DOWNTOWN (ALSO KNOWN, IN FRENCH, AS CENTRE-VILLE) -- This area contains the Montréal skyline’s most dramatic elements and includes most of the city’s large luxury and chain hotels, prominent museums, corporate headquarters, main transportation hubs, and department stores.
The principal east-west streets include boulevard René-Lévesque, rue Ste-Catherine, boulevard de Maisonneuve, and rue Sherbrooke. The north-south arteries include rue McGill and boulevard St-Laurent (aka the Main), which serves as the line of demarcation between east and west Montréal. The district is loosely bounded by rue Sherbrooke to the north, boulevard René-Lévesque to the south, boulevard St-Laurent to the east, and rue Drummond to the west.
Within this neighborhood is the area called “the Golden Square Mile,” an Anglophone district once characterized by dozens of mansions erected by the wealthy Scottish and English merchants and industrialists who dominated the city’s political life well into the 20th century. Many of those stately homes were torn down when skyscrapers began to rise here after World War II, but some remain.
Rue Crescent, at the western side of downtown, is one of Montréal’s major dining and nightlife streets. While the northern end of the street houses luxury boutiques in Victorian brownstones, its southern end holds dozens of restaurants, bars, and clubs of all styles. The street’s party atmosphere spills over onto neighboring streets. In warm weather, the area’s 20- and 30-something denizens take over sidewalk cafes and balcony terraces.
At downtown’s northern edge is the urban campus of prestigious McGill University, an English-language school.
VIEUX-MONTREAL & VIEUX-PORT -- The city was born here in 1642, by the river at Pointe-à-Callière, the museum of archaeology and history. Today, especially in summer, many people converge around Place Jacques-Cartier, where cafe tables line narrow terraces. This is where street performers, strolling locals, and tourists congregate.
The main thoroughfares are rue St-Jacques, rue Notre-Dame, and rue St-Paul. The waterfront road that hugs the promenade bordering the St. Lawrence River is rue de la Commune.
The neighborhood is larger than it might seem at first. It’s bounded on the north by rue St-Antoine, and its southern boundary is the Vieux-Port (Old Port), now dominated by a well-used waterfront promenade that provides welcome breathing room for cyclists, in-line skaters, and picnickers. To the east, Vieux-Montréal is bordered by rue Berri, and to the west, by rue McGill.
Several small but intriguing museums are housed in historic buildings here, and the district’s architectural heritage has been substantially preserved. Restored 18th- and 19th-century structures have been adapted for use as shops, boutique hotels, galleries, cafes, bars, offices, and apartments. In the evening, many of the finer buildings are beautifully illuminated. In the summer, sections of rue St-Paul turn into pedestrian-only lanes. The neighborhood has an official website: www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca.
About a 20-minute walk west of Vieux-Montréal is a neighborhood called Little Burgundy. You’ll pass through it if you head to the Atwater Market. It’s a small stretch along rue Notre Dame ouest that is a destination for its quirky item boutiques, chichi bars, and—especially—its eateries. This strip is mentioned in the restaurant and nightlife chapters.
PLATEAU MONT-ROYAL & MILE END -- “The Plateau” is where many Montréalers feel most at home—away from downtown’s chattering pace and the more touristed Vieux-Montréal. It’s where many locals dine, shop, play, and live.
Bounded roughly by rue Sherbrooke to the south, boulevard St-Joseph to the north, avenue Papineau to the east, and rue St-Urbain to the west, the Plateau has a vibrant ethnic atmosphere that fluctuates and shifts with each new immigration surge.
Rue St-Denis runs the length of the district from south to north and is the thumping central artery of Francophone Montréal, as central to French-speaking Montréal as boulevard St-Germain is to Paris. It is thick with bistros, offbeat shops, and lively nightspots, and is a great walking street for taking in the pulse of Francophone life. There are no museums or important galleries on St-Denis, nor is the architecture notable, so there’s no obligatory sightseeing. Do as the locals do: pause over bowls of café au lait at any of the numerous terraces that line the avenue.
Boulevard St-Laurent, running parallel to rue St-Denis, has a more polyglot flavor. Known as “the Main,” St-Laurent was the boulevard first encountered by foreigners tumbling off ships at the waterfront. They simply shouldered their belongings and walked north, peeling off into adjoining streets when they heard familiar tongues or smelled the drifting aromas of food reminiscent of the old country. Without its gumbo of languages and cultures, St-Laurent would be something of an urban eyesore. It’s not pretty in the conventional sense. But its ground-floor windows are filled with collages of shoes and pastries and aluminum cookware, curtains of sausages, and the daringly far-fetched garments of designers on the forward edge of Montréal’s active fashion industry.
Many warehouses and former tenements in the Plateau have been converted to house this panoply of shops, bars, and high- and low-cost eateries.
Other major streets are avenue du Mont-Royal and the swanky avenue Laurier.
Mile End, the neighborhood that adjoins Plateau Mont-Royal at its northwest corner, is contained by boulevard St-Joseph on the south, rue Bernard in the north, rue St-Denis on the east, and avenue du Parc on the west. It has designer boutiques, shops specializing in household goods, and some great restaurants.
Mile End has many pockets of ethnic mini neighborhoods, including Italian, Hassidic, and Portuguese. The area some still call Greektown, for instance, runs along avenue du Parc and is thick with restaurants and taverns.
PARC DU MONT-ROYAL -- Not many cities have a mountain at their core. Montréal is named for this small outcrop—its “Royal Mountain.” The park here is a soothing urban pleasure. With trails for hiking and cross-country skiing, it’s well used by Montréalers, who refer to it simply and affectionately as “the Mountain.” Buses travel through the park, and if you’re in moderately good shape you can walk to the top in 1 to 3 hours from downtown, depending on the route.
On its northern slope are two cemeteries, one that used to be Anglophone and Protestant, the other Francophone and Catholic—reminders of the city’s historic linguistic and religious division.
OLYMPIC PARK -- A 20-minute drive east of downtown on rue Sherbrooke is Olympic Park,named for Stade Olympique (Olympic Stadium), the stadium Montréal built for the 1976 Olympic Games. Four other attractions here make up the newly branded “Espace Pour la Vie” (Space for Life): the city’s lovely Jardin Botanique (Botanical Garden) and three venues of special interest to children: Biodôme de Montréal, Insectarium de Montréal, and the Rio Tinto Alcan Planétarium.
QUARTIER INTERNATIONAL -- When Route 720 was constructed under the city in the early 1970s, it left behind a desolate swath of empty space, smack-dab between downtown and Vieux-Montréal. This area has since become a business center, with office buildings (notably agencies or businesses with an international focus, hence the name “International Quarter”), and the Palais des Congrès (Convention Center).The convention center, in fact, is a design triumph, as unlikely as that seems. Transparent glass exterior walls are a crazy quilt of pink, yellow, blue, green, red, and purple rectangles. You can step into the inside hallway for the full effect—when the sun streams in, it’s like being inside a huge kaleidoscope. The walls are the vision of Montréal architect Mario Saia.
The Quartier is bounded, more or less, by rue St-Jacques on the south, avenue Viger on the north, rue St-Urbain on the east, and rue University on the west.
QUARTIER DES SPECTACLES -- This newly-vibrant area is home to the Place des Arts (a plaza with the city’s large concert halls and restaurants) and the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal, and is the city’s cultural heart. This is where people flock for opera, music concerts, many of the popular indoor and outdoor festivals, comedy shows, digital art displays, and more. For the past few summers, for instance, an interactive installation of swings that light up and play music has delighted all visitors. It has its own website, at www.quartierdesspectacles.com. The Quartier is bounded by boulevard René-Lévesque, rue Sherbrooke, City Councillors, and rue St-Hubert. Its eastern side overlaps with the Quartier Latin (details below).
THE VILLAGE -- Also known as the Gay Village (really), Montréal’s gay and lesbian enclave is one of North America’s largest. It’s a compact, but vibrant district with cafes, clothing stores, dance clubs, and antiques shops. It runs along rue Ste-Catherine est from rue St-Hubert to rue Papineau and onto side streets. A rainbow, the symbol of the gay community, marks the Beaudry Métro station, which is on rue Ste-Catherine in the heart of the neighborhood.
In recent years, the city has made the length of rue Ste-Catherine in the Village pedestrian-only for the entire summer. Bars and restaurants build ad-hoc terraces into the street, and a summer-resort atmosphere pervades.
PARC JEAN-DRAPEAU: ILE STE-HELENE & ILE NOTRE-DAME -- Connected by two bridges, these two small islands make up Parc Jean-Drapeau (www.parcjeandrapeau.com), which is almost entirely car-free and accessible by Métro.
St. Helen’s Island was altered extensively to become the site of Expo 67, Montréal’s very successful World’s Fair in 1967. In the 4 years before the Expo, construction crews doubled its surface area with landfill, and then went on to create Ile Notre-Dame beside it. When the World’s Fair was over, the city preserved the site and a few of its exhibition buildings.
Today, the park is home to the popular summertime Aquatic Complex, the La Ronde amusement park, and the Casino de Montréal. It’s also where the 3-day Grand Prix auto race takes place every June.
QUARTIER LATIN -- The southern end of rue St-Denis runs near the concrete campus of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). This is the Latin Quarter and decidedly student-oriented, rife with the messiness that characterizes student and bohemian quarters. Loud music pours out of cheap bars, grubby panhandlers ask for cash, and young adults swap philosophical insights and telephone numbers. Locals seem nonplussed by the numbers of drug addicts around the Berri-UQAM Métro entrances, but outsiders may find the scene intimidating.
THE UNDERGROUND CITY -- During Montréal’s cold winters and sultry summers, life slows above-ground on the streets of downtown as people escape into la ville souterraine, an extensive year-round subterranean universe. Here, in a controlled climate that recalls an eternal spring, it’s possible to arrive at the railroad station, check into a hotel, shop for days, and go out for dinner—all without stepping outdoors.
The city calls it the “underground pedestrian network,” but most locals still use the colloquial name “underground city.” It got its start when major downtown developments—including as Place Ville-Marie (designed by I.M. Pei, before he created the Pyramid at the Louvre in Paris), Place Bonaventure, Complexe Desjardins, Palais des Congrès, and Place des Arts—put their below-street-level areas to profitable use, leasing space for shops and other enterprises. Over time—in fits and starts, and with no master plan—these spaces became connected with Métro stations, and then with each other through underground tunnels. It slowly became possible to travel much of downtown through a maze of corridors, tunnels, and plazas. Today, some 1,000 retailers and eateries are in or connected to the network.
The term “underground city” is not 100 percent accurate: In Place Bonaventure, for instance, passengers can exit the Métro and find themselves peering out a window several floors above the street.
Natural light is let in wherever possible, which drastically reduces the feeling of claustrophobia. However, the underground city covers a vast area without the convenience of a logical street grid, so it can be confusing.