It can be a travel-writing cliché to describe a destination as a “juxtaposition of old and new”, but in MONTRÉAL this is spectacularly evident. In the space of one weekend, you can stroll under gas lamps on the narrow streets of Vieux-Montréal, as a calèche (horse carriage) softly clip-clops by; flirt bilingually at a rooftop electro dance party; eat your way around the world, from Portuguese to Thai to Québécois; gaze up at the soaring ceiling of a neo-Gothic cathedral; pedal the leafy banks of the Lachine Canal; and watch the dizzying acrobatics of home-grown talent, Cirque du Soleil.
Canada’s second-largest city is geographically as close to the European coast as to Vancouver, and in look, taste and feel it combines some of the finest aspects of the two continents. Its North American skyline of glass and concrete rises above churches and monuments in a melange of European styles as varied as Montréal’s social mix. This is also the world’s second-largest French-speaking city after Paris, but only two-thirds of the citizens are of French extraction, the other third being a cosmopolitan mishmash of les autres (“the others”), including British, Eastern Europeans, Chinese, Italians, Greeks, Jews, Latin Americans and Caribbeans. The memorable result is a truly multidimensional city, with a global variety of restaurants, bars and clubs, matched by a calendar of festivals that makes this the most vibrant place in Canada.
It is also here that the two main linguistic groups – anglophones and francophones – come into greatest contact with one another. In the wake of the “francization” of Québec, English-Canadians hit Hwy-401 in droves, tipping the nation’s economic supremacy from Montréal to Toronto. Though written off by Canada’s English-speaking majority, the city did not sink into oblivion. Instead, it has undergone an extraordinary resurgence, becoming one of the driving forces behind the high-tech industries helping transform Canada’s economy.
Everywhere are signs of civic pride and prosperity. In the historic quarter of Vieux- Montréal, on the banks of the St Lawrence River, the narrow streets, alleys and squares make ideal strolling grounds, past the mammoth Basilique Notre-Dame and steepled Chapelle de Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours, old steep-roofed homes, boutique hotels and outdoor bars serving artisanal cocktails. Close by, the once-disused Vieux-Port has been turned into a summer playground with landscaped parklands and urban beaches facing onto the St Lawrence.
To the northwest unfolds the downtown area, where the modern glass frontages of the office blocks reflect Victorian terraces and the spires of numerous churches. Here, the boulevards and leafy squares buzz from the morning rush hour right through to the wee hours, when clubbers return from the establishments of rue Ste-Catherine and the diverse bars and lounges of the Plateau and Quartier Latin districts. The dazzling new Quartier des Spectacles serves as the city’s cultural hub – home to numerous festivals – booming with performing arts venues, lively restaurants and sun-speckled outdoor public spaces and walkways. Below the surface, downtown is underlain by the passages of the Underground City, which link hotels, shopping centres and offices with the Métro.
Rising above downtown, the city’s landmark, Mont Royal – known by residents as “The Mountain” – is best accessed from the easterly Plateau Mont-Royal. The cafés, restaurants and bars of The Main and rue St-Denis throng with people day and night. Further out to the east, the enormous Stade Olympique complex and the vast green space of the Jardin Botanique – second in international status only to London’s Kew Gardens – are the main pull. The islands facing the Vieux-Port that make up Parc Jean-Drapeau and the westerly Lachine Canal offer all manner of activities, many of them family-friendly.
The city has a notable clutch of museums. The Centre Canadien d’Architecture has one of the continent’s most impressive specialist collections, focusing on the role of architecture in society, innovative design practice and the history of ideas. The Musée d’Art Contemporain is one of Canada’s finest contemporary art museums, while the Musée des Beaux-Arts is the oldest fine-arts museum in the country. Among several superb new contemporary art centres is L’Arsenal in the emerging neighbourhood of Griffintown, showcasing temporary exhibits of emerging art, from sculpture to video installations. Equally outstanding are the museums devoted to Montréal and Canadian history; of these, the Musée McCord has a pristine collection of aboriginal artefacts, while the Musée d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de Montréal delivers a state-of-the-art presentation of archeological findings at the site of Montréal’s founding in 1642.