Although Montreal is often compared to Paris, this cultural metropolis is very much its own distinct city. It has much of the Gallic charm associated with Paris: the French language, fine restaurants, historical buildings, lively streets and sidewalk cafes. But many visitors find Montreal more casual and friendly than its European counterpart.
A truly multicultural city with an international population, Montreal is a place unto itself and one of the most memorable urban destinations in North America.
Montreal is easy to love. The city has been a hotbed of talent for decades, with acclaimed success stories such as Cirque du Soleil; writers Adam Gopnik and Mordecai Richler; and popular musical artists Leonard Cohen and Arcade Fire. The legendary bed-in with John Lennon and Yoko Ono took place at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in 1969.
Between Old Montreal with its ambling cobblestone streets and new Montreal with its clusters of neighborhoods, the diversions are many. An easy public transportation system and an underground path system dubbed the RESO make this city a year-round destination.
The Ottawa River runs into the St. Lawrence River and creates a series of small rivers, lakes and islands, the largest of which is the Island of Montreal. The city of Montreal and its demerged municipalities share the island. The city maintains jurisdiction over a few additional satellite islands. Suburbs occupy other islands and the north and south shores of the river complex. These suburbs are linked to Montreal by 21 major and minor bridges, one highway tunnel and two metro lines.
The dominant feature of the Island of Montreal is 764-ft/233-m Mont Royal. When giving directions in the city, people use the St. Lawrence River and Boulevard St. Laurent as points of orientation. If you're told your destination is to "the south," that means going toward the river, which is actually to the southeast by compass. "East" or "west" refers to the side of Boulevard St. Laurent where your destination is located.
The downtown core of the city is bordered by four streets: Sherbrooke and Rene Levesque, running roughly east-west, and Atwater and St. Denis, running roughly north-south. Within this area are many of the restaurants, museums and shops that are popular with visitors. Traveling south of downtown, between Boulevard Rene Levesque and the river, you'll encounter the small but vibrant Chinatown, Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) and finally the Vieux Port (Old Port) at the waterfront.
The Plateau Mont Royal encompasses an area east of Avenue du Parc and north of Sherbrooke. In this trendy neighborhood are ethnic restaurants and incredible fashions—in boutiques and on passers-by. Most of the city's English-speaking residents live on the west side of the city. Areas around Crescent Street, Boulevard St. Laurent and Rue St. Denis brim with pubs, restaurants and nightclubs.
The region around Montreal was inhabited by the Iroquois before the first French voyagers arrived. In fact, the Iroquois had established the beginnings of an empire, part of which was Hochelaga, a small village in what is now Montreal. French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535 became the first European to sail up the St. Lawrence River and climb the mountain—and claim the land for France. He christened the elevation Mont Royal.
It wasn't until 1642 that Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, established the tiny colony of Ville-Marie that grew into the city of Montreal. By the time France was battling England on two continents, New France was a hot property. The British managed to capture nearby Quebec City in 1759, and Montreal fell a year later. The entire colony surrendered. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris sealed France's defeat and ended the Seven Years' War—known in U.S. history as the French and Indian War.
Under English rule, Montreal grew into one of the most powerful cities in North America. But British domination of the economy combined with cultural and religious differences to create enduring resentments. For two centuries, most factory owners were English-speaking Protestants, and most workers were French-speaking Roman Catholics.
In the 1950s and '60s, the French majority began to assert its influence in what is known as La Revolution Tranquille (the Quiet Revolution). Today, Francophones rule Quebec politically and socially. Some groups continue to advocate separating Quebec from Canada, and the issue reappears periodically as a touchy topic. Two referenda to secede have failed, one in 1980 and the second in 1995. There was then a loss of power by the separatist Parti Quebecois to the Liberal Party in 2003.
Independence has been shelved for the time being. The issue sharpened linguistic and cultural divisions and dampened the economy, but fortunately the exodus of high-earning English speakers has stopped. Waves of professionals, attracted by aviation, biotechnology, pharmaceutical and high-technology sectors, now flock to the city. The arrival of young French immigrants has also colored the population in Quebec's largest city.
In 2002, the provincial government created a megacity by merging the city of Montreal with 27 other municipalities on the Island of Montreal. The so-called fusion forcee (forced fusion) provoked a public furor, and Mayor Gerald Tremblay was swept into power on the wave of anger. A referendum was held across the region, and 15 former municipalities regained independence on 1 January 2006. They are still linked politically and financially to the city of Montreal through the ruling agglomeration council, led by the mayor of Montreal.
Tremblay and his Vision Montreal party were re-elected in 2009, although the campaign was marred by allegations of municipal corruption in construction and campaign-finance. Neither of the two main parties was left untainted, and a small green party, Projet Montreal, ended up the beneficiary. Tremblay resigned in 2012 amid allegations of corruption. After the next elected mayor also resigned because of a corruption scandal, Denis Coderre was elected mayor in 2013. In 2017, Montreal elected its first female mayor, Valerie Plante.
The best way to discover Montreal is by strolling through its neighborhoods and stopping at places that interest you. This approach will give you a feel for the city and its warm, relaxed atmosphere. You can get to major attractions via the metro or by foot. The Berri-UQAM Metro may be the city's most important station, because three lines intersect there, and the Latin Quarter is nearby.
Start with the city's original neighborhood, Vieux Montreal. Stop at the Bureau d'Accueil Touristique du Vieux Montreal (Tourist Welcome Office of Old Montreal) or the downtown Infotouriste Centre and pick up a walking guide. The guide will direct you to significant landmarks, among them the Musee Pointe a Calliere and the imposing Notre Dame Basilica.
Popular outdoor and walking areas include the Vieux Port, with picnic grounds and musical performers, and Place Jacques Cartier, with an assortment of good bistros for lunch. Several major attractions and shopping complexes are downtown (or "uptown" relative to Vieux Montreal): Musee des Beaux Arts de Montreal, the McCord Museum and the Musee d'Art Contemporain de Montreal. Near Dorchester Square stands Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral.
Elsewhere in the city, consider a walk along Lachine Canal, which runs beside the St. Lawrence south of downtown and links the Vieux Port with Lac St. Louis at Lachine. The canal is a National Historic Site and includes a museum, a park and part of the surrounding area.
Finally, stroll along "the Main," the Boulevard St. Laurent. As it passes through the Plateau district, this street reveals much of Montreal's multicultural appeal—from hip, young French and English speakers to a vibrant Portuguese immigrant community and a longtime Italian district. Bookshops, cafes, restaurants and boutiques are tucked among older grocery stores. This is the Montreal many visitors miss, but a half-day there could be the highlight of your trip.
Top off your sightseeing by hiking to the peak of the city's beloved Mont Royal, west of the Plateau district. Be sure to see Beaver Lake and the lookout near the Chalet du Mont Royal for a fabulous view of downtown Montreal and the St. Lawrence River.
In the 1920s, U.S. Prohibition helped create Montreal's notoriety as a party town: U.S. residents streamed across the border for the liquor that flowed as freely as the jazz. The city still lives up to its old reputation. There are bars to suit every taste—from the cozy and romantic to the wild and crazy. Last call is at 3 am.
For a seemingly endless selection of discos, bars and pubs, head downtown to Rue Crescent, Boulevard St. Laurent, Rue St. Denis, Avenue Mont Royal or Vieux Montreal. Just walk along the streets to find something to suit your mood. Call clubs for cover charges, shows and hours.
You'll find French food in many permutations in Montreal—from wallet-busting haute cuisine to casual bistros. Add hybrid cuisines and Asian imports (Thai, Vietnamese, Indian), and you have a world-class restaurant town.
The trendiest spots for dining are the lower strip of Boulevard St. Laurent (also known as "the Main") and the section of Rue St. Denis between Avenue des Pins and Avenue Duluth, where you'll get your money's worth in people-watching. Nearly all the restaurants post menus outside, although many are written only in French.
The traditional poutine (french fries covered in gravy and cheese) can be ordered with extras such as chicken and pepperoni. If that's not to your taste, try other Quebecois favorites such as tourtiere (meat pie), ragout de boulets (meatball stew) or maple sugar pie.
Of course, there is always the beaver tail (a flat, fried doughnut) or smoked meat, a cured brisket similar to corned beef or pastrami available in every local deli—the deservedly world-famous Schwartz's serves the best.
And don't miss Montreal's bagels, which are boiled in honey water, then baked in wood-burning ovens. They shame all other claims to the word "bagel."
Smoking is not permitted in any bar or restaurant in Montreal.
Generally, breakfast is served 6-11 am, lunch noon-2 pm and dinner 6-11 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$15, $$ = Can$15-$25, $$$ = Can$26-$75, $$$$ = more than Can$75.
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