With its picturesque location on the confluence of the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers, you could be forgiven for thinking that Montreal is a pretty riverfront city just like any other. Yet this prominent Canadian city is especially distinctive for another reason – it's one of the largest French-speaking cities in the world.
Founded by French explorers as a fur trading post in the 1600s, Montreal has been the focal point of Francophone culture in Canada ever since. An officially bilingual city, it is nevertheless French you will hear wafting from the bars and cafes of Old Montreal, with the city proud of its heritage and unique ties to France.
Old Town, New Ideas
Montreal's physical attractions are both visual and varied. The Notre-Dame Basilica in historic Old Montreal is one of the city's most recognisable tourist attractions. Towering over the southern fringe of the Place d'Armes, this stunning Gothic Revival church is a great starting point from which to explore Old Montreal's charming cobblestone streets and rejuvenated Vieux Port (Old Port).
Montreal's bustling Downtown might not boast the heritage of Old Montreal, but it's just as lively and architecturally vibrant. Dominated by the looming Mont Royal which peers down over the city, Downtown is home to much of McGill University's neoclassical campus, as well as the futuristic Underground City – an interconnected network of passageways built for Montrealers to escape the frigid winter snow.
'The Sun Rises In The South'
For added proof of just how different the city really is, try watching the sun rise in the East End. It's easier said than done, because Montreal's unconventional habit of using the Saint Lawrence River and Mont Royal as cardinal points renders an actual compass useless. Thus in Montreal the sun really does rise in the south – a curious anomaly very much in keeping with the vibe of this eclectic city.
If Montreal does geography differently, so too does some of the city's food deserve a classification all its own. In particular, fast food specialty poutine looks almost as frightening as it sounds, with this curious concoction created by topping french fries with cheese curds and a thin brown gravy. Strange as it may sound, poutine is beloved across the province of Quebec, as is the Montreal-style smoked meat sold predominantly in delicatessens throughout the city.
A City Of Culture
While Montreal's physical attributes are rightly lauded, what makes Canada's second-largest city such an enduring drawcard is its jam-packed cultural calendar. Founded in 1980, the Montreal Jazz Festival is now the largest annual jazz festival in the world – routinely attracting crowds in excess of 100,000 to individual events.
Not to be outdone, Just For Laughs has morphed from a small two-day French-language gathering into the world's largest comedy festival. With a cavalcade of the world's biggest comedy stars calling into town each July, hotels can be hard to come by. But don't let that dissuade you from booking early and enjoying one of Montreal's most beloved summer institutions, alongside thousands of high-spirited locals and eager tourists alike.
Montreal On Ice
If it's colder climes you desire, then Montreal in January is as wintry as it comes. And when winter rolls around it means one thing for Montreal's sports fans – hockey season. The National Hockey League was founded in the city in 1917 and the Montreal Canadiens have been an integral member ever since, with games at their Centre Bell home restlessly sold out months in advance – although you can try your luck with the touts.
While temperatures invariably plummet once winter rolls around, there's no denying that Montreal's gabled rooftops and snow-powdered streets offer the city an unforgettable ambiance. But no matter what time of year you travel, Montreal is sure to delight even the world-weariest of traveller. From its links to French culture to historic Old Montreal and the friendly locals who call this city home, Montreal is one Canadian destination which deserves a spot on any North American itinerary.