by Annette Bignami

With 2,500,000 residents, Montreal ranks as the world's second largest French-speaking city. Here you'll find a mix of historic sections such as the Vieux (old) Port, modern buildings in the cultural complex at Place des Arts, fine shopping above and below ground, diversions such as the Terre des hommes, and much else. Add varied ethnic neighborhoods, a planetarium, an aquarium, a mass of museums and a feast of restaurants, and toss in an cheap, fast and safe subway to whiz you around sometimes traffic-clogged downtown streets and, even if you didn't have the splendid vistas of the St. Lawrence River and city hills, it would be easy to see why more tourists each year opt for this attractive urban area.

However, while Montreal offers superb recreation you must deal with three problems - traffic, language and manners - to enjoy your visit. As in most urban areas, downtown traffic is brutal. So park and use the excellent bus, or even better subway, system to reach downtown or Old Montreal best explored on foot. Save your driving for attractions away from downtown's bumper cars, such as the museum and fort on St. Helene Island, and visit during the week.

Old Montreal reflected in the new subway station.


Second Class Anglophones

The language barrier and manners cause major difficulties for Anglophones. Locals often take the attitude - also common in Paris - that civilized people all speak French so, if you don't speak French, or if your French is rusty, you're a second class citizen. While these Francophone problems aren't universal, in two days on our last trip we found fruit shop, restaurant, subway, street stand and short-order food shop employees who tried various short change or extra order ploys. This even though we speak some French. So learn a few words including, "I'd like to talk to the police" and the most vital words in any foreign language "Where is the bathroom" and you'll improve your chances. Even so, Monteral's worth the language hastle and you'll find far better manners down the river in  Quebec.

Historical Attractions

After you've settled in, the logical place to start your visit is in the 95 acres of Vieux or Old Montreal, located at the junction of three rivers which French explorers followed in 1642 to found the city that saw explorers paddle away to open up North America. Most buildings here are from 120 to 150 years old, with several dating back to the 1700s. There are, it should be noted, a host of hotels and a flotilla of B&Bs. As always, price seems a fair guide to quality.

History by the brick and block

Place d'Armes is the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, Notre Dame de Bonsecours and other churches which delight Old Montreal visitors; we were lucky enough to see a Mounty get married in his dress red uniform! The entire area provides a superb mix of fine shops selling handicrafts, Eskimo art, high fashion and junk. The Sulpician Seminary, opened in 1685, and the Bank of Montreal, founded in 1817, are notable buildings that still serve their original purposes.

The open plaza in the center of Old Montreal provides a dandy fruit stand and a gourmet's guzzle of sidewalk cafes. Toward the old harbor you'll find horse-drawn carriages which tour the area's many old public buildings, museums and much else.

The harbor front also holds fine art galleries in old warehouses along the water and what may be the world's only "floating beach" on a large barge. There are sidewalk entertainers and too much else to detail. We feel the area's best seen fairly early in the morning before crowds gather or, for the nightlife set, late at night when jazz swings along St. Paul Street. 

You can explore Vieux Montreal on foot on your own or enjoy free Wednesday summer tours that leave at 11:00 a.m. from the Fountain in Place Vauquelin, just a short walk from the Champ-de-Mars Metro station near city hall. Do use Metro where possible downtown; it's faster and less hassle than driving in traffic! Montrealistes Walking Tours covers this area and others at a reasonable fee which includes lunch. It's about 2.2 miles to cover the high points.

It's no accident Montreal enjoys the protection of its own island at Lachine Rapids which limited upstream navigation until the St. Lawrence Seaway was dug. Today summer visitors can enjoy a nifty raft ride down these rapids or a "wave jumper" trip up and back in a jet boat. More sedentary folks could try a trip on any of three Montreal Harbor Cruise boats, leaving from Victoria Pier. There's even a cruise up to and past Quebec. 

St. Helene Island

Just across Lachine Rapids, St Helene Island Museum offers a good look at Canada's history in the Old Fort, a fortified arsenal for Montreal. The museum adds a re-creation of military times past, with the Compagnie Franche de la Marine showcasing the 1683 to 1760 period, and the Fraser Highlander's re-creation of the 78th Regiment which served in Canada from 1757 to 1763. You can drive to the museum over the Jacques Cartier Bridge or take the metro to Ile Ste-Helene and follow the sign past the soccer fields.

The park on the island is most scenic and the view of Montreal's skyline is notable. Fields where locals play soccer, and at times cricket, provide a close-in view while you picnic al fresco under massive trees or enjoy swims on hot summer days. La Ronde and Port Sante Helene at the downstream end of the island are worth a look, too. Alcan Aquarium is nearby in the Le Ronde amusement park area, the site of Expo '67. Its one of the best in North America and the 2,000 tropical fish in its largest tank offer a piscatorial tapestry.

Life After Expo

Nearby Notre Dame Island, a manmade island created for Expo '67 just off St Helene Island at the start of the St. Lawrence Seaway, deserves a visit for the interesting gardens, winding waterways - skip the pedal boats unless your legs are really in shape - and unique buildings just a short walk, or a tram ride, from the Ile Sainte Helene Metro Station. The Canadian Grand Prix auto race in June, Man and His World festivals all summer, and other attractions, provide reason enough to visit, for although the area's starting to show some wear, it retains its architectural interest.

Mole's Montreal

During the heat of summer days or when winter's frigid blasts blow in from Hudson Bay, wise visitors head back to Montreal's underground. I.M. Pei, a world famous architect, has had a number of excellent ideas. Place Ville Marie, the heart of todays's underground Montreal that opened in 1960, remains one of his best concepts. Designed to hide ugly pit-yards of the Canadian National Railways in downtown Montreal, this expanded series of galleries and tunnels now shelters more than 300 underground shops, 14 banks, 50 restaurants and much else.

It extends to Place Bonaventure, Place du Canada with a troll's delight of connecting passageways, subways linking the nearby Plaza Alexis Nihon and Westmont Square. Visits seem least crowded weekdays, from 9:00 to 11:00 in the morning and 2:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon, when you need not share the area with commuters going or coming from work or out to lunch. These hours also suit those who want to enjoy the fine arts atmosphere of Montreal's subway or Metro sans crowds.

Fine Food

After an afternoon exploring on foot, one works up a mighty appetite, so it's fortunate that Montreal has at least 20 gastronomic associations and more than 2,000 restaurants. Nobody goes hungry and, as is the case in Paris, the food more than makes up for the manners. Some even claim smoked meat cookery was invented in Montreal, but everyone agrees that the restaurants are superb. While French food is standard, just about any ethnic food in the world is available.

Prices range from extremely moderate, in cafes, where you can find superb stews and other working-mans's fare, to high in prestige restaurants; so it's fortunate that restaurants post menus and prices outside. As elsewhere in this rather formal city, most who eat out dress for dinner and many restaurants have dress codes. However, you can dine informally in many spots in Underground Montreal or, if you like, try open-air sidewalk cafes.

Other nightlife includes all big city cultural activities, such as a symphony, ballet, live theater in French and English, and more in the Place des Arts performing arts center. Crescent, Drummond and Mountain streets, between Saint Catherine and Boulevard de Maisonneuve and Saint Dennis Street, are the center of bar and disco action.

After big dinners, healthy lunches or nights on the town, we both enjoy a light French breakfast of superb coffee - it won't suit you unless you enjoy strong coffee though! - and croissants. In fact, we find we can eat our way around town by hitting delis. Montreal does enjoy a super ethnic variety. The only real danger here is weight - we gain two to four pounds per week!

After exploring downtown, it's time to cover Chinatown on La Gauchetiere Street, Greek and Jewish communities on Park Avenue and Outremont. The north-end Italian neighborhood vies with Portuguese areas and the Bohemian delights of Price Arthur, Caree' Saint Louis and Saint Dennis streets.

Parc La Fontaine is worth an after-dark visit to see the illuminated fountain with its 54 water jets and nine lighting sequences; days, you can stretch your arms rowing a rental boat on a lower lake. The St. Lawrence Seaway entrance near Victoria Bridge and the observation and seaway model suit most visitors; there's a nice eight-mile bicycling path along the water. Cycling along Lachine Canal is also scenic.

Don't miss a tour of Mont Royal Park overlooking the city. The huge cemetery behind the park, and nearby McGill University offer diversions to fill a day, especially if you read French. The massive Botanical Gardens in Maisonneuve Park, which many consider one of the three best in the world, are an easy drive or Metro ride - get off at Pie-IX Station - away from downtown, too. the there's Longueuil across the river, and so much more that you'll find you spend your last day in Montreal frantically trying to see everything you've missed on relaxed days dawdled away in open-air cafes. That's our pattern and we've learned there's only one cure - planning an early return to this most varied if sometimes rough-edged Canadian city.

For additional information contact:

City of Montreal, Cidem Toursime
155 Notre Dame Street E.
Montreal, QC H4Y 1B5