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That it's friendly and easy to get around helps. Nonetheless, this city of immigrants has managed to carve out a place for itself as Québec Province's economic and cultural centre. Montréal's charm lies in its relaxed atmosphere rather than its star attractions.

During the day, the city has a typically north-American bustle - though French-speaking Montréal takes pains to retain its linguistic heritage. Québec's largest city has always kept one foot in the countryside, although mighty skyscrapers have sprung up among the city's churches.

Facts in a glance

Area: 449 sq km
Population: 3,400,000
Country: Canada
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 (Eastern Standard Time)
Telephone Area Code: 514

History

It accounts for a lot of the politics of Canada today. Before the French came to Québec with ideas of Napoleon's Second Empire, the Algonkian, Huron and Iroquois shared the area, not always peacefully. Montréal's past is a prominent and colourful chapter in the history of Canada. Jacques Cartier was the first European to set foot on the island of Montréal, but it wasn't until 1642 that a permanent European settlement was established and 'the mountain' was named Mont Royal, from which the city probably took its name.

Soon it became a major fur-trading post, a business the Iroquois wanted for themselves, and attacks on the colony occurred regularly until 1701 when a peace treaty was signed. Many of the buildings from the period can still be seen in Vieux Montréal today. With a burgeoning fur trade, Montréal became an exploration base and the commercial hub of France's North American empire, Nouvelle France.

Trouble stars, first the protracted French and Indian war (1754-63 marked the turning point in French influence throughout north America. This paved the way for the British to take Québec City in 1759 and before long Montréal also fell.

1763: Canada officially became a British colony and settlers began to pour in. However, the anti-British rebellious American colonies also had designs on the territory and took Montréal. But without French-Canadian support, they were soon forced to beat a hasty retreat from both Montréal and Québec City.

The city continued to grow and prosper as expanding shipping and rail lines turned the city into Canada's commercial and cultural centre, despite the decline of Montréal as a fur-trading player. Much of its diversity came from central and eastern European immigrants looking for work, and ethnic districts continued to expand into the 20th century; there was a particularly large influx of Jewish Europeans.

Despite its seedy underbelly, a middle class began to emerge as Montréal fashioned itself into a manufacturing centre.This trend continued after both world wars, when immigrants flowed into the city, which had developed a reputation as something of a Gomorrah, due partially to Prohibition in the USA.

1950: a new mayor, Jean Drapeau, was drawing up plans that would change the face of the city. Labelled a meglomaniac by critics, Drapeau nonethless succeeded in cleaning up the city, encouraging redevelopment and enhancing Montreal's international reputation with both the World's Fair in 1967 (which pulled in over 50 million visitors) and the Olympic Games in 1976. Nonetheless, during this time Toronto had well surpassed Montréal as Canada's economic capital. Apart from a five-year period in the early 60s, Drapeau remained a popular mayor until the mid-80s. This was in no small part due to the uncertainties stirred up by a growing Québec separatist movement that became a dominant political cause in the 1960s. This launched the 'Quiet Revolution' that eventually gave French Québecers more sway in industry and politics and saw the supremacy of the French language in the province. The down side of the movement was the relocation of foreign investors to less turbulent waters.

This hurt Montréal greatly, exacerbating the deep recession of the early 1990s, during which poverty was a major problem. The issue of separatism, however, failed to diminish, with referendums and the rise to political power of the separatist-leaning Parti Québecois (PQ). Montréal's residents voted firmly to stay with Canada, although the issue is no less passionate or complex today.

In the 1990s the riverfront and Vieux Port area were redeveloped and enhanced.On the back of growing high-tech industries Montréal managed to emerge from economic hardship and modernisation of the city.

Despite the robust conjecture, the Montréal of today is altogether a more cheerful and prosperous place as the developments bring economic revival to an already culturally rich and complex city. Downtown has undergone a transformation into an alluring blend of European and North American forms, accompanied by plenty of debate on future modernisation and preservation projects.

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