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Montreal is Canada’s second-largest city, and the Western world’s second-largest French-speaking city (Paris being the first). This city is known for its Latin feel, and for being more relaxed than its English-speaking counterparts. The result is bars being open later, fireworks and festivals almost daily in the summer, random drum sessions, people drinking paper-bagged beer in city parks and city officials turning a blind eye. In other words, Montreal is an incredible city.
It’s beautiful, too. Unlike its populous Canadian counterparts like Toronto and Vancouver, which are quickly becoming characterized by condo-littered skylines, Montreal maintains much of its old architecture. It’s not unusual to find a turn-of-the-century façade of a building dating back to t serving as an entrance to a more modern facility. The old town of montreal has also been preserved. You’ve probably seen Old Montreal in several major motion pictures posing as Paris. In the summer, Old Montreal is a Mecca for buskers, tourists, and painters who will re-create you in oil on canvas for a price. In the winter months, Old Montreal is a ghost town, left to the hundreds of thousands of office workers who dwell in ultra-modern offices hidden behind preserved old town facades.
Montreal has been nicknamed the City of a Thousand Belltowers. Climb up on Mont-Royal, the 223-metre high hill smack in the middle of the city for a spectacular panoramic view, and you’ll see why. Church steeples dot the skyline, dating back to when Quebec was under Catholic Church rule. The most impressive (and imposing) of all churches of Montreal is the Saint Joseph Oratory, Canada’s largest church, perched high atop one of Mont-Royal’s summits from where it seems to survey the entire city and surrounding area. Another notable church (and tourist must-see) is Old Montreal’s architecturally dramatic Notre Dame Cathedral, and the wedding chapel of choice for Quebecois notables like Celine Dion.
However, montreal is not without its architectural blunders, most notably the Olympic Stadium, aka the Big Mistake. Built for the 1976 Winter Olympics, it served as a black hole for city tax dollars right up until December 2006, counting on cigarette taxes for the city’s large smoking population to help pay off the bills. The tower, the world’s tallest inclined structure, often appears on postcards and keychains, and is clamoring for landmark status a la the CN Tower in Toronto or the Space Needle in Seattle - to no avail. Although it’s something of an architectural wonder and a worthwhile tourist stopover, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local who warms at the sight of it.
Other buildings, meanwhile, have sparked more public support. Habitat 67, for example, is an eclectic residential unit sitting on a quay facing Old Montreal. The Biosphere, also built for Expo 67, is another notable landmark. It sits Ile-Saint-Helene (Saint Helen Island) of Montreal, home to various attractions like La Ronde amusement park, the Casino, and the enormous Parc Jean-Drapeau. The Biosphere’s acrylic exterior burned down in 1976, leaving only a round shell-like exterior. Today, it houses Environment Canada’s water and environment museum. Perhaps the most architecturally pleasing aspect of montreal lies in the residential neighbourhoods of Montreal. Many older houses contain outdoor spiral staircases originally designed to save tax dollars.
July is the month when Montreal comes alive. Large festivals like the International Jazz Festival, the Just for Laughs Festival, and the Francofolies appear on the calendar back-to-back (with a fireworks festival running parallel). Every Sunday, locals and visitors alike don sarongs, sandals and bongos and congregate in Parc Mont-Royal and drum away all day long. When visitors get sick of the tribal rhythms, they can take a leisurely stroll through the nearby Plateau neighbourhood, home to cafes, used clothing shops and all things trendy. In the summer months, Montreal becomes a magnetic force for eighteen-year-olds from Ontario and nearby U.S. states, who journey up to Montreal to experience drinking legally and staying in a bar until 3 a.m. These rowdy youth tend to wander the streets of Montreal to well into the early hours of the morning, invading downtown nightlife neighbourhoods like Crescent Street, the Latin Quarter, or Saint-Laurent between Sherbrooke and Mont-Royal. On long weekends, savvy tourists are better off turning off the highway towards tranquil Ottawa, or driving three hours northeast further along the Saint Lawrence River to calmer Quebec City instead.
But Montreal is not all good times and pretty buildings. The city is home to a turbulent political history that has left traces visible even today. Consider Saint-Laurent Street. Once known as the Main, it was home to various shops. Today, Saint-Laurent consists of a miniature ChinaTown, then Montreal’s strip club/drug dealer/prostitute district, then a stretch of pricey nightclubs for glossy McGill students and junior business executives, and continues to change character as it crosses the island of Montreal. It also serves as the city’s unofficial dividing line between the English and the French. Basically, anywhere west of this street, you’re likely to find people of English-speaking origin, English-speaking immigrants, and students at the city’s two English universities, McGill University and Concordia University. East of Saint-Laurent, you’d be lucky to find anyone English-speaking at all.
Other than the Olympic Stadium and its surrounding complex, containing visit-worthy attractions like the Insectarium, the Botantical Gardens and the Biodome (four environments recreated indoors, and housing appropriate animals), Montreal’s east end bears little of tourist interest. This is where, back in the days under English rule, the city’s factories and port was built. Housing was built with these workers in mind and is smaller and less spectacular than its West-End counterparts. It’s worth driving through the east end just to see the evidence of separatism: Quebec flags hang in windows, on front doors and on balconies, and the word Oui (“yes” – what 49% of Quebeckers voted in the last referendum) is painted on water towers, walls and other random surfaces.
If you’re planning a visit to Montreal, you may also want to check out a hockey game – Montrealers are obsessed with hockey and their team is the montreal canadiens. The most widely distributed English-speaking newspaper is the montreal gazette. Banking is easy; you’ll find not only the bank of montreal, but just about every other major Canadian bank (and some international ones) as well. Just note that the city’s east end contains much more Quebec banks, like Banque Laurentienne and Desjardins, than ones based in other Canadian provinces. Beware of the gas prices, or prix de l’essence montreal: these tend to be higher than in neighbouring Ontario.