You’ll never want to leave

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“It is a place not to be forgotten or mixed up in the mind with other places, or altered for a moment in the crowd of scenes a traveller can recall”, said the novelist Charles Dickens, of Montreal. Dickens may have been talking about the Victorian era Montreal, but over 140 years after his death, the same can still be said of Canada’s second-largest city.

Montreal is the largest city in the province of Quebec and whilst Quebec City is the political capital, Montreal remains the cultural and economic capital of Quebec and the main entry point to the province located in the south-east of Canada. It’s a city rich in culture and history and is often talked about for its style and reputation as one of the liveliest cities in North America. But, beware – Montreal has two faces. Icy winters see the temperature plummet to an average high of −5°C (23°F), with the season bringing cold, snowy and windy weather. However, if you can endure that, summer is when Montreal really comes alive, with temperatures rising to 26°C (79°F) and the city transforms into an extended social festival, in different shapes and forms, from week to week.

Said one African traveller: “A friend and I flew to Canada when we were just 23 with grand plans to travel for three months across the country and see all the sights – the Atlantic Provinces, the Rockies, and everything else you associate with Canada. But we made the huge mistake of landing in Montreal in the summer. We had far too much fun and blew most of our travel money, because Montreal in the summer is really a party city”.  

Culture

“Montreal is a truly wonderful city to visit, especially during the summer months when one festival follows another and life takes place outdoors,” says Adèle Dion, Canadian High Commissioner to South Africa. Dion is not far wrong, with a host of cultural events lighting up the social calendar in the summer months.

Another Dion with fond memories of Montreal is the celebrated pop singer Celine Dion. She was born just outside the city in Charlemagne, spent the majority of her youth and early adulthood in Montreal and married husband Rene Angelil in the Notre-Dame Basilica.

Another world-renowned act from Montreal is the Canadian entertainment company and self-proclaimed ‘dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment’, Cirque du Soleil. The company is based in Montreal, in the inner-city area of Saint-Michel, after being founded in 1984 by street performers, Guy Laliberte and Daniel Gauthier.

The city is also well-known for the legendary Montreal International Jazz Festival, which takes place in late June and early July and this year had a little bit of an African flavour, with South African band Freshlyground invited to perform. Montreal’s African ties don’t end there, with the annual staging of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, which brings together musicians from Africa and Latin America every July. Other events to look forward to include the Montreal World Film Festival (August), Les FrancoFolies (French-language music festival – late July), Pop Montreal (towards the end of September), the Montreal Fireworks Festival (late June) and the Just for Laughs comedy festival – the city’s largest festival and one that has earned a reputation as one of the top comedy festivals in the world. Not to be left out of any Montreal cultural discussion is the Place des Arts – the cultural heart of classical art and the venue for many of the summer festivals. It’s a complex of different concert and theatre halls surrounding a large square in the eastern portion of downtown and harbours the headquarters of one of the world’s foremost orchestras – the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

With approximately 60% of the population speaking French at home, Montreal is Canada’s centre for French language television productions, radio, theatre, film, multimedia and print publishing. “Like many cities in Canada, Montreal is a hub of ethnic and cultural diversity,” says Dion. “This is also where the bilingualism of Canada is most prominent, where conversations switch from French to English and vice-versa in the same breath.”

Food

Montreal is regarded as a culinary destination to remember and has a huge variety of food options, from diners and fast food to low-cost ethnic restaurants to haute cuisine. The city was recently ranked second-best dining city in North America, after San Francisco and ahead of New York. “It’s regarded as the gastronomic capital of the country and due to its ethnically diverse population, authentic cuisines from across the world can be savoured there,” says Dion. Montreal specialties include the smoked meat sandwich, ‘all-dressed’ pizza (pepperoni, mushrooms and green peppers), pizza and spaghetti with smoked meat, and Quebecois favorites like split pea soup and poutine (see below).

Many Montreal restaurants are ‘apportez votre vin’ (bring your own wine). This helps reduce the cost of dining, as you end up paying much less for wine with dinner if you bring it yourself. Corkage fees are rare, but don’t forget to factor this service into your tip, and be sure to ask.

Montreal claims to have the most restaurants per capita in North America and as another option, there are delis, bakeries and diners galore, with the city offering great budget dining. Venues are scattered all over the city, but the largest concentration of restaurants is along rues Saint-Laurent and Saint-Denis, and in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal.

Sport

If you say ‘sport’ in Canada, you’re bound to generate a discussion on ice hockey, but throw that word around in Montreal and you can multiply that tenfold, when it comes to the Montreal Canadiens (or ‘Habs’, as they are known locally). Montreal’s hockey team have won the Stanley Cup 24 times – more than any other team in the National Hockey League and they are one of the original six teams that started the NHL. Other sports definitely play second fiddle to hockey and the Canadiens, but the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve does host the annual Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix. Montreal also boasts a Canadian Football League team in the form of the Alouettes and soccer and rugby union are played in the city, but beyond that, the only sporting events of note are the two international (ATP and WTA) tennis events, in the guise of the Rogers Cup. Montreal’s sporting pedigree is complete with mention of its place in history as the host city of the 1976 Summer Olympics.

Other Attractions

Old Montreal is a historic area located south-east of downtown, containing many different attractions such as the Old Port of Montreal, Place Jacques-Cartier, Montreal City Hall, the Bonsecours Market, Place d’Armes, Pointe-à-Callière Museum (archaeology and history), Notre-Dame Basilica and the Montreal Science Centre.

As one of the older cities in Canada, the architecture is worth taking in. For over a century and a half, Montreal was the industrial and financial centre of Canada. The variety of buildings included factories, warehouses, mills and refineries, which today provide a legacy of historic and architectural interest, especially in the downtown area and the Old Port area. Montreal is also renowned for its churches, with Mark Twain once commenting that “this is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.”

Mount Royal is a mountain immediately north of the downtown area and is the site of Mount Royal Park, one of Montreal’s largest green spaces. Features of the park include Beaver Lake, a short ski slope, a sculpture garden and an interpretive centre. The park also hosts athletic, tourist, and cultural activities.

Montreal is also well-known for its nightlife and there are three main strips for bar-hopping. Rue Crescent, in the western part of downtown, caters mostly to Anglophones and tourists. It tends to be trendy and expensive. On the edge of the bar-heavy Plateau, Boulevard Saint-Laurent gets extremely busy when students are in town. Between rue Sherbrooke and avenue des Pins you’ll find trendy clubs and bars with more of a Francophone clientele. Further up St-Laurent, it’s relatively downscale and linguistically mixed. Rue Saint-Denis, between rue Sherbrooke and de Maisonneuve, is the strip with the strongest Francophone feel. There are also many good bars away from the main strips.

City Statistics

Motto: ‘Concordia Salus’ (well-being through harmony)
Location: In the South-East of Canada
Province: Quebec
Population: 1.62 million
Website: www.ville.montreal.qc.ca

Did You Know?

Second-largest French-speaking city in world, after Paris
Seventh-largest city in North America
Ranked second-best dining city in North America
Named a UNESCO ‘City of Design’
Port of Montreal is world’s largest inland port

Poutine

No visit to Montreal is complete without at least one plate of ‘poutine’ (possibly from a French word meaning ‘mess’). This unique dish is a plate of French fries drowned in gravy and topped with chewy curds of white cheddar. There are variations on the theme — adding chicken, beef, vegetables, or sausage, or replacing the gravy with tomato sauce (‘poutine italienne’). Every Montrealer has their favourite poutine restaurant, where it says that you can get ‘the real stuff’, but La Banquise, on the Plateau at 994 rue Rachel est, usually tops the list.