History and Overview
Montreal has been inhabited for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived. It's the second largest French-speaking city in the world (after Paris) and it takes its name from Mount Royal, the hill at the center of the island. It sits on the St. Lawrence river which is one of the longest running rivers on the planet.
Montreal architecture is defined by its red brick and grey stone buildings, the supplies for which were formed thousands of years ago when everything here was sitting at the bottom of the Champlain Sea.
The explorer Jacques Cartier landed in 1535 and claimed the St. Lawrence Valley for France. Samuel de Champlain followed in his footsteps and founded the city of "Kebec" in 1608, using an Indian word that means "where the river gets narrow." The official motto of Quebec is "Je me souviens" which means "I remember." This is credited to Eugene-Etienne Tache, who in 1882 had it carved in stone above the entrance to Quebec's legislative building, as a reference to the French, English and American Indian history.
Montreal is home to the International Festival of Jazz which will celebrate its 30th anniversary later this year (2009). It's the single biggest jazz event in the world, attracting upwards of two million people every summer with hundreds of free concerts.
In addition to the Jazz Festival, the Cirque du Soleil was also born here. It began as a group of twenty street performers in 1984 and has grown to become a world-famous collection of thousands of artists.
You'll be flying into Montreal-Trudeau International Airport if you come by plane. It's only fifteen kilometers from the city. A shuttle bus runs every twenty minutes to get to the city and the trip takes about 45 minutes. Besides the usual taxi and limousine service you can also take a commuter train or one of the regular city buses to the airport.
It costs $1.50 an hour to use a parking meter in the downtown area. No car? Montreal has five commuter rail lines, four metro lines and hundreds of city buses to get you there and back. Not into engines? Montreal's biker community is alive and thriving. Besides all the green space within the city for recreational riding, urban messengers rage with precision throughout the city and let me tell you, if you want to know about a city for REAL, ask a messenger.
On the off chance that you own a massive ship, let me mention that Montreal has the largest container-shipping port on the east coast of North America.
People and Culture
Forget a handshake, get ready to kiss on both sides and eat some poutine!! Poutine is the national dish of Canada, it's french fries with gravy and cheese curds. The perfection of pub food? Heaven on a plate? You decide -- let me recommend that you postpone this decision until about three AM on a saturday morning after going out with friends to the pub all night. Paradise beckons...
There's a thriving post-production film industry in Montreal. If you've seen Jurassic Park or Titanic, you've seen special effects that came out of Montreal's studios. Fifty-seven movies were shot in Montreal in 2004.
What else? The longest-running St. Patrick's Day parade in North America happens in... Montreal! They've been at it since 1824. In spite of this, Montrealers drink more red wine than beer.
The city is considered the official balcony capital of the world. Seventy-one percent of flats have a balcony, and Montrealers spend the equivelant of TWO WEEKS per year on their balconies! Even with that, Montreal still has the second-lowest average cost of rent in Canada! Are you ready to move yet?
Things to do, Recommendations
Move here, sit on your balcony, get free health care at the doctor's office. Just a thought.
Mark Twain once said: “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” This is certainly true still today. St. Joseph Oratory of Mount Royal is the largest church in Canada and its dome is the second-largest after Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome. Saint Peter is also the source of inspiration to create the Cathedral-basilica Mary, Queen of the World. In 2006, Montréal was the first North American city to be designated a UNESCO “City of Design”.
Visit Saint Joseph's Oratory on Mount Royal for further inspiration.
Montreal ranks in the top ten cities of the world for night life. Hundreds of bars, microbreweries, discos and cigar lounges await you. The bars close at three AM which is when you begin your pilgrimage for poutine. You can also sniff out some late-night lounges if you work at it a bit.
Neighborhoods to check out:
Chinatown: self explanatory
Plateau Mont-Royal: artists and punk-rockers, counter culture stuff
The Latin Quarter: where you can find student life at its beautiful rambunctious usual self, with the University of Quebec and the College of Old Montreal student body on the loose.
The Village: one of the largest gay communities in the world, supported and embraced here openly.
Crescent street: Irish pubs, street festivals and restaurants between Rene-Levesque and Masinneuve boulevards
Saint-Laurent Boulevard: the Main Street of Montreal. Dozens of bars and clubs, restaurants and lounges sitting between Sherbrooke Street and Mont-Royal Avenue.
Shop 'till you drop? There are, and I quote, "almost 1,200 stores between Guy and Saint-Denis streets (including approximately 450 with storefront access on the street). Sainte-Catherine Street is home to the highest concentration of stores in Canada as well as the largest assortment of fashion boutiques and ready-to-wear shops in the country."
To wrap up: if you know me, you know what I'm going to tell you to do now. Go climb up the tallest thing and see what you can see! In Montreal, you HAVE TO see the Olympic stadium up close. It's a wonder of organic architecture that was built for the 1976 Olympic Games and it has a funicular going up its tower where you can take an amazing lookout over the city.
Text by Steve Smith.