Bienvenue à Montréal! Now that's hospitality with a distinctly French flavor - and what could be more appropriate for the second largest French-speaking metropolis in the world? But French is only one of 35 or so languages you will hear on the streets of this international island city of 1.6 million inhabitants (more than 3.6 million if you include the suburban neighborhoods).
Demographics show that Montreal residents come from 80 countries, forming an urban mosaic of vibrant ethnic communities and neighborhoods safe to walk in day or night. Visitors will detect a distinct British influence in parts of the city, inherent in the culture since the days when English merchants controlled the city's trade. All in all, it's easy to see why "cosmopolitan" is the adjective most used in describing Montreal.
Characteristically, there'is the famous joie de vivre - the ineffable combination of spirit and ambiance Montrealers exude without even trying. You will see it in the summertime cappuccino-sippers cramming sidewalk cafés; in the long lines outside
What makes Montreal one of the world's truly great cities? It starts with its location. The island sits at the confluence of three rivers: the mighty St. Lawrence, the Rivière des Prairies and the Ottawa. Montrealers describe their streets as going north-south and east-west, but the island itself is askew, tilted to the northeast.
The Main (La Main)
Splitting the city in half, both physically and psychologically, is Saint Laurent Boulevard -
These days, the dividing line is no longer completely rigid, but there are still distinct English and French areas. You will find the English restaurant and bar scene concentrated on
Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal)
At the southern end of
Across the St-Lawrence River, the Expo 67 islands of
On the other end of The Main is the
Little Italy (Petite Italie)
Just a little further north and you will hear Italian spoken on Montreal's streets over in the city's own
Underground City (RÉSO)
No visit to Montreal is complete without a visit to the
The Metro system itself has lines running east-west and north-south (albeit, askew) to just about every part of the city. While you are down there, check out the 68 architecturally unique stations, each created by a different designer.
Montreal, "The Paris of North America," essentially consists of a downtown, or modern city, and Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal), the original city nestled around the Old Port (Vieux-Port). While most of the better hotels are located downtown, Old Montreal boasts some of the city's finest restaurants and historical sites and has a real sense of old world decor and charm. Many European style hotels are available in this area, where many tourists visit but few stay overnight.
A modest hill separates the two areas, and both are accessible via the subway, or Métro, as it is called locally. In the winter, one need never even venture outside: Old Montreal is linked to downtown via the World Trade Center (Centre de Commerce mondial) and the Underground City (RÉSO). In fact, Montreal is one of the easiest cities to navigate in North America: no matter where one stays, one will never be too far from the action.
Downtown is the modern heart of the city and is where most businesses and upscale retail outlets are located. Virtually all of downtown is concentrated within a 10-block area, connected through the aforementioned 30-kilometer (20-mile) Underground City of shops, restaurants, theaters, banks and hotels for those who do not want to brave winter temperatures.
The Rue Sainte-Catherine is the main shopping area for modest to middle-income budgets, while rue Sherbrooke houses most of the city's best art galleries, high-end clothing stores and top-quality hotels. The Ritz-Carlton is the grande dame of local hotels, featuring splendid 19th-century architecture. The bar here is a favorite watering hole for locals and visitors alike. Nearby, the Hotel Omni serves as a preferred locale for visiting film and rock stars. The Hôtel Le Germain, meanwhile, is Montreal's leading boutique hotel, offering cutting edge style and high-end amenities at astronomical prices. Mid-range rue Sherbrooke-area hotels include the Best Western Ville-Marie Hotel and Suites and the Marriott Residence Inn.
The eastern and western fringes of the downtown core reveal their own range of accommodations, from budget to high-end. The luxurious Le Méridien Versailles at Sherbrooke Street is a good example of a popular smaller hotel for out-of-towners. It is situated a stone's throw away from the west-end Guy Metro station, as is the more mid-range Hôtel du Fort.
Another significant cluster of mid-range hotels centers around Sherbrooke Street just east of McGill University. The Quality Hotel, for example, just off Sherbrooke Street on Avenue du Parc, offers good value and is a five-minute walk from Place des Arts and the Metro station. Other popular mid-to-high range hotels on the eastern fringe of downtown include the Delta Montreal and the Sheraton Four Points Montreal.
Old Montreal's 18th- and 19th-century architecture make it a favorite location for film shoots, where it often doubles for 1920s Chicago or New York. So unique is its character that it was declared a historic site in 1964 by the Quebec government and afforded special protection. This area was originally a fortified town and the center of commerce before many businesses gradually moved uptown at the beginning of the 20th Century.
The area has enjoyed an enormous revival and has seen a number of hotels spring up, notably the Hotel Inter-Continental across from the Palais des Congrès Convention Center. This is the only truly modern hotel in Old Montreal, although architecturally it blends wonderfully with the surrounding older buildings. The Holiday Inn Select, in nearby Chinatown, is the nearest mid-range option.
For those eager or willing to leave the name brand hotels behind, Old Montreal offers a host of charming, reasonably priced options. These include L'Auberge du Vieux-Port and, for the truly budget-conscious, the attractive Backpackers of Old Montreal hostel.
The ultimate Old Montreal accommodations can be found at Hotel Pierre du Calvet, a converted home—built in 1725 and restored in 1966—where Benjamin Franklin once stayed. The magnificent 10-room hotel, located in the eastern part of Old Montreal near the IMAX Theatre, is accessible from the Champ-de-Mars Metro. This is a rare opportunity to spend a night in European-style opulence.
During the summer, Old Montreal is a favorite spot for visitors, thanks to its outdoor cafés, cobblestone streets, musicians, artists, calèche rides and boat cruises. In winter, the area comes alive with ice sculptures, light shows and a huge outdoor skating rink. For travelers really looking to immerse themselves in Montreal's charms, it is a great option.
Entertainment means just as many things in Montreal as it does elsewhere, but the city is perhaps most famous for its justifiably legendary nightlife. Bars stay open until 3a here, which is later than anywhere else in Canada, and even then, few customers leave willingly. As with dining and accommodations, however, the visitor will benefit greatly from exploring the less heavily touristed areas of the city.
Bars & Clubs
On Friday and Saturday nights, locals either make a beeline towards rue Crescent and rue Bishop or they avoid them like the plague. Traditionally known as the center of Montreal's Anglophone nightlife, they are now known mostly for their numerous dance clubs/meat markets (Winnie's being one of the most famous). Those in search of a more sedate pint in the area can find one at the Irish pub Hurley's, the charming Brutopia brew-up, and at numerous other places that are popular among an older, English-speaking crowd.
The Boulevard Saint-Laurent is the city's most famous street, as it is the traditional dividing line between the city's English and French-speaking areas. Nowadays, booze serves as a very effective lingua franca, especially on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, when things don't cool down until dawn. The strip between rue Prince-Arthur and Mont-Royal Avenue features dozens of pubs, clubs, bars and assorted other dives that defy generalization.
In the latter category are the Bifteck, Copacabana and Roy Bar, three friendly, endearing, impossibly smoky taverns attracting a mixture of students and 20-somethings. Shoot some pool or catch a swing show at Le Swimming, cut a rug at Angel's or the Belmont sur le Boulevard, lounge among the hipsters at Tokyo, or just enjoy the quiet serenity of Else's, an arty but unpretentious pub full of Plateau-dwellers. It's all within a 20-minute walk around the Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
You can complete a similar if somewhat less bohemian pub crawl on St-Denis Street, St-Laurent's more French, polished cousin, located one major street to the east. The action on St-Denis is clustred around Ontario Street in the Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin), where mind-boggling bars such as the Saint-Sulpice compete with the quieter allure of pubs such as l'Ile Noire, Cheval Blanc, Pub Quartier Latin and the Sainte-Élisabeth. The funky, eclectic bars and cafés situated farther north between Rue Rachel and Avenue Mont-Royal attract a suitably diverse crowd: check out Barouf, Quai des Brumes and Bily Kun. This street is home to dozens of patios (or terraces, in local parlance) that are perfect for watching the world go by.
For those unwilling or unable to go softly into the night, after-hours clubs such as Stereo Nightclub will let you stay until at least 10a on Saturday or Sunday morning, but not before extracting at least CAD20 from your wallet.
Museums & Galleries
Place des Arts, meanwhile, is home to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal), Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and l'Opéra de Montréal.
The Canadian Centre for Architecture (Centre Canadien d'Architecture) presents exhibitions and multimedia displays that range from the straightforward to the thoroughly bizarre, and as a result has gained a worldwide reputation.
Of course, Montreal is more than a university town on a bender. Museums, galleries, theater, cinema and unclassifiable fringe elements enjoy great public interest from a citizenry for whom the arts represent an integral component of having a good time. An impressive if not overwhelming collection of the European masters awaits visitors at the Musem of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts), whose magnificent premises also host first-class touring exhibitions. The Museum of Modern Art (Musée d'Art Contemporain), itself an amazing building, offers a fascinating glimpse into Quebec's thriving community of modern artists. The Canadian Centre for Architecture (Centre Canadien d'Architecture) presents exhibitions and multimedia displays that range from the straightforward to the thoroughly bizarre, and as a result, has gained a worldwide reputation. There are also dozens of smaller galleries, museums and exhibition spaces that dot the cityscape and remain relatively undiscovered by tourists.
Montreal is at the center of the province's vibrant cinema community, as evidenced by its fine repertory houses and state-of-the-art first-run theaters. The Paramount Multiplex offers stadium seating, state-of-the-art sound and IMAX screens. The Ex-Centris Theatre showcases digital technology along with an impressive program of Canadian and international films. It also hosts the Festival International Nouveau Cinéma every autumn.
That's just one of the festivals Montreal has to offer. Other film fests include the World Film Festival, International Festival of Films on Art and FANT-ASIA. The Just For Laughs Festival is a joyous yearly tradition, while locals flock downtown to Place des Arts for the outdoor shows associated with the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the Francofolies.
Theater buffs will find both English and French productions. Well-known companies include the Centaur, whose program features in-house Canadian and international dramas; the predominantly French Infinithéâtre; and the National Theatre School (École nationale de Théâtre du Canada), which hosts occasional presentations. Many smaller companies exist in the city, and though some are ethnically oriented, most enjoy a pleasantly diverse audience.
The Place des Arts is home to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal), Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and l'Opéra de Montréal.
Information on nearly every cultural event in the city, as well as local news and reviews, can be found in the two free arts weeklies, Hour and Mirror, which are available in coffee shops, convenience stores and various other locations.
Although Montreal's history goes back long before Jacques Cartier "discovered" the island in 1535, the intrepid explorer can certainly lay claim to being the first European to see it from the top of Mount Royal, the city's centrally located mountain park.
Amerindians referred to these grounds as Hochelaga, and used the island as a meeting place where tribes could discuss trade and other important matters. The official founding date for Ville-Marie (later to become Montréal in honor of the King of France) is May 18, 1642, at which time Jeanne Mance and Paul de Chomedey Sieur de Maisonneuve came ashore with about 40 colonists and proceeded to drive out the Iroquois.
The buzzing colony, known as Nouvelle-France, became a major jumping-off point for fur traders, explorers and settlers who wanted to venture further inland towards the Great Lakes and down into the Mississippi Valley. In 1760, Montreal had a mostly French population of about 4000. The architecture of this period can be seen in buildings such as the Sulpician Seminary (Vieux Séminaire Saint-Sulpice) and Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel.
The second event that would eventually shape modern Montreal happened in 1763 when, following the British victory in the Seven Years War (1756-1763), France was forced to relinquish its North American territories.
Under British rule, Montreal became an important port (the largest inland port in the world, in fact) as well as Canada's largest city and commercial hub. It was home to Canada's first banks, mercantile houses and fur-trading companies, all of which centered around the rue Saint-Jacques (St James Street to the English speakers) in what is now Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal). You can get a good look at buildings still standing from this era, including the Bank of Montreal.
Between 1800 and 1850, the city experienced a population explosion, increasing from around 9000 up to 57,000. For five years, between 1844 and 1849, the city even served as Canada's capital, until a rampaging crowd burned down the buildings that housed the legislature. The mid-19th Century saw the city expand into manufacturing and heavy industry, and Montreal became Canada's railway hub. A flood of job opportunities drew both immigrants from overseas and rural Quebecois, and the population continued to soar, reaching half a million by 1911.
By that time, the city's Golden Square Mile area - Atwater to the west, Parc to the east, Mount Royal to the north and René Lévesque to the south—contained some 70 percent of all Canada's wealth. Huge properties such as the 60-room Ravenscrag Mansion on Avenue des Pins West were commonplace.
It was also around this time that non-British immigration brought in the third wave of Montreal's development. European Jews, Italians and Greeks joined Irish and Scottish immigrants to make the city a much more cosmopolitan place.
Shortly after World War II, Montreal began a slow, steady decline in influence and power as the Canadian economy looked southward to the United States and away from a weakening Great Britain. Corporate headquarters migrated to Toronto, which began to receive the bulk of new investment.
The shift was accelerated by two factors: the building of the St-Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ships direct access to the Great Lakes, and the revival of Quebec nationalism, which started with the so-called Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and culminated in the election of a separatist government in the late 1970s. This led to a further exodus "down the 401," referring to the highway between Montreal and Toronto.
Despite these woes, however, Montreal managed to hold its head high through the 1960s and 1970s thanks to its tenacious mayor, Jean Drapeau. A man with grandiose visions, Drapeau orchestrated the building of the city's subway system (the Metro) in 1966, snagged the prestigious Expo 67 international exhibition, and then sold the city as the site for the even more illustrious 1976 Summer Olympics.
While Montreal may have relinquished the honor of being Canada's largest and most economically influential metropolis, it still relishes its role as the nation's most spirited and international city, in addition to being the French gastronomic center of North America and a place where historical strands join to create a potent mix of pride, art and culture.