Montreal, Quebec is Almost like Being in Europe
By Paul Glassman
Montreal is what every traveler is looking for, and more. A little bit of Europe close to home, with sidewalk cafés, fine cuisine, high fashion, venerable cobblestone quarters and heritage churches, and more people who speak French than anywhere else but Paris.
It’s exotic, but it’s also comfortable and reassuring, with modern office blocks, big American cars, a subway and logical streets, and people who can get along in a language that sounds like American English.
Montreal is also a celebration of the seasons, from ice skating and cross-country skiing in the middle of town to gardens that appear from nowhere in spring; and a rejection of same, with an underground city where the calendar doesn’t matter and an army of machines that makes the snow disappear.
It’s safer than most large cities, and if you ever tire of the city attractions, skiing and hiking and boating and other outdoor activities are within an hour’s drive.
Vibrant Arts Scene
Most of all, with late-night street life, a vibrant arts scene, nightlife, festivals and outdoor activities all year, botanical gardens and attractions galore, it’s fun.
In name and in fact, Montreal is, literally, “Mount Royal,” the huge hill or small mountain — take your choice — that overlooks the city and always provides a reference point.
For Indians of centuries ago, the mountain was a lookout point that kept their settlement secure. French traders and settlers found it equally advantageous to guard over river routes and established one of their main settlements at the base of its slopes.
Montreal became British after Her Majesty’s Forces overwhelmed Nouvelle France in 1759. The city grew as a port and rail center on the backs of immigrants from Ireland and Eastern Europe and Italy and China and the United States. But the French convents and churches and way of life survived as well, and today, the city lives, labors, and loves largely in the French language.
Out and About
The best place to be in Montreal is out and about, on the streets, where Montrealers themselves go. It could be at the free outdoor concerts of the Jazz Festival, an open-air screening during the World Film Festival, or along the cobbled ways of Old Montreal.
Or, most authentically, plunge into the heart of French Montreal on Rue St-Denis in the Plateau Mont-Royal district, around Duluth Street, where locals patronize trendy designer boutiques, some of the best restaurants anywhere, and crowded sidewalk cafés.
There are also Chinatown; theater in English and in French, and sometimes in Spanish and Yiddish as well; ice skating year-round in the Atrium Amphitheater and bicycle trails leading in short order to leafy suburbs.
There is Montreal’s famed Underground City where it’s possible to move from hotel room to restaurant to business meeting to movie showing without being aware of the weather (admittedly dreadful on certain December days. And a casino that uniquely looks out on the city instead of shutting it out; the Imax theater that takes viewers into the picture and the Montreal Science Center that takes visitors into science. All of this is without even starting on a host of historic homes and churches that predate those found almost anywhere on the continent.
WHEN TO GO
Montreal’s weather ranges from brutally cold to brutally hot and humid, but the extremes are more memorable than regular occurrences. Spring is the best time to visit, the closer to June 21 the better, to experience the incredibly long daylight hours of the high northern latitude. Summer’s fine as well, with average highs of about 80°F (26°C), while early fall brings many mild Indian summer days, with any luck.
Mid-winter has its festivals, the Winter Carnival and the High Lights celebration of music, food, and illumination. With some warm clothing and reliance on the network of underground passages to move around, even visitors from tropical climes will find the city inviting–and a bargain, with lower hotel rates.
Getting there and Getting Around Montreal
Montreal is on the Corridor train line between Windsor and Quebec City, with several daily trains from Toronto, plus an overnighter with reasonably priced sleeping accommodations. Call ViaRail 514-989-2626 or 800-361-5390, or see viarail.ca. Amtrak also has service to Montreal from the US via the Northeast Corridor
Greyhound, (tel. 800-231-2222) in the United States, has connecting buses from all over.
By air, there is frequent domestic and international service to Dorval Airport, located about 20 kilometers west of downtown.
Montreal’s Métro (subway) is clean, convenient, and cheap. Strips of six tickets cost the equivalent of about U.S.$6. Most attractions are in the downtown area and within walking distance of Métro stations. Free transfers are provided for bus connections. Maps are available at Métro ticket booths.
Old Montreal: The City’s Beginnings
Old Montreal is where Montreal started as a waterfront settlement, and much of the area is unchanged from the eighteenth century, or even earlier. Start any visit at Place d’Armes, the main square, with its impressive Notre Dame Cathedral and equally impressive secular buildings such as the domed Bank of Montreal. Walk along Rue St. Paul with its lively shops and bistros.
Take a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Delve down into the city’s history literally at the Pointe-à-Callière Archaeological Museum on Rue de la Commune at Place Royale. Don’t miss City Hall at 275 Notre Dame East, the historic Chateau Ramezay at 280 Notre Dame East, the vast Bonsecours Market along the waterfront at Rue du Marché Bonsecours, or the street life on Place Jacques Cartier.
The Old Port
Once a cargo terminus, the Old Port has been brought to life again with a flea market, Imax theater, the amazing I-Sci science museum, boat rides, tours, tram rides, skating, bike paths, and entertainment in the warmer months.
Walk along Rue Sainte Catherine to get the flavor of a North American business center with a French flavor and everything it entails, including high fashion, plenty of breaks at cafés to discuss life and fun, and sidewalks crowded well into the night and the early hours of the morning.
Take in some of the downtown sights as well, including:
- Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Rue Sherbrooke at Avenue Du Musée, with major collections of works by Quebec artists.
- Canadian Centre for Architecture, Rue Baile at Rue St. Marc.
- Dorchester Square, lined by the most impressive skyscrapers in the city and the huge Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, patterned after St. Peter’s in Rome.
- Major churches, including Christ Church Cathedral at the corner of Sainte Catherine and University; St. Patrick’s Basilica at the corner of Rue St. Alexandre and Boulevard René Lévesque; and St. George’s Anglican Cathedral at the corner of Peel and De la Gauchetière.
- Central Station, with its vast main hall with art deco murals depicting the railroad’s place in the growth of Canada.
The Underground City
Rain or shine, sizzling or freezing, life in Montreal goes on below the surface and in vast indoor centers of commerce connected by sheltered passageways. There are two main and separate sections to the underground city:
- Start at the World Trade Center at the corner of Rue McGill Street and Rue St. Antoine, a set of renovated heritage buildings joined by a sheltered indoor lane.
- Proceed westward underground to Place Bonaventure, an exhibition center with numerous indoor streets, as well as the Hilton Hotel.
- Go north by a passageway to Central Station, one of the liveliest underground neighborhoods, where thousands of commuters pass each day. Stop, perhaps, for nourishment at Les Halles de la Gare, one of the most attractive sets of food shops and restaurants in the city.
- Continue to Place Ville-Marie, the cruciform tower complex where the underground city started, and browse the dozens of shops.
- Plunge toward Sainte Catherine street, and taste the wares of the underground centers to the east and west:–Les Cours Mont-Royal, at Rue Peel, with its many upscale boutiques–Place Montreal Trust, at Avenue McGill College, with retailers both familiar and exotic, such as Spanish clothier Zara.–Les Promenades de la Cathédrale, under Christ Church Cathedral at the corner of Rue University.
- Continue northward from the latter, and you’ll surface on Rue Sherbrooke, where you can be reminded of what season it is.
A second underground city starts at the Place des Arts concert center at the corner of Rue Sainte Catherine and Rue Jeanne Mance. Adjacent is the Musée d’Art Contemporain (Modern Art Museum).
- Continue under Saint Catherine through Complexe Desjardins, with its shops, cinemas, and galleries above a great hall, to the federal offices of Complexe Guy Favreau.
- You’ll wind up at the Convention Center (Palais des Congrès), on the edge of Chinatown.
Montreal’s Chinatown, centering on Rue de la Gauchetière near Boulevard St. Laurent, offers an assortment of shops with Asian imports, as well as restaurants that offer complete lunches for as little as the U.S.$10, and gourmet Asian feasts for dinner! Try the Vietnamese Noodle Shops for real treats.
Rue St. Denis
Montreal’s French heart is Rue St. Denis. For bars and import shops and glassed-in restaurants, head to the section between Rue Saint Catherine and Rue Sherbrooke. For a more avant-garde crowd, and the latest in local designer boutiques, walk a few blocks north, toward Rue Duluth.
Mt. Royal Park
Just north of downtown, Mount Royal Park is a venue for jogging and hiking in summer, and cross-country skiing and sledding in winter. Its viewpoints offer superb views of the city in all directions.
Parc des Iles (Drapeau Park)
Opposite downtown in the St. Lawrence River are two green isles where the world’s fair, Expo 67, left a legacy of sculpture and architecture.
Can’t misses include the Biosphere, with its exhibitions on the environment; the Old Fort, dating from British colonial days; the Floralies gardens; the Casino, open most of the day and night, and La Ronde, Montreal’s summertime park of daredevil rides. Access is via the Ile Sainte Hélène Metro station.
Best Unusual Attractions in Montreal
St. Joseph’s Oratory
The greatest monument to the traditional Catholic faith of Quebecois is this huge basilica, at Queen Mary Road near Chemin Côte des Neiges, where piles of crutches testify to the healing powers of prayer.
Montreal’s signature Olympic Tower leans over the eastern part of the city, next to Olympic Stadium. Adjacent is the Biodome, an exhibition of four climatic zones; the huge Olympic pool, usually open to the public for swimming; and the Botanical Gardens, one of the largest such centers in the world, including the intriguing Insectarium.
Indoors or out, there’s plenty to do in Montreal. On any given day, there are concerts, plays, art openings, and films, but if you want to get outside, the city offers everything from biking to skiing!
Montreal is a cyclist’s dream city. The Lachine Canal bicycle trail follows a waterway through one of the first industrial districts on the continent, starting in Old Montreal. Additional trails run to St. Helen’s Island and Notre Dame Island, both large parks facing downtown, and to the north and east.
Recommended Bike Trails and Routes Across Montreal
- Montreal River to River Ride Route. …
- Downtown to Mont-Royal Route. …
- West Island Loop. …
- Urban Exploration Route. …
- Montreal’s Markets/Rosemont Route. …
- Nun’s Island to Lachine Canal Route. …
- Deux-Montagnes to NDG Route. …
- Lachine Path To Old Montreal Route.
Find out more about these bike routes on the Montreal blog.
- Vélo-Tour, 99 De la Commune West, tel. 514-236-8356 offers escorted bicycle tours and rentals.
- Bicycles may also be rented from a shop in the tourist information center at 1001 Dorchester Square, tel. 514-878-3847.
Boat tours operate in the St. Lawrence River from the Old Port in Montreal.
- Bâteau-Mouche, tel. 514-849-9952.
Rafting and jet boating trips on the St. Lawrence are operated by:
- Les Descentes sur le St-Laurent, 1001 Dorchester Square, tel.
- Saute Moutons Jet Boating, Old Port, tel. 514-284 9607.
Walking tours of Old Montreal are provided by:
- Guidatour, tel. 514-844-4021 or 800-363-4021 website
For easy poling, follow the Lachine Canal cycling path in winter. For more ups and downs, Mount Royal Park has superb trails just blocks from downtown, though conditions vary greatly throughout the winter.
Montreal is not the cheapest place for lodgings. Accommodations are dominated by large, luxury hotel chains (though less expensive than in the US), but you can also find wonderful B&B’s, inns, rustic lodges and lower-priced hotels and budget beds.
Cheaper lodgings tend to be toward the eastern side of the downtown, and the Latin Quarter. Luxury beds are in the business district, to the west. As you rise on the price scale, you’ll find more variation in the room rate, according to time of year (lower in winter); whether there are festivals going on (which raises the rate, but you can also get discount packages that include lodgings and tickets to the events); and how far in advance you’ve booked (the longer, the cheaper).
- Hotel de Paris
901 Sherbrooke East
Tel. 514-522-6861 or 800-567-7217
Single rooms in the onetime classy residence near the Latin Quarter go for USD$45 and up, but the bargain is hostel-type beds for about USD$14 with tax.
- Montreal Youth Hostel
Near the heart of downtown, for about USD$15 per person
- Downtown YMCA
Singles for males from USD$35
- The YWCA
1355 René Lévesque West
singles for females from UDS$35, and dorm beds for about UDS$20.
Food is everywhere in Montreal, from French patisseries to Vietnamese noodle shops to gourmet delicacies from around the world. Cheap eats can be found around McGill and Rue St. Denis — follow the student crowd. Chinatown offers inexpensive Asian food and restaurants are open late. For more sophisticated dining, try Old Montreal, and enjoy romantic candlelight dinners, crepes, fondues and other European specialties
Come to Montreal for shopping, as much as for anything else! With a weak Canadian dollar, many familiar and name-brand products, including high fashion, go for less than in other countries. There are also Eskimo carvings, winter clothing, and even Cuban cigars and rum (if you’re not going back to the States).
Remember to pick up a tax-refund form (at a customs office in an airport, or a duty-free store when driving out of Canada), in order to claim reimbursement of the hefty 15 percent in sales taxes.
Bargains and treasures are to be found at:
- Downtown shopping malls, part of the Underground City, including the Place Montréal Trust, at St. Catherine Street and McGill College Avenue; Les Cours Mont-Royal, on Peel Street between St. Catherine and De Maisonneuve; Les Promenades de la Cathédrale, St. Catherine and University; and Place Ville-Marie, at the southern end of McGill College Avenue.
- Huge suburban shopping complexes with hundreds of stores. Those accessible by Métro include Place Versailles, near the Radisson station, and Carrefour Angrignon, near the Angrignon station.
- St. Denis Street, especially near Duluth Street, where avant-garde local designers have outlets, trendy boutiques and bookstores; and St. Catherine Street West between Peel and University streets.
- The Fur District, around De Maisonneuve Boulevard and Aylmer Street, where many of Canada’s fur garments are crafted.
- Old Montreal, especially along St. Paul Street and in Bonsecours Market, for prints, paintings, antiques and crafts, such as textiles and stained glass, and Inuit soapstone carvings.Notre Dame Street west of Guy Street for Quebec antiques.
- Laurier Avenue is a foodie’s heaven, especially French patisseries, imported cheeses and fresh coffees.
Best Entertainment in Montreal
In addition to great nightlife, endless theatre performances, live music, art exhibits, cinemas and street happenings, Montreal’s toasts itself, its visitors, and the art of living well with festivals throughout the year:
- Winter Carnival (Fête des Neiges) on St. Helen’s Island celebrates frosty pleasures, including skating and ice sculpture. January-February.
- Montreal High Lights Festival (Festival Montréal en Lumière) lights up the center of the city, literally, and features concerts and fine cuisine. February.
- Theater Festival of the Americas (Festival de Théâtre des Amériques) brings drama from both North and South America. May-June.
- Tour de l’Ile (Island Circuit) is a widely attended bicycle event, attracting amateurs as well as professionals. Early June.
- Chamber Music Festival features outdoor concerts. Mid-June.
- Grand Prix du Canada, a major Formula I race. Mid-June.
- International Fireworks Competition, lights up the city in a spectacular manner. Mid-June-late July.
- International Jazz Festival, one of the largest anywhere, with hundreds of free concerts. Early July.Just for Laughs Festival, with comedy in both English and French, on the streets and in theaters. Mid-July.African Nights (Nuits d’Afrique), brings African and Caribbean music to the streets. Mid-July.
- Diverse Cité, the Gay Pride festival. Early August.Les Francofolies, music and shows in French. Early August.
- Les Fêtes Gourmands, a celebration of food from everywhere, on St. Helen’s Island. Mid-August.
- World Film Festival, hundreds of mainstream and artsy movies, many unlikely to be seen in commercial theaters. Late August-early September.
- International Festival of New Dance showcases avant-garde dance. Early October, biennial.
- Black & Blue Festival, another gay festival. Early October.
- Festival of New Cinema and New Media, emphasizes documentaries. Mid-October.
- Coup de Coeur Francophone, music in French. Early November.
Health and Safety
Have no fear about your health in Montreal. The water’s safe to drink, and the main danger from the food is that there’s too much that’s rich and tasty. Exercise some self-control, and you should be fine.
Dangers to health may come from the most unexpected sources. Visitors might not be prepared for the high temperature and humidity on some summer days. Carry around a bottle of water to keep hydrated. Likewise, the sun is strong and daylight hours are long in summer, so keep covered by a hat and protected by sunblock.
Getting about in winter requires protection from wind more than from mere cold. On windy winter days, keep your face covered by a scarf. Everybody wears boots during the cold weather, and so should visitors. Wait until the sidewalks are cleared of ice or snow after a storm, or step carefully if you have to go out beforehand, in order to avoid falls.
Banks and ATMs
Being in Montreal is just like being in the U.S., as far as banking machines go. There are banking machines galore, which accept cards affiliated with either the Visa or the Maestro network. In addition, numerous pharmacies and other large stores have non-bank cash machines that accept virtually any credit card or bank card. This convenience comes at a cost. Each insertion of a U.S. or other foreign card carries a fee of about U.S.$4, or more.
Master Card and Visa are widely accepted not only in large retail stores and gasoline stations but also in many supermarkets.
Banks are normally open from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, with late hours on Thursdays. Hours vary from branch to branch, and some are open on Saturdays.
Then there are currency exchange shops clustered on Rue Peel, just south of Rue Sainte Catherine, where major currencies can be traded for Canadian dollars at better rates than what the banks offer.
Best Resources for Visiting Montreal
Montreal’s Official Tourism Board site filled with resources website in English
The MTL Blog has kept people up to date with the city’s happenings since 2012.