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It may be Canada that stamps your passport when you arrive in Montreal, but at 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. From the French street signs and the high fashion of its upscale boutiques to the joyful elan of its people, Montreal feels more like Paris than like a major North American metropolis. But of course it's the latter too -- it's Canada's second-largest city, home not only to its French-speaking majority but also to native English speakers and immigrants from all over the world.
Montreal balances its 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 experimental housing development. The towering office buildings in Montreal's downtown core reach for the sky alongside Mont-Royal, the gentle mountain whose acres of parkland provide quiet respite just a few blocks from the city's energetic commercial district.
Montreal's contradictions don't always sit so smoothly -- the political and cultural differences between the French province of Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canada have caused quite a bit of 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 local 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 some 20th-century efforts to make the province its own 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 and avant-garde styles. You'll find a mix of European chic, cutting-edge culture and a cool urban vibe.
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Other Canada & New England Cruise Ports:
Bar Harbor • Bayonne (Cape Liberty) • Boston • Charlottetown (Prince Edward Island) • Halifax • Montreal • New York (Manhattan) • Newport • Portland (Maine) • Quebec City • Saint John (New Brunswick) • St. John's (Newfoundland) • Sydney (Nova Scotia)
Anything French is a sure bet: pastries, magazine, wine. Montreal is also well known for its bagels and maple syrup.
The official language is French, but most Montrealers speak English and are generally helpful to visitors.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The national currency is the Canadian dollar. Visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for up-to-date information. ATM's are everywhere.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at the Montreal Cruise Terminal, just steps away from Old Port of Montreal and Old Montreal.
Montreal's cruise terminal is within walking distance of Old Montreal, the city's charming historic district. Do some shopping at the Marche Bonsecours, enjoy lunch along Place Jacques-Cartier or simply soak up the atmosphere as you wander the cobblestone streets. Or you can stick around the old port area; the vibrant neighborhood there includes the quays of Old Port and an urban beach. Other nearby attractions include a science center, an IMAX theater and a clock tower you can climb for great views of the city. If you're feeling more adventurous, take a jet boat ride along the St. Lawrence River (www.jetboatingmontreal.com).
On Foot: Once you get out of the immediate port area, Montreal is a very walkable city.
Taxis: Line up at the dock. Major companies include Taxi Diamond (www.taxidiamond.com) and Taxi Coop (www.taxi-coop.com).
Public Transportation: To get around the city like the locals, 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. (Info: www.stm.info)
Renting a Car: Hertz (800-263-0600, www.hertz.com), Avis (800-321-3652, www.avis.com) and National (514-636-9090, www.nationalcar.com) have agencies located downtown as well as at the airport.
Renting a Bike: When the weather is warm, Montrealers head outside to take advantage of their city's nearly 400 miles of bike paths. Bikes can be rented from Montreal on Wheels (www.velomontreal.com), located just five minutes' walk from the terminal.
Watch Out For
As you should in any major city, be careful when carrying cash, wallets and purses, and leave unnecessary valuables stowed in your in-cabin safe.
The grand and ornate Basilique Notre-Dame-De-Montreal (116 rue Notre-Dame Ouest, 866-842-2925), an early 19th-century cathedral, boasts 228-foot twin towers and one of North America's biggest bells. Inside are intricate wooden carvings, a magnificent organ with more than 7,000 pipes and a brilliant blue ceiling strewn with gold stars. A sound and light show -- "And There Was Light" -- is shown there twice a day, Tuesday to Saturday, in several languages.
Vieux-Montreal, or Old Montreal, 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 rafting expeditions and harbor cruises. You can even rent bicycles and in-line skates.
Bike, walk or even take a horse-drawn carriage ride through Parc du Mont-Royal. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of New York's Central Park fame), it's comprised of early 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.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, 514-285-2000) is the city's premier repository of art representing numerous eras and styles, from 19th-century European masterpieces to Native American and Inuit artifacts.
Been There, Done That
Montreal is a shopper's delight. Three major areas to whip out your plastic include rue Sherbrooke, which is known for its tony designer boutiques and gourmet restaurants; rue Sainte-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 into Montreal's "underground city," where you'll find passageways lined with over 1,000 stores.
Check out the sights in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, 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 up to the top of the attached tower for views over the city. One intriguing attraction that's fun for kids and adults alike is the Biodome (4777 avenue Pierre-De Coubertin, 514-868-3000). At this part zoo, part environmental museum, you'll see animals and plants in four re-created habitats: the tropical forest, the Laurentian forest, the St. Lawrence marine ecosystem and the polar world. (The penguins are a fan favorite.) Also nearby are the lovely Botanical Gardens (4101 rue Sherbrooke Est, 514-872-1400) and the kid-friendly Insectarium (4581 rue Sherbrooke Est, 514-872-1400). The new 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.
Test your luck at the Casino de Montreal (1 Avenue de Casino, 800-665-2274), one of the world's biggest. There's still a dress code, though it's been relaxed in recent years to include jeans and "tasteful" running shoes -- mostly to accommodate casually dressed Americans.
Julien (1191 rue Union, 514-871-1581), located in the heart of downtown, is a bustling favorite of Montrealers who come for the fine French cuisine, including beef tartare -- one of its specialties. If you're not up for raw steak, the seafood dishes, such as lobster salad are always a good choice.
Modavie (1 rue St-Paul Ouest, 514-287-9582) 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.
The Stash Cafe (200 rue St-Paul Ouest, 514-845-6611) is a Polish restaurant tucked away in Montreal's Old Town. It's a perfect spot for a warm and hearty lunch when there's an autumn nip in the air outside. Try the pierogi or the golabki (cabbage rolls with potatoes and vegetables).
Les 400 Coups (400 Notre Dame Street East, 514-985-0400) is a bit more refined, and cuisine is served in a warm atmosphere. You'll find seasonal cuisine made with local ingredients.
Ferreira Cafe (1446 Peel, 514-848-0988) is a Portuguese venue that draws many business travelers and public figures. On its menu, you'll find lots of fresh meat and seafood dishes, as well as soups and appetizers with a Portuguese influence.
Maison Boulud (1288 Rue Sherbrooke West, 514-842-4224), run by acclaimed chef Daniel Boulud, puts a modern spin on French culinary tradition with a focus on local ingredients and Quebecois products. Visitors can eat in an outdoor dining area overlooking a beautifully manicured garden in the summer, or enjoy a glass-enclosed greenhouse during the winter.
The Big Splurge: The Ritz-Carlton Montreal (1228 Sherbrooke Street, 800-241-3333) is the city's most elegant grande dame, located in the chic Golden Square Mile neighborhood.
Funky and Elegant: Auberge du Vieux-Port (97 rue de la Commune Est, 514-876-0081) is a 27-room hotel housed in a restored 19th-century building near the waterfront. Or try the relatively new Hotel Nelligan (106 rue St-Paul West, 877-788-2040), whose cozy rooms include exposed brick or stone walls and intricate woodwork.
Cheap and Cheerful: The Best Western Ville-Marie Hotel & Suites (3407 Peel Street, 800-528-1234) has a great downtown location.
Staying in Touch
Net 24, 2157 Rue MacKay, 514-575-4777
Netopi@, 1737 Rue St-Denis, 514-286-5446
Intertainment Cafe, 1425 Rene-Levesque W., 514-788-8008
For More Information
On the Phone: Call Tourisme Montreal at 877-BONJOUR
On the Web: www.tourism-montreal.org
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Canada
The Independent Traveler: Canada Travel Guide
Photos of Montreal architecture, Notre-Dame Basilica and the Illuminated Crowd are copyright Tourisme Montreal, Stephan Poulin. Photo of Marche Bonsecours and City Hall is copyright www.old.montreal.qc.ca, le photographe masque. Photo of lamppost in Plateau Mont-Royal is copyright Canadian Tourism Commission, Pierre St-Jacques.