It may be Canada that stamps your passport when you arrive in Montreal, but at your first glimpse of the city's cobblestone streets, sunny sidewalk cafes and wrought-iron balcony railings, you'll feel as though you've been whisked off to Europe. From the French street signs to the high fashion of its upscale boutiques to the joyful elan of its people, Montreal feels more like Paris than like a major North American metropolis. But of course it's the latter too -- it's Canada's second-largest city, home not only to its French-speaking majority but also to native English speakers and immigrants from all over the world.
Montreal balances its opposing forces gracefully, maintaining its historic old town area just across the St. Lawrence River from the innovative geometric architecture of Habitat 67, a modern experimental housing development. The towering office buildings in Montreal's downtown core reach for the sky alongside Mont-Royal, the gentle mountain whose acres of parkland provide quiet respite just a few blocks from the city's energetic commercial district.
Montreal's contradictions don't always sit so smoothly -- the political and cultural differences between the French province of Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canada have caused quite a bit of tension over the years. Montreal was founded by French Catholic settlers in 1642 as Ville-Marie and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The small colony survived years of harsh winter weather and bloody skirmishes with local Iroquois tribes only to be taken over, along with the rest of French Canada, by the British following the French and Indian War. Despite the British occupation, the present-day province of Quebec has staunchly maintained its French language and culture, leading to some 20th-century efforts to make the province its own sovereign nation. (In a 1995 referendum, voters narrowly elected not to secede by a one-percent margin.) But despite this recent controversy, Montreal is a safe, friendly city, welcoming visitors of all languages and cultures with its signature charm and style.
Montreal Quick Facts
The grand and ornate Basilique Notre-Dame-De-Montreal (116 rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 866-842-2925), an early 19th-century cathedral, boasts 228-foot twin towers and one of North America's biggest bells. Inside are intricate wooden carvings, a magnificent organ with more than 7,000 pipes and a brilliant blue ceiling strewn with gold stars.
Vieux-Montreal, or Old Montreal (www.oldmontreal.com), was home to the city's first European settlers, who arrived in the mid 17th century. Many of the homes and buildings have been restored and the old city has wonderful boutiques, sidewalk cafes and street performers; the center of the action is Place Jacques-Cartier, a pedestrian mall. Nearby, Vieux Port (www.oldportofmontreal.com) is one of Montreal's best-loved recreation spots; this waterfront park is a terrific place to take a stroll or sign up for rafting expeditions and harbor cruises. You can even rent bicycles and in-line skates.
Bike, walk or even take a horse-drawn carriage ride through Parc du Mont-Royal (www.lemontroyal.qc.ca). Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York's Central Park fame), it's comprised of early 500 acres of forest and winding paths, and lies atop the mountain in the heart of Montreal. On the way down from the mountain, stop by St. Joseph's Oratory (3800 chemin Queen Mary, www.saint-joseph.org), a massive domed shrine to Canada's patron saint.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, 514-285-2000, www.mmfa.qc.ca) is the city's premier repository of art representing numerous eras and styles, from 19th-century European masterpieces to Native American and Inuit artifacts.
French -- but most Montrealers speak at least some English.
On Foot: Once you get out of the immediate port area, Montreal is a very walkable city.
Taxis: Line up at the dock. Major companies include Taxi Diamond (www.taxidiamond.com) and Taxi Coop (www.taxi-coop.com).
Public Transportation: To get around the city like the locals, ride the sleek Metro, with its clearly marked signs. While you're waiting for your train, check out the colorful murals on the walls -- no two stations are alike. Both the Metro and the public bus service are run by the Societe de Transport de Montreal (STM); the fare for either form of transport is $2.50 CAD for one ride and $11.25 CAD for six. If you plan on traveling frequently, try a tourist pass: $8 CAD for one day, $16 CAD for three. (Info: www.stm.info)
Renting a Car: Hertz (800-263-0600, www.hertz.com), Avis (800-321-3652, www.avis.com) and National (514-636-9090, www.nationalcar.com) have agencies located downtown as well as at the airport.
Renting a Bike: When the weather is warm, Montrealers head outside to take advantage of their city's nearly 400 miles of bike paths. Bikes can be rented from VeloMontreal (www.velomontreal.com). Rates start at $15 CAD adult, $10 CAD child for two hours, $20/$15 for four hours, $25/$18 for a day and $30/$20 for 24 hours.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Iberville Passenger Terminal, just steps away from the Montreal's portside attractions and the old town.
Staying in Touch
Net 24, 2157 Rue MacKay, 514-575-4777
Netopi@, 1737 Rue St-Denis, 514-286-5446
Intertainment Cafe, 1425 Rene-Levesque W., 514-788-8008
Julien (1191 rue Union, 514-871-1581), located in the heart of downtown, is a bustling favorite of Montrealers who come for its delicious steak with shallots -- though the lobster salad is another tasty choice.
Modavie (1 rue St-Paul Ouest, 514-287-9582, www.modavie.com) offers mouth-watering Mediterranean cuisine in a beautiful setting overlooking the waterfront and the cobblestone streets of Old Town. Be sure to sample the well-stocked wine bar.
The Stash Cafe (200 rue St-Paul Ouest, 514-845-6611, www.stashcafe.com) is a Polish restaurant tucked away in Montreal's Old Town. It's a perfect spot for a warm and hearty lunch when there's an autumn nip in the air outside. Try the pierogi or the golabki (cabbage rolls with potatoes and vegetables).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Canadian dollar. The current exchange rate is about $1 US = $1.27 CAD. (Check www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for up-to-date information.) ATM's are everywhere.
Montreal's cruise terminal is within walking distance of Old Montreal, the city's charming historic district. Do some shopping at the Marche Bonsecours, enjoy lunch along Place Jacques-Cartier or simply soak up the atmosphere as you wander the cobblestone streets. Or you can stick around the port area; attractions there include a science center, an IMAX theater and a clock tower you can climb for great views of the city. If you're feeling more adventurous, take a jet boat ride along the St. Lawrence River (www.jetboatingmontreal.com).
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