A compact island city with a cluster of lively neighborhoods knotted round the historic Old Port, Montréal is an easy city to explore. Much of the city is built on a grid system, with the exception of the stately streets that trace round, up, and over Parc du Mont-Royal. Major streets downtown—including Sherbrooke, de Maisonneuve, Ste-Catherine, and René Lévesque—are divided on an east-west axis or est-ouest, as they're called around here. If an address looks perplexing, remember that streets with “O” after the street name are west. One of the most useful Montréal facts you can keep in mind is that maps (including subway maps) are often printed with northwest at the top, instead of north, so it can be quite confusing if you’re switching between a couple of different cartes de ville. So those east-west streets are actually northeast-southwest. Downtown sits directly west of Old Montréal, with The Village and the Latin Quarter to the north. You’ll find the best Montréal hotels, a significant number of the best places to drink in Montréal, and many top Montréal restaurants here. North of Downtown, the bohemian Plateau and Mile End neighborhoods shimmy up to the hems of Parc du Mont-Royal. Beyond the Plateau, you’ll find bustling Little Italy—home to the largest ethnic group in the city. While there are some great restaurants in the neighborhoods on the other flanks of Mont-Royal, there aren’t too many other reasons to explore these parts unless you’re in town for a few weeks. Southwest Montréal is quite a rush—the historic Pôle des Rapides neighborhood is where you’ll encounter the fierce Lachine Rapids. Northwest of Downtown, you’ll find the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve neighborhood—a working class residential district that’s home to the Jardin Botanique de Montréal and the site of the city’s 1976 Olympics.
The city’s vibrant Downtown, or centre-ville, is tucked between the river and the mountain, and it’s where most visitors to Montréal stay. Composed of the city’s business, mainstream entertainment, shopping and museum districts, downtown is in close proximity to the top Montréal attractions, and it’s the hottest shopping district in the city. Both boardroom and playground, Downtown is equal parts skyscrapers and heritage buildings, perfectly turned out professionals and elegantly attired fashionistas. This is Montréal’s fast-paced clubbing and cultural hub. Some of the best Montréal nightlife is crammed into Rue Crescent and surrounding streets, and the city’s best museums are scattered throughout the area. The stately McGill University campus lies in part of the Golden Square Mile—an area where Canada’s wealthiest patrons lived at the beginning of the 20th century.
You can trace the early history of the city by walking through the cobblestone streets of Old Montréal and along the quays of the Old Port. The rest of the neighborhood, though, is authentic, with buildings that date back to the 17th century, such as the 1684 St-Sulpice Seminary beside Basilique Notre-Dame. In summer, Old Montréal can be absolutely mobbed with visitors, as it’s number one on the list of Montréal attractions, so come early in the day or after 8PM and most of the tour buses should have departed. At night, history meets hedonism in the oldest neighborhood in Montréal. Once the workday is done Montréalers spill out of offices and pour into the narrow ancient streets to drink, dine and, increasingly, dance. Old Montréal has become the city’s latest social “it” spot.
Quartier Latin and The Gay Village
The home of the youthful Université du Québec à Montréal, Montréal’s Latin Quarter offers an abundance of appealingly priced eateries, cool cafés, student-popular bars and edgy nightlife venues. Most social emporiums are tucked along St-Denis between Ste-Catherine and Sherbrooke, but you’ll also be tripping over drinking dens and restaurants on rue Ontario. The vast gay and lesbian neighborhood known as Le Village is just to the northwest of the Latin Quarter, and it offers what is considered by some to be the hottest gay scene in North America. Five, six, and seven-story clubs line the strip, rainbow flags fly high, and on weekends thousands converge for parties and after-hours parties that last till long past dawn.
The Plateau, Mile End, and Little Italy
Plateau Mont-Royal and adjacent Mile End to its west make up the bohemian heart of the city. Vibrant Little Italy—best known for its lively cafés and the bustling Marché Jean-Talon—is to the northwest. The city’s most densely populated neighborhood, The Plateau started life as a working-class area, however, writers and artists who moved into the area in the 1960s and 1970s made this neighborhood the number one address for creative types. With all of those creative souls comes a fabulous slew of funky cafés, martini lounges and microbreweries, top Montréal bars, intriguing eateries and fun boutiques. Mile End has visible Hassidic Jewish and Portuguese populations, while The Plateau is very diverse. The area is famed for the ornate (and scary, in winter) wrought-iron staircases that twirl up the fronts of the fabled duplex and triplex homes in this residential neighborhood. It’s one of the best places to stay in Montréal.
Pôle des Rapides/Southwest Montréal
The only thing fast-paced about the lovely Pôle des Rapides neighborhood in southwest Montréal is the speed of the seething Lachine Rapids. So unless you’re planning on rafting, kayaking or jet-boating the famed rapids, come here to slow down, take things down a notch, and escape the summer crowds thronging Old Montréal. Despite being only 10 minutes from Downtown, we really feel like we’re worlds away when we’re biking along the canal bank; picnicking on Québecois cheese, smoked meats and pastries from Marché Atwater; watching boats percolate through the Lachine Locks; and strolling among the 50 sculptures of the Musée plein air de Lachine.