Located on an island in the St. Lawrence River, and first settled as a frontier outpost by fur-trapping French voyageurs, Montreal (pop. 1,866,481) has grown into Canada’s second-largest city, and today is easily the most European city in North America, with the largest French-speaking population outside La France. Hotbed of the separatist movement, Montreal tolerates the polyglot federalism of Canada, but the accent here is most definitely on the “French” in French-Canadian; in a wide variety of gourmet restaurants, stylish boutiques, nightclubs, museums, and theaters you can half-close your eyes and pretend you’re in Paris.
The city takes its name from a 700-foot-high hill, now the very pleasant tree-covered Mount Royal Park just north of downtown. Planned by Frederick Law Olmsted and opened in 1876, the park’s stairs and paths lead up to a belvedere, from which you have a sweeping view of the city, the St. Lawrence River, the southern suburbs, and, on the eastern slope, a huge steel cross that’s lit up at night.
At the foot of Mount Royal Park runs Sherbrooke Street, Montreal’s most prestigious and majestic street, lined with grand 1920s buildings as impressive as any on Park Avenue. Among the many posh boutiques (Chanel, Armani, et al) and luxury hotels (like the Ritz-Carlton, where Richard Burton married Elizabeth Taylor), you’ll find the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Sherbrooke St., 514/285-1600 or 800/899-6873, closed Mon., free for permanent displays). The oldest museum in Canada, and one of the finest in the world, the Museum of Fine Arts has a large permanent collection of European, Canadian, and American art, as well as an extensive display of Inuit artifacts. A half mile east, the McCord Museum of Canadian History (690 Sherbrooke St. W., 514/398-7100, daily in summer, closed Mon. in winter, C$14) has a wonderful collection of art and artifacts related to Montreal, Quebec, and Canada—everything from Victorian evening gowns to First Nation masks and carvings. South of the Museum of Fine Arts, the elegantly modern Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Rue Baile, 514/939-7026, Wed.-Sun., C$10) mounts fascinating shows devoted to the built environment.
About a mile southeast of Mount Royal, just off the riverfront, the two-block-long, cobblestone square of Place Jacques-Cartier is the heart of Old Montreal, a picturesque neighborhood that was the site of the earliest European settlement. In the summer the square is transformed into an open-air market, and all year-round you can sample the area’s excellent cafés and restaurants.
Montreal’s airport, known as Dorval, lies 13 miles west of downtown. Numerous freeways crisscross Montreal, and driving around is pretty easy (though all signs, including the complicated parking rules, are in French), but if you want to escape from your car for a day or two, the city is eminently walkable.
For food, Montreal has something for everyone, thanks to the city’s truly international population—sizable immigrant communities make Montreal a dining adventure. At lunchtime, workers from the Montreal financial district cram into Chez Delmo (275 Notre Dame St., 514/288-4288), a contemporary version of traditional Old Montreal seafood restaurants, where dishes are always fresh. There’s a nice oyster bar, too. You really must eat French at least once while in Montreal, and French restaurants do not come more traditional than Le Paris Bistro (1812 St. Catherine St., 514/937-4898), in between the art museum and the architecture center. Another reliable bet is L’Express (3927 St. Denis St., 514/845-5333), east of Mount Royal Park, open from breakfast until after midnight.
For first-time visitors, one unexpected Montreal specialty is a taste of New York City: the deli sandwich, usually built of slices of rye bread around a classic version of Montreal’s beloved “smoked meat,” a.k.a. corned beef. Many of the great old delis have gone out of business; one survivor (since 1928!) is Schwartz’s Charcuterie Hebraique (3895 Blvd. St. Laurent, 514/842-4813), which is slightly touristy but serves some of the finest pastrami on the planet.
The best budget place to stay is the large HI-Montreal Hostel (1030 Mackay St., 514/843-3317, C$33 and up), which has dorm beds and private rooms a five-minute walk south of Mount Royal Park. For something a bit more special, Château Versailles (1659 Sherbrooke St. W., 514/933-3611, C$160 and up) is composed of four Victorian townhouses converted into one charming, antiques-filled hotel.