World Facts Index > Canada > Montreal

Bienvenue à Montreal! Now that's hospitality with a distinctly French flavour; and what could be more appropriate for the third largest French-speaking metropolis in the world? But French is only one of 35 or so languages you'll hear on the streets of this international island city of close to 2 million inhabitants (more than 3.3 million if we include Montreal's suburban neighborhoods).

Montreal demographics boast that its residents come from 80 countries to form an urban mosaic of vibrant ethnic communities and neighbourhoods safe to walk in day or night. Visitors will detect a distinct British influence, inherent in the culture since the days when English merchants controlled the city's trade. All in all, it's easy to see why "cosmopolitan" is the adjective most used when talking about Montreal.

Characteristically, there's the famous "joie de vivre"'the ineffable combination of spirit and ambience Montrealers exude without even trying. You'll see it in the summertime cappuccino-sippers cramming sidewalk cafes, in the long queues outside Schwartz's, ready to stock up on the best smoked meat in the city, and in the lovers holding hands on Mount Royal, the city's parkland mountain rising 264 metres. The same spirit can be felt even on outdoor skating rinks in the dead of winter, with the tuxedoed crowd listening raptly to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and when, at Molson Centre, hockey fanatics scream and pump their fists in unison with every Montreal Canadiens goal.

What makes Montreal one of the world's truly great cities?

It starts with its location. The island sits at the confluence of three west end rivers'the mighty St-Lawrence, the Rivière des Prairies and the Ottawa, with the St-Lawrence and the Rivière des Prairies on the east. Montrealers talk of their streets as going north-south and east-west, but the island itself is askew, tilted to the northeast.

The Main Splitting the city in half, both physically and psychologically, is St-Laurent Boulevard, 'The Main', as it is affectionately known. It is here that waves of immigrants first settled upon their arrival in the New World's promised land. Reminders of the past still abound, in family-run Polish delis tucked beside haute cuisine restaurants, and in the dollar bargain stores next door to swank billiards emporiums. This is Ground Zero for the city's addresses and, for a long time, this was the demarcation line between English and French, with the French predominating to the east of the street and the English to the west.

These days, the dividing line is no longer completely rigid, but there are still distinct English and French areas. You'll find the English restaurant-bar scene concentrated on Bishop and Crescent Streets; the French on St-Denis and points east in the Quartier Latin and in the Gay Village. The traditional French residential areas are tightly-packed districts that stretch all the way to the Olympic Park and Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; English becomes more noticeable as you move west, culminating in the affluent suburb of Westmount.

Old Montreal  At the south end of St-Laurent, past Chinatown, lies the historic district of Old Montreal, now a major tourist attraction with its cobblestone streets, horse-drawn calèche rides and Vieux Port activities. This is where, in 1642, the city's first European settlers staked their claim to a land they thought was theirs by divine right. You can still see the remnants of their original fortifications, and you can check out artifacts from the period at the Montreal History Centre and the Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History. Here are also found the oldest buildings in Montreal including some, like the Sulpician Seminary, that date back to the late 17th century.

Montreal Islands  Across the St-Lawrence River, the "Expo '67" islands of Ste-Hélène and Notre-Dame still glitter more than 30 years after Montreal hosted the World's Fair. Today the site is home to the La Ronde amusement park, the Gilles Villeneuve Racetrack and Montreal's world-class Casino.

Le Plateau  On the other end of 'The Main' can be found the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, unique in that it encompasses both ethnic shops and restaurants on Parc Avenue and the hip Francophone crowd along St-Denis Street.

Little Italy  Just a little further north and it's "Viva l'Italia!"'the original home of the first Italian immigrants and now one of the liveliest areas in the city with its espresso bars, boutiques and authentic Italian cuisine.

Subterranean City  No visit to Montreal is complete without a visit to our Underground City. Montreal-above-ground has been described as the tip of the urban iceberg. Beneath it lies the world's most extensive system of interconnected pedestrian and Metro (subway) networks, linking buildings, boutiques and restaurants, and even residential apartments. You could spend an entire winter in this subterranean city without ever once having to face the cold or snow.

Worth a mention is the Metro System itself, with lines running east-west and north-south (albeit, askew) to just about every part of the city. While you're down there, check out the 62 architecturally-unique stations, each one created by a different designer.

History of Montreal

Although Montreal's history tracks back long before Jacques Cartier "discovered" the island in 1535, the intrepid explorer can certainly lay claim to being the first European to see it from the top of Mount Royal, the city's centrally-located volcanic mountain.

Amerindians referred to our beloved grounds as 'Hochelaga,' and used the island as a meeting place where tribes could discuss trade and other important matters. But, hundreds of years ago, building cities wasn't one of their fortes, and the official founding date for Ville-Marie (later to become Montréal in honour of the King of France) is May 18, 1642, when Jeanne Mance and Paul de Chomedey Sieur de Maisonneuve came ashore with about 40 colonists, and proceeded to drive out the Iroquois.

The buzzing colony, known as Nouvelle France, became a major jumping off point for fur traders, explorers and settlers who wanted to venture further inland towards the Great Lakes and down into the Mississippi Valley. In 1760, Montreal had a population, mostly French, of about 4,000. The architecture of this period can be seen in buildings such as the Old Saint-Sulpice (Sulpician) Seminary and Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel.

The second event that would eventually shape modern Montreal happened in 1763 when, following the British victory in the Seven Years War, France was forced to relinquish its North American territories.

Under British rule, Montreal became an important port (the largest inland port in the world) as well as Canada's largest city and commercial hub. It was home to Canada's first banks, mercantile houses and fur-trading companies, centred on St-Jacques Street (or Saint James, as the British called it) in Old Montreal. You can get a good look at buildings still standing from this era, including the Molson Bank and the Bank of Montreal.

Between 1800 and 1850, the city experienced a population explosion, going from about 9,000 to 57,000. For five years, between 1844 and 1849, the city even served as Canada's capital until a rampaging crowd burned down the buildings that housed the legislature.

The mid-19th century saw the city expand into manufacturing and heavy industry as well as become the railway centre for Canada. A flood of job opportunities drew both immigrants from overseas and rural Quebecers and the population continued to soar, reaching half a million by 1911.

By that time, the city's Golden Square Mile area, Atwater to the west, Park to the east, Mount Royal to the north, and Rene Levesque to the south, held some 70 percent of all Canada's wealth. Huge properties such as the 60-room Ravenscrag Mansion on des Pins W were commonplace.

It was also around this time that immigration other than from the British Isles brought in the third wave of Montreal's development. European Jews, Italians, and Greeks joined Irish and Scottish immigrants to make the city a much more cosmopolitan place.

Shortly after the Second World War, Montreal began a slow, steady decline in influence and power as the Canadian economy looked southward to the U.S. and away from a weakening Great Britain. Corporate headquarters migrated to Toronto, which began to receive the bulk of new investment.

The shift was accelerated by two factors: the building of the St-Lawrence Seaway, which allowed ships direct access to the Great Lakes, and the revival of Quebec nationalism, which started with the so-called Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and culminated in the election of a separatist government in the late 1970s. This led to a further exodus 'down the 401,' as the highway between Montreal and Toronto is called.

But, despite these woes, Montreal managed to hold its head high through the 1960s and '70s, thanks to its tenacious mayor, Jean Drapeau. A man with grandiose visions, Drapeau orchestrated the building of the city's subway system (the Metro) in 1966, snagged the prestigious Expo '67 international exhibition, and then sold the city as the site for the even more illustrious 1976 Summer Olympics.

Today, Montreal may have relinquished the honour of being Canada's largest and most economically influential metropolis. But it still relishes the role as its most spirited and international city, the French gastronomic centre of North America, and a place where historical strands join to create a potent mix of pride, art and culture.

The Weather

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