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A Native's Guide to Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Last updated: 2018-10-08   Accesses since 2006-01-10: 62,719

This visitor travel guide was originally written for a conference at the Palais des Congrès, the Montreal Convention Centre, but people still visit, so it will stay online and get occasional updates.

Try the Google Map for this Guide!

Table of Contents, eh? Updated
Montreal History and Geography 2006-02-13
Getting Around in Montreal 2011-01-29
Speaking French in Montreal 2010-01-04
Eating in Montreal 2007-05-07
What to Do in Montreal 2011-01-29
Politics in Montreal, Quebec, Canada 2006-02-20
Guide to the Guides 2007-05-21
Conditions: In April, wear a light jacket and pack an umbrella. | Weather Underground - Weather.com - NE AccuWeather map - QC AccuWeather map | Traffic - Alternate site

Money Tip: Some credit cards charge a lot to convert from Canadian, but you can come to Canada with US dollars and you will tend to get a favourable exchange rate everywhere. In any case, Canadian banks are much better at handling US funds than US banks are at handling Canadian.

Montreal History and Geography

Montreal (pronounced in English, MUN-tree-ALL, in French MO-RAY-AL) is an island city founded on the native settlement of Hochelaga in 1642. Montreal is a city of about 3.5 million people of various ethnic backgrounds, but mostly French and English.

Montreal is an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence river, le fleuve St. Laurent, the outlet of the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. Montreal is 30 miles (48 km) long and 10 miles (15 km) wide. To its north is the slightly smaller sister island of Laval. The island is on close to a 45° angle, but most inhabitants treat long streets like Sherbrooke and Ste. Catherine as running east-west; they may also be unaware that these streets curve with the crescent shape of the island. When a Montrealer refers to east-west, they mean parallel to the river. Keep in mind that there is an east side and a west side to Montreal; address numbers increase as you move away from "The Main" (rue St. Laurent). Nord=North, Est=East, Sud=South, Ouest=West, so 1000 Ste. Catherine O. is west of St. Laurent, and not near 1000 Ste. Catherine E. map of Montreal island linking to map of traffic webcams Montreal is an island on an angle.

The skyline of Montreal is dominated by Mount Royal (mont Royal), a mountain (large hill, really) of about 700 feet (200 m). To preserve the natural skyline, the height of the mountain has been used to limit the height of buildings downtown. The top of the mountain is a park with excellent views of the city.

Fun Fact: It is a common myth that Montreal's "mountain", Mont Royal, is an extinct volcano. Check the Centre d'histoire de Montréal.

Getting Around in Montreal

Montreal is a difficult place to drive, especially for Americans. Taxis are omnipresent and public transportation is good ($3.00 exact change, (no bills on the bus), $23.75 for a weekly pass, or included with a 3-day museum pass), so leave your car behind.

If you feel you must drive...

Signs are French, lanes are unmarked, and there are many potholes (in French, pothole is nid de poule, literally, hen's nest). Speed limits are metric, kph, but if you drive at the posted speed limit as though they were mph, you would not be going much faster than most cars. Right turns after stopping at red lights are not permitted on l'Isle de Montréal (the island of Montreal). Claiming ignorance of the metric system, French, and local traffic laws is not recommended. And never forget, buses always have the right of way.

The signs are mostly in French only, and parking signs tend to be complex, with signs for specific hours (24 hour clock) on specific days (lundi=Monday, mardi=Tuesday, mercredi=Wednesday, jeudi=Thursday, vendredi=Friday, samedi=Saturday, dimanche=Sunday) for specific classes of permits (i.e., not you). You can ignore a ticket and the city may send a French-only letter to your state asking for their cooperation, which they will not receive, although some agencies in Quebec have figured out that English is more effective. There is always the chance that you will get stopped at the border, or have your car impounded if you return to Quebec with the same plates, so pay your fines. parking signs in Montreal can be complex Can you tell if you can park here?

Parking meters in downtown Montreal are computerized. You need to remember your spot letter and number and find a kiosk at which you can pay with cash or credit card in French or English. You can't add to your parking time, but you can pay for new parking, and do so blocks away from your car. Credit cards are accepted by these kiosks, but it's always good for drivers to have a supply of quarters and dollar coins (called "loonies" after the loon on them).

Montreal pedestrians are expert jaywalkers, which is useful because crosswalks are rare and, if present, ignored by drivers. People of all ages can be seen crossing busy streets against lights, away from corners, wherever. The important rule is for drivers to stay in their lanes, or rather where their lanes would be if lanes were visible. If pedestrians are crossing and you have a green light, honk; yielding just encourages them.

Bicyclists in Montreal are bold and reckless. Be especially careful around bicycle paths and on one-way streets, which often feature bicycles going the wrong way. Since 2009, you can rent bicycles on an annual ($78), monthly ($28), or occasional (complicated) basis from bixi, and your first 45 minutes is free. Requires advance planning.

Traffic lights are different in Montreal. Like many cities, cars will go through stale yellow lights and be in the intersection when the light turns red. Unlike some cities, a yellow light for crossing traffic often means for cars at a red light to go. When your light turns green, So, look both ways before proceeding.

When a light turns green, Montreal has two surprises for you. One is that the light may not be green for you (or that it is only green for you). Because left turn lanes are uncommon, busy intersections may have a flashing green (also called a protected green) which means the cars in the opposite direction do not have a green. Of course, some drivers don't know that and go through the red light; they should have read the sign (ATTENDEZ LE FEU VERT - WAIT FOR THE GREEN LIGHT) and have interpreted it correctly. The other unusual feature of Montreal intersections is that when a light turns green, it may only allow drivers to go straight; this is to allow the pedestrians who did not jaywalk to get into a position where they have the right of way.

So..... Taxis, bus/Metro, or walk (it's safe, but watch out for the pickpockets, it's a real city).

For driving around greater Montreal, highways (autoroutes) are referred to by "the" number (e.g., "take the 15 down to the 20").

Maps: Montreal maps

Fun Fact: If you ask a Canadian what animal is on the quarter, they will say "a moose". But, it's not a moose, it's a caribou; everyone knows that, sort of. The dollar coin is called a "loonie" after the loon on it, so the two-dollar coin is called a "twonie" (vraiment). The five-dollar bill has a hockey scene on it with one player wearing Maurice "the rocket" Richard's jersey. Speaking of the local team, the Habs (after habitant, in English), Canadiens is pronounced exactly like Canadians, despite what inept American sports announcers say (they pronounce it like Canadiennes, which would be a team of women).

Speaking French in Montreal

Montreal is the second largest French speaking city in the world. Most Montrealers are bilingual, especially downtown. Montreal is divided into east and west by "The Main", rue St. Laurent. Address numbers increase from The Main, so 10 Sainte Catherine E. is just afew steps from 10 Sainte Catherine O. (Ouest in French for West). To the east of St. Laurent, Montreal is predominantly francophone, and to the west, anglophone. A non-Speaker of French can do well by greeting strangers with a confident Bonjour!. Chances are that anyone who speaks French will recognize the lack of French capability and switch to English. In stores, many clerks will great patrons with "Bonjour/Hi", indicating bilingual capability; a response of bonjour will begin a transaction in French. At the end of a transaction, you will often be sent on your way with a friendly Bonne journée (Have a nice day). There is a nice language guide with audio-files for many terms (although with French, not French-Canadian, pronunciations), and online guides like About.com are plentiful. Wikitravel French Phrasebook.

Counting

In French, there is no confusion like fifteen=15 and fifty=50 in English. Counting in French is not what you would expect in the language of the source of the Metric System.

(The French Swiss say septant=70 and nonant=90, but they might still use quatre-vingts instead of huitant=80 or octant=80; it's a form learned in less than a minute in Switzerland.) In Quebec, numbers (and other words) may not be pronounced like you'd expect. Seize (sixteen), pronounced like SAYS in France, can be pronounced like SIZE in Quebec.

Gender

In French, things have gender, and adjectives must agree with gender (and number, like in English). There's no rhyme or reason for the gender of a thing:
MasculineFeminine
le bras (arm) la jambe (leg)
le pied (foot) la main (hand)

Many street names in Montreal are named after saints.

Tu / Vous

In French, there are two forms of "you". A formal one, vous, is used in more formal discourse, and a familiar one, tu, is used among friends and with children. Different French cultures allow using tu in different situations. I recommend always using vous unless talking to children or someone you know well.

Accents

French letters can have accents to clarify pronunciation and meaning. The cedilla under the "c" in Français indicates is soft "c" like an "s"; without the cedilla, a "c" before an "a" is hard like a "k". Accents can change meaning. Ferme is a farm, but Fermé is "closed".

Pronunciation

In general, it is nearly impossible for anglophones to pronounce French strings of vowels, or diphthongs. Terms like mille-feuille or towns like Longueuil and Vaudreuil bring out some subtleties. Pronouncing French can be aided by knowledge that "th" is pronounced like "t"; there is no sound like the "th" in "thick" or "that", and it is common to hear pronunciations like "tick" or "dat" (while the shibboleth in France is "sick" or "zat"). The letter R is guttural, not rolled like in Spanish. Letters at the ends of words are often not pronounced (e.g., travaillent is pronounced "TRA VIE"). On the other hand, the "p" in psychologie IS pronounced. The letter "h" is always silent. There are exceptions, so fille (girl) is pronounced FEE, but ville (town) is pronounced VILL (sort of). There is no stressed syllable in French words, but the lack of stress makes typically non-stressed syllables seem stressed. See the pronunciation section of the language guide.

Guessing

Guessing the meaning of words can be fun. English contains many words with Latin roots, so many words are similar. But many are not:

Odds'n'Ends

Fun Fact: The hilarious animations Têtes à Claques, at www.tetesaclaques.tv was introduced in August, 2006, and quickly became the most popular francophone website in Quebec. The visually impressive animations spoof popular culture and feature stereotypical Québecois French accents. Another good reason to learn French!

Eating in Montreal

Maybe a lactose-intolerant vegetarian is not your best guide to eating out. My favorite vegetarian restaurants are Le Commensal, of which there is one downtown at the southwest corner of Ste. Catherine and McGill College.

Eating Near the Convention Centre

To look for restaurants near the Palais des Congrès, try Google Local for the postal code H2Z1H2.

Very convenient to the Palais des Congrès is Chinatown (MAP).

For breakfast near the Palais des Congrès, try Eggspectation (201 St-Jacques). For lunch, you might like a sandwich at Titanic (445 rue St-Pierre) in nearby Vieux-Montréal. There are many fine French restaurants and bistros nearby in Vieux Montréal (Old Montreal). Try the Yahoo Restaurant Guide.

What to Try

Montreal features several unique culinary treats. These must not be missed, unless you are concerned about your health.

Switching back to ordinary tourist fare, here is a French lesson on shop names:

Boucherie = Butcher
Boulangerie = Bakery
Charcuterie = Deli
Confiserie = Candies
Dépanneur = Convenience store ("dep" for short)
Épicerie = Grocery
Fromagerie = Cheese
Pâtisserie = Pastry
Many of these serve coffee... strong coffee, as is customary in Montreal.

Fun Fact: There once was a contest to complete the phrase "As Canadian as..." and the winner was "As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances". If you don't understand it, then you aren't Canadian, eh?

What to Do in Montreal

Entertainment

Place des Arts is a short walk from the Palais des Congrès, home of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. In summer, this area is the heart of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The English language Centaur Theatre is nearby.

Le Plateau Mont Royal

The area to the east of Mont Royal, le Plateau Mont Royal, has many shops, restaurants, and clubs. Popular streets in the area include rue St. Denis and boul St. Laurent.

Museums

Old Montreal borders the old port, which features many attractions. If you like museums, you might consider the Montreal Museum Pass, which gets you into 30 museums and includes a public transit pass. Just opened in 2005 is the new Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

Churches

Montreal has many churches including the Notre-Dame Basilica, Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, both a short walk from the Palais des Congrès, and the prominent St. Joseph's Oratory on the west side of Mont Royal. If you get over to St. Joseph's Oratory, try stopping by the Parc du Mont Royal, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, and featuring some beautiful overlooks of the city, day or night.

Fun Fact: The Olympic Stadium (from the 1976 Olympics) cost over a billion dollars and is not regularly used.

Politics in Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Canadian politics, particularly Quebec politics, particularly Montreal politics, always has a language component, specifically French and English. Oh sure, a thorough analysis could get into religion, economics, human rights, labour issues, and corruption, and even race, but the big issue is language. There have been some interesting results of the past 40 years of linguistic conflict in Quebec:

There is some good humour about the language issue: Montréal's Aislin cartoons (Terry Mosher) have been a mainstay of Montréal political satire for decades.

Fun Fact: In the 9-team Canadian Football League of my youth, there were two teams with the same name, and no one noticed, even when the Ottawa Rough Riders (nicknamed the Roughies) played the Saskatchewan Roughriders (nicknamed the Riders). Mention this to a Canadian and they'll say "How about that?"

Guide to the Guides

Here are some links to other Montreal guides:

Montreal Media

Fun Fact: A room full of Americans can seldom name all the provinces of their largest trading partner and friendly neighbour to the north (or that Canada is their largest trading partner), and let's not ask for their capital cities (or which are on islands).

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