Canada might stamp your passport when you arrive in Montreal, but with your first glimpse of the city's cobblestone streets, sunny sidewalk cafes and wrought-iron balcony railings, you'll feel as though you've been whisked off to Europe. With French street signs, upscale boutiques and joyful elan of its people, Montreal feels more like Paris than a major North American metropolis. Canada's second-largest city is home not only to a French-speaking majority but also to native English speakers and immigrants from all over the world.
Montreal balances opposing forces gracefully, maintaining its historic old town area just across the St. Lawrence River from the innovative geometric architecture of Habitat 67, a modern housing development. The towering office buildings in Montreal's downtown core reach for the sky alongside Mount Royal, the gentle mountain whose acres of parkland provide quiet respite just a few blocks from the city's energetic commercial district.
Political and cultural differences between the French province of Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canada have caused tension over the years. Montreal was founded by French Catholic settlers in 1642 as Ville-Marie and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The small colony survived years of harsh winter weather and bloody skirmishes with Iroquois tribes only to be taken over, along with the rest of French Canada, by the British following the French and Indian War. Despite the British occupation, the present-day province of Quebec has staunchly maintained its French language and culture, leading to 20th-century efforts to make the province a sovereign nation.
The city's influences -- French, English and many others -- are evident in the variety of languages spoken on the street and in the architectural marvels that include everything from old-world to modern structures in traditional to avant-garde styles. You'll find a mix of European chic, cutting-edge culture and a cool urban vibe.
Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal: The ornate Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal, an early 19th-century cathedral, boasts 228-foot twin towers and one of North America's biggest bells. Inside are intricate wood carvings, a magnificent organ with more than 7,000 pipes and a brilliant blue ceiling strewn with gold stars. (116 rue Notre-Dame Ouest; 866-842-2925)
Vieux-Montreal: Also known as Old Montreal, this area was home to the city's first European settlers, who arrived in the mid-17th century. Many of the homes and buildings have been restored, and the old city has wonderful boutiques, sidewalk cafes and street performers. The center of the action is Place Jacques-Cartier, a pedestrian mall. Nearby, Vieux Port is one of Montreal's best-loved recreation spots; this waterfront park is a terrific place to take a stroll or sign up for speedboat rides and sunset harbor cruises. You can even rent paddleboats and join a Segway tour.
Parc du Mont-Royal: Bike, walk or even take a horse-drawn carriage ride through Parc du Mont-Royal. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (designer of New York's Central Park), it's composed of nearly 500 acres of forest and winding paths and lies atop the mountain in the heart of Montreal. On the way down from the mountain, stop by St. Joseph's Oratory (3800 chemin Queen Mary), a massive domed shrine to Canada's patron saint.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts: This is the city's premier repository of art representing numerous eras and styles, from 19th-century European masterpieces to Native American and Inuit artifacts. (1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest; 514-285-2000)
Shopping: Montreal is a shopper's delight. Three major areas include rue Sherbrooke, which is known for its fashionable designer boutiques and gourmet restaurants; rue Ste.-Catherine, located in the downtown area, where you'll find major malls like the Eaton Center; and boulevard St.-Laurent, whose shops, galleries and restaurants offer a more multi-cultural atmosphere. Another area worth seeking out is the funky Quartier Latin, anchored by rue St.-Denis. Don't let bad weather keep you from hitting the shops. If it's rainy or cold, just retreat to Montreal's "underground city," shopping tunnels downtown where you'll find passageways lined with more than 1,000 stores.
Olympic Stadium: Check out the sights in Hochelaga-Maisonneauve, a neighborhood in eastern Montreal. This district played host to the 1976 Summer Olympics, and you can still tour the massive Olympic Stadium (4545 Avenue Pierre-De Coubertin; 514-252-4141). Take a ride to the top of the attached tower for views over the city.
Nature and Science: One intriguing attraction that's fun for kids and adults alike is the Biodome (4777 avenue Pierre-De Coubertin; 514-868-3000). At this zoo and environmental museum, you'll see animals and plants in five habitats: the tropical forest, the Laurentian forest, the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Labrador Coast and the Sub-Antarctic Islands. (The penguins are a fan favorite.) Also nearby are the lovely Botanical Gardens (4010 rue Sherbrooke Est.; 514-872-1400) and the kid-friendly Insectarium (4581 rue Sherbrooke Est.; 514-872-1400). The Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium (4801 Avenue Pierre-De Coubertin; 514-868-3000) is the fourth element of Canada's largest natural science museum cluster -- the Montreal Space for Life, which offers hands-on immersion.
Casino de Montreal: Test your luck at Casino de Montreal, one of the world's biggest. There's a dress code, though it's been relaxed in recent years to accommodate casual attire.
On Foot: Once you get out of the immediate port area, Montreal is a very walkable city.
By Taxi: Line up at the dock. Major companies include Taxi Diamond (514-273-6331) and Taxi Coop (514-725-9885).
By Public Transportation: To get around the city like a resident, ride the sleek Metro, with its clearly marked signs. While you're waiting for your train, check out the colorful murals on the walls -- no two stations are alike. Both the metro and the public bus service are run by the Societe de Transport de Montreal (STM); the fares for either form of transport are very affordable, and packages are available. If you plan on traveling frequently, try a tourist pass, available for one day or three days.
By Car: Avis (800-879-2847), National (877-222-9058) and Alamo (514-875-9988) have agencies located downtown as well as at the airport.
By Bike: The city features nearly 400 miles of bike paths. Bikes can be rented from Montreal on Wheels, located a five-minute walk from the terminal.
Traditional Quebec cuisine is hearty, and it's influenced by the two largest ethnic groups in the province, the French and the Irish. Standout items include artisan cheeses (many are not available outside Quebec) and maple syrup that is tapped at local sugar shacks in early spring. (For a decadent treat, try pouding chomeur, a pancake-pudding hybrid with maple syrup sauce.) Other dishes that offer a true taste of Quebec: tourtiere, a traditional meat pie filled with minced pork, beef or wild game; pate chinois, a local version of shepherd's pie; creton, a fatty pork spread with onions and spices; soupe aux pois, a pea soup with ham hock broth. Poutine -- a combination of French fries, cheese curds and gravy -- is available all over Canada but arguably best in Quebec. Gourmet versions feature sophisticated add-ins like lobster and foie gras. In Montreal, don't miss one of the famous bagels (top shops include St. Viateur and Fairmount), wood-fired and both sweeter and denser than their NYC counterparts. They come in several flavors, but poppy seed is the local favorite.
Modavie: It offers mouth-watering Mediterranean cuisine in a beautiful setting overlooking the waterfront and the cobblestone streets of Old Town. Be sure to sample the well-stocked wine bar. (1 rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514-287-9582; open 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily for lunch)
Stash Cafe: This is a Polish restaurant tucked away in Old Town. It's a perfect spot for a warm and hearty lunch when there's an autumn nip in the air. Try the pierogi or the golabki (cabbage rolls with potatoes and vegetables). (200 rue St.-Paul Ouest; 514-845-6611; open from 11:30 a.m. daily)
Les 400 Coups: A bit more refined, the cuisine is served in a warm atmosphere. You'll find seasonal cuisine made with local ingredients. (400 rue Notre Dame Est.; 514-985-0400; open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; open for dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday).
Ferreira Cafe: This Portuguese venue that draws business travelers and public figures. On its menu, you'll find meat and seafood dishes, as well as soups and appetizers with a Portuguese influence. (1446 rue Peel; 514-848-0988; open for lunch 11:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday)
Maison Boulud: Located at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal, it's run by acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud. He puts a modern spin on French culinary tradition with a focus on local ingredients and Quebecois products. Guests can eat in an outdoor dining area overlooking a beautifully manicured garden or enjoy a glass-enclosed greenhouse during cooler months. (1288 rue Sherbrooke Ouest; 514-842-4224; open for lunch noon to 2 p.m.)