I thought I was simply crossing the border into Canada, but when people surrounding me began speaking French, I understood why so many refer to Montreal as a city with a European heart. Upon first glance, Montreal doesn’t scream, “Love me, for I am beautiful.” In fact, my driver from the airport even admitted, “Montreal isn’t beautiful. We aren’t Paris, London or Barcelona. But what we have is the quality of life, that joie de vivre.” And it is in this vibrant city that I discovered a lively, energizing home to the friendliest of people feeling I had traveled across the ocean when in actuality I was only hours away from the States.
Viva la France and God Save the Queen
Montreal is really two different cities. Founded by the French in 1608, the British took rule in 1763, though French is the official language of Quebec Providence and is required learning in schools. Even in the 21st century, the city remains divided. When the British arrived, they wanted nothing to do with the French and lived in their own area, north of Rue St. Laurent. Today, the majority of English-speaking residents still reside in these neighborhoods, and those who speak French live south of Rue St. Laurent. (Immigrants not wanting to be with either hung close to the dividing street, where you will find Chinatown, Little Italy, the Jewish Quarter and the like.)
In English neighborhoods, the buildings are more traditional. In French neighborhoods, more gothic. In Victoria Square, the Metro station, or subway, is indicated not in typical blue signage but with an official Metropolitan Art Deco structure direct from Paris, a gift when the Metro was completed in the 1960s. Directly across the street, facing the station, stands a statue of Queen Victoria. In Old Montreal, where a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson was erected near the ports, a statue of a French seaman who served in Nova Scotia but never lived in Montreal was erected to make sure a Frenchman was also standing guard.
While the hub of the city rests along the St. Lawrence River, its port and old town structures of stone were demolished in the 1900s to make way for more traditional and English-Styled buildings. Although it still has a feeling of an old, quaint port area, Old Montreal does not showcase the neighborhood’s original French history. Still, intimate streets that feel more like alleys meander through the concrete structures with adorable restaurants and rows of souvenir shops. You’ll walk up a few steps to enter each building, which isn’t due to floods from the river, but to the average 7 feet of winter snow that falls on the city each year.
Today, the French and English barriers have evaporated (most everyone is fluent in both English and French) and Montreal is a concoction of French, England and North American influences creating a wonderful melting pot of flavor.
Discovering the Melting Pot
Like Manhattan, Montreal is an island broken down by its own special neighborhoods, albeit it 1.9 times larger than its American counterpart with a less dense population. Locals say the island resembles a French croissant, as everything revolves around food in the French culture (which means delicious and decadent meals for travelers). Most visitors to the island head straight for Old Montreal the way first-timers may choose to visit New York’s Times Square or Boston’s Faneuil Hall. In fact, the Marche Bonsecours is similar to Fanueil Hall’s Quincy Market, formerly the city’s agricultural marketplace in the mid-1800s and today a bustling shopping area showcasing local artists and designers. The port area’s Science Center on King Edward’s Pier is such a combination of interesting scientific and technological games, interactive areas and exhibits that even the locals come to Montreal to visit.
But like Manhattan and Boston, Montreal’s many neighborhoods deserve to be discovered. On the center of the island rests Montreal’s namesake, Mont-Royal, more a hill, really, but don’t let the local hear you say that! The mountain provides year-round outdoor activities for residents, from skiing and ice skating in the winter to biking and rollerblading in the summer, with a park system designed by Central Park’s architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
At the base of the mountain, the Golden Square Mile is the first to catch my attention. Rue Sainte-Catherine, the Fifth Avenue of Montreal, is home to store like Hermes and Gucci as well as high-end hotels like the Ritz-Carlton. Crescent Street, a former British residential street now filled with art galleries, boutiques and outdoor dining establishments, also reminds me of Boston’s Newbury Street. Under these streets Underground Montreal is an intricate 20-mile network of passageways to make the city easy to maneuver in the dead of winter, connecting to shops, hotels, banks and the Metro when they above streets are covered with snow.
Although Rue St. Laurent, former immigrant neighborhoods are now hidden pockets of culture. In Little Italy, the neighborhood’s farmer’s market is filled with gourmet fromage stores and patisseries, as well as bins of fresh vegetables perfect for stewing in an Italian tomato sauce. In the Jewish Quarter, St. Viateur Bagel & Cafe is the city’s oldest bagel shop, churning out 500 hand-rolled bagels a day that have soaked in honey water and are so delicious straight from the over, no toppings are required. But although the Latin Quarter’s Rue St. Denis is filled with bars and nightlife, don’t expect to find a Latin influence. The Latin Quarter, as in Paris, is filled with the city’s universities where students once studied Latin.
But never is Montreal more global than when hosting its annual Festival International de Jazz, one of the world’s largest jazz festivals. For more than 40 years, this Canadian city has welcomed acts from more than 30 countries every June and July for the two-week extravaganza. More than 250,000 visitors will descend upon the city to see one or more of 500 concerts, including 350 shows free to the public on 10 outdoor stages set up around Place des Arts, yet, somehow, it never feels to crowded and it’s easy to come and go, with music never drowned out by crowds. Jazz reigns supreme, but music lovers will also be thrilled to discover blues, R&B and Dixieland. Past performers include Harry Connick Jr., Sean Lennon, Bob Dylan, and more.
When visiting Quebec, take the time to get to know Montreal and discover why so many different cultures have fallen in love with this inviting stay.