Montreal and Toronto, the two largest cities in Canada, have had a friendly rivalry for as long as I can remember. Since I was born in Montreal (and grew up nearby) but spent most of my adult life in Toronto, people are always asking me which one I prefer.

This is not an easy question to answer as they are two very different cities with distinct personalities. If they feel like they could belong to two different countries, that’s because they used to!

Montreal or Toronto: which should you visit?

Toronto (left) and Montreal (right)

Montreal, founded in 1642 by the French, is a smaller, cosier city with a somewhat European atmosphere, set on the shore of the St-Lawrence River.

Toronto, founded in 1793 by the British, is a cosmopolitan financial centre that has been likened to a “small New York City”. It is located along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes.

Which you should visit really depends on your personality and interests, but in this post I will do my best to compare both cities on 10 different criteria, in an attempt to help you decide which you should visit: Montreal or Toronto?

Food

Originally a French city, Montreal’s food has a base in that world cuisine. You can indulge in as many croissants, croques-monsieur, crepes, and French pastries as your heart desires, as well as more upscale offerings of course. As a result of its current diversity, you’ll also find plenty of ethnic restaurants, especially Moroccan, Lebanese, and Vietnamese.

With over 50% of its population consisting of immigrants, the food scene in Toronto has to be seen to be believed. You can find pretty much any type of ethnic food you’re looking for. The Asian category is especially well represented, with four Chinatowns, a Koreatown, a Little India, and more.

Both cities offer large food markets (Jean-Talon and Atwater in Montreal; St-Lawrence and Kensington in Toronto) and every kind of food from street to gourmet.

Winner: Tie

Cheeses at St-Lawrence Market, Toronto (Montreal or Toronto)

Cheeses at St-Lawrence Market, Toronto

People

Both Montrealers and Torontonians are Canadians, and as we all know, Canadians are forever nice and polite. However, the dominant anglo culture in Toronto means that people are in general more reserved than their Montreal counterparts.

As an example, if you’re standing in a public place in Montreal watching a busker or what have you, don’t be surprised if a local starts doing small talk with you (even when not drunk). In Toronto, people will help you if you ask, but will rarely talk to you first (unless drunk).

For this reason, the Montrealers may seem more convivial at first. However, as the immigrant population grows in both cities, I find that these differences are starting to fade.

Winner: Montreal

Weather

Again, both cities are in Canada and both get very cold winters. However, winters in Montreal last longer, are colder, and experience more precipitations (snow, rain, freezing rain) than Toronto. To add insult to injury, when it finally gets hot, Montreal often feels more humid and isn’t partial to air conditioning the way Toronto is.

Winner: Toronto

Architecture

As a much older city with a well preserved Old Town, Montreal’s colonial architecture is more striking than Toronto’s. Toronto features more modern buildings (a proliferation of glass towers these days) and unfortunately lost a lot of its 19th century heritage buildings during the “urban renewal” of the 1950s and 1960s. There are still a few left in the St-Lawrence and Corktown neighbourhoods.

Montreal has also kept some of its quirky buildings from Expo 1967, namely the Montreal Casino (ex France pavilion) and Habitat 67.

Winner: Montreal

Old Montreal

Old Montreal

Arts and Culture

Toronto features the big Broadway plays that sometimes go on for years, while Montreal offers smaller productions that rotate often. Both have a symphony orchestra, multiplex cinemas, live music, museums, and so on. Whatever type of cultural event you’re after, you should be able to find it in either place.

Both cities also have a mix of cultures aside from the original stock of French (Montreal) and English (Toronto) heritage.

Winner: Tie

Festivals

Both cities have dozens of festivals celebrating everything from performance arts, to food, to ethnic cultures. Toronto seems to have more, but that’s likely because it’s a larger more populous city. The vast majority of these festivals occur between June and September, when the weather is good. Best known are probably the Jazz Festival and Just for Laughs in Montreal, and the CNE and Caribana in Toronto (although Toronto puts on its own smaller jazz festivals).

Winner: Tie

The General Admission Zone (guide to YUL Eat)

A food festival in Montreal

Natural features and layout

Lake Ontario is definitely more scenic than the St-Lawrence River. On a warm breezy day, its blue surface is dotted with little sailboats (along with some party cruises and a few yachts). It’s also where you find the Toronto Islands, the city’s best urban park.

But Montreal has Mont-Royal, a mountain sprouting right in the middle of the city with walking trails, an artificial lake (open to skaters in winter), and a belvedere with gorgeous views over the downtown skyline. Montreal is also a much more compact city, while Toronto sprawls and sprawls on mostly flat ground.

Winner: Montreal

Grand Escalier, Montreal

The big staircase is one way to climb up Mont Royal

Waterfront

Both cities offer public access to their waterfront. In Montreal, the Vieux Port (Old Port) is home to an increasing number of attractions (from a Science Centre to a zip line to a Ferris wheel). There is an urban beach near the Clock Tower, but you need to pay CA$2 to access it. The waterfront also hosts some festivals and shows.

In Toronto, Harbourfront also offers a waterfront promenade, but here it is lined with restaurants, bars, a pond, a shopping mall, and a large outdoor amphitheatre for summer concerts. Another (lesser known) section of the waterfront to the East is anchored by Sugar Beach, an urban beach designed by the same architect as Montreal’s. Here however, access is free. Further east, a boardwalk extends along 9 kilometres of the lake in the prized Beaches neighbourhood.

Toronto has a multi-use path (walking/cycling/rollerblading) along the water called Martin Goodman Trail which is 56 kilometres long. Montreal offers the “Les Berges” cycling path which is 40 kilometres long. However most of the eastern section doesn’t run along the riverbank.

I personally find Toronto’s waterfront setting more inviting than Montreal’s.

Winner: Toronto

The Beaches' boardwalk, Toronto

Quiet stretch of waterfront in The Beaches, Toronto

Public Transit

Both Toronto and Montreal have a metro system (called “subway” in Toronto) and buses crisscrossing the city. Toronto also has a network of electric trams (streetcars) on its main east-west streets, but these slow to a crawl during rush hour.

Both have added new metro cars/trams/buses to their system in recent years, but there are a few major differences.

Montreal’s metro stations are deep underground and often feature artwork. On weekends, trains on the blue line are sometimes spaced out by as much as 8 minutes. Even though the city is smaller, it can take a surprisingly long time to get from A to B.

The Toronto subway stations are just a short flight of stairs down from street level and don’t feature much in terms of decoration. They’re meant to be practical, not showoffy. The train frequency is higher than Montreal, but they also have more people to carry. The stations themselves are not air-conditioned but the subway cars are, unlike Montreal.

In both cities, many people don’t have cars and get around solely with the public transit.

Winner: Tie

New streetcar, Toronto

One of the new streetcars in downtown Toronto

Airport

If you fly into Montreal, you arrive at Pierre Trudeau International airport, which is actually located in the suburb of Dorval. There is a city bus (#747) that takes you to the city in 25 to 70 minutes (depending where you’re going) for CA$10.

If you fly into Toronto, you will probably arrive at Pearson International airport (in the adjacent city of Mississauga) although you could also land at Billy Bishop Island airport near downtown Toronto. From Pearson, the UP Express train takes you to Union Station (downtown) in 25 minutes flat for CA$12.35.

Pearson is the largest airport and has the most direct connections of any airport in Canada.

Winner: Toronto

There you have it. I don’t think either city is better than the other. Hopefully this compilation will help you decide whether you should visit Montreal or Toronto based on your interests. Better yet, why not schedule enough time to visit both? They’re only 5 hours apart by train or car, or 6 hours by bus (cheaper than train). By plane it’s only an hour.

Or you could join this Toronto & Montreal Explorer tour to see both in the most efficient way possible, with a couple of side trips thrown in!

If you only have one day to spend, the following articles suggest what to see and do in either city:

This was not an exhaustive analysis of course, and I didn’t comment on every single aspect. I don’t know much about nightlife in either city for example, except that they have lots! Please leave a comment below if you can think of anything to add.


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