To call Montreal merely the Paris of North America is to sell it short. True, the island in the Saint Lawrence River has the architecture, the food and joie de vivre of the French capital, but it is a mix of more than 40 ethnic groups, a complicated history and a vibrant and edgy bohemian scene that confounds that description.
The city freezes during wintertime and temperatures plummet to -30, but there is no bad time to search for cheap flights to Montreal. Montrealers make the most of winter with a carnival; shopping in Ville Souteraine, the underground city, with more than 30km of shopping, and its hearty fare (including poutine, a rib-sticking mix of chips, cheese curd and gravy).
The starting point for the tourist is Vieux Montreal. Here, you’ll find City Hall, Bonsecours Market, and the awe-inspiring Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel. In “new” Montreal, Le Plateau is the city’s creative heart, home to designers, writers and artists.
Montreal is human scale with Mont Royal, 1,000 parks, 350km of bicycle paths and 900 outdoor skating rinks. Prince Arthur Street, Saint-Laurent and Les Eclusiers are the places to party. Bars are open until 3am and some never close.
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With predominantly wet, warm summers and cold, snowy winters, the climate of Montreal is varied and seasonal. In winter snowfall is abundant, and snow is common both in spring and autumn. Temperatures well below freezing are experienced in winter, and the bitter weather is exacerbated by wind chill. Summer brings sunshine and pleasant days, with high humidity on occasion, although highs seldom exceed 25C. Rain can be expected any time of year in Montreal, but summer tends to be the wettest season. A feature of the climate of Montreal is the possibility of late autumn heat waves, enjoyed as "Indian summers", which frequently occur.
When to fly to Montreal
Although Montreal has a long and harsh winter it is still a year-round tourist destination thanks to its numerous festivals and underground city with more than 2,000 shops.
Summer, specifically late June to August is the busiest and most expensive time to book Montreal flights and visit. The weather is warm and there are a number of festivals going on at that time including: the ten-day Festival International de Jazz in late June, the International Fireworks Competition in late June and July, the World Film Festival and Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in August.
Many frequent visitors actually prefer to go during September and October when the crowds have disappeared and the weather’s still pleasant. In terms of value, spring is the best time to visit because Montreal flights, hotels and car rentals drop dramatically, but bear in mind that it is mud season, the time when all the snow melts and getting around town can become a little uncomfortable.
Getting around Montreal
Between the city’s smart layout and extremely efficient public transport system, you’ll never worry about getting where you need to go. There are also plenty of bike paths all over the city if you want to get a little exercise. Public transport consists of metro, bus and commuter rail and is run by STCUM. The metro is sparkling clean and has four different lines with dozens of stations. The bus routes are connected with the metro and both run between 5:30am and 1am. There are also a few night buses running after regular service ends. You can also get into the suburbs by connecting to the commuter rail. Check out the bus and metro tourist passes to save some money. Taxis are available by phone or by hailing one off of the street. If you really want to rent a car, there are plenty of companies in the city, but with congested traffic and all the easy transport options, it’s not recommended.
Montreal insider information
- Eat some poutine, the national dish, a warming dish of fries topped with fresh cheese curds and gravy. The smoked meat sandwich (served with potato chips, coleslaw and a pickle) is a Montreal tradition too. Go to Schwartz's to buy it, it has been a "Montreal Tradition Since 1928".
- Mark Twain once said that Montreal was the only city he was ever in where you couldn't throw a brick for breaking a church window. There are four Roman Catholic basilicas: Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, Notre-Dame Basilica, St. Patrick's Basilica, and Saint Joseph's Oratory, Canada's largest church. Its dome is the largest after Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome.
- The Underground city is an ingenious way of escaping the cold Montreal winters. There are more than 32km (20 miles) of tunnels with shopping malls, hotels, offices, museums and public transport systems.
- You can walk from the top of Peel Street to Mount Royal for a panoramic view of the city, the river and the Monteregian Hills in the distance. There is a park and two cemeteries at the top of Mount Royal - Notre-Dame-des-Neiges, which is Catholic, founded in 1854, and Mount Royal cemetery, a nondenominational resting place founded in 1853.
- The Old Town (Vieux Montréal) is charming and very, very old by North American standards. The oldest buildings date back to the 1600s. Architectural gems include Montreal City Hall, Bonsecours Market and the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel.
- The Latin Quarter is where the restaurants and bars are. The Museum Quarter is where you will find the Museum of Fine Arts and the McCord Museum of Canadian History.
- Montreal likes to laugh. Montreal Just for Laughs festival takes place in July. It also likes to listen to jazz music. The world-famous festival is on in late-June/July.
- The Montreal Biodome is a fascinating place, a zoo with four ecosystems: Tropical Forest, a replica of the South American rainforest; Laurentian Forest, a replica of North American wilderness; Saint Lawrence Marine Eco-system, modelled on the Gulf of Saint Lawrence; and a polar area divided into Arctic and Antarctic.