Image: Montreal skyline
Karen Bleier  /  AFP - Getty Images file
Montreal offers lots of activies for families -- on its river, in its parks, and at sites both historic and modern.
updated 5/5/2006 11:53:09 AM ET 2006-05-05T15:53:09

For kids, Montreal is more than just another big city to visit -- it's learning come to life. In Old Montreal they can imagine what it was like to live hundreds of years ago along the narrow cobblestone streets of a French colonial settlement, and then find out all about their own century's cutting-edge innovations at the Montreal Science Centre. They can travel the natural world from the tropics to the Arctic at the Biodome, or develop their artistic talents through workshops at the Museum of Fine Arts.

But not to worry kids -- Montreal isn't all educational. There's plenty of just plain fun to be had, like plunging down the Lachine Rapids in a jet boat or taking a spooky ghost tour of Old Montreal.

And parents can rest assured that Montreal's attractions will be nearly as fun for them as they are for their kids.

Freebies worth pursuing:

  • Watching fireworks from the Old Port on a warm summer evening.
  • Playing on the sand at the Plage des Iles, Montreal's urban beach.
  • Checking out street performers at Place Jacques-Cartier.
  • Admission to StudiO at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
  • Watching the ducks on Lac aux Castor in Parc Mont-Royal.
  • Admission to the Firefighters Museum (open Sunday afternoons 1:30-4 p.m.).

Home away from home:

  • The Delta Montreal is located downtown and offers the Delta Dolphin program for young travelers. The program includes lessons and swimming programs at the hotel's Sports Club, plus access to the children's activity center. Kids stay free in their parents' room and get reduced rates in the hotel's restaurant. Video games are also available for rent at the front desk.
  • The luxurious Loews Hotel Vogue is perfect for families who like to travel in style. Spacious rooms come with comfy duvets and whirlpool baths, but reasonable rates are available when you book the family package, which includes a free movie daily along with popcorn and a food and beverage credit. Childproofing kits are available for kids under 4, and kids under 10 will receive a welcome gift.
  • The Holiday Inn Montreal-Midtown is an affordable option on rue Sherbrooke, with comfortable rooms, an indoor pool and a game room for kids.

Day one: Old Montreal
Tip: Before you leave the hotel, pack a change of clothes for everyone -- you'll need them later.

Your tour begins where the city itself did -- in Vieux-Montreal, or Old Montreal (metro stop: Place d'Armes). Take yourself back in time to the days when this was a tiny French colony struggling to survive the frigid winters and frequent skirmishes with neighboring Native Americans. Learn all about it at Pointe-A-Calliere, a museum of archaeology and history located on the spot where the city was founded. Start your visit with a multimedia show presenting a brief history of Montreal, then head downstairs to see the stone foundations of some of the city's original buildings and fortifications, along with artifacts from all eras of Montreal's history. You'll also see Montreal's first Catholic cemetery, which dates from 1643.

Leave the museum and let everyone explore the neighborhood for a while, choosing any little street or alley that looks interesting and soaking up the atmosphere. Then, herd the gang toward the waterfront and the colorful Science Centre, chock-full of interactive exhibits for all ages. Younger kids will enjoy the games inside the "Castle of Dynamo", while older kids can try their hand at designing an efficient bicycle or decoding electronic messages.

When everyone gets hungry, fill up at the Zoomatic Cafe, overlooking the water, before heading over to the adjacent IMAX theater to catch a show. Various rate packages are available for admission to the science center and/or the IMAX theater, including family packages.

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After you've soaked up some science, it's time for a soaking of a different kind. Head north along the Old Port to the Jacques-Cartier pier, where you can board either a jet boat or a speed boat to whisk you off on a thrilling ride down the rapids of the nearby Lachine Canal. (Jet boats are fast, but speed boats are faster and wilder.) Kids must be at least 6 to participate and should have a healthy sense of adventure. Remember that change of clothes? You'll need it now -- whether you choose jet boating or speed boating, prepare to get wet.

All that excitement will probably make everyone hungry, so find yourselves some dinner at one of the many restaurants lining Place Jacques-Cartier, the square at the heart of Old Town. Most of the offerings here are pricey, but one more affordable option is La Grande Terrasse. The food plays second fiddle to the view from the terrace, where you can watch the street performers go through their paces and the vendors hawk their wares. After dinner, explore the Old Town further with a guided tour along the Old Montreal Ghost Trail -- go in search of Montreal's most famous phantoms, or learn about some of the more dastardly crimes committed here. You can buy tickets at the Old Port.

Another, less scary after-dinner option? Watching the displays of Montreal's annual international fireworks competition, held two nights a week throughout June and July in La Ronde, the city's amusement park. Tickets for seats in the amusement park are pricey, but you'll enjoy a view nearly as good for free from across the water in the Old Port.

Day two: Olympic Stadium, Biodome, Botanic Garden
Today you'll be venturing outside the main downtown area of Montreal to a neighborhood known as Maisonneuve, which was an independent city before being annexed to Montreal in 1918. It was here that the 1976 Summer Olympics were held, and today you can still take a look inside the large domed stadium where many of the sporting events took place.

Tip: If you're planning to see everything on today's itinerary, we recommend purchasing the "Get an Eyeful" ticket, good for admission to the Biodome, the Botanic Garden, the Insectarium and the Observatory in the Olympic Tower.

Start at the Montreal Biodome (metro stop: Viau). Part zoo, part eco-museum, the Biodome showcases four artificially created environmental worlds, with plants, birds and animals native to each region. You'll start off in the humid tropics, where agile monkeys leap from branch to branch, caimans laze by the water and brilliantly colored birds are just visible high in the trees. Your next stop is the Laurentian forest (the Laurentians are a mountain range north of Montreal), where highlights include otters beavers, and a lynx stalking back and forth across a mock mountainside. You'll then proceed to the marine environment of the St. Lawrence River, where you'll see fish and sea birds. Your last stop is the crowd-pleasing polar world exhibit.

Out front, a free shuttle takes you from the Biodome to the entrance of the Botanic Garden, which includes some 30 outdoor gardens and 10 interconnected greenhouses. Depending on their age and attention span, the kids may not make it through the whole garden, so pick and choose the sights they'll be most interested in. (Be sure to check ahead to see what will be on exhibit; on our visit, an exhibition featuring a collection of butterflies kept kids and adults  mesmerized.)

Outdoor highlights include the Japanese and Chinese Gardens, the Poisonous Plant Garden (enclosed by a wooden fence), and the First Nations Garden, which honors the Native Americans that were Quebec's first inhabitants. Inside the greenhouses you'll find plants in a variety of fun shapes and colors, from lush tropical blooms and Chinese dwarf trees to cacti and succulents. Stop for a lunch break at the Fuji Pavillion, an outdoor snack bar where you can eat in view of the gardens.

When you've finished lunch, make your way to the Insectarium, located near the greenhouses. As you might guess, it's devoted to all things bugs -- and is even shaped like a fly. They're all here: colorful butterflies, hairy spiders, shiny beetles, buzzing bees, skinny stick insects and more, in collections from around the world. And -- just in case the kids didn't get quite enough for lunch -- the museum offers insect-tasting, too.

After the kids have enjoyed their tasty dessert, take the free shuttle from the entrance of the gardens back down to the Olympic Stadium and Biodome. Your final stop will be the Tour de Montreal, the 556-foot-high tower attached to the stadium.

Finish your day by heading back to downtown Montreal on the metro. Get off at the Peel station and walk a few blocks to rue Crescent, where you'll enjoy a dinner of wood-oven pizza at Pizzaiolle -- some call it tops in the city. If the kids are feeling homesick, there's also a Hard Rock Cafe on this street.

Day three: Mont-Royal
This morning you'll be enjoying the great outdoors the way Montrealers do: by visiting Mont-Royal, the 764-foot mountain in the center of the city. In fact, this mountain is where Montreal got its name. It's covered with some 494 acres of parkland, perfect for biking, hiking or playing.

To get there, take the metro to the Mont-Royal stop and catch the No. 11 bus up the mountain. Get off at the police cavalry stables near (Lac aux Castor) or Beaver Lake. Because the mountain only has a few roads on it, the police have to do their patrols on horseback. Stop to say a quick hello to the horses in their pen.

The main attraction here is Beaver Lake, where you can rent a paddleboat or follow the path to a small playground nearby. You're also not far from Maison Smith (Smith House), a converted stone farmhouse that contains an exhibit on the history of Mont-Royal Park. Climb up to the Chalet at the top of the mountain for extraordinary views of the city. From there, you can climb down to Observatoire de l'Est, another lookout point where you can catch bus No. 11 back down to Mont-Royal station.

From there walk a few blocks to St. Viateur Bagel & Cafe, where you'll discover a cool new treat: Montreal bagels. The ones you'll find at St. Viateur (reportedly Montreal's best) are thinner than their New York cousins and baked in wood-burning ovens.

After lunch, it's your choice where you spend the rest of the afternoon. If you have a budding Picasso in the family, hop on the metro to Guy-Concordia to visit Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts. While the museum's permanent collections are the main draw for adults, your kids won't want to miss StudiO -- an interactive gallery in which they can personalize a teapot, make a cardboard mask or create a still life.

A less hands-on alternative to StudiO is the Planetarium de Montreal, found near the Bonaventure metro station. The highlight here is an astronomical show in the Planetarium's domed theater (check their Web site or call ahead for English-language show times). While you're waiting for the show to begin, you can tour educational exhibits on stars, galaxies and other astronomical phenomena.

Tip: On some nights of the week there are evening shows in addition to the morning and afternoon ones, so you may be able to visit StudiO in the afternoon and come back here after dinner.

You tried one Montreal specialty today, the bagel -- now try another for your last meal in the city. Whether you chose StudiO or the Planetarium, Ben's Delicatessen is only a few blocks away, and it's famous for a Montreal standard: smoked meat. The original Ben's Deli was opened in 1908 by Lithuanian immigrants who brought their smoked meat recipe over with them.

Visiting Ben's is like stepping back to the 1940s or 50s; it's got retro-diner decor and faded photographs on the walls. The smoked meat is the main attraction here -- if the kids aren't inclined to try anything new, consider going across the street to Mangia, which offers affordable sandwiches, salads and pasta.

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