Montreal: An Essential Guide
A primer for navigating Montreal like a local.
Montreal is a port town just off the Atlantic on the St. Lawrence River. It was the birthplace of Canada as we know it and still has the European vibe to prove it. Its historic neighbourhood, Old Montreal, was home to the country’s most major port for centuries, and still has cobblestones and narrow streets best travelled by carriage. Beyond that, it’s a contemporary North American city of modest size, with just under 2 million inhabitants spread over 4,000-odd square miles. In other words, before long you might feel like you know everybody.
Its various very distinct neighbourhoods fan out around the central feature Montrealers know as “the mountain” – Mount Royal, usually considered by visitors to be more of a bump than anything else. What it may lack in altitude it makes up for in charm (it was landscapes by Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame) and the mysterious power it has of making you feel the city bustle is miles away.
Whether in town for work or pleasure, this essential guide to Montreal will help you figure out where to go, how to get there, what not to miss and where to get a breather when you’ve had your fill of the cultural frenzy.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Visitors to Montreal tend to congregate around the downtown core and the Quartier des Spectacles, which is the site of the city’s many, many year-round festivals. Sharing the car-free streets with thousands of revellers and entertainment at every turn is an enthralling way to experience the city, but there are many more quiet moments to be savoured further afield.
Montreal is basically a grid, with a few exceptions, and its streets are divided into western and eastern halves by the main artery of St. Lawrence Boulevard, known as the Main. Running the entire length of the city, St. Lawrence is a central part of a few interesting neighbourhoods: moving northward there’s Centre-Sud, downtown, Plateau Mont-Royal (nicknamed the Plateau), Mile End, Little Italy, Villeray and Ahuntsic, most of which – except for Mile End – are predominantly French speaking. The western quarter of the city is where you’ll find predominantly English-speaking neighbourhoods like Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (NDG for locals), Westmount and Little Burgundy. Overall, though, the city’s French and English heritages intertwine into a magical multicultural quilt.
Montreal is a walker’s town: it’s surprising how many residents don’t have cars, or even driver’s licenses. Outside of Old Montreal the streets have comfortably wide sidewalks designed for strolling. Bikes rule all summer long (including the Bixi rent-a-bike system. When you start to lag, the public transport system is renowned for its simplicity and breadth.
Montreal’s public transport system is managed by the STM, or the Société de Transport de Montréal. It runs the public bus system, the metro, a shuttle to and from Trudeau airport, as well as assisted transport for special needs. For up-to-the-minute transit times and route suggestions, look online, call 514-AUTOBUS (514-288-6287)or download the free app – it’s become one of those what-did-we-do-without-it tools for most residents.
Single tickets cost $3.25 cash-only, and can be used to transfer from bus to metro and vice versa as long as you’re making a continuous journey in a single direction. You’ll need an extra ticket to return. The best bet is to purchase a pass, however; they offer a 10-trip pass, an unlimited weekend pass, a weeklong pass and more. The daily pass costs $10.
Montreal’s metro, otherwise known as its subway system, is efficient and simple – a piece of cake for anyone who’s explored the undergrounds of New York, Paris or London. Its four colour-coded lines (so pretty that people sport the map on T-shirts) will get you most places you’ll want to go, while the rest is serviced by buses.
The initial charge for Montreal taxis is $3.50, plus $1.70 for every kilometre; waiting time is $0.63 per minute. There is also a base fare of $35 for travel from Trudeau airport to anywhere in the city’s central area (the map is on taxi windows). Luggage that can fit into the trunk will not be charged extra, but beyond that is up to the driver’s discretion.
Cabs in the city are plentiful and easily hailed in the downtown core. There are several cab companies, including Diamond, Champlain and Co-op, as well as independent cabs that depend exclusively on street pick-ups. They subscribe to the same rules and regulations as everyone else. Note that Uber is deemed illegal in Montreal; for the time being loopholes allow it to continue service. The base rate for UberX is $2.75.
• Radio: Tune in to CBC Radio 1 (FM 88.5) for current affairs; CBC Radio 2 (FM 93.5) for a mix of mostly jazz, classical or indie depending on time of day; Virgin (FM 95.9) or The Beat of Montreal (FM 92.5) for hits; CHOM (FM 97.7) for rock; CKUT (FM 90.3) for indie and experimental; or Radio-classique (FM 99.5) for all-day classical.
• On the hotel TV: CBC News Network is Canada’s principal cable news outlet, and is less hysterical (and thus noticeably drier in tone) than the U.S. equivalents. Other local stations include CTV and Global.
• For cues on what to do around town, arts and culture happenings, events, LGBT fun and food and drink recommendations, check out the Tourisme Montréal Blog, a well-stocked and up-to-date source of information.
ENJOYING YOUR STAY
There’s a festival for every season in Montreal, no matter what Mother Nature has to say about it. The warmer months mean it’s time for the famous Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Just For Laughs festival, the Mutek electronic music festival, the Fringe festival, the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festivaland Osheaga, among others, while cooler climes ring in Pop Montreal, the Montreal Highlights food and art festival and Igloofest, to name but a few. Find a complete schedule here.
Classic tourist attractions
Mount Royal is the spot for some of the city’s best views. Whether you walk or bike up to the Observatory or take the lazier route and drive up to the Lookout, it’s a great way to get a sense of the city’s typography and layout.
Ascending the Olympic Stadium Tower is also a wonderful way to see the city’s sprawl; the stadium’s Esplanade, an expansive plaza at the foot of the sports complex, also hosts a slew of seasonal events, including the annual Winter Village and Parc Exalto adventure course in the summer – as well as First Fridays, a conglomerations of the city’s food trucks every first Friday of the month between May and September.
Other popular tourist attractions include the historic sites of the Château Ramezay and Stewart Museum in Parc Jean-Drapeau, which re-enact life in Montreal in the 17th century, as well as the McCord and Pointe-à-Callière history museums, the latter of which is located on the site of the city’s foundation.
Arts and culture
Montreal has an extremely rich cultural life, in part because of the affordable living costs that allow creative types to live and work here with less difficulty than in the rest of Canada. The quantity of artist-run centres and commercial galleries attest to this: there’s the Belgo Building downtown, which unites two-dozen art centres, as well as Arsenal, Fonderie Darling, DHC/ART, Parisian Laundry, Yves Laroche, René Blouin, Antoine Ertaskiran and Art Mûr, to name but a few.
Museum-wise, the city’s contemporary art source is the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, located at the centre of the Quartier des Spectacles. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts also has a contemporary art quotient but centres on modern and historical art, with a penchant for European masters and blockbuster exhibitions on fashion and design.
The music scene is as rich and enthusiastic as the visual arts scene, producingexports like Arcade Fire, Halfmoon Run, Grimes and Stars, which once upon a time you could have seen in small local clubs like Casa del Popolo, La Vitrola, Divan Orange or Bar Le Ritz PDB. Larger clubs include Le National, Théâtre Fairmount, Club Soda and Métropolis, while international blockbusters generally play the Bell Centre, where you can also catch the NHL hockey games.
For some fresh air
The city is filled with green spaces, from small neighbourhood parks to large sprawling green spaces where you can watch or play live sports in the summer and skate or ski in come wintertime. Notables include Parc La Fontaine on the Plateau, Parc Maisonneuve near the Olympic Stadium and flanking the gorgeous Botanical Gardens, Parc Jarry in Villeray (it’s the one you’ll want to check out for summertime cricket matches, as well as the annual Roger’s Cup tennis competition) and of course, Mount Royal.
For replacement shirts, pantyhose or other workday necessities
The downtown core, specifically Ste-Catherine Street West, is home to countless malls (including the Eaton Centre, Place Montréal-Trust and Cours Mont-Royal), all joined together by the city’s famous Underground City – basically a network of tunnels linked by metro stations that enable comfortable shopping no matter the season. Within walking distance of most of the city’s main hotels, this is your go-to place for a quick vestimentary fix.
For chic ware for an unexpected do
St-Paul Street in Old Montreal is a mecca of designer brands, most local but plenty of international as well, for both men and women. For the charm of the experience and the originality of the wares you’ll want to start here for last-minute formal wear, but other options include Holt Renfrew, on Sherbrooke Street West, and a couple of blocks away, Ogilvy. Both are luxury department stores that will outfit you in the fashionable finest from head to toe. For tuxedo rentals, head to Waxman’s on Avenue du Parc.
For cosmetics, hygienic items and other indispensables
The most ubiquitous pharmacies in the city are Pharmaprix and Jean Coutu, both city-wide chains that sell everything from toothbrushes to prescription drugs to gift-wrapping essentials to junk food. Ask your hotel concierge for the nearest.
For quick snacks to avoid the hotel minibar
The aforementioned pharmacies are a great source for rudimentary snacks, but if you have time to put a bit more thought into it, head to one of the city’s public markets for great to-go options. Relatively near the city centre, in Little Burgundy, Atwater Market is the place for cheese shops, takeout pizza squares, ice cream cones and tacos. At Jean-Talon Market in Little Italy, there are kebabs, crepes, an oyster stand in the summer and fancy nuts alongside rows and rows of fresh produce. Marché Maisonneuve in the eastern quarter of the city is great for sandwiches, fresh fruit, Quebec cheeses and more.
For beer, wine and liquor
Your friendly local dépanneur – the local parlance for a corner store, known as a dep – is the place to go for beer, from opening time until 11 p.m. You can also find wine there, though it’s of a cheaper, only-in-an-emergency variety. Good wine and harder stuff is sold at the SAQ, or Société des alcools du Québec, a government-run liquor board with outlets in every neighbourhood. Check online for the opening hours of the one nearest you – they vary.
Quebec’s drinking age is 18. Alcohol is sold in deps, supermarkets and SAQ outlets from the time they open (as early as 8 a.m.) to a maximum of 11 p.m. (though many close earlier). Serving hours is bars and pubs are from opening time to 3 a.m.