Bienvenue à Montréal! Now that's hospitality with a distinctly French flavor - and what could be more appropriate for the second largest French-speaking metropolis in the world? But French is only one of 35 or so languages you will hear on the streets of this international island city of 1.6 million inhabitants (more than 3.6 million if you include the suburban neighborhoods).
Demographics show that Montreal residents come from 80 countries, forming an urban mosaic of vibrant ethnic communities and neighborhoods safe to walk in day or night. Visitors will detect a distinct British influence in parts of the city, inherent in the culture since the days when English merchants controlled the city's trade. All in all, it's easy to see why "cosmopolitan" is the adjective most used in describing Montreal.
Characteristically, there'is the famous joie de vivre - the ineffable combination of spirit and ambiance Montrealers exude without even trying. You will see it in the summertime cappuccino-sippers cramming sidewalk cafés; in the long lines outside Schwartz's, home to the city's best smoked meat; and in the lovers holding hands on Mount Royal, the city's parkland mountain rising 264 meters (866 feet). The same spirit can even be felt on an outdoor skating rink in the dead of winter, in the tuxedoed crowd listening raptly to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Orchestre symphonique de Montréal), or when hockey fanatics at the Bell Centre scream and pump their fists in unison with every Montreal Canadiens goal.
What makes Montreal one of the world's truly great cities? It starts with its location. The island sits at the confluence of three rivers: the mighty St. Lawrence, the Rivière des Prairies and the Ottawa. Montrealers describe their streets as going north-south and east-west, but the island itself is askew, tilted to the northeast.
The Main (La Main)
Splitting the city in half, both physically and psychologically, is Saint Laurent Boulevard - The Main, as it is affectionately known. It is here where waves of immigrants first settled upon their arrival in the New World. Reminders of the past still abound in family-run Polish delis tucked beside upscale restaurants and in dollar stores located next door to swank billiard emporiums. This is ground zero for the city's addresses (streets number east and west from St-Laurent) and, historically, this was the demarcation line between English and French Montreal, with the French predominating to the east and the English to the west.
These days, the dividing line is no longer completely rigid, but there are still distinct English and French areas. You will find the English restaurant and bar scene concentrated on Bishop Street and Crescent Street; the French on St-Denis Street and areas east in the Latin Quarter (Quartier Latin) and Gay Village. The traditional French residential areas are tightly packed districts that stretch all the way to the Olympic Park (Parc Olympique) and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; English becomes more noticeable as you move west, culminating in the affluent suburb of Westmount.
Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal)
At the southern end of St-Laurent Boulevard, past, lies the historic district of Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal), a major tourist attraction with its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn calèche rides and Old Port (Vieux-Port) activities. This is where, in 1642, the city's first European settlers staked their claim to a land they thought was theirs by divine right. You can still see the remnants of their original fortifications, and you can check out artifacts from the period at the Montreal History Centre (Centre d'histoire de Montréal) as well as the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of archaeology and history. Also found here are the oldest buildings in Montreal, with some, such as the Sainte-Sulpice Seminary (Vieux Séminaire Saint-Sulpice), dating back to the late 17th Century.
Across the St-Lawrence River, the Expo 67 islands of Ste-Hélène and Notre-Dame still glitter from when Montreal hosted the World's Fair in 1967. Today the site is home to La Ronde amusement park, the Gilles Villeneuve Racetrack (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve) and Montreal's world-class Casino.
On the other end of The Main is the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, unusual in that it encompasses both ethnic shops and restaurants on Parc Avenue as well as the hip Francophone crowd along St-Denis Street. This is Canada's most densely populated area, and its smaller streets, with their winding staircases and small BYOW (bring your own wine) restaurants, remain a picture of true Montreal life.
Little Italy (Petite Italie)
Just a little further north and you will hear Italian spoken on Montreal's streets over in the city's own Little Italy, the original home of the first Italian immigrants and now one of the liveliest areas in the city with its espresso bars, boutiques and authentic Italian cuisine.
Underground City (RÉSO)
No visit to Montreal is complete without a visit to the Underground City - Montreal-above-ground has been described as the tip of the urban iceberg. Beneath it lies the world's most extensive system of interconnected pedestrian and Metro (subway) networks, linking buildings, boutiques, restaurants and even residential apartments. You could spend an entire winter in this subterranean city without ever once having to face the cold or snow.
The Metro system itself has lines running east-west and north-south (albeit, askew) to just about every part of the city. While you are down there, check out the 68 architecturally unique stations, each created by a different designer.