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.
Montréal has a wide range of accommodation, from five-star palaces to moderately priced B&Bs to stylish hotels, rock-bottom hostels and university residences. Vieux-Montréal is easily one of the most popular neighbourhoods for bedding down, in large part because of the ever-growing number of boutique hotels, many housed in charming historical buildings, and offering the inviting combination of ancient facades and stone walls plus high-thread-count sheets and gourmet minibars. Downtown is very central, with easy access to most parts of the city, and features an extensive variety of accommodation, from big-name chain hotels to smaller but no less elegant properties. For cosy B&Bs, head to the Plateau neighbourhood, while the student-thronged Quartier Latin has a number of simple and cheap residences and hostels.
Bixi: pedal your way across Montréal
Montréal’s public bike system – the first launched in North America – features over 5000 self-service bikes available 24hr across the city at 450-plus stations, from April to November. Montréal researched similar bike programmes in other cities, including Paris and Barcelona, to emerge with the well-oiled, wonderfully accessible Bixi (w bixi.com; the name comes from “bike” plus “taxi”). Renting a bike is simple: at a Bixi stand (which are all solar-powered, and liberally scattered across the city), swipe your credit card and ride off. A 24hr access pass is $5; during that period, you can borrow bikes as often as you like, and the first 30min is free. Beyond that, you pay additional charges. A 72hr pass is $12. Also on offer are 30-day ($30) and one-year ($85) subscriptions.
Drinking and nightlife
Montréal has elevated joie de vivre to a high art – and nowhere more so than at the bars and clubs. The city’s nightlife keeps going strong into the small hours of the morning – bars are generally open until 3am. One of the liveliest after-dark areas is the bar-packed Plateau. Cutting a wide swath through the Plateau – and into the adjacent neighbourhood of Mile-End – is blvd St-Laurent, lined on both sides with an eclectic array of nightspots, from sleek lounges to dive bars. Downtown, the action centres on rue Crescent, while Vieux-Montréal is increasingly buzzing with new hotel lounges, restaurant-bars and breezy terraces. Also popular are the student-packed Quartier Latin bars and the nearby Village, heart of the gay scene. Griffintown is also establishing itself as an after-dark hangout, with an array of hip bars. For up-to-date listings, check out the English-language daily Montréal Gazette (w montrealgazette.com).
A culinary destination that rivals the gourmet capitals of the world, Montréal is said to have the highest number of restaurants per capita in North America after New York City. It was Toqué – helmed by master chef Normand Laprise – that catapulted the city to the top culinary ranks, and since then numerous home-grown chefs have captured the world’s attention, from Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon to Guillaume Cantin, who took over the reins at Les 400 Coups.
Montréal’s ethnic diversity is amply displayed by the variety of cuisines available. The city has its own Chinatown just north of Vieux-Montréal, a Little Italy around Jean-Talon Métro (near the excellent Jean-Talon market; w marchespublics-mtl.com) and a Greek community whose cheaper restaurants are concentrated along Prince Arthur; for more traditional Greek cuisine, head further north along avenue du Parc.
Most prominent of the international restaurants are the Eastern European establishments dotted around the city. Opened by Jewish immigrants, their speciality is smoked meat, served between huge chunks of rye bread with pickles on the side. Another Montréal speciality is poutine, fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds, generally served in diners and snack joints. Montréal comes a close second to New York as the bagel capital of the world; they’re sold everywhere from grimy outlets to stylish cafés. Montréal’s coffee scene has always been robust, but a new wave of coffee shops is bringing even more innovative variety to the caffeinated city. The city has also long embraced the concept of apportez votre vin (“bring your own wine”), with a wide variety of lively “BYOW” restaurants.
Montréal’s gleaming entertainment quarter, the Quartier des Spectacles, is the hub of the city’s performing arts scene. The world-famous Cirque du Soleil (w cirquedusoleil.com) is headquartered in Montréal, and though it doesn’t feature a permanent show, the circus generally performs in late spring and early summer in the Vieux-Port, where it erects its famous blue-and-yellow tents. Montréal also has numerous excellent dance troupes, from Les Grands Ballets Canadiens (w grandsballets.qc.ca) and Les Ballets Jazz de Montréal (w bjmdanse.ca) to the avant-garde La La La Human Steps (w lalalahumansteps.com). For cinema check in the Montréal Gazette for show times; English films are indicated by v.o. (version originale), not v.f. (version français), which means it’s dubbed.
In many cities, festivals are special occasions; in Montréal, they’re a way of life. In the summer, especially, the city explodes with festivals, many taking place in the gleaming entertainment quarter, Quartier des Spectacles. For festival news and updates, consult the excellent w tourism-montreal.org. You can buy festival tickets via a variety of sources, including the festival websites (worth checking frequently for special deals); La Vitrine Culturelle, the Quartier des Spectacles’ central info and ticket centre; and Admission, a division of TicketMaster (t 514 790 1245, t 1 800 361 4595, w admission.com). The world-renowned Cirque du Soleil (w cirquedusoleil.com), based in Montréal, regularly puts on shows. Here’s a selective list of the best events:
Fête des Neiges de Montréal Late Jan w fetedesneiges.com. Île Ste-Hélène hosts ice-sculpting and general seasonal carousing.
Vues d’Afrique Late April w vuesdafrique.org. Brings a rich variety of African and Caribbean films to Montréal.
International Fireworks Competition Throughout June and July w international
desfeuxloto-quebec.com. The most visually spectacular of the city’s shindigs, featuring breathtaking, music-coordinated pyrotechnics from countries around the globe at the La Ronde amusement park on Île Sainte-Hélène.
Francofolies Mid-June w francofolies.com. Dance to international tunes at this festival, which brings French musicians from around the world to various downtown stages.
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal Late June and early July w montrealjazzfest.com. North America’s largest jazz event, with more than four hundred shows, most of them free at huge open-air stages in the Quartier des Spectacles.
Montréal First Peoples’ Festival Generally in July w nativelynx.qc.ca. A lively event celebrating Aboriginal peoples’ history and featuring traditional activities, from throat-singing to stonecutting.
Juste pour Rire (“Just For Laughs”) Mid-July w hahaha.com. The world’s largest comedy festival, with past headliners including Tim Allen, Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, Rowan Atkinson, Jim Carrey, John Candy, Lily Tomlin and Whoopi Goldberg.
Festival International Nuits d’Afrique July w festivalnuitsdafrique.com. The sounds of African beats fill the city to full effect.
Griffintown: from factories to fashion
Griffintown is a neighbourhood on the rise. This gritty wedge in the southwest of Montréal was once the domain of Irish labourers; in 2012, Montréal Fashion Week (wmontrealfashionweek.ca) moved in, and is now held here every spring and autumn. Griffintown is also swelling with new restaurants, bars and hotels, as well as the massive arts centre L’Arsenal (2020 rue William; t 514 931 9978, w arsenalmontreal.com), housed in a former shipyard. Griffintown, which rubs up against another emerging neighbourhood, Little Burgundy, lies a little over 1km west of Vieux-Montréal; one of the most enjoyable ways to reach it is by walking or biking along the Lachine Canal from the Vieux-Port. Explore by sauntering the streets, including rue Notre-Dame, dubbed the Quartier des Antiquaires, for all its antiques and vintage shops.
Montréal has an excellent LGBT scene, with the action concentrated in the area known as The Village – roughly located on rue Ste-Catherine est between rue Amherst and the Papineau Métro station. Fugues (wfugues.com) is one of the city’s main monthly French gay and lesbian magazines and websites. In early August, Divers Cité (wdiverscite.org), the gay and lesbian pride parade, is the event of the year, while in October the massive Black & Blue circuit party (wbbcm.org) is one of the city’s – if not Canada’s – biggest and wildest gay parties.
Most of the restaurants and hangouts in The Village cater to an LGBT crowd in the evening, but are more mixed during the day.
Parc Olympique and Espace pour la vie
The Parc Olympique lies east of the city, an easy hop on the Métro to either Pie-IX (pronounced “pee-nuhf”) or Viau, or a twenty-minute drive on rue Sherbrooke. The Parc encompasses several main sights, including the striking Stade Olympique and the sprawling Espace pour la vie (Space for Life) complex, which includes the lush Jardin Botanique, the environmental centre Biodôme and the Planétarium Rio Tinto.
The Parc Olympique’s main attraction, the Stade Olympique, is known by Montréalers as the “Big O” for several reasons: its name, its circular shape and the fact that it took the city thirty years to pay for it. The main facilities for the 1976 Summer Olympics were designed by Roger Taillibert, who was told money was no object. The complex ended up costing $1.4 billion (over $2 billion with subsequent interest and maintenance) – and it was not even completed in time for the games. After the Olympics, it was used sporadically, and in a continuing attempt to pay off debts, the schedule featured everything from football to trade shows. But, the area around the stadium is being improved, most notably with the esplanade at the western end. Once relatively overlooked, the esplanade is being transformed into an urban park and user-friendly public space, with a surprisingly varied series of events, particularly in the summer, and a weekly gathering of the city’s best food trucks. The highest inclined tower in the world, the stadium’s 175m tower was erected to hold a retractable 65-tonne roof, but the retraction process never really worked properly. The main attraction here is the funicular that takes you up the tower to an observation deck with 60km views and an exhibition of historic photos of Montréal. Also here is the Centre sportif (Sports Centre), with five pools, from a water-polo pool to a diving pool, along with two smaller ones for kids. You can also visit the Stadium and Sports Centre on daily guided tours.
Rio Tinto Planetarium
In 2013, the Rio Tinto Planetarium celebrated its splashy opening, unveiling not one but two state-of-the-art circular theatres. The permanent exhibit, EXO, Our Search for Life in the Universe, is filled with kid-friendly interactive displays on everything from space exploration to mighty meteorites.
Biodôme de Montréal
The Biodôme de Montréal, housed in a building shaped like a bicycle helmet, started life as the Olympic velodrome. Now it is a stunning environmental museum comprising a variety of ecosystems: tropical, Laurentian forest, St Lawrence maritime, Labrador coast and polar. You can wander freely through the different zones, which are planted with appropriate flourishing vegetation and inhabited by the relevant birds, animals and marine life. It’s both entertaining and educational, for kids and adults alike.
The grounds and greenhouses of the Jardin Botanique contain some thirty types of garden, from medicinal herbs to orchids. Highlights include a Japanese garden, its ponds of water lilies bordered by greenish sculptured stone and crossed by delicate bridges, while the nearby Chinese garden is especially resplendent during the autumn lantern festival. Also popular are the well-curated temporary exhibits. The bug-shaped Insectarium forms part of the same complex and features insects of every shape and size, from brightly coloured butterflies to ink-black, fuzzy spiders.
This soaring aerial adventure park – the first of its kind in North America – offers a wide range of high-altitude acrobatic attractions, with gorgeous views of Montréal to boot. Among the highlights are an aerial obstacle course, zip lines and a junior acrobatics area.
The lively, historical, and culturally rich neighbourhood of Plateau Mont-Royal is an absorbing jumble of sights, sounds and smells, filled with delis, bars, nightclubs, cafés and bookshops, and an ever-growing number of trendy boutiques. Traditionally, boulevard St-Laurent divided the English in the west from the French in the east of the city. Montréal’s immigrants, first Russian Jews, then Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, East Europeans and, more recently, Latin Americans, settled in the middle and, though many prospered enough to move on, the area around The Main is still a cultural mix where neither of the two official languages dominates.
Wandering north from rue Sherbrooke on The Main, you’ll pass through the strip’s flashiest block, filled with see-and-be-seen restaurants and clubs, before arriving at one of Montréal’s few pedestrianized streets, rue Prince-Arthur, thronged with buskers and caricaturists in the summer. Its eastern end leads to the beautiful fountained and statued Square St-Louis, the city’s finest public square. Designed in 1876, the square was originally the domain of bourgeois Montréalers, and the magnificent houses were subsequently occupied by artists, poets and writers. The east side of the square divides the lower and upper areas of rue St-Denis.
A major north–south artery, rue St-Denis is the traditional francophone strip of Montréal, lined with bars, clubs, cafés, restaurants and eclectic shops. The Quartier Latin, which covers the part of rue St-Denis that leads south from rue Sherbrooke to rue Ste-Catherine, is the traditional student quarter, colonized by terrace cafés and bars crammed with students from the nearby Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) well into the early hours. By contrast, the Plateau stretch of rue St-Denis north of Square St-Louis is the stomping ground of the stylish set, with boutiques and restaurants to match.
Parc du Mont-Royal
Little more than a hill to most tourists but a mountain to Montréalers, Mont Royal reaches just 233m but its two square kilometres of greenery are visible from almost anywhere in the city. Mont Royal holds a special place in the history of the city – it was here that the Iroquois established their settlement and that Maisonneuve declared the island to be French – but for centuries the mountain was privately owned. Then, during an especially bitter winter, one of the inhabitants cut down his trees for extra firewood. Montréalers were outraged at the desecration, and in 1875 the city bought the land for the impressive sum of $1 million. Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, was hired to landscape the hill, which now provides 56km of jogging paths and 20km of skiing trails to keep city inhabitants happy year-round.
The city has steadfastly refused any commercial developments on this lucrative site, the only construction being Lac aux Castors, built in the 1930s as a work-creation scheme for the unemployed; it now serves as a skating rink in the winter and pedal-boat playground in the summer. In the 1950s, protection of the mountain reached a puritanical extreme when a local journalist revealed young couples were using the area for amatory pursuits and, even worse, that people were openly drinking alcohol. Consequently all of the underbrush was uprooted, which only succeeded in killing off much of the ash, birch, maple, oak and pine trees. Within five years Mont Royal was dubbed “Bald Mountain” and a replanting campaign had to be instigated.
Severed from downtown by the Autoroute Ville-Marie, the gracious district of Vieux-Montréal was left to decay until the early 1960s, when developers started to step in with generally tasteful renovations that brought colour and vitality back to the area. North America’s greatest concentration of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings has its fair share of tourists, but it’s popular with Montréalers, too – formerly as a symbolic place to air francophone grievances; more recently as a spot to check out the buskers on Place Jacques-Cartier, take in the historic monuments and roam the port’s waterfront.
The focal point of Vieux-Montréal is Place d’Armes, its centre occupied by a century-old statue of Maisonneuve, whose missionary zeal raised the wrath of the displaced Iroquois. The mutt that you see represents the animal who warned the French of an impending attack in 1644; legend says the ensuing battle ended when the supposedly unarmed Maisonneuve killed the Iroquois chief on this very spot. Place d’Armes is the most central Métro station, although Square-Victoria or Champ-de-Mars are handier for the western and eastern ends of the district.
The twin-towered, neo-Gothic Basilique Notre-Dame, the cathedral of the Catholic faithful since 1829, looms over Place d’Armes. Its architect, the Protestant Irish-American James O’Donnell, was so inspired by his creation that he converted to Catholicism in order to be buried under the church. The western tower, named Temperance, holds the ten-tonne Jean-Baptiste bell, whose booming could once be heard 25km away. The breathtaking gilt and sky-blue interior, flooded with light from three rose windows unusually set in the ceiling, and flickering with multicoloured votive candles, was designed by Montréal architect Victor Bourgeau. Most notable of the detailed furnishings are Louis-Philippe Hébert’s fine wooden carvings of the prophets on the pulpit and the awe-inspiring main altar by French sculptor Bouriché. Imported from Limoges in France, the stained-glass windows depict the founding of Ville-Marie. Behind the main altar is the Chapelle Sacré-Coeur, destroyed by a serious fire in 1978 but rebuilt with an impressive modern bronze reredos by Charles Daudelin. Time your visit for the 35-minute “And then there was light” son et lumière (sound and light) show, offering the chance to see the architectural details artfully lit up.
Five terrific water tours
When you’re in the urban centre of Montréal, it can be easy to forget that it is, in fact, an island. One of the best ways to remind yourself is by taking to the waters. The Vieux-Port is the major departure point for various boat trips.
Amphi-bus Corner of rue de la Commune and blvd St-Laurent t 514 849 5181, w montreal-amphibus-tour.com; four to ten departures daily May–Oct; 1hr–1hr 30min; $35. A bus that trundles through the city and then morphs into a boat on entering the river.
Bateau-Mouche Quai Jacques-Quartier t 514 849 9952, t 1 800 361 9952, w bateau-mouche.ca; up to five daily departures mid-May to mid-Oct; 1hr–1hr 30min; $25–130. Meandering river cruises in glass-topped vessels, with sunrise breakfast cruises and gourmet dinner cruises also available.
Croisières AML Quai King-Edward t 1 866 856 6668, w croisieresaml.com; daily departures mid-May to mid-Oct; brunch cruise 1hr 30min, $53; buffet dinner and fireworks 4hr, $119. This family-run company offers a variety of comfortable and informative cruises on the river.
Le Petit Navire Quai Jacques-Cartier t 514 602 1000, w lepetitnavire.ca; daily departures mid-May to mid-Oct; 45min; $19.50. Ecofriendly, electric-powered boats for short tours around the Vieux-Port, with special trips during the annual International Fireworks Competition (1hr 30min; $40).
Saute-Moutons Quai de l’Horloge t 514 284 9607, w jetboatingmontreal.com; daily departures May–Sept; 1hr; $67. Get wet in the Lachine Rapids on these exciting jet-boat trips. Also on offer are shorter speedboat trips (which don’t go into the rapids) for $26. Check website for discount coupons.