Visiting Montréal: A Personal View
Marc Bourdeau, Montréal Chapter of the ASA
The city of Montréal is one of the most popular cities for visitors in North America. Whether visiting Montréal for business or pleasure, you will find amazing sights and attractions with wonderful events and entertainment, even in the heart of summer. Montréal is a great food and dining city, and Québec designers and artists provide ample food for thought and wonderment …
By the way, you must know that Montréal has an incredible choice of small hotels, many of them in the Quartier Latin (near the Berri-Uquàm métro station and on Sherbrooke Street East) and all officially classified by the Ministère du Tourisme (see the signs on their front side). Some display the charm of old houses.
As you probably know, Montréal (notice the accent—the French touch) is a city mainly functioning in French, but English-speaking visitors have no problem at all. English is spoken everywhere, and the websites you find through a Google search will, by and large, have English translations of their pages.
Montréal (see Wikipedia for historical details) was founded in 1642 by French settlers headed by Paul Chomedy de Maisonneuve, who had the mystical plan to Christianize the so-called American Indians. Montréal is situated on a large island where the Saint Lawrence River—the Giant River as it is called in the Province of Québec—is narrow and controls the boat traffic on the river. Montréal rapidly became the commercial hub of the region and became the cultural capital of the province over the last half of the 20th century.
Actually, the island of Montréal is the largest of an archipelago, the Archipel de Hochelaga, comprising more than 200 islands. The largest of these accompanying islands, the Île Sainte-Hélène, was the main ground for Expo67, a World’s Fair, where one can find several nice walks with sensational views on the city, especially in the sweet summer evenings. One also can find the Casino de Montréal, located in the former Expo67’s spectacular French Pavilion. By the way, the restaurant in the Casino is renowned.
The Old City of Montréal has kept its architecture, essentially from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is very lively, and the nearby Old Port provides ample space for wonderful escapes from the surrounding hustle and bustle. If one of the numerous shows of the Cirque du Soleil is in town, you will find it there, and it is an absolute must. Each and every one is a treat for the whole family.
In the Old Port, you can walk through Rue Saint-Paul and admire its interesting arts and designer’s shops. While there, why not take a rest with a cup of tea or glass of wine and a little something to eat in the beautiful bar-restaurant of the Hôtel Nelligan (106, Rue Saint-Paul ouest)?
Right in the center of the island of Montréal, one can find the Mont-Royal—the name of Montréal comes from this—given in 1535 by the ‘discoverer’ of Montréal, Jacques Cartier, who also was the first European (except for some Scandinavians and fishermen from Brittany who left just a few traces but no settlement) to explore the St. Lawrence River. Montréal had to wait a century for its official foundation.
The Mont-Royal is a small mountain (230m), the remnant of a volcano, that provides numerous walks and unforgettable views of the city. You can get to it by hiking one of the numerous trails, especially from the downtown area and McGill campus. From the trails all around the top of the Mont-Royal, you will notice several other old and dead volcanoes. Beaver Lake, on the Mont-Royal’s summit, is refreshing on summer evenings.
Another outstanding visit is the Olympic Stadium (Métro: Pie-IX). The tower of the stadium gives a general view of the city, but more interesting seems to be the Montréal Biodôme, with a display of five ecosystems of America.
Right across Sherbrooke Street, on the northwest side of the Biodôme, you will find one of the great botanical gardens of North America. On its grounds is the spectacular Montréal Insectarium, which, just by itself, is worth a visit.
On Sherbrooke Street West, you will find high-brow shops close to the Musée des Beaux Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) and Musée McCord, maybe the most interesting museum in Montréal. In the Old Port, the historical Musée de la Pointe à Callière is worth a visit.
Montréal is a safe city, mostly due to strict arms control laws and a generous social system. In every neighborhood, there are parks, some of them quite old, with free swimming pools. Little coffee shops, and even restaurants, dot their borders.
The Parc Lafontaine provides a nice stopover, with a restaurant in its chalet. Nearby is a théâtre de verdure (outside theater), with many shows offered during the summer, including a version of “Shakespeare in the Park” in the original English.
Montréal is a world-class city for food and gastronomy. You can trust most of the ‘decent’ restaurants (excluding the fast food joints that can be found the world over). And the menus and prices are on their doorsteps. Beware: Some of the more popular restaurants need reservations long in advance.
A distinctive feature of Montréal’s architecture is its outside staircases, a remnant of the past when taxation rates were higher for buildings with inside staircases. They can be seen in all the districts situated in the so-called eastern part of the island. For instance, walk up or down the small side streets (NW-SE direction) off the Mont-Royal métro station on the Avenue du Mont-Royal. The so-called Plateau Mont-Royal is now one the more fashionable gentrified neighborhoods, with colored brick houses and little arts and crafts shops on the cross streets.
You will find back alleys between houses’ backyards—another distinctive Montréal attraction—between adjacent side streets in many districts in the eastern part of the city. Do not hesitate to take long walks through these back alleys, usually in the NW-SE directions, and wonder at some of the gardens or catch a glimpse of the inside décor of renovated houses.
Bicycles are everywhere. It is possible to rent bicycles by the day for a modest amount via the Bixi (Bikes & Taxi) System as long as you have a credit card with a chip and PIN. You will notice the Bixi parking ‘lots’ on many street corners, which are convenient for tourists. You can get rapidly and comfortably around Montréal, and even some suburbs. There is a wonderful set of bike lanes throughout the city, and many bike shops also will rent bicycles by the day.
The métro system (subway) is fairly extended, and the bus network—with frequent schedules for most of them—is convenient. The schedules can be found with your cell phone (the phone numbers are on the bus signs) or somewhere near the bus stop. You can get daily passes or single tickets from the accommodation stores or métro stations. Normally, money cannot be used for the bus rides, but this is negotiable with the bus drivers, who are nice to tourists.
If you are planning a longer stay, read about the cities that surround the Province of Québec.