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Montreal, Quebec Travel Guide

Montreal Summary

Pros

  • Bilingual city, where French ostensibly reigns, but English is widely spoken
  • Tons of big-ticket summer events, most famously the Montreal Jazz Festival
  • Plethora of wintertime activities, like Igloofest, skating, skiing, and sledding on Mont Royal
  • Gorgeous historic sights in neighborhoods like Old Montreal and Old Port
  • Diverse dining scene includes traditional holes-in-the-wall and swish international spots
  • Great shopping, from indie to vintage and designer -- particularly in the Plateau
  • Beautiful parks, like Mont Royal, Parc Lafontaine, and Murray Hill 
  • Jean Talon Market and Atwater Market for fresh food and eclectic restaurants 
  • World-class museums, like the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, and myriad art galleries
  • The underground city makes it possible to get around during the winter
  • Easy-to-use metro and bus system makes getting around mostly simple
  • Cool music and hipster scene in Mile End
  • Internationally famous local eats, including poutine and Montreal-style bagels
  • Large LGBT community and Gay Village with wild nightlife

Cons

  • The winter is painfully cold
  • Robust public transit system, but some neighborhoods can be hard to reach
  • Language politics still occasionally cause tension
  • Some parts of downtown a little seedy at night

What It's Like

Montreal is something of a rare little gem in North America. Although the city is relatively small -- the main part of town is an island, with a population of about two million -- it has a dynamism, creativity, and understated elegance that are unparalleled this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Without a doubt, this character has to do in part with Montreal's deep cultural roots and its bilingual nature -- that, and the fact that almost 25 percent of its residents are immigrants. Although there are pockets that are more traditionally French or English, these distinctions have blurred as of late. In fact, it's generally hard to come across a shopkeeper or waiter who isn't fluent in both languages. Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, grew up in Montreal with a Quebecois father and an English-speaking mother -- a rather common occurrence in this city. The way he slips easily from English to French is how most people in this city function. In fact, the most common greeting is, “Bonjour hi!” Even so, there is some ongoing tension around language politics, and some of the city's most fervently Quebecois residents are known to occasionally refuse to speak English. 

Fascinating multi-cultural history aside, there there are sights galore to be found in Montreal. No visit here is complete without a trip to Old Montreal and the Old Port. The winding, cobblestone streets in this part of town are reminiscent of an earlier time -- often dating back to age of New France. Old Montreal is a magical mix of the old and the new, the urban and the whimsical: You can grab a delicious sandwich at Olive & Gourmando, visit Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (about which Leonard Cohen sang), scope out art galleries, or relax on Clocktower Beach. Parts of the neighborhood are a bit touristy, but the southwest corner is a little more authentically local. Check out the Darling Foundry for wild art installations, and loop back through the cafes and restaurants as you make your way back to the heart of the district. But it's not all about Old Montreal in this vibrant city, despite what you may have heard. Other major neighborhoods worth exploring include the Gay Village, Chinatown, and the sprawling Plateau, which is home the locus of all things hipster in Montreal: Mile End. Seeking a bit of nature? Head up Parc du Mont Royal's long paths to amazing views out over the city and river, or to the city's famous Biodome

Montreal comes alive in the summer. The moment the weather turns even slightly warm, locals flock to what they affectionately call "terrasses," which are cafes with outdoor seating that line almost every sidewalk. On top of that, summer is festival season, with fetes for everything from food to wine and music. The most famous of these is the Montreal Jazz Fest, which runs for 10 days from the end of June through the beginning of July, and draws about two-and-a-half million visitors a year. Free concerts take place across the Quartier des Spectacles -- which is also home to cool museums like MAC -- as hundreds of thousands of revelers saunter around with beers in hand. There are also ticketed events, and for decades the city has drawn the likes of Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Costello, and Pat Metheny.

Summer may be the time when Montreal shows off, but winters can be lovely, and the sun often shines despite sub-zero temperatures. For outdoorsy types, there's sledding and skiing on Mont Royal, as well as skating in various indoor and outdoor venues. Montreal is home to the Montreal Canadiens, so all things hockey tend to be wildly popular here as well. If traditional exercise isn’t your jam, Igloofest has become a world famous electronic event, where locals suit up in their warmest winter gear to dance on an outdoor dance floor to electronic music in January and February.

Montreal is well known for its food, from low- to highbrow cuisines -- and that reputation is well deserved. Of course, foreigners generally know the joys of eating poutine (fries with gravy and cheese curds) after a long night of drinking, or standing in line at Schwartz on St-Laurent for one of the best pastrami sandwiches in the world. But a vibrant food scene that consists of influences from around the world exists all across the city. Mile End and spots on the Plateau are home to foodie holes-in-the-wall, and the cafe scene here far predates the dawn of Starbucks in North America. Some are reminiscent of Parisien cafes -- with a little more edge -- and Mile End, in particular, has a clutch of wildly popular, no-frills Old World cafes that bustle with guests day and night. 

There's excellent Greek, Chinese, and Middle Eastern across the city, and those seeking the freshest food and produce should head to Jean-Market, with its food stalls and dizzying array of goods (it's open year-round). Perhaps the other most famous dish in town are Montreal bagels, which are distinct from their chewier brethren down in New York City. The most famous shops are St-Viateur and Fairmount, both in the Mile End, and they're best eaten fresh out of the wood-burning ovens.

Where To Stay

Montreal has hundreds of hotel options across all spectrums and categories, though most are concentrated in the city's downtown area and throughout Old Montreal. If you only have a few days in town, the best bet is to stay in Old Montreal, as it puts you within easy striking distance of the city's major historic sights. This also means that museums and events of the Quartier des Spectacles are within a 10- to 15-minute walk. Many of the city's most famous luxury and upscale properties are clustered a bit farther inland from the river, just southwest of McGill University. This forms the business heart of the city. North and east from there, there are plenty of boutique properties and small budget hotels in and around the Latin Quarter, though some parts of this area can be a little seedy at night. Want something a bit more locally hip? Opt for a stay in the Mile End or on the Plateau, though hotel pickings in these areas are limited in the extreme. Vacation rentals may be the way to go in this part of town. 

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