Montreal Travel Guide


At the foot of Mount Royal, the downtown area is a heterogeneous mix of post-modern office towers, churches, shops and art galleries, as well as many museums: the Museum of Fine Art whose Pavillon Jean-Noël Desmarais must be seen for its architecture and for its collections of contemporary art; the Museum of Decorative Art ; the Canadian Center for Architecture; the McCord Museum of Canadian History, which is devoted to Canadian history; the Museum of Contemporary Art; the Just for Laughs Museum, in which humour is king; the Fier Monde Ecomuseum, which retraces the history of the popular south-central quarter. Near Mount Royal, McGill University is one of Canada's most prestigious. Its downtown campus is lined with splendid private houses.

When the weather turns cold, descend to the Underground City, where you will find nearly 32km (20mi) of galleries, 10 subway stations, two railway stations, 2,000 shops, hotels, offices, cinemas, parking areas, etc. While the notion is functional and innovative, there's really not much to see - the shops are all modern and most of the system looks no different from a contemporary shopping mall, except that it's bigger and has the Métro going through it.

Plateau Mont Royal
Ignored not so long ago, the Plateau Mont Royal is a trés hip multi-ethnic district located between Rue Sherbrooke and Blvd St Joseph. Charming visitors with its hopping nightclubs, funky shops and droves of eateries, the chief commerical strips are Blvd St Laurent (referred to as 'The Main' by locals) and Rue St Denis. In between, the shady Carrée St Louis and the restaurant-bulging Rue Prince Arthur and Ave Duluth are alive with activity. Full of ornate 19th-century Victorian style homes, the housing is stylish, ornate, colourful and fantastic to walk around as Montréalers go about their business. To the north, Ave Mont Royal is known for its vintage and offbeat clothing stores as well as a jumping nightlife. Heading east along Ave Mont Royal leads to the masterfully planned Parc Mont Royal. This is Montreal's biggest and best park, simply known as 'the mountain', sprouting with nature lovers throughout the year and with spectacular views of the city, the river and surrounds.

Quartier Latin
Distinctly French in character, the Quartier Latin is the Paris-style student district along lower Rue St Denis, with the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) at its heart. Here you'll find row upon row of trendy bars, open-air cafés, bistros and clubs - and more of Montréal's beautiful people than you could poke a mirror at. Just to the east of the Latin Quarter is the hub of the gay community, The Village, which centres around Rue Ste Catherine Est. Among the bars, clubs and cafés is a slightly rougher edge and 'anything goes' attitude, especially during the Gay Pride Festival in early August when things get decidedly outrageous.

The Vieux-Port and Parc des Îles
The Vieux-Port (Old Port) stretches for 2.5km (1.5mi) along the river and consists of four quays: the Vieux-Port Promenade and Esplanade, a favourite strolling spot for Montréal's inhabitants; the Quai de l'Horloge, with its eponymous tower dedicated to sailors; and the Quai Jacques-Cartier. From the latter, a ferry runs to the Parc des Îles, the park created on the two islands that were the site of the 1967 World's Fair. Île Sainte-Hélène now boasts Québec's largest amusement park, and Île Notre-Dame is an artificial island created for the fair in the middle of the river. The Biosphere on Île Saint-Hélène offers a fantastic journey through the Saint Lawrence ecosystem.

Vieux-Montréal - Old Montréal
This 18th-century quarter, around the quays of the Saint Lawrence River, is the city's oldest. Its romantic narrow streets and squares are filled with vendors, visitors, performers, horse-drawn carriages and bars and cafes, it can push the point of rubbing shoulders with the locals a little too literally during the peak season.

The focal point of Vieux Montréal is Place Jacques Cartier, which was set up as a public market space in 1803. Elsewhere among the charm and character of Vieux Montréal is the Place d'Armes, the other major square in the area, featuring the magnificent Basilica Notre Dame. Built in 1829 and big enough to hold 5000 people, the Basilica's luscious, richly detailed interior houses the Chapelle du Sacré Couer (Sacred Heart Chapel) and still attracts legions of admirers.

In the west end of Vieux Montréal is the Place Royale where Ville Marie, Montréal's first small fort town, was built. It later became a marketplace and is now the forecourt of the Veille Douane (Old Customs House), linked to the Pointe à Callière Museum of Archaeology & History. Built on the exact spot of Montréal's first European settlement, the fascinating museum is mostly underground, in the actual ruins of buildings and an ancient sewage/river system.

Off the Beaten Track

Les Laurentides
Between 80km and 150km (50-93mi) north of Montréal, the Laurentian Mountains are a lake-sprinkled playground popular for just about every outdoor pursuit that has been thought of, and probably some that can't be listed. The picturesque French towns and scenery make the area a haven for lazing and relaxing as well. Saint Sauveur des Monts, the first stop-off on the way north, is a small and pleasant resort town that seems perpetually busy. The largest town in the Laurentians and a busy-but-amiable resort centre is Saint Agathe des Monts, a good spot for a picnic or a cruise around the lake and its family-friendly sandy beaches. Mont Tremblant is a three-part resort and park district that marks the northernmost point of the easily accessible Laurentian destinations. Mont Tremblant itself is the area's highest peak and is a major state-of-the-art ski centre and year-round township. For those with a hankering for a touch more grizzly wilderness, the Parc de Mont Tremblant, about 25km (15mi) from Mont Tremblant, is a wild, wooded area that offers plenty of hiking, biking and canoeing opportunities.

Little Italy
While good Italian restaurants can be found throughout Montréal, few can emulate the Old Country with as much determination and distinction as those in the tiny, bustling Little Italy district. An area on the rise around Blvd Saint Laurent in central Montréal's northern limits, in summer a decidedly festive mood prevails along its crowded eateries and sidewalk cafés. The tiny, manicured Parc Martel is the main square with many establishments kicking on into the wee small hours. The ethnically diverse Jean Talon Market is Montréal's largest market with over 250 stalls on a huge square, ringed by shops stocking produce year-round. The selection is overwhelming and haggling over fruits, vegetables, plants and maple syrup is mandatory. The market has become a Montréal favourite and is a really cool place to be on Saturdays.

Parc Olympique
Built for the 1976 Montréal Olympic Games, the massive Parc Olympique cost Montréalers more than $US1 billion and is shrouded in the type of scandal, indignation and allegations of corruption that today's Olympic movement would be proud of. The irony is that the complex, 3km (2mi) east of downtown, is undeniably magnificent and an incredibly popular drawcard for the city.

Finally completed in 1990, its grandiose mulitpurpose showpiece, the Stade Olympique (or 'Big O' to its friends), has carried on the controversial tradition, including a collapsed beam during a football game a year after completion, mechanical mishaps and a laughable litany of repairs. However, these have not dampened visitors' enthusiasm for its tours. A cable car runs up the Montréal Tower, which impressively overhangs the stadium, to a glassed-in observation deck, showing off stunning views of the city and beyond for a distance up to 80km (50mi).

Housed within the former velodrome at the Olympic Complex is the spectacular Biodôme, which re-creates four distinct ecosystems and is home to 5000 plants and 4000 animals, including the too-cute penguins, monkeys and alligators. Elsewhere within Olympic Park are the Jardin Botanique, the third-largest Botanical Gardens in the world; with over 30 different garden settings and plant species galore; and the Insectarium, a great collection of creepy-crawlies that will endlessly fascinate even as they repulse.

Rivière Rouge
About an hour's drive northwest of Montréal is the Rouge River, one of the best white-water rivers in North America. Said to be fantastic fun, day and weekend trips are available with lunch included. Be prepared to go overboard: if your raft doesn't flip in the rapids, the guides will make sure it flips. A restaurant-lodge and pool ensure visitors don't have too tough a time of it. The area is also popular for kayaking trips, mountain biking and rock climbing, not to mention plenty of nude sunbathing - Québecers aren't known to be particularly shy about their bodies, just give them a wave as your raft passes by.

Other Canada Attractions

Canada's capital sprawls along the southern bank of the Ottawa River, on the eastern tip of Ontario. As you'd expect, it's a government town, dominated physically and spiritually by the neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings. You'll hear a fair amount of French spoken here, as many federal government workers are required to be bilingual. There's not a heap of exciting things to do in Ottawa - other than marvel at being in a national capital - but the air's clean, the streets are wide, there are lots of public parks and the people seem happy and healthy as they jog or cycle their way to work. The city has the usual plethora of impressive buildings common to capital cities: the War Museum (with a life-sized replica of a WWI trench), the Royal Mint, various grand old homes inhabited by ministers of state and a swag of museums to do justice to the country's icons: nature, aviation, science and technology, skiing and agriculture. Ottawa is also home to Canada's premier art collection, the National Gallery, displaying an enormous array of North American and European works. In summer the city is dotted with the familiar red coats of the Royal Canadian Mounties.

Ottawa's downtown district is divided into eastern and western portions by the Rideau Canal. The eastern section has a very useful pocket of central guesthouses, most of them with heritage details of some sort. Motels are clustered along Rideau St in the east, and along Carling Ave on the western side of town. Byward Market, east of the canal, has a stack of cheap eateries, and western downtown is the place to go for more upmarket eating.

As the capital of Canada's smallest province (the delectable Prince Edward Island), it's only fitting that Charlottetown comes across as an old, quiet country town. The issue of Canada's unity was first officially discussed here in 1864, and nowadays the tiny capital is known as the birthplace of Canadian confederation. The pace is slow, the atmosphere still colonial, and the tree-lined Victorian streets are very easy on the eye. The oldest part of town is clustered around the waterfront area, with the usual renovated buildings and recreation dollar-chasing facilities. A strident note is sounded by the 1960s modern structure that houses the Confederation Centre of the Arts, which highlights the work of Canadian artists. Prince Edward Island's main claim to fame, however, is the town of Cavendish, the setting for Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, followed by the island's tradition of whopping big lobster suppers.

Edmonton is the capital of Alberta, the most westerly of the prairie provinces. While Calgary milks the wild west image, Edmonton prefers to hit the headlines for housing the world's largest shopping and entertainment mall. The city enjoys an attractively wooded riverside setting, with parklands following the snaking rhythm of the Saskatchewan River. The province's famed mineral legacy is explored in the Provincial Museum, and there's also Canada's largest planetarium, unsurprisingly accompanied by an IMAX theatre. The gem south of the river is Old Strathcona, a residential area of gorgeous old buildings dating from 1891, interspersed with cafes, bookshops and buskers. Which it appears you won't find in all 48 hectares (118 acres) of the West Edmonton Mall, aka the mall that ate Edmonton's retail life. The 800 shops are tacky and repetitive, the chains are too-well represented, and the 'entertainment' includes an artificial beach and skating rink - but the climate is controlled, and for the frost-bitten denizens of the Canadian Plains that's probably reason enough for the mall's success.

Perched on one of the world's largest natural harbours, fog-bound Halifax has gone from old-salt port to deluxe destination, with its historic areas gussied up into sleek tourist precincts. More and more travellers are setting course for Nova Scotia's capital.

Most of Halifax's attractions centre, unsurprisingly, around a maritime theme. The city was the base of rescue operations for the Titanic tragedy and so nabbed much of the highly sought-after flotsam. Its museums, historic warehouses and downtown area, and landmark fort all have a salty flavour.

The immense Northwest Territories were subdivided in 1999 to create Canada's newest territory, the eastern Arctic Inuit region of Nunavut. It's a wild and isolated place, stretching north above the tree line from Hudson Bay up to Ellesmere Island National Park, within spitting distance of the North Pole. The provincial capital is Iqaluit, formerly called Frobisher Bay, on the east coast of Baffin Island. It's more a stopping-off and supply spot than an attraction in itself, though there are hiking trails in the vicinity. Most visitors pass through en route to Auyuittuq National Park, Canada's third largest national park, and one of only a few in the world north of the Arctic Circle. The pristine wilderness of mountains, valleys, fjords and meadows is a spectacular must for experienced hikers, and climbers flock to Mount Thor (1500m/4920ft), the tallest uninterrupted cliff face on earth.

Quebec City
Québec City, the rather European-flavoured capital of Québec province, borrows some of its grandeur from a lofty cape and some from its broad river.

The city divides between an Old Town bristling with historic ramparts, churches, narrow lanes and former battlefields, and districts revamped with museums, cafes, bars, restaurants and all the other mod-cons of international tourism.

St John's
Newfoundland & Labrador's rugged island capital is St John's, North America's oldest city (1528). The hilly town is splendidly located on a series of terraces rising up from the waterfront - there are stairs, stairs everywhere, leading to narrow, winding streets lined with multicoloured clapboard houses. St John's has a quaint, homey feel, and reminders of its fishing village origins are never far away. Not coincidentally, the number of drinking establishments in town is huge. The legacy of the extinct Beothuk tribe who once lived here is explored at the Newfoundland Museum, as are the exploits of the Vikings who used to visit. Many of St John's old buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1892, but those that remain include the Murray Premises, a renovated warehouse from the 1840s. Signal Hill, overlooking the town to the east, is the site where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless message back in 1901. On the other side of the hill is the picturesque fishing port of Quidi Vidi, complete with microbrewery and historic fort.

Although the famous Niagara Falls are nearby, Toronto isn't a city with a checklist full of attractions. It's a city that grows on you slowly. Its summer festivals, the spicy corners of its markets, the beachfront boardwalks and the music pouring out of its neighbourhood eateries seduce you.

Toronto is an experiential city that reveals its secrets slowly. Apart from icons like the cloud-brushing CN tower, the best experiences you'll have in Toronto come from wandering through its ethnically-flavoured neighbourhoods, checking out Victorian architecture and quirky museums.

There aren't many cities in the world that offer Vancouver's combination of big-city lifestyle and outdoor fun in such cheek-by-jowl proximity. Ski in the morning, sail in the afternoon and still make it back to town in time for a cocktail or three.

Taking in some First Nations art and culture is a good way to begin a tour through Vancouver. Continue through its many green spaces, its countercultural and cosmopolitan neighbourhoods, and Gastown, the city's original settlement, now transformed into a gussied-up historical quarter.

Canada's wild west begins in the prairie province of Manitoba, and Winnipeg is its capital. But this culturally alive city is anything but provincial: with its US ambience and architecture, it's often compared to its grain-handling, transportation counterpart, Chicago. The similarities don't end there, as Winnipeg is said to have the windiest downtown corner on the continent (steer clear of the Portage Ave and Main St intersection). Downtown is the place to head for the historic sites and museums. The Museum of Man & Nature is a sight, sound and smell-fest of dioramas that bring the lives of Plains Indians and 1920s Winnipeggers alive. The meeting place of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers has been a people magnet for 600 years and these days it's known as The Forks, a riverside recreation area of redeveloped warehouses and factories. The Exchange District is one of the city's most interesting areas, crammed with Victorian commercial buildings and featuring distinctive old advertising signs. Across the Red River, the residential district of St Boniface is one of Canada's oldest French communities, and is well worth an atmospheric wander.

Algonquin Park
East Ontario's Algonquin Park is one of Canada's best-loved parks, with a dazzling array of hiking and canoeing options. The lake-dotted semi-wilderness has 1600km (992mi) of charted canoe routes to explore, the waterfall-filled Barron Canyon to jump around in, and bear, moose and wolves to run away from. Hikers can opt for a half-hour jaunt or spend days crisscrossing the park's many trails. Algonquin Park is 300km (186mi) north of Toronto, and is accessible by bus in the summer months.

Bay of Fundy
Almost the entire southern edge of New Brunswick is licked by the constantly rising and falling waters of the Bay of Fundy, home to the world's highest tides. The Bay is dotted with the peaceful Fundy Isles, where fishing for lobster is the most strenuous thing to do. The islands include Deer Island, a wooded place of lobster wharves, whales and Old Sow, the world's second-largest natural tidal whirlpool. Campobello Island is a tranquil summer getaway for wealthy New Englanders, while Grand Manan Island, the largest of the Fundies, has spectacular coastal topography, excellent birdwatching, fine hiking trails and sandy beaches. The town of Saint John, on the Fundy Shore, can claim the actor Donald Sutherland as its own, but it's best known for the Moosehead Brewery tours that are run from mid-June through August. East of Saint John, a 12km (7.5mi) cliff-edged stretch of the Fundy Trail Parkway links the town of St Martins with Big Salmon River - it's rugged, wild, drivable, hikable and just gorgeous.

One of Canada's few accessible northern outposts, remote Churchill's lifeblood is the 1.5-day train journey linking the town with Winnipeg, Manitoba's capital, a mere 1600km (992mi) away to the south. Churchill is a major grain-handling port, but eco-tourism is an increasingly important industry for the town. Despite the subzero temperatures and minimal facilities, visitors flock to see the region's huge array of arctic wildlife - from polar bears and beluga whales to caribou and Arctic foxes - and to catch a gaudy glimpse of the aurora borealis. Churchill dubs itself the 'Polar Bear Capital of the World', and for a good reason: the town sits smack bang in the middle of the animals' migration route, and the cute but lethal white bears have been known to wander right through the township. Tours to the tundra to see the bears are Churchill's star attraction during the migration season (September-November), followed closely by May-June birdwatching and the June-August spectacle of 3000 beluga whales moving into the Churchill River.

Dawson City
When there was gold in them thar hills, Dawson City was the place to spend it. The city was built at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers in the gold rush of 1896. At its height, Dawson City was known as 'the Paris of the North', and was home to 38,000 people; these days fewer than 2000 call the city home. It's the most interesting of the Yukon towns, with many attractions remaining from its fleeting but vibrant fling with fame and infamy. The protected buildings create a real frontier atmosphere, and with the Arctic Circle just 240km (150mi) away, they're built on permafrost. Tourist season is limited to May-September, and sights include Diamond Tooth Gertie's Gambling Hall, a re-creation of an 1898 saloon complete with honky-tonk piano and dancing girls. There's also the flamboyant Palace Grand Theatre; a museum housing 25,000 gold-rush artefacts of one kind or another; the SS Keno riverboat; the typically rustic gold-rush cabin that housed Robert Service from 1909 to 1912; a Jack London Interpretative Centre; a couple of old mines to explore; and a graveyard of paddlewheel ferries. Dawson City is a 6.5-hour bus ride north of the Yukon capital, Whitehorse.

Gaspésie Park
Jutting into the Gulf of St Lawrence, north of New Brunswick, the Gaspé Peninsula is often compared with the popular Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia, but it's much less crowded. The excellent Gaspésie Park, in the centre of the peninsula, is a huge, rugged and undeveloped area of lakes, woods and mountains. Deer and moose amble the backwoods, and the fishing is good - but the real attraction is the hiking. Trails traverse the wonderfully named Chic Choc Mountains, culminating in Mont Jacques Cartier, at 1270m (4165ft) the highest peak in these parts. The hike to the top of the peak is shared by shy woodland caribou, and the alpine scenery and views are fantastic. Other climbs include rigorous Mont Albert and lakeside Mont Xalibu, a fine half-day return walk with superb alpine scenery, a waterfall and views of mountain lakes. The main entry to the park is from the nearby town of Sainte Anne des Monts, 300km (185mi) or so north of Quebec City.

L'Anse-aux-Meadows is the oldest European habitation site in North America. Led by Leif Eriksson, son of the Eric the Red, the Scandinavian Vikings crossed the North Atlantic in 1000 AD, becoming the first known Europeans to land in North America.

Now protected as a national park, the historic site is set on the edge of the Strait of Belle Isle, across from Labrador, in a rough, rocky northern environment. It's a fascinating place, made all the more special by the unobtrusive, low-key approach taken in its development. The Viking settlement includes replicas of sod buildings, complete with smoky scent, and there are also eight unearthed originals of wood and sod. There's an interpretive centre to help make sense of things, and if you're lucky you might be offered some Viking snacks to sample. You can also take a two-hour tour on a replica Viking ship.

Running south from Halifax is Nova Scotia's South Shore, a fogbound, jagged coast dotted with rocky coves, fishing villages and historic towns. For tourist purposes it's been dubbed the Lighthouse Route. The gorgeous little shipbuilding town of Lunenberg is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is best-known for having built the racing schooner Bluenose back in 1921. Fishing has always been big in Lunenburg, and things haven't changed too much: Atlantic Canada's largest deep-sea fishing fleet sets sail from here, and North America's biggest fish-processing plant is located in town. Lunenburg still has the flavour and character of an 18th-century British colonial town, thanks to its tradition of wood-construction architecture, maintained since the 1750s. Other than explore the town's Fisheries Museum and beautiful old churches, the thing to do here is to just wander, taking in the wooden houses, wharves and old-fashioned streetscapes - and of course finishing up with a dinner of halibut or haddock, mussels or lobster.

Rocky Mountains
Sprawled along the Alberta-British Columbia border, the Rockies are barely contained within two gigantic national parks - Banff to the South and Jasper to the north. Banff was Canada's first official wildlife sanctuary and these days the town that lent its name to the park is the nation's number one resort spot year round. But Jasper National Park has a larger, wilder and less explored landscape on show.

Banff's glorious turquoise Moraine Lake, while in danger of suffering cliche overload, is one of Canada's most idyllic natural attractions. Connecting Banff and Jasper parks is the Columbia Icefield, a vast bowl of ice made up of about 30 glaciers and a remnant of the last Ice Age. For those not glacially inclined, the Rockies offer wildlife walks, swimming, caving, camping, hiking, canoeing, hot-spring soaking, mountain climbing and plenty of places to stay. Accommodation costs are generally lower at the Jasper end of this quintessential Canadian mountain playground.

The Prairies
Starting at the foot of the Rockies and heading out long, wide and flat through Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is Canada's heartland prairie country. Golden fields of wheat, or sunflowers, stretch forever in these parts, and locals might be heard to sigh 'the Rocky Mountains may be nice but they get in the way of the view'. Alberta's busiest prairie attraction is the quaintly named Blackfoot Indian heritage site - Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, near Fort Macleod.The massive Riding Mountain National Park is a forested oasis in the Manitoba prairies, where bison and bike riders roam. Next door in Saskatchewan the prairies are scattered with evocatively named national parks, and canoe routes often outnumber roads. Eclectic surprises here include Yorkton - north of the Crooked Lake Provincial Park - where onion-domed churches reflect the area's Ukranian heritage. Park your UFO just southeast of Yorkton, near the tiny town of Rocanville, and you'll be at one of Canada's most famous crop circle sites.

Yellowknife is the place to organise your canoe, fishing, kayak, camping, skiing and hiking requirements before heading out into the mountains, forests and treeless tundra of Canada's wild Northwest Territories. The territorial capital sits on the northern shore of Great Slave Lake, catchment basin for the mighty Mackenzie River which runs 1800km (1115mi) northwards to its delta on the Beaufort Sea. A walk around Yellowknife's Old Town takes you past wooden miners huts built during the 1934 gold rush, on streets with good-luck-turned-sour names like Ragged Ass Rd. Visit the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre to learn about the lifestyles of the Dene and Inuit, or head outdoors (weather permitting) for dog-sled tours, visits to a beaver colony or guided fishing trips. The famed Northern Lights (aurora borealis) light up the fall-to-winter sky October-February with streaks and haloes of green, yellow and rose. In March the city celebrates the end of winter with the Caribou Carnival, and July explodes with the Festival of the Midnight Sun and the Folk on the Rocks music festival.

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