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.
To get an idea of life in New France during the 18th and 19th Centuries, a walking tour of Old Montreal is a must. A good place to start would be the Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel, which is located at the corner of the rue Saint-Paul and rue Bonsecours in the eastern end of Old Montreal. The nearby Bonsecours Market (Marché Bonsecours), built in 1847, is a testament to Montreal's influence in British North America. The building, comprising of a Greek Revival portico, a tin-plated dome and cast-iron columns imported from England, is a good example of that era's Neo-Classical style. Today it houses boutiques and exhibits.
A few blocks to the west lies Place Jacques Cartier, named after the French explorer who discovered the island of Montreal in 1535. The square is the central part of Old Montreal; City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) and the Château Ramezay Museum on Notre-Dame Street are situated just to the north, while de la Commune Street and the Old Port of Montreal are a block south. The square is especially enjoyable in summer, with street musicians, jugglers, artists and cafés lining both sides. Calèche drivers beckon strollers to hop on their carriages for a romantic guided tour of the old city. This would be a good time in your busy day to grab a bite for lunch and rest your feet. Try Medi Medi, a cozy Mediterranean restaurant nestled in the heart of Old Montreal. The menu is limited but everything on it is exceptional.
Moving west along tiny St-Amable Street, which is filled with shops and artists, you will find the Pointe-à-Callière museum of archaeology and history. It protects and displays the remains of the city as far back as when the first buildings were erected by French settlers in 1642. The old Customs House, now part of the museum, was designed by British architect John Ostell, who was also responsible for the Old Courthouse.
At the north-western edge of Old Montreal you will find the World Trade Centre (Centre de Commerce Mondial), which integrates a number of old buildings through the use of a spectacular atrium that stands several stories high over the former Rue des Fortifications; it's well worth a stroll. St-Jacques Street, one street south, features several buildings with stately architecture and lavish interiors: the Bank of Montreal, opened at the corner of rue Saint-Jacques and Avenue Jeanne-Mance in 1847, is a notable example.
Directly across from the bank is Notre-Dame Basilica, a Gothic Revival church built in 1829 and modelled after Notre-Dame in Paris. It's one of the most popular attractions in Montreal, welcoming over one million visitors a year. After a full day of sight-seeing (and a lot of walking) treat yourself to an up-scale dinner at Marée (La). This charming French restaurant serves exceptional seafood-try the scallops or the lobster.
The museum district is perhaps the most attractive area of downtown Montreal. The Musée des Beaux-Arts, the city's most prestigious, is situated at the corner of rue Sherbrooke and Avenue du Musée. While in the area, visitors can enjoy eyeing or buying from chic boutiques along Victorian Crescent Street, especially between rue Sherbrooke and Boulevard de Maisonneuve. This area is also loaded with excellent dining choices, with many restaurants situated between Boulevard de Maisonneuve and Boulevard René-Lévesque. Make a pit stop at Bombay Palace. One of two locations, this restaurant serves traditional Indian dishes. The ambiance is relaxing and lovely Sitar music fills the room. If Indian is not your cuisine of choice, try the Beaver Club. This Montreal insitution serves tradtional Canadian dishes. If it's your first visit to the city, this is a great place to sample the local specialties.
Continuing east on Rue Sherbrooke, natural history aficionados can observe modern and prehistoric animals, rocks, crystals and precious stones at the Redpath Museum on the McGill University campus. The McCord Museum, just east of the University's Roddick Gates, boasts a permanent exhibition entitled "Simply Montreal." This eclectic exhibit offers a glimpse of yesteryear, with a selection of First Nations' (American Indian) objects, a collection of photographs, sports equipment, toys and magnificent gowns worn by the who's who of Montreal.
Oscar Wilde once remarked that there are so many churches in Montreal that if you threw a rock in any direction you would probably break a church window. Three of the better known churches are Saint Patrick's Basilica, Christ Church Cathedral and Mary Queen of the World Cathedral (Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde), all located within a stone's throw of each other and more or less downtown. Christ Church Cathedral stands over Les Promenades de la Cathédrale, an attractive underground shopping complex linked to the Underground City. If the weather proves too inclement for an outdoor stroll, enjoy 30 kilometres (20 miles) of underground shopping and dining facilities. Every day, an estimated 500,000 people pass through this network, which links some 60 buildings and provides access to nearly 2000 retail outlets. What better way to conclude your busy day than by tasting the delciacies of Les Caprices de Nicolas? This restaurant serves specialties from the south of France and boasts an excellent wine list.
A tour of downtown Montreal would not be complete without a visit to trendy, multi-ethnic Boulevard Saint-Laurent, with its hopping bars and restaurants, and eclectic shopping. rue Saint-Denis, one major thoroughfare to the east, is the home of the city's Francophone upper crust and is equally essential on any itinerary. Originally a residential street, it is now home to fashionable and sometimes monumentally expensive boutiques, bistros and shops. Before concluding your stroll down the rue Saint-Denis, stop by Vintage (Le) for lunch. This charming little bistro serves Portuguese specialties at reasonable prices.
The Plateau Mont-Royal is Montreal's most quintessential neighborhood, comprising of Saint-Laurent and Saint-Denis, quiet residential streets, beautiful green-spaces (notably Parc Lafontaine, Mont-Royal Park and St-Louis Square), charming BYOB bistros and an overwhelming sense of civility and grace. Tourists are thin on the ground here, but one can hardly claim to have experienced Montreal without spending a day wandering through the real heart of this unique city. To wrap up your day in the Plateau, try the best steakhouse in Montreal-Moishe's. These steaks will melt in your mouth.
Guided Walking Tours
Old Montreal Ghost Trail. (+1 514 868 0303)
Balade de Vieux Port. (+1 514 496 7678/ http://www.quaisduvieuxport.com/)
Montreal Harbour Cruises. (+1 514 842 9300/ http://www.croisieresaml.com/)
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.