Montreal an eclectic blend of European and American

Situated on the St. Lawrence River in the province of Quebec, Montreal is a city that may not immediately jump out at a traveller to North America. However, it has many features that make it a must for a trip across the pond. It is easily accessible both from major hubs including New York, Boston and Toronto, as well as the UK (with budget operators opening affordable routes there in recent years), Montreal is the world’s 2nd largest French speaking city after Paris. This may seem daunting, but given most people are bilingual, it’s not difficult to get by without the language. That’s not to say that trying to speak French isn’t appreciated, but it can often be a frustrating place to attempt to practice – more often than not you’ll find yourself switching to English mid-conversation as locals cotton on to the fact you aren’t fluent.

If you wanted one word to describe Montreal, it would have to be ‘unique’. It’s an eclectic blend of European and American – too busy to be a quiet European town but with too much character to be a grey American metropolis. Summers are hot and humid, winters see temperatures drop to lows of negative 30 Celsius and snowfalls well into March and April, autumns are pleasantly warm with beautiful nature on display and spring is almost non-existent with rapid and unpredictable shifts between hot summery days and sudden drops in temperature ensuring winter won’t be easily forgotten. You’ll see and hear French everywhere, and Montrealers take pride in the uniqueness of their history and culture and within Canada it sits apart. Even within Quebec, as a city with several English universities and large English speaking enclaves, Montreal carves out its own niche as a diverse, vibrant and multicultural space – perfect for visitors.

At a push you could see most of Montreal’s tourist sites in several days; Mont Royal, with its gentle forest hikes to the skyline lookout platform, is a year round treat (but autumn is especially enjoyable with the changing leaves and cooler temperatures making for an incredibly pleasant experience); Vieux-Port’s grand French architecture, quaint shops, the impressive Notre-Dame Basilica and cobbled winding streets mean you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d hadn’t even left Europe; the Biodome in the converted 1976 Olympic Velodrome offering visitors an experience of the major ecosystems and climates of the Americas; the botanical gardens as a place to relax and explore; and St Catherine’s many shops and malls satisfying your inner shopaholic.

Montrealers are obsessed with hockey and the whole city is solidly behind their beloved NHL team: the Canadiens (otherwise known as the Habs). It’s impossible to walk around town without seeing their logo plastered everywhere. Even if you don’t follow the sport or know the rules, catching a game is well worth the hassle of getting last minute tickets: the atmosphere is brilliant and the entertainment constant. Just pray they win though as leaving the stadium into the freezing winter night with a lot of upset fans isn’t fun!

However, the real joy of the city is taking time to delve into its nooks and crannies for its hidden treasures. Montreal was designated the world’s best study abroad city in 2017 by QS and is home to the highest number of students per capita in all of North America, hence entertainment is never in short supply. Notable places to explore are the Gay Village, Mile End, the Plateau, Crescent Street and St Laurent Boulevard, all boasting many cool little bars, impressive street art, clubs and eateries aplenty to cater to all tastes. For a classically Montreal experience, try the local speciality of poutine, best experienced at either Pitati Pitata or La Banquise, forever competing to be the people’s favourites. Schwartz and Dunn’s both offer their take on the other Montreal specialty of smoked meat. Café Chat l’Heureux is another off the beaten path spot serving delicious vegetarian food and coffee, but more importantly was the first dedicated cat cafe in North America. It is home to adorable resident cats and playful foster kittens – give yourself a while here though as you’ll absent mindedly pass hours with the cats if you’re not careful. That’s also not to mention places such as Warehouse, Fairmount Bagels, Modavie Bistro, the Keg Steakhouse and Brigade Pizzeria among a plethora of other great dining experiences.

Moreover, Montreal is home to innumerate events throughout the year – over the summer it is home to many festivals including the renowned Jazz and Comedy festivals. The winter months don’t put a stop to this though – in fact one of the most unique experiences you can have here is during January’s Igloofest (a dance and EDM festival located outside in Old Port where packed crowds and exuberant dancing are your means to ward off temperatures well below freezing). Bars such as TRH Bar and L’Escalier also offer you memorable experiences, albeit for very different reasons; the former a dimly lit dive bar with a skate park in its centre, where you can witness competing boarders try to outdo each other’s tricks; the latter an intimate pub famous for its live folk music. This is best experienced with Monday night gatherings of local musicians jamming out traditional Quebecois tunes.

These are but a few of the multitude of places to while away your holiday, and many more are out there waiting to be discovered. Whilst it may not be the most obvious choice, there are plenty of good reasons to make Montreal the location for your next getaway, and whatever you do there you’re sure to have an adventure and discover something truly special that you’ll want everybody to see too.

Article by University of Birmingham student Thomas Crawford for Blog About Holidays.

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