Bienvenue à Montreal! 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 cafes; 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 Montreal), 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-Montreal)
At the southern end of St-Laurent Boulevard , past, lies the historic district of Old Montreal (Vieux-Montreal), 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 Montreal) 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 Seminaire Saint-Sulpice), dating back to the late 17th Century.
Across the St-Lawrence River, the Expo 67 islands of Ste-Helène 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.
Montreal is the second biggest French-speaking city in the world, but you wouldn't necessarily know it based on its restaurants. Its incredible assortment of ethnic cuisines gives an accurate reflection of the myriad of cultures that contribute to the city's vibrancy, although unlike some other large North American centers, eateries here tend not to cluster according to cuisine type.
Old Montreal (Vieux-Montreal)
Old Montreal is home to one of the city's most popular French restaurants, Toque! . Normand Laprise's fusion masterpiece has garnered international attention while draining the coffers of the gastronomic elite. Eggspectation , a popular brunch spot, is a modern operation that boasts massive portions and glitzy decor. Unfortunately, this establishments sports ponderous lines on Sunday starting at around 10a. On the bright side, this good-natured eatery serves as a great place to soak up local atmosphere and gossip.
The Plateau Mont-Royal is an area of older residential buildings and is home to thousands of students, artists and young professionals. The Boulevard Saint-Laurent's trendy clubs and pubs mingle with dozens of restaurants that run the gamut from upscale, decor-first hotspots ( Buona Notte ) to innovative sandwich shops ( Grano ), and from the cheap Italian fare at Euro-Deli to the steaks and buckets of coleslaw at Moishe's . If you are unsure where to go, following the crowds on Saint-Laurent is a safe bet.
A 10-minute walk east from Saint-Laurent will bring you to charming and bustling rue Saint-Denis , which is not to be missed especially during the summer. This is perhaps Montreal's most Parisian thoroughfare, offering restaurants, bars and cafes, most with cozy patios shoe-horned in wherever they can possibly fit. You could easily spend hours watching the world go by over a cafe au lait, a beer or a meal.
Despite a number of ethnic restaurants, Plateau Mont-Royal is home to several traditional French eateries such as Les Halles where one can find traditional, buttery fare and old-guard opulence, and L'Express , which lays claim to the best steak-and-frites. These restaurants can be found in the restaurant-rich strip between rue Sherbrooke and Mont-Royal Avenue, along with scores of smaller establishments of every conceivable ethnicity.
Brunches or late breakfasts are extremely popular ways to start the day, though whether this is a wholesome tradition or the result of a weekend's heroic consumption of cocktails is up for debate. Mont-Royal Avenue is home to Beauty's , the oldest and best-known brunch spot. If you'd rather grab a quick breakfast bite on your way to work, then try these two bakeries in the Mile-End part of Plateau Mont-Royal: the Fairmount or the Saint-Viateur . These two bakeries are known for their bagels. The Montreal bagel, a skinnier and less polished version of the New York variety, is an economical staple.
For a reasonable priced lunch, try Schwartz's Delicatessen . The city's large Jewish community has also contributed heavily to the local cuisine. While comparing Montreal Smoked Meat to pastrami is sure to raise the hackles of any traditionalist, no visitor should neglect to visit these cramped, dingy quarters.
The narrow, residential streets of the Plateau also conceal some gems, most notably a tight-knit community of French bistros where patrons are invited to bring their own wine. Exemplified by Le P'tit Plateau , Bistro l'Entrepont and Au Petit Resto , these intimate, romantic spots serve some of the best food in the city at table d'hôte prices rarely exceeding CAD20. They are great places at which to appreciate local life and practice your French. Prince Arthur Street , located between Boulevard Saint-Laurent and Avenue Laval, also offers many BYOW (bring your own wine) options; however, with a few exceptions (notably the stick-to-your-ribs Polish fare at Mazurka ), the food at these heavily tourist-oriented establishments is fairly middle-of-the-road.
Downtown, many bars and restaurants are found on rue Crescent and rue Bishop . In the past, this was where the Anglophones came to eat, drink and be merry. This area overflows with tourists in summer, so it is best to know where you are going before you go; mediocre food is an unfortunate but avoidable fact of life here, as are high prices. Other downtown hotspots include the Old Dublin , which whips up great pub grub and fiddles each night away with live music.
And no trip Downtown is complete without a visit to the chic Golden Square Mile section where you will find the fancy Ritz Carlton hotel which houses the popular bistro, Cafe de Paris .
Though hardly comparable to the Spanish or Italian, Montrealers do eat late, especially on weekends. Most restaurants will be open to diners by 6:30p, but it's best to make reservations for 8p or later if you want company. Downtown hotels tend to direct their guests toward downtown restaurants and nightlife, not out of any animosity or collusion but simply because many tourists are reluctant to venture farther afield. The key to enjoying the hundreds of restaurants and bars that the city has to offer is to be adventurous; you are unlikely to be disappointed.