Bienvenue à Montréal! For those who do not speak French, this means “Welcome to Montreal,” the province of Quebec’s largest city and the second largest French-speaking city in the world.
While the rest of Quebec is mainly Francophone, Montreal is a truly diverse metropolis. You will hear English almost as often as French, not to mention languages from every other corner of the planet.
A Brief History of Montreal
The city of Montreal is located on an island in the Saint Lawrence River. It is roughly 50 kilometres long and 16 kilometres wide and has been inhabited by the Iroquois First Nations for more than 10,000 years. In 1535, a French explorer named Jacques Cartier became one of the first Europeans to arrive on this river island. As he and his men ascended the island’s highest point, they christened it "Mont-Royal," or Royal Mountain.
By the early 17th century the French had colonized the island, and Montreal (originally dubbed “Ville Marie”) was officially founded in 1642 by Paul de Chomedey Maisonneuve, a French military officer. After the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, Montreal was controlled by Great Britain. While the French settlers lost some of their language rights, they were permitted to stay, and soon colonists from the British Isles arrived to settle as well.
While the English, Irish, and Scottish settlers arrived in droves, they often intermarried with the French population and took on the local culture and language. As a result, Montreal remained firmly French despite increasing immigration, not only from Great Britain but all over the world.
Who lives in Montreal? Social Demographics
Montreal is a world-class city with a diverse population. Of the population of 4.1 million residents (as per the Canadian Census 2016), nearly 25% are immigrants to Canada. This number is split between Europe (roughly 25%), Asia (roughly 25%), Africa (roughly 20%) and the Americas (roughly 20%).
While people often think of Montreal as being solely English and French speaking, the people who call the city home hail from every corner of the globe. Of a population of 4.1 million, just slightly more than half speak both official languages. As for first language, the numbers skew towards the Francophone side, with 3 million speaking French at home and 765K speaking English. While 888K speak a different first language than English and French, only 63,000 speak neither by the time they reach school age or have lived in Canada for five years.
While people are usually very understanding if you do not speak French, Francophones appreciate it if you make the effort to do so. Simple phrases such as Bonjour (Hello), Merci (Thank You) and De Rien (You’re Welcome) can really go a long way and will be much appreciated.
Montreal has a humid climate, so its winters can be harsh and its summer very muggy. Make sure that you are dressed warmly for the winter and keep warm layers close to your skin to keep the damp chill away. In the summer, you might want to invest in an air conditioning unit – it can top 35C with a humidity rating of 95%!
Remember, your neighbours (and the local law) require that you shovel the sidewalk in front of your house when it snows. If you don’t do this, you may receive a fine – and some angry glares from your neighbours!
- Winter – Ahhh, the Montreal winter. With temperatures dipping below -25C in the winter, the snow flurries fly and the locals retreat indoors for the coldest months.
- Spring – Spring brings warmer temperatures that can melt the snow but beware that snow can still fall until late May!
- Summer – The summers in Montreal are when the city really comes to life! Festivals, concerts, and outdoor life are the trends of the season. Summer days can be very hot and humid, with temperatures topping 40C.
- Fall – The fall season in Montreal can be stunningly beautiful, as the leaves change in a riot of warm colours. With temperatures ranging from 30C at the beginning of October to -20C in mid-December, it’s hard to pin down “typical” fall weather in Montreal.
Montreal Public Transport
Montreal public transportation services include buses and a subway system called the Metro. The city is well connected by the Metro and buses, so you will likely want to use these whenever possible, as the car traffic is notoriously heavy. Single fares are $3.25 and can be transferred across the system for 120 minutes. More fare information is available on the STM official site here.
Famous Montreal Food
As with any city, food is a huge part of Montreal’s social fabric. You can’t say you’ve really been to Montreal until you have eaten these three famous dishes:
- Poutine - Some call it the national dish of Canada, but it hails from Quebec. Poutine is a mix of fries, gravy, and cheese curds – don’t be surprised if you are addicted before long. It is sold at all major fast food chains, as well as pizza places, delis, and even high-end restaurants!
- Smoked Meat Sandwiches – Montreal has a long and storied history of immigration from Europe, and those from central and Eastern Europe brought the tradition of a simmered beef brisket with them. This Jewish deli classic is served on rye bread with a pickle and hot mustard. Katz’s is the most famous, but many locals have their own favourites.
- Montreal-Style Bagels – Continuing on with the history of Jewish immigration in Montreal, bagels are a local delicacy. Shops all over North America sell “Montreal-style” bagels, but the real thing is always better here in the city. St. Viator sells the gold standard.
The Top 5 Things to Do in Montreal
- Visit La Basilique Notre Dame (Notre Dame Basilica) – As one of the most spectacular cathedrals in North America, your jaw will drop when you enter Notre Dame. Technicolour stained glass, glowing candles, and a living history that dates back four centuries, this is a must for any local resident, even if they are not Catholic (or religious at all).
- Admire the Street Art in the Plateau – As the trendy “hipster” neighbourhood in Montreal, it makes perfect sense that this area is covered in spectacular murals and graffiti. Follow a self-guided tour to really enjoy the area.
- Explore Old Montreal – Cobblestone lanes, colonial architecture, sweeping streetscapes, and quaint shops and businesses – Old Montreal is a must-visit location for any newcomer to the area. An afternoon here will give you a historical perspective on your new home (or favourite city).
- Scale Mont Royal – Just as Jacques Cartier scaled this hill and christened it the Royal Mountain, so can you. Ascending to this point allows you to take in a panoramic view of the city and fully appreciate its scope and beauty.
- Take in the art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art – You’ve enjoyed the street art, so why not head indoors and take in inspiring modern art from all over the world? Visit Wednesday evening for a reduced rate of just $11.50 per adult.
Immigrant Services in Montreal
There are a variety of services available to immigrants free of charge in both official languages (and often many more). Remember, you have the right to request all government services in either English or French. In many cases they will also have a member of staff who speaks other languages as well, and they can help provide you with information.
- ALPA Montreal – ALPA is a full service agency that offers a whole host of services to immigrants, including language lessons (both English and French), job assistance, housing assistance, and translation, and information about health services, driver’s licences, school registration, and more. Address: 2030, boulevard Pie IX, Bureau 309, Montréal (QC) H1V 2C8
- Salvation Army Immigrant and Refugee Services – The Salvation Army provides concrete assistance for newcomers to Canada in order to help them find employment, schooling, and housing. By creating a community atmosphere and facilitating mentor programs, the “Sally Ann” (Canadian slang for Salvation Army) is a valuable resource. Address: 1700-625 Avenue Du Président-kennedy Ave, H3A 1K2
- Ometz Services for Immigrants – Ometz offers services in Russian and Hebrew to help Jewish newcomers learn how to settle into life in Montreal and Canada. Employment, education, housing, and counselling are just a few of the services that Ometz offers. Address: 1 Cummings Square, 5151 Côte Ste-Catherine Road, H3W 1M6
- Centre Social D’aide aux Immigrants – The CSAI offers French language services to immigrants to Montreal. This is ideal if you already speak French; if not, they can help you access and enrol in courses. Address: 6201 rue Laurendeau, Montréal, Qc, H4E 3X8, Canada
The Montreal Public Library
Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec Address: 475 Boul de Maisonneuve E, Montréal, QC H2L 5C4, Canada
Getting to and from Montreal
Montreal is often used as a hub for Air Canada, and many other international airlines fly direct to Montreal. Passenger rail travel is common between Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and Quebec City. Greyhound buses are also a common intercity transport method, as are online ride share forums that allow drivers to sell seats in their car for the journey.