Photo Courtesy of Mononc' Paul
Montreal is shaped by its stirred-up history, the constant flow of immigrants, and a cultural identity crisis. Is it a French city with an English twist, or the other way around? Even after 400 years of quarreling, no one really knows. But to Montrealers, this dichotomy only adds substance to the ci…ty. Neighborhoods like Mile End and Petite-Patrie are artsy and homey, while the McGill Ghetto thrives as an international student community thanks to the city's five major universities. And of course there is Old Montreal, the one place in North America that could be mistaken for an ancient French village.
What to know before you go to Montreal
Its location far up the eastern coast of North America means this city is blessed with four very distinct seasons, each beautiful in its own way and with its own share of things to do (yes, even in the dead of winter, Montreal is alive with energy).
Montreal’s airport is about 30 minutes from the city center via bus (with free Wi-Fi) or taxi (the $40 flat fare from the airport gets you anywhere you need to go within downtown).
Renting a car in Montreal is not recommended, as traffic is awful and finding parking nearly impossible. But a bicycle-sharing system, Bixi—the first of its kind—is blessedly extensive. The public transit system, STM, with its reliable network of Métro and buses, is easy to navigate and quite cheap (a 3-day pass costs $18).
Skip the skyscrapers and high-end stores of downtown and head straight to Plateau Mont-Royal for artsy coffee shops, local designers, and delicious brasseries. This is one of the most picturesque neighborhoods in the city and definitely gives the best feel for Montreal's vibrant city life.
Montreal's world-famous restaurant scene really is as awesome as people say. From exotic hole-in-the-walls in Shaughnessy Village to the French bistros of Plateau Mont-Royal, and from eateries that redefine poutine and the fine dining experiences of downtown to ethnic foods from around the globe, locals will tell you to pack your eating pants because you will need them.
The massive Fine Arts Museum, with its touring exhibits and permanent collection of Canadian art, is the perennial favorite. And the whimsical Science Museum, in Old Montreal, offers fun stuff for kids and adults. Other popular highlights are the Contemporary Arts Museum, the Canadian Architecture Center, the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, and the McCord Museum.
Montreal could be called the festival capital of the world, with hundreds of festivals year-round, even during the cold months. The official season kicks off in June with Francofolies, a French music festival, and goes into fall, with Chinese Lanterns at the Botanical Gardens. Other notable events include Osheaga, Jazz Fest, Just for Laughs, the fireworks competition, and White Night. If you can, time your trip to catch a festival (or two).
Don't let weather extremes keep you from discovering the city; as locals say, there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Locals also know to never take a car—except to get outside the city, after rush hour. Montreal is very walkable, and your destination is most likely a quick Métro ride away. Also, do brush up on a few French phrases (Bonjour, Merci, S’il-vous-plaît). Many Montrealers really appreciate it when visitors acknowledge the city as French-speaking. You may be rewarded with warm smiles.
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Marie is a native Montrealer trying to balance a deep love for her hometown and an unquenchable thirst for travel and discovery. She has been to more than 20 countries, lived abroad in both France and the U.K., and is always on the lookout for authentic experiences wherever she travels—especially if it involves chocolate. She blogs at To Europe and Beyond.