Montréal vs Toronto: how do you choose between Canada's two biggest cities?

Heading to Canada? You’re in for a treat.

However, it is the second-largest country in the world, and you won’t be able to visit it all on one trip. Some sacrifices have to be made, which might include making a choice between the two largest cities. Should you base yourself in arty, festive Montréal, with its beautiful parks and welcoming vibe? Or should it be the diverse and energetic city of Toronto, with its delightfully varied food scene?

We asked two travel writers to make the case for the Canadian city closest to their hearts.

Crowds of people on an open square in front of a large municipal building at dusk
Get a taste of Montréal’s joie de vivre at one of its summer events or festivals © Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images

Montréal, how is this even a debate?

Though born in Ottawa, Joel Balsam has spent more than a decade living in Montréal on and off, and his father was born there. Joel also wrote the Québec chapter in the upcoming Lonely Planet Canada guidebook.

As Canadians like to say: Toronto is where you work, Montréal is where you live. So as a traveler are you trying to dive into the grind or live it up? The latter? Yep, that’s what I thought.

Toronto is all go, go, go, with huge skyscrapers and people who won’t stop to chat because they’re hustling to afford their rent or mortgage. It’s like Manhattan, but not quite as cool. Sadly, this has made Toronto the loneliest city in Canada. Meanwhile, Montréal has joie de vivre. A je ne sais quoi, as it were. Instead of talking about housing unaffordability, Montrealers discuss art, concerts and fun (also the ever-present road construction and language laws, but nobody’s perfect). Montréal’s streets are filled with free festivals all summer long, including Complètement Cirque, Mural and Festival International de Jazz. There’s always something fascinating to see at Musée des Beaux-Arts or Quartiers des Spectacles, and there are a near-infinite number of hip bars and clubs. Some people even call Montréal “Little Berlin,” affirming its happening status.

Since Montréal was built mostly before cars, it’s more walkable than Toronto and many of its main thoroughfares are pedestrianized every summer. Just try and walk around Old Montréal’s tiny alleys without feeling a tingle of romance. The ruelles vertes (literally “green streets”), back alleys in neighborhoods like the Plateau and Villeray, are verdant, semi-secret ways to get around town.

People in small groups sit together or play in parkland in autumn
Montréal’s Parc due Mont-Royal is the perfect place to relax with friends © Marc Bruxelle / Shutterstock

In Toronto, parks are few and over-crammed – Trinity Bellwoods on a sunny Saturday is a zoo. On the other hand, Montréal’s parks are in abundance and have plenty of space to stretch out a picnic blanket filled with fine cheeses, a baguette and a bottle of wine. There’s nothing in Toronto like the long-running hippie dance party called Tam Tams, every Sunday at Parc Jeanne-Mance, and Parc du Mont-Royal is an unparalleled way to behold the city, and its giant Leonard Cohen mural, in awe. 

Sure, Toronto has terrific restaurants, especially Asian cuisine, but Montréal is no slouch when it comes to eating, either. Vin Mon Lapin has been named the best restaurant in Canada, and Montréal has the most delicious smoked meat and bagels in the world (yeah, you heard me New York). Perhaps you’re familiar with the saying “as Canadian as maple syrup?” Or how Chef Jamie Oliver called poutine the “unofficial official dish of Canada?” With that logic, Montréal (and Québec as a whole) is the best place to experience Canada – the province produces on average 90% of the sweet stuff and invented poutine. What’s Ontario got? Butter tarts? 

I’ll admit, I do feel a bit bad trashing Toronto. I’m from Ontario, after all. But my duty here is as a travel writer, and I just want to make sure that you, dear traveler, have the best experience when you visit Canada. So forget Toronto and visit Montréal.

A waterway lined with cultural buildings overlooked by skyscrapers
At the foot of Toronto’s skyscrapers, there are impressive cultural centers and diverse neighborhoods © milosk50 / Shutterstock

It has to be Toronto, of course

Travel writer and guidebook author James March lived in Toronto for several years, and it remains his first Canadian love after traveling the country from coast to coast. He returns to Canada’s largest city as often as possible.  

My first summer in Toronto was a balmy haze of riding the city’s famed streetcars (once affectionately known as Red Rockets), sinking happy-hour beers on downtown patios, bouncing around busy hostels and savoring fleeting friendships with fellow travelers from all corners of the globe. I would stroll through Greek street-food festivals on Danforth Ave, buy nosebleed Blue Jays baseball tickets and then spend part of the game mesmerized by the CN Tower’s revolving lights. I didn’t know where the journey would lead but I was entranced by Canada’s largest city. 

I’d read a little about Toronto’s reputation before I packed my bags in Birmingham, England and moved across the pond. The word from elsewhere in Canada was that Toronto was boring, staid and stuck up. A tedious temple to finance. All work and no play. And there’s a sprinkling of truth to this. But there’s also simply a lot of life in Toronto. Few cities on Earth are more diverse – over half its 3-million-strong population was born outside of Canada, and north of 180 languages are spoken. The crisscrossing canvas of multicultural neighborhoods makes it a city built for endless food adventures, from succulent steamed dumplings in Koreatown to fiery curries in Little India and so many other delicious things in between. 

Skyscrapers soar into the Toronto sky, but there’s some serious cultural clout sitting below. The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is a natural-history museum that has diverse collections running from dinosaur fossils to exhibitions on costumes and textiles, while the Hockey Hall of Fame is the deepest of dives into a sport inseparable from Canadian identity. Massey Hall is an ornate 19th-century concert theater that attracts the world’s finest musicians, while down on the waterfront, the sprawling Harbourfront Centre hosts the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA) every September – Canada’s  longest-running and largest literary festival.

The CN Tower’s omnipresent spire was a handy reference point when I was lost in my early days (for Gen Z folks, these were those prehistoric times before smartphones and Google Maps were a thing), and, at a gaudy 553m (1815ft), it’s still Toronto’s most famous attraction. On a clear day, you can see across Lake Ontario to the distant Niagara Falls from the various observation levels. Those of a hardier disposition might want to try the nerve-shredding Edgewalk, in which you walk the outside edge of the tower’s main “pod,” strapped in by a harness. You’ll notice Toronto’s Islands from the lofty heights, where you can escape the city’s hum and cycle the trails of Ward’s Island. 

A street at nighttime lined with shops selling Chinese food and products
Celebrate Toronto’s diversity in its multicultural neighborhoods © benedek / Getty Images

But enough about downtown. Toronto’s heart is in its neighborhoods, so jump on a modern streetcar (now with air conditioning!) or the subway and get to know the city’s eclectic soul. Admire colorful street art on Graffiti Alley, eat inexpensive dim sum in Chinatown, pick up fresh pastries in laid-back Harbord Village, browse vintage clothes in bohemian Kensington Market, bar-hop on buzzing Ossington Ave, stay in boutique hotels in art hub West Queen West, stroll through tranquil High Park, unwind at the Beaches and the nearby Queen East cafes or sip artisan coffee in the hip and historic Junction neighborhood. I could go on. Though the odd truth is that few visitors tend to venture out to these parts, despite being easily accessible from downtown. 

While the city does get surprisingly hot in the summer, it’s also the most joyous time to visit. That’s partly because locals never need an excuse to hit the patio, but also because of the sheer number of festivals. From smaller events like the Beaches Jazz Festival and the Dundas St festival Do West Fest to big hitters like TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) and Pride Toronto, it feels as if something is happening every weekend.

Yes, Montréal is a great party city and, yes, there are too many condos in Toronto and, yes, Justin Trudeau wasn’t even born the last time the Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. But Toronto is a city with a lot to shout about. So ignore the stereotypes and dive into a buzzing metropolis that embraces all newcomers, no matter where they’re from. 

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