5 Ways to Experience Montreal's Culture & Nature, Beyond the Tourist Basics

by  Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | Mar 23, 2015
Montreal skyline
Montreal skyline / Vladone/iStock

With non-stop festivals and foodie delights at every turn, Montreal attracts hordes of tourists eager to sample the culture and style of this sophisticated metropolis. But after you've viewed a Cirque Du Soleil performance and munched on a St. Viateur bagel, it's time to dig into Montreal's more unexpected experiences. Here are some alternatives to the big-ticket attractions.

Go on a public art crawl, either DIY or guided.
Montreal is filled with art -- in fact, 1 percent of any city building or renovation budget must be allocated for a piece of public art. That makes for a whole lot of interesting sculptures, paintings, or murals to liven up just about every Montreal street. We especially love the murals that line Saint Laurent Boulevard; it's easy to simply stroll and enjoy the art on office and commercial buildings all along the street. If you prefer a more organized self tour, try the tourism office's handy map, which plots public art pieces on five different Montreal routes. Or for a guided tour, check out Urban Marmotte's tour of Montreal's art-covered Metro system ($19 CAD, or about $15 USD). The tour, which lasts between two and two and a half hours, has been regularly scheduled from January through the end of this month but can be booked privately for the rest of the year.

Hop on a bike tour.
A serious cycling culture plays an essential role in the Montreal lifestyle. So getting on two wheels, when the temperatures are moderate between April and October, is a fun way to explore the city's vibrant neighborhoods and feel like a local while you're at it. Fitz & Follwell Co.'s Hoods & Hidden Gems bike tour offers some pretty good bang for your buck. The $95 CAD fee covers a four-hour tour through Montreal's hippest enclaves, plus bike and helmet rentals and lunch. Cyclists will gain a taste of everyday life here, as they stop at an impromptu street party at Le Plateau and browse the Jean Talon market in Little Italy. Just be prepared for lots of uphill biking and weaving through traffic.

Cruise along the Lachine Canal.
Many visitors don't realize that Montreal is actually an island -- which means that viewing the city from the water is a great option for summer. The Lachine Canal is a National Historic Site that provides panoramas of the city's many green spaces. Rent a kayak or pedal boat at H20 Adventure ($20 CAD and $15 CAD for the first hour respectively), then float down the canal for views of parks and nature sanctuaries. More of a landlubber? Hit up the hiking trails and bike paths.

Bar hop with the locals.
Montreal might be noted for its gastronomy, but they take their drinking pretty seriously as well. Skip the tourist pubs in Old Montreal and visit low-key neighborhood spots to connect with locals. Billy Kun is a Le Plateau neighborhood institution offering live jazz and absinthe cocktails. We also love Snack N Blues, a hole-in-the-wall that serves up an array of candy and snacks alongside -- you've guessed it -- blues music. The lounge, located in the trendy Mile End neighborhood, is near another local fave: Bar Waverly, a chic hangout with a DJ and an extensive Scotch selection.

Relax in a floating spa.
For utter relaxation, skip the usual hotel spa. Instead, do as Montrealers do and head to the Bota Bota floating spa for stress relief. Housed in a ferry boat in the port of Old Montreal, Bota Bota works with the gentle motions of the St. Lawrence River to deliver extra serenity. Opt for a selection of services including massages and body treatments, reasonably priced starting from $95 CAD for a one-hour massage. Or, for the more budget conscious, it's just $35 CAD before 11 a.m. to join the regulars in the popular hot-and-cold water circuit, which ends with a dip in a whirlpool, topped with dreamy river and old city views.

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