinks and house-made pickles, you can’t go wrong.
We all played so hard at the Botanical Gardens and crashed so hard taking a 3 hour family nap. We chose to keep things open and walk around a new-to-us neighborhood to find dinner. We sat outside at Le Saint Bock so my beer-loving-husband could try some local brews and eat some poutine.
For our last breakfast, we didn’t venture too far and enjoyed an easy breakfast at the café right next door to our hotel. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but they make their own breads on site and have an amazing breakfast special: bagel with cream cheese and smoked salmon with a coffee for $6.95 CAD!
After packing up and checking out of the hotel, we drove over to Old Port to walk around and ride La Grande Roue De Montréal before heading back south. I had heard so much about the Old Port area. It was beautiful and visually so different that all the other neighborhoods we had explored up to that point, but it felt more touristy with many of the store fronts occupied by souvenir shops. Honestly, I was surprised by how much more I loved walking around streets like St. Laurent and St. Denis than the Old Port area. That is not at all to say that it not worth a visit, but don’t overlook other neighborhoods for the sake of Old Port.
The recently developed waterfront area that houses La Grande Roue is so cool. We felt like we had the place to ourselves because we were there right when the wheel opened around 10am on a week day and it was threatening to rain. There are half a dozen food trucks permanently set up along the entrance and I am super bummed that we left before they opened because they all looked delicious.
If you are visiting with older children check out the pirate ship adventure ropes course! When Benton gets bigger we will definitely make a trip back. There is also an amazing open area that they seem to use as a flexible space for events and activities that is across from the permanent vendor and food truck area. We were there too early for the massive inflatable bounce house park to be open, but it looked like it would be a blast to run around. A family with older children could certainly spend the better part of a day enjoying the activities around La Garnde Roue.
There was no line and it was super easy to navigate. I can imagine how the wheel would be packed with visitors on a sunny weekend, although well worth it.The cars of La Grande Roue are entirely enclosed so the light rain didn’t effect our ride at all. We rode the wheel for four rotations and were able to get a great view of the city from the top. With each rotation we noticed something new.
Benton loved looking at the different waterways and the birds and trucks he could spot from above. My urban planner husband kept talking about what it must have taken to get the wheel open in both physical infrastructure and negotiations with all the powers that be. When you exit the wheel, do yourself a favor and stop for a coffee and pastry at the gift shop café. We picked up some apple turnovers that were some of the best I’ve ever had, and apple turnovers are my go-to pastry of choice.
Montréal, you surprised me with your street art, foodie culture and family friendly infrastructure. And you are almost as close to Lowell, MA as New York City. It was a quick trip but we will definitely be back soon!