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French-speaking Montreal is romantic and elegant, and those who choose to holiday in the city generally come for its music, art and joie de vivre. This charming metro has plenty to see and do with regards to culture, and those who plan to travel to Montreal can check out a full calendar of events and enjoy the many plays, ballets and concerts that spice up the entertainment scene year round. Montreal has also earned its reputation as a great destination for foodies, and boasts an extremely energetic nightlife.
Montreal was founded as a missionary village in 1642, a century after Jacques Cartier became the first European to discover the area. Despite some undeniably English architectural and cultural influences, Montreal is today one of the world's largest French-speaking cities on an overwhelmingly English-speaking continent. A metropolis of international repute, this large inland port is framed between Mont Royal and the St Lawrence River.
It's located in the south of Canada's Quebec province, only 37 miles (60km) from the United States border, and is an important hub of North American trade. It is a spacious and captivating city, characterised by a series of underground shopping and recreation complexes linked by walkways, and the metro. It contains more than 18.5 miles (30km) of office and apartment complexes, major stores, hotels, restaurants, metro stations, parking garages, movie theatres, concert halls and more, all snugly accessible during the snowy winters.
Its population is a multicultural mix that has fostered a vibrant cultural life, showcased in a number of world-class art galleries and museums. Like most Canadian cities, Montreal has interspersed urban development with green areas, the most celebrated of which is the spacious Parc du Mont-Royal, designed by Frederic Olmsted, the American landscape artist who also designed Central Park in New York. The city boasts countless other attractions to visitors all year round, but tourists do tend to avoid the freezing winter months.
Built for the 1976 Olympics, the futuristic Olympic Park is now a district in Montreal. It was designed by French architect Roger Tallibert, and is impressive in both size and shape, able to accommodate up to 80,000 spectators for concerts and baseball games. Standing at 575 feet (175m), its landmark tower is the world's tallest inclined tower, providing spectacular views over Montreal from its observation floors. Visitors may even be tempted to visit the lush Botanical Gardens across the street, one of the largest of its kind in the world and boasting a wide, celebrated collection.
St Joseph's Oratory is a regal Montreal landmark, its imposing dome on the flank of Mount Royal visible for miles. Attracting over two million visitors each year, the chapel is a famous pilgrimage site, despite only being built in 1967. Work began on the basilica in 1937 after the death of a beloved monk renowned for his miraculous healing abilities, with the dome eventually reaching an impressive 318 feet (97m) high. Its carillon is made up of 46 bells that were originally cast for the Eiffel Tower, but were acquired by the Oratory in 1956. Visitors can climb the 283 steps from street level to the basilica's portico for beautiful vistas of Montreal.
During the past 140 years, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has assembled one of North America's finest encyclopaedic collections, totalling more than 30,000 objects. The collections include Canadian art, contemporary art, Inuit and Amerindian Art, European Masters, prints, drawings and decorative arts. The museum also regularly features special exhibitions and activity programmes for adults, students and children. Indeed, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the best of its kind in Canada and a treat for lovers of arts and culture.
In close proximity to the Olympic Park, the Montreal Botanical Garden is one of the largest of its kind. Home to more than 22,000 plant species and roughly 30 exquisitely mapped out gardens, it's well worth a visit at any time of year. Begun in 1931 during a financial crisis, it provided jobs for thousands of unemployed workers and has since developed into a popular Montreal tourist attraction, with an astounding array of plants and trees. A slew of interesting sights and sounds await visitors, such as the Tree House, a Chinese Garden, the Quebec Butterfly House, a Medicinal Plant Garden, Planetarium and a First Nations Garden illustrating the interaction of Inuits and Amerindians with nature.
With predominantly wet, warm summers and cold, snowy winters, the humid continental climate of Montreal is varied and seasonal. In winter (December to February), snowfall is abundant and common both in spring and autumn. Temperatures well below freezing are experienced in winter, with average low temperatures dropping to 7°F (-14°C) in January, and the bitter weather exacerbated by wind chill.
Summer (June to August) brings sunshine and pleasant days, with high humidity on occasion, although highs seldom exceed 86°F (30°C). Rain can be expected any time of year in Montreal, but summer tends to be the wettest season. A feature of the climate of Montreal is the possibility of late autumn heatwaves, enjoyed as 'Indian summers', which frequently occur.
Montreal is predictably and deservedly famous for its French cuisine and is home to a number of glorious French restaurants and bistros. While Quebec's signature dish is a pile of fries, gravy and cheese curds called poutine, classics such as bagels and croissants remain ever popular in the city.
Old Montreal is naturally the main tourist district and many quality restaurants can be found along its narrow streets, but downtown also boasts a bustling culinary scene. Boulevard Saint-Laurent (La Main to locals) splits the city into eastern and western sections and is one of the best streets for eating out in Montreal.
Another good stomping ground for grazing travellers is Plateau Mont-Royal, a gourmet paradise of restaurants, bakeries and snack stalls. For a break from French-style cuisine, and good budget options, take a stroll through Montreal's Chinatown, of which Rue de la Gauchetiere is the main pedestrianised strip.
Foodies who want to explore the fresh produce scene in Montreal should visit either the celebrated Marche Jean Talon or the smaller Marche Atwater to browse the stalls; both markets are sure to delight serious gourmands.
One of the most highly rated restaurants in Montreal and a multi-award winner with the local press, Le Club Chasse et Peche is a great option for a special occasion. Known as CCP, this eatery has reinvented 'surf 'n turf' with mouth-watering Kobe beef and lobster tail.
The décor enhances the dining experience with low ceilings fostering an intimate atmosphere while the chic décor further suggests that this is a truly special dining experience. The restaurant is open for lunch, Monday to Friday from 11:30 to 2:30pm, and for dinner Tuesday to Saturday from 6pm to 10.30pm.
For a taste of Montreal's rural surrounds, La Chronique is a highly regarded eatery that exclusively uses fresh local ingredients in its modern French cuisine with interesting Mediterranean and Southwestern touches. The décor is centred on dark wood and red hues framed with black and white photographs, and the wine list, exceeding 250 titles, can be ordered by the glass or bottle.
Although a microbrewery, Réservoir is developing a name as the best value restaurant in the city, combining perfectly fresh ingredients with inventive recipes from the fertile imagination of founding Chef Samuel Pinard.
The brunch has been described by one critic as 'the most interesting (and for my money, the best) brunch experience in town'. The evenings are naturally a bit lively but this in no way detracts from the dining experience.
It would be remiss to list Montreal eateries without mentioning the one best known in cinema and literature: L'Express, Montreal's beloved brasserie. The eatery has handwritten menus in the style of Parisian sidewalk cafes with similar décor and serving staff attitude.
The noise reaches epic proportions when the premises is full but the food, decent prices, and all-you-can-eat pickles and baguettes makes this an essential experience for visitors to Montreal. Open weekdays 8am-2am; Saturdays 10am-2am; and Sundays 10am-1am.
Montreal does not have a great reputation for sushi, a sore point for maki-addicted and sashimi-fixated locals. Thank goodness then for Jun I, which flies the flag high for high-quality authentic Japanese sushi. Chef Junichi Ikematsu has developed an interesting menu based on fresh local fish, exotic rolls, and flawless nigiri, all complemented by a fine range of sake.
Montreal's annual jazz festival (Festival International de Jazz de Montreal) is one of the best and biggest in the world. Superstars of jazz, like Oscar Peterson, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, and Chuck Berry have featured on the annual programme.
Today, the jazz festival features 3,000 artists and hosts more than 650 concerts (the majority of which are free outdoor events) every year. The celebrated event attracts more than two million visitors, over 30 percent of which are tourists.
Montreal's lively 11-day midwinter festival is designed to bring some light and warmth into local lives and is said to be one of the largest winter festivals in the world. It is billed as three festivals in one, having gastronomic, musical, and artistic components.
There are more than 100 concerts scheduled, more than 200 culinary and wine events, and various shows and exhibitions, many of them free of charge. Fun outdoor winter activities are also organised for the whole family. The festival attracts nearly a million spectators and foodies in particular await the event eagerly.
For more than a quarter of a century, the world's top racing drivers have been meeting at the demanding Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal to battle out an important race in the Formula One World Championship.
The circuit lies on Ile Notre-Dame, a man-made island in the St Lawrence River. It includes the notorious Bienvenue au Quebec wall, which is wryly known as the 'Wall of Champions' because of all the F1 superstars who have crashed into it. Locals support the event enthusiastically and many people travel to attend it.
Ever since it earned its nickname of 'Sin City' during the country's era of prohibition, Montreal's nightlife gained a wild reputation throughout the 20th century. Even today, it's arguably home to the hottest nightlife in Canada.
One of the best areas for a night out is Saint-Laurent, with fashionable clubs and bars that are constantly being reinvented. Crescent is a popular area with those who prefer a chilled evening and is a regular choice for couples and diners.
The Latin Quarter also has a lively party scene, attracting students and tourists in substantial numbers during the summer months when the good times spill into the streets. The Gay Village is a lively cocktail of charming cafes and vibrant nightclubs, boasting some of the most raucous nightlife among both gay and straight crowds.
Bars in Montreal close around 3am. Clubs tend to open late and close around dawn. Entrance fees are usually charged but these can be avoided by calling ahead and talking your way onto the guest lists, which is not nearly as hard as it sounds.
Be aware that Montreal has some fairly advanced public health regulations that mean smoking cigarettes in bars or even near them is strictly forbidden. Do so at the risk of a fine. A drawcard for visiting young Americans is the legal drinking age of 18, as opposed to 21 across the border.
Montreal also offers loads of culture, boasting its own symphony orchestra, dozens of theatres and countless venues for live music concerts, ranging from intimate clubs to international arena tours.
Montreal is one of those rare international cities where shopping actually enhances one's experience of the destination. Rather than kitsch souvenirs from plastic chain stores, the shopping in Montreal is as cultured and glamorous as any other aspect of the city.
Not only does Montreal have boutiques and organic markets in equal measure, but it is the world's only underground city in which to shop. For those who pay Montreal a visit during winter, this subterranean retail experience will be a welcome refuge from the icy gloom above and a highlight of their trip. The Underground City has more than 20 miles (30km) of passageways connecting all the Montreal Metros with around 1,600 little boutiques, 200 restaurants and 34 cinemas. Over 500,000 local people use the underground city every day, so we'd recommend visitors plan their shopping excursion during office hours when it is much quieter.
Montreal's two best markets are at opposite ends of the city. Marché Jean-Talon is an enormous open-air market selling high-quality goods, including fresh and organic maple syrup which one can buy by the litre, perfect as an authentic Quebec gift for sweet-toothed friends back home. Marché Atwater is another good option, with wonderful baked goods, artisanal breads and other fresh produce on offer.
The best Montreal shopping districts are Avenue Laurier Ouest, a centre of designer boutiques and foodie stores; Cours Mont-Royal for its haute couture and fashion accessories; and Ste-Catherine Street, which boasts an array of trendy stores. The iconic shopping centre Faubourg Ste-Catherine is also nearby.
For unique Montreal gifts, don't miss the Canadian Guild of Crafts Québec, which sells aboriginal art and local artisan works. This is a good place to pick up classic Canadian souvenirs such as furs and Native American crafts like dream weavers, polished stone jewellery, leather goods and musical instruments. Another must is Marché Bonsecours in Old Montreal, which has an eclectic and interesting range of shops well worth visiting.
Montreal's sensible layout combined with an extensive and super-efficient public transport system (metro, bus and commuter rail services) make getting around the city easy. In fair weather, hundreds of kilometres of bike paths spanning the island offer a healthier, pleasant option.
Public transport is run by the Montreal Transport Society, or STM. The pristine metro has dozens of stations along four different lines with numerous stops in the city's famous subterranean mall. The metro stops are all integrated with a comprehensive network of city bus routes. Most metro services and buses run between 5.30am and 1am, with a limited night bus service filling in. The inner city services in turn connect to a commuter rail network that serves the suburbs.
Fares are standard on both the bus and metro and transfers are free; a tourist pass is available for bus and metro. Metered taxis can be hailed in the streets downtown or ordered in advance. There are numerous car rental firms in the city, but roads are often heavily congested and traffic jams are common.
Despite its harsh winters, Montreal is in fact a year-round destination and travellers will be able to enjoy the bustling city's attractions and festivities no matter the season. Whether visitors enjoy outdoor sports or a trip to the opera, there are plenty of things to see and do in Montreal.
Check out Olympic Park, which hosts baseball games and concerts, or visit Old Montreal which contains beautiful historical buildings dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, as well as a few museums. The nearby old port (Vieux Port de Montréal) is a popular place for tourists as it features a huge open-air skating rink, IMAX cinema, plenty of restaurants and cafes, and a Science and Technology Center. Many tourists also take boat tours from here and a good option is to take a ferry ride across to the Parc des Iles, where the 1967 World's Fair site offers facilities for picnicking, swimming, skating or skiing in winter.
The dome of St Joseph's Oratory, visible on the flank of Mont Royal from miles away, is a famous pilgrimage site attracting more than two million visitors each year. In downtown Montreal, several blocks are connected by 18 miles (30km) of underground arcades and malls, where shoppers will be able to enjoy enclosed walking areas and great shopping opportunities, even during inclement weather. Visitors should purchase the STM Tourist Card which allows unlimited access to the bus and metro service for either one or three consecutive days.
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