Ask anyone to name cities in Canada, and they'll probably come up with the Big 3: Vancouver, Toronto and Montréal. So far I've conquered 2 of them, but living remotely close to Montréal gives me an advantage of exploring the streets of the biggest French-speaking city of my new homecountry with a greater detail. The contrast to Québec City is huge: where Québec is all about history, provincial governance and big distances, Montéal is a tightly structured metropolis of 1,6 million inhabitants with something for everyone, even if shopping for moose T-shirts and strolling through the touristic Old Town is not your thing.
Québec City has a small and picturesque centrum with its 400-year old buildings, but stepping outside of this Unesco-protected area is rather difficult due long distances and the lack of diverse public transportation. Luckily, this isn't the case with Montreal, where many things worth seeing are of a walking distance from each other - and if not, the underground with its 4 metro lines will surely take you there. Montréal is the 2nd biggest city of Canada (yes, bigger than the capital of the country), but with a 1-day transportation pass of 10$ it's easy to flounder through some of the most interesting attractions in just a day or two.
Another drastic difference between my hometown and Montréal is the question of language. Regardless of being the biggest city of the whole French-speaking province of Québec, only 57% of people are primarily French-speaking. In other words, the city is easy to approach by someone who doesn't necessarily master French, and sometimes you might even run into situations where speaking French to your waitress is practically useless. This is a well-welcomed holiday from the life filled with French immersion and confusing situations. But worry not my dear quebecois friends: Montréal is still the biggest French-speaking city in the world right after Paris.
One good thing about Montréal as a travel destination is that it's easy to access, the Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport being just a 30-minute bus trip from the centrum (needless to say, this is the only international airport in the whole province of Québec). There are multiple AMIGO EXPRESS routes to and from the city many times a day for a person who fancies cheap transportation and social encounters. In case you prefer more traditional ways of moving around, GREYHOUND bus company has connections between most important cities in Eastern Canada. Just recently my favourite cheap-ass bus company, MEGABUS started driving in Canada, and my experience with the 6-hour bus drive from Toronto to Montréal with 25$ was totally worth the price.
I came up with a little list of things that might be worth visiting in case you ever end up bored in Montréal. Like mentioned before, this island really has something for everyone, so I tried to be diverse with my top 5 Things To Do In Montréal. Here's the map (click to enlarge), and as you can see, almost everything is within walking-distance from each other, only No 5 being 9 metro stops apart:
|Map from maps.google.com|
1. Mount Royal Park ⎮ Parc du Mont-Royal
If you have 1 hour in Montréal, go and see this. Parc du Mont-Royal is in the middle of the city, free to access and a very rewarding destination if you have the energy to climb to the top of the 234m-high mountain in the middle of the island. The park is especially beautiful during autumn, since the trees have started changing their colour (ruska, as we'd say in Finnish) and the maple trees are flaring from different shades of red and orange. The park is full of squirrels, but feed them at your own risk: feeding wild animals is prohibited by law, and might gain you a 50$ fine.
The best part of the park might not be for the faint-hearted, though: the viewpoint, Chalet du Mont-Royal, is accessible through a set of stairs that feel like a never-ending climb. Many locals come here to work out, since running up and down these stairs will surely gain you a great ass. I took a few pictures:
|There will be stairs.... Lots of stairs.|
If you make it to the top, the view is absolutely astounding (my face not included). You can see the whole horizon of Montréal with its skyscrapers and suburbs, the fleuve of St. Lawrence in the background. I have a thing for viewpoints and high places like this, and so far I have a somewhat similar picture from all the cities I've visited during the last 2 years. We already tried to access the place over a year ago, and I can tell from experience that trying to climb this park at midnight in a fairly intoxicated state is not going to work out. Just saying.
Speaking about midnight, the park is closed during the night - meaning, it has no streetlights of any kind. My amis quebecoises told me that according to the urban legend, gay men use to come here during the night to have sex. So unless you're into that, I suggest you do your trip to Parc du Mont-Royal before sunset, as it gets dark really quickly afterwards during fall and winter.
Website: Le Mont-Royal
2. Chinatown ⎮ Le Quartier Chinois
If you seek to hide from French and smoked meat, the typical Montréal dish, find your way to Chinatown (Le quartier chinois de Montréal, 蒙特利尔唐人街) in Rue de la Gauchetière. The neighbourhood is filled with restaurants, convenience stores and shops for Asian food, and is the home for many East Asian communities. Many of the restaurants import their products straight from China, so a somewhat authentic experience should be quaranteed. The place is especially popular during lobster season, so if you're looking forward to eating in Chinatown around April-June, make sure to have a reservation.
Like said, French and sometimes even English are practically useless in many of the shops. Some of them have put signs outside of their doors specifying what languages are to be used in case you decide to enter: my favourite one said "We speak French, English and 6 dialects of Chinese". So go ahead and choose! Most signs are written in traditional or simplified Chinese, with occasional pinyin (which makes it much easier to stroll around for someone who took one beginner course of Chinese in uni).
|Flags of The Republic of China hung above the pedestrians' walk|
This district really has its own atmosphere, so make sure to pop by if you fancy a break from all the canadianess. The smell of Asian food is almost irresistible, so it might be better to arrive with an empty stomach.
Best Restaurants in Chinatown: Restomontreal
3. Rue St-Catherine
Rue Ste-Catherine West is The Street in downtown if you're planning on having a night out or go shopping in Montréal. The street used to have a sketchy reputation as the district for prostitution and strip clubs, but nowadays it's more of a center for Montréal's cultural life. During the day it offers countless of clothing stores from casual brands to expensive luxury boutiques, and during the night it transforms into a pulsating cityscape with flashing led-lights, nightclubs and street kitchens. And in case you're into strip clubs, they still have that too. The entrances for these places are also much less discrete than what I'm used to: it seems that Rue Ste-Catherine really is comfortable with its history.
Rue Ste-Catherine travels through many different city blocks from business district to Montréal's gay village and Place des Arts, Montréal's central concert venue, which works as a location for the annual Montréal Jazz Festival. The street is also close to many university campuses, such as McGill and Concordia University.
|An entrance to a strip club, visible from at least 50 meters apart|
The street is really long, so don't try to walk from one end to another at 3am in the morning with high heels. Just saying.
4. Old Montréal ⎮ Vieux-Montréal
Montréal's Old Town is the touristic center of the city, and your primary destination if you want to buy souvenirs, visit museums or taste Montréal's classic, smoked meat. In case you're wondering, it's basically a sandwich stuffed with a thick layer of meat slices. Old Town offers many restaurants that serve this traditional food, but make sure to choose the right place - not all restaurants offering smoked meat actually know how to cook it. Speaking from experience here.
Old Town is a picturesque district with cute old houses and narrow alleys, and has a very European feeling to it. It's very charming in its own way, but might not be that astonishing for someone from the old continent: the architecture and style remind me a lot of Stockholm's Gamla Stan, or even my Helsinki a little. The district offers a lot for a northern American who can't afford flying across the Atlantic, though.
And like any typical European city centre, Montréal's Old Town has rows after rows of souvenir shops filled with printed T-shirts, moose figurines and items related to Montréal Canadiens hockey team. And hats like this:
|A very necessary equipment during +40 degrees|
The Old Town is directly connected to Old Port, which might also be worth a visit - especially if you're a fan of circus, since it's the home of world-renown Cirque du Soleil. The Old Port has pretty walkways and facilities for cycling, and reminds me a lot of Amsterdam in this sense.
|Montréal seen from the Old Port|
Sadly I don't have many pictures from the Old Town, since my camera was running out of battery at the time. Hopefully a picture of me with a raccoon hat repaid the loss somehow.
5. Botanical Garden ⎮ Jardin Botanique
The last attraction of my list is a bit further from the city centre, and not necessarily the most typical spot for tourists - which is exactly why I wanted to include it in my list! I've always been very keen on botanical gardens since I was a kid, but Jardin Botanique de Montréal offers something very special during autumn. I was lucky enough to pop by the city close to Halloween, when the Botanical Garden hosts a pumpkin decorating competition. The pumpkins are on a display inside the greenhouses, which are decorated to suit the seasonal festivity.
More than just pumpkins, the Gardens of Light -event takes part in the Chinese garden to bring light into darkening nights. The view is absolutely breathtaking, and unfortunately pretty hard to capture on camera. The lanterns on display around the garden are handmade in Shanghai, and the biggest one of them is placed in the center of the pond.
The visit is rather pricy for non-residents (and I can't really explain how good it felt to declare myself as a resident....), but with the price of 19.90$ you gain access to all the greenhouses, the lantern festival and the Japanese garden. It's a perfect destination for dates.
The Botanical Garden is also located right next to the Olympic Stadium, if you're interested in seeing some rather confusing architecture:
Hopefully my list made you feel like Canada should definitely be your next travelling destination. If you have any tips as to what else there is to see and experience in Montréal, please share your wisdom with me!