The meeting’s over. You’ve got a little time to explore. It’s your chance to get out of that hotel room, get off the beaten path, and experience the culture, the flavor, and the people.
The crescent-, or may we say, croissant-shaped island of Montreal is located just a few kilometers north of the U.S. border and just about on the same longitude as New York City. With the majestic St. Lawrence River rolling along its lower banks, and the Laurentian Mountains a few hours to the north, it is an urban jewel in an equally beautiful natural setting.
Say what? Make no mistake: Montreal is one of the world’s largest French-speaking cities that just happens to be located in a largely English-speaking (but officially bilingual) country. Many Montrealers are fluent in English, if not native speakers, and you should have little problem communicating in English in the more international / tourist areas. That said, Montreal is also home to the largest group of Anglophones in the province, so if you are lost in the country, you might want to bring a phrase book.
Ride on: While easily navigable on foot, Montreal’s efficient rubber-tired subway system (or métro, in French) rolls through some uniquely designed stations, each with its own distinct flair. Prefer to stay above ground? Grab a pay-as-you-go Bixi bike and navigate the sights on two wheels (but don’t forget your helmets, folks, head injuries are no fun, especially on vacation).
Get out: Montreal is well-known for its festivals (and let’s face it, with six months of winter, you make the most of outdoor weather). You may already be familiar with the world-famous International Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs Festival events during the summer months. On its heels comes the International Fireworks Festival, and later in the year, Piknic Electronik rocks Jean-Drapeau Park, located smack dab on an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence. The Arab World Festival brings dance, art, music, and cinema from all over the Middle East to various venues throughout the city.
Tuck in: Get ready for some only-in-Montreal culinary treats. First up:
poutine (photo right), a wonderfully sinful mixture of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy that goes especially well with beer or three (try one of the delicious offerings from locally based brewery Unibroue). Opinions on the best poutine are as varied and vociferous as the best Philly cheesesteak or New York bagel, but two commonly-lauded suppliers are La Banquise and Maamm Bolduc.
Speaking of bagels, Montreal has a unique variety that gives their southern cousins a run for their money. Head to St-Viateur Bagel and see for yourself. After your bagel fix, work off the carbs by heading down Boulevard Saint-Laurent a few blocks and hit up another culinary institution, Schwartz’s Deli, for their signature smoked meat.
Take a hike: The city of Montreal is named for the expansive Mount Royal, an urban oasis which, much like Central Park in New York City, offers a breath of fresh air and a respite from the concrete expanse below. Head to top for stunning views similar to the skyline picture above. Once back in the city, amble along the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal for a trip back in time.