Montréal, Canada (iStock)
Article Words : Sarah Baxter | 17 November

First 24 hours in Montréal

Bienvenue au Canada! Montréal is where North America and France – plus an eclectic mmigrant population – mingle most armoniously, creating a thriving, culturally diverse metropolis, says Sarah Baxter

Where? Québec, east Canada
Why? French flair, New York-ish neighbourhood feel and fine food
When? Jun-Aug, for festivals; May & Oct for mild weather; Nov-Mar for skiing

Before you arrive

Montréal is a bit New York, a soupcon of Paris but, ultimately, a fine city in its own right. It’s Canada’s second-largest hub (behind Toronto), occupying a 15km by 40km island
in the St Lawrence River. Explorer Jacques Cartier first found the spot in 1535, but the city was properly founded in 1642, and quickly became an important fur-trading centre. Today it’s renowned for world-class festivals (jazz, comedy, fireworks), excellent food, and cool creativity – Montréal is one of only three Unesco-designated Cities of Design.

Before you travel, read Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec by Taras Grescoe (2001), an amusing intro to the region’s politics and foibles. Listen to some Leonard Cohen (born here) and Susie Arioli (local jazz muso). And gen up on
your French – this is the most English-speaking part of Québec, but attempts to speak the official language will be appreciated.

Flying in from the UK on a clear day gives great views of Greenland and, closer, the mighty St Lawrence. During the seven-hour flight you’ll be asked to fill in a Customs Declaration Card (E311).

At the airport

Montréal’s Trudeau International airport (www.admtl.com) is 22km west of the city centre. Facilities are sleek and modern – the airport has free Wi-Fi, and even some eco-credentials. Signs are in French and English. When you disembark, there are toilets and water fountains – use them before hitting the snaking queue to clear customs, where your Declaration Card is stamped. Once you’ve collected your bags, join a queue to hand in your stamped card. Arrivals has the usual: foreign exchange office, ATM, café, shop and a tourist info counter. There is a Marriott hotel in the US departures terminal, which has a gym and pool.

Getting into town

Departing from outside Arrivals, the 747 Express Bus connects the airport and city centre 24 hours a day, every day. The journey to the bus terminal at Berri-UQAM metro station takes 35 minutes (outside rush hour); tickets cost C$8 (£5) and include 24 hours of travel across the city’s transport network – essentially, a day travel card. There is currently no rail link, although an Aérotrain project is in development.

Taxis leave from outside Arrivals, too; a dispatcher will help you find one. The fixed fare to downtown is C$38 (£24). All the main car-hire companies have branches at the airport, located on the ground floor of the car park in front of the terminal.

Other ways to arrive

VIA Rail trains from Toronto, Halifax and other Canadian cities arrive at Montréal’s Gare Centrale. Montréal-Toronto takes from five hours; Montréal-Québec City takes less than three hours. See www.viarail.ca. Amtrak’s scenic Adirondack service links Montréal and New York; journey time is 11 hours.

The main bus terminal, Station Centrale, has connections to various Canadian and US destinations.

Montréal orientation

Where to eat, sleep, walk and eat again in Québec’s grand, gastronomic city

Essential info

Population: 3.6 million

Languages: French, English
Time: GMT-5 (Mar-Nov GMT-4)
International dialling code: +1 514
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Money: Canadian dollar (C$), currently around C$1.6 to the UK£

Highest viewpoint: Mont Royal, the city’s namesake peak, is 232m high; the whole hill is a leafy park, and hike/bike trails spider all over it. The best city panorama is found on the terrace of the Chalet du Mont Royal.

Health issues: No special vaccinations are required. If visiting in winter, pack layers and good cold-weather gear.

Recommended guidebooks: DK Eyewitness Top 10 Travel Guide: Montréal & Québec City (DK, 2010); Montréal (Rough Guides, 2007)

Web resources: www.tourisme-montreal.org is the official tourist board site; montrealforinsiders.blogspot.com is the (largely foodie) thoughts of a local journalist;
www.midnightpoutine.ca, a news and happenings city blog.

iPhone apps: BixMe (C$0.99), helps you use the local Bixi citybikes; Montreal Museums (free), info on 38 of the city’s cultural spots, including exhibitions.

Climate: Montréal is a city of extremes – summers can be hot (and stickily humid), with temperatures soaring over 30°C; May and October are most pleasant for walking around. In winter the mercury plummets (January temperatures hover between 5°C and -13°C) but days are usually clear and sunny. The snow arrives in November and stays until March.

First night's sleep

Top end: Hotel Nelligan is housed in an historic building in the Old Town. Rooms are stylish, with exposed brick walls; the Terrasse restaurant has great river views. Doubles from C$235 (£147).

Mid-range: Zero 1, newly opened in 2011, is a 12-storey former halls of residence, done up in industrial-chic style. Rooms have big windows, flat-screen TVs and discreet kitchenettes. Doubles from C$129 (£80), excluding breakfast.

Budget: Auberge Alternative is a quirky, arty hostel in the Old Town. Reclaimed furniture and Fair Trade coffee typify the eco-ethos. Dorm beds from C$22 (£14), private rooms from C$75 (£47).

First day's tour

Start in Vieux Montréal: amble the old alleys (nicest is Rue St-Paul) lined with cafés and galleries, and visit the 19th-century Basilique Notre-Dame (basiliquenddm.org).

Buy a travelcard (C$8) and take Bus 55 north up Rue St-Laurent from Rue St-Jacques (east Old Town). Hop on and off this neighbourhood-slicing ride to sample some of Montréal’s best bakeries, chocolatiers, delis and more. Recommendations include Schwartz’s (3895 St-Laurent) for iconic brisket sandwiches and Ave Laurier, for
Dieu du Ciel microbrewery and independent shops; and Ave Fairmont, for bagels (Fairmont Bagel). End at Jean-Talon Market, which overflows with excellent Québécois produce.

The 55 heads back south down St-Urbain; get off at Rue Rachel and head south into Mount Royal Park to hike off all that food. Exit via Ave des Pins; stroll the McGill University area and high-rise Downtown, ending in the Quartier des Spectacles.

Stay or go?

Stay, at least for a couple of days, if only to fit in a decent amount of eating opportunities. Every neighbourhood has its own bakery, patisserie, coffee place, etc – sampling these, and wandering the typical residential streets will make you feel like a local. It’s also a good cycling city  – spend a day pedalling along the Lachine Canal or over to Île Notre-Dame.

The Laurentian Mountains are only around an hour’s drive/bus north of the city; St-Jérôme is the area’s main gateway. In summer the Laurentians offer great hiking amid lakes and pretty villages; in winter they’re the prime spot for downhill and cross-country skiing (Mont-Tremblant is the flagship resort).

Québec City, the province capital, is three hours’ north-east of Montréal and more French. The walled Old Town is cutesier and lovely to stroll, but more touristy for it.

One to watch

Most purchases (hotels and restaurant meals too) are subject to taxes: 5% Goods and Services Tax and 8.5% Provincial Sales Tax. These are seldom factored into the advertised price, so be ready to pay more at the checkout.

Best bargain

Try fancy food for less. Montréal’s prestigious Institut de Tourisme d’Hôtellerie, which teaches hospitality skills, has a training restaurant where you can eat fine two-course meals for just C$12 (£7.50). Tues-Fri; booking essential. www.ithq.qc.ca