Lay of the Land
Located in the province of Québec, southwest along the St. Lawrence River from Québec City, Montreal is Canada’s second-largest city. It resides on an island in the river, and the main boundaries are the river and Mont-Royal, the mountain from which the city takes its name. Getting around can be confusing, as Montreal natives orient themselves according to Mont-Royal and the St. Lawrence River, instead of north and south. For simplicity’s sake, visitors should consider anything in the direction of the mountain to be north, and anything is the direction of the river to be south.
Montreal’s downtown sprawl is similar to that of any city—filled with skyscrapers (none higher than the iconic Mont-Royal), luxury department stores and the financial center. But it has one quite unique feature; to help locals avoid the severe winter weather, the downtown area has an underground complex of interconnected tunnels filled with shops and restaurants. While mainly used by locals to grab lunch or access the metro, it is a novelty for most visitors, so it is fun to experience. Above ground, the main arteries are Rue Sainte-Catherine and Rue Sherbrooke, where the Ritz-Carlton, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and luxury department stores Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy are located.
Quaint, historic Vieux-Montreal is often the first stop on visitors’ lists. Located southwest of downtown and backing up to the St. Lawrence River, Old Montreal includes the site where the original city was founded in 1642, and relics of the past—horse-drawn carriages and cobblestoned streets—lend authenticity to the charming neighborhood. Many of the city’s major sights are located here, like the Nôtre-Dame Basilica and the Old Port area, which was an industrial harbor until the Expo 67 (in 1967) when it was turned into a waterfront promenade. There are a handful of charming boutiques that line the main artery, Rue Saint-Paul. Admittedly touristy, Old Montreal is nevertheless a key part of the city’s identity.
Fuse New York City’s West Village with Brooklyn, and you might get something akin to Montreal’s vibrant Mile End neighborhood. Artistic, youthful and with increasingly expensive real estate, the area northeast of downtown is one of the most desirable places to live. A lighthearted spirit floats through the hip coffee shops, one-of-a-kind boutiques and intimate restaurants that line Mile End’s leafy streets. A number of Montreal’s most iconic restaurants are located here, and a food tour is a fun way to explore the diverse neighborhood.
Recent gentrification has made Griffintown a cultural hotbed. In the 19th century, the neighborhood east of Old Montreal was inhabited by Irish immigrants, and remained a low-income area filled with warehouses until recent development. The up-and-coming nave, which runs along the St. Lawrence River, is still a bit of a diamond in the rough, but a number of quirky restaurants and antiques shops have made it a destination worth seeking out.