The city below Mount Royal
Montreal, the second-largest city in Canada, located on the Island of Montreal with few smaller islands around, is a vibrant city of festivals, lively clubs and bars, and with most probably the largest number of restaurant per capita in the world. Although it is under snow from late November to March, it's always a joy to visit and see some event or a festival. So, where do we start? There are several places that are a must. Period. If you didn't visit them, you didn't visit Montreal.
Hotel de Ville you will visit if you like old, historic buildings in the European style. It is very nice structure, known as the place where Charles de Gaulle, former French president, yelled "Long live free Quebec!" which helped the Canadian government to hate him little bit more. It is the first city hall in Canada built only for municipal administration and is a National Historic Site.
Yes, we know, there is one and only Notre-Dame, but Notre-Dame Basilica in the heart of old Montreal is also beautiful and worth visiting. There is an entrance fee which is used for a restoration that never stops. Since almost everything in Canada has its own interesting story, so does the Notre-Dame Basilica: It was envisioned in 1824 by James O'Donnell, an American, who was an Irish Protestant, later converted to Catholicism.
Montrealers would say "Should there were sports back then, he would be converted to hockey." That man of strong faith is the only one buried in the crypt of Notre Dame.
Olympic Village is a part of history you simply must visit. While the initial cost was estimated to be C$250 million, with all amenities incorporated in it, the price jumped to C$1 billion. The Quebec government had to come up with a tobacco tax to try to get the money for that optimistic building. Since there were minor problems during the construction, like a workers' strike, it wasn't finished on time, but today all parts are more or less in place and the stadium is one of the central attractions of Montreal. A view from the top is worth C$1 billion, definitively.
While we are at beautiful views, we must mention Mount Royal, a 200 hectare park where Montrealers go to rest, jog, bike, hike, and whatever people do for fun, that lies in the middle of Montreal island and includes the highest spot in the city. The view is fascinating: on one side there is the terrace Belvedere Kondiaronk, named for the Huron chief who signed a peace deal with French, and on the other side there is a spot facing toward the Olympic Stadium.
Oh yes, Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of New York City's Central Park, had its fingers on Mount Royal too and we think that's a very good invitation.
Visit Rue de Grand-Pre, a street, that will bring you back to the days of the old Wild West with its lively houses. Stroll narrow streets to see buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, they really can make you feel like you're in Old Europe.
Start your spree on Sainte Catherine Street, go to the Ecomusee du Fier Monde, the former public bath, to learn about industrial past, or follow locals and visit the Old Port, a waterfront park with boat tours and exhibits. If you want to feel like home then hit a block of Sainte-Catherine around Crescent and Bishop full of restaurants, clubs and bars, gathering mostly English-speaking clientele.
Worried about bad weather? Worry no more. Beneath the city streets, there is Underground City known for being the largest underground complex in the world, containing 1,700 boutiques, more than 200 restaurants, museums and hotels, 30 film theatres, offices and many more, all connected to 10 of the city's subway stations.
So why waiting? Visit Montreal this December. December in Montreal is full of events for any taste: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky and Warhol Mania are for those artistically inclined, The Botanical Garden Christmas Fair to experience holidays in a different way, Telus Fire On Ice with spectacular musical fireworks over the the Old Port, to the Cirque du Soleil show that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
And when you are done, don't search for the best restaurant in town to get the strength back, enter the nearest one, its food is most probably equally excellent as in any other "big" name. ■