I wouldn’t trade living in the south for anything — not even a sack full of Santa’s finest toys.
But let’s face it. When the grass is green, the temperatures are in the mid-60s, and the leaves on my crape myrtle don’t turn orange until late December, it’s a little hard to get in the Christmas spirit.
The cure for those “Green Christmas” blues? A quick trip to Montréal will surely get you in the holiday mood.
You know how in every Christmas television special the snow is always falling, the lights are always twinkling, and the happy shoppers are always shuffling past wrapped in scarves and hats?
Well, my wife and I just spent 48 hours in Montréal braving the snow-covered cobblestone streets and frigid temperatures of this historic Canadian city in search of that quintessential holiday scene.
And I’m happy to say, we found it. So can you.
Here is a quick holiday tour of the most European city in North America.
Discover European Culture in North America
Despite being less than 50 miles from Vermont, a trip to Montréal feels like a trip back to Old Europe.
Because in a way, it really is.
The primary language in Montréal and all of Quebec is French.
While almost everyone you encounter is bilingual, expect to be greeted with a hearty, “Bonjour!”
Even when they mercifully switch to English after you’ve butchered your reply in your best high school French, they’ll still speak with a French accent.
The fact that Quebec has managed to maintain their French Catholic heritage, culture, language, and faith throughout the centuries has to be one of the greatest mysteries of world history.
It’s not like France just recently handed Quebec over to the English. It happened over 250 years ago – before the United States was even born!
So how did the French language and culture survive while being surrounded on all sides by English territory for over a quarter of a millennium?
It’s not like the English were known for their tolerance of non-English speakers or Catholics during the 18th and 19th Centuries.
Just ask the Irish.
Anyways, I don’t know the answers to these questions. This is a travel website, not a history website.
But you’ll surely wonder the same yourself as you wander the streets of Old Montréal.
Explore Quebecois History
The best place to learn about the fascinating history of this French enclave is at Pointe-à-Callière, The Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History.
It’s built right where the French colonists first set up camp in the 1640s. You can actually explore the underground tunnels that pass by the foundations of some of the colony’s first buildings.
But honestly, the best way to soak up the history of the city is to just explore the cobblestone streets of Vieux-Montréal—which is the atmospheric “Old Montréal” located between the port and downtown’s modern skyscrapers.
The day before we arrived, a nice dusting of 2-3 inches of snow had fallen, blanketing the plazas, church spires and streets of Vieux-Montréal with a winter wonderland.
By the time we arrived, the Canadian skies were clear — but cold. Downright frigid in fact, with temperatures near zero at night and barely reaching the teens by day.
So unless you want to witness this winter wonderland strictly from the confines of your hotel room, you need to dress extremely warmly.
Begin your tour of the city at Place d’Armes, the spot where the first French settlers defeated the Iroquois natives in bloody combat during the 17th century.
In the middle of the plaza is a monument to the leader of those settlers, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, and other early prominent citizens of the city—including a dog named Pilote who had warned the settlers of an impending Iroquois attack.
But the plaza is dominated by the number one historic attraction in Montréal, Basilique Notre-Dame, which is spectacularly illuminated with twinkling Christmas lights and three white angels suspended on a backdrop of radiant blue lighting.
If that doesn’t put you in the Christmas spirit, nothing will.
Inside, the nearly 200-years-old Basilica is equally spectacular with an elaborate altar hand-carved from linden tree.
Next door to the Basilica is the old Seminary of St. Sulpice, the oldest surviving building in Montréal.
Across the plaza is another impressive building, the Bank of Montréal, also elaborately decorated for Christmas with massive green marble columns wrapped in lights holding up a great dome.
Dance the Winter Night Away
One unforgettable way to celebrate Christmas in Montréal is to take in a performance of the Nutcracker by the Les Grands Ballets at Montréal’s massive Place des Arts.
On the Thursday night we attended the performance, the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier Theatre was packed with 3,000 locals ready to enjoy this holiday favorite.
But not all holiday entertainment in Montréal is indoors.
It may be 9 degrees Fahrenheit, but that won’t stop energetic Montréal natives from partying at “Christmas in the Park”—a nightly holiday festival held at Place Émilie-Gamelin, a small park a few blocks north of the old city.
When we got there, the park was ablaze in colorful Christmas lights—the awesome, gaudy kind you remember from your childhood.
On a heated enclosed stage, a local Quebec band belted out festive holiday tunes, sung entirely in French, while locals tried to stay warm either huddled up by the bonfire or dancing on the snow-packed plaza.
We couldn’t understand a word of it, but hey, Christmas cheer is universal.
And the Christmas spirit was certainly elevated thanks to a concession stand that sold hot chocolate and beer.
Check Off Your Christmas Shopping List
No December trip to Montréal can be complete without a little Christmas shopping.
And you’ve come to the right place!
A few doors down from the Basilica, you will find Noël Eternel, a year-round shop dedicated to all things Christmas.
The best shopping in Vieux-Montréal can be found on Rue St. Paul, an ancient cobblestoned road lined with French café’s, bars, and boutiques.
At the far end is Marché Bonsecours, a stately columned building dating back to 1847 that now serves as an enclosed market full of quaint shops that sell souvenirs, crafts, and knick-knacks.
The giant dome on top of the building once served as a landmark for sailors navigating down the St. Lawrence River. At night, the columns are lit up brilliantly in white Christmas lights.
For a modern shopping experience, head to Place Ville Marie in downtown Montréal. This mall is an underground labyrinth of shops connected to the Montréal train station.
For many shoppers in Montréal, going to see the enormous display of lights shaped into a ten-story Christmas tree in the plaza is a cherished holiday tradition.
Unfortunately, it was a tradition we missed. The famous lights never came out of their storage boxes this year due to the construction going on downtown.
Maybe next year.
For us — and anyone with a sweet tooth — the highlight of Place Ville Marie was Première Moisson, Montréal’s favorite place to buy gourmet chocolate, a subject the French know something about.
For many in Montréal, no Christmas is complete without a Bûche de Noël, a chocolate butter-crème yule log cake.
The bad news is that an entire chocolate yule log doesn’t fit very well in a carry-on bag.
The good news?
You can buy them by the slice!
So sorry to family and friends, we didn’t bring any home for the holidays.
But take my word for it, it was delicious.
Dine on French Cuisine – Without Going to France
Speaking of delicious, you know you are going to eat and drink well in Montréal, where French cuisine is a specialty.
Arguably, the best and most famous restaurant in all of Canada is Toqué! where upscale French cuisine is served with a modern flair by celebrity chef Normand Laprise.
This is the kind of place waiters with French accents will describe ingredients you’ve never heard of and could never pronounce, where the wine list is ten times longer than the menu, and where your final bill will be over $250—even without a bottle of exclusive French wine.
Yes, it is over-the-top and just a bit pretentious – and brutal on your credit card statement. But it’s also an unforgettable meal at one of the finest restaurants you will ever dine at.
Still, a far more relaxed (and cheaper) French dining experience can be had at Modavie on Rue St. Paul, deep in the heart of the old city.
Decorated with classic French bistro posters and Christmas wreaths, while the sounds of live jazz plays in the adjoining room, you’ll feel right at home at Modavie.
My wife had the classic Belgian dish of steamed mussels and frites in a white wine cream sauce, perfect for lapping up with that endless supply of French bread.
I opted for my first experience with cassoulet, a French casserole of white beans, sausage and pork all topped with a tender leg of duck confit.
Let’s just say I was not disappointed.
And you can’t leave Montréal without sampling a classic Montréal smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz’s. Closely reminiscent to a New York delicatessen like the gone but not forgotten Carnegie Deli, Schwartz’s is a bustling, crowded, uncomfortable place to try their classic Jewish sandwich.
The menu is pretty limited. You get a sweet local cherry cola and two pieces of rye bread smeared with a touch of house mustard and a whole pile of meat in between.
It tastes like corned beef. Just don’t tell anyone I said that.
Schwartz’s doesn’t serve beer.
Fortunately, one of Canada’s best craft breweries is just a mile away at Dieu du Ciel! which means “God of Heaven”. (I had to Google that.)
If you are a beer lover like me, you’ll feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.
In a tiny corner tavern with the fading winter sunlight streaming through the windows, you’ll find the best IPA in Canada, Moralité—an exquisite example of the hoppy style brewed in collaboration with Vermont’s famous Alchemist Brewery.
But the most exemplary meal of our trip was at L’Express, a classic French cafe a couple miles north of the historic tourist district.
The place is packed every day with crowds of locals chattering in French and clinking champagne glasses and coffee cups.
We were the only ones there speaking English.
This as close as you can get to dining in a Parisian café without actually being in Paris.
My duck confit, a classic French dish, was cooked to perfection.
My wife was thrilled with her seared scallops and chorizo over risotto. Not very French, but who cares? It was delicious.
Catch that Christmas Spirit in Montréal
Montréal is a great city for Americans to immerse themselves in a truly foreign culture — without having to stray more than 50 miles across the border.
And if your green lawn and palmetto trees wrapped in candy cane Christmas lights just aren’t enough to put you in the Christmas mood, then Montréal will definitely do the trick.
With only 48 hours in Montréal, it was just enough to get a taste of the best the city has to offer.
And just long enough to catch some of that Christmas spirit.