Montreal (French: Montréal) is the cultural capital of Quebec and the gateway to that province. Once the largest city in Canada, recent years have seen it cede that place to Toronto. It remains a city rich in culture and history, and has a well-deserved reputation as one of the liveliest cities in North America.
Situated on an island in the St. Lawrence River just at its highest navigable point, Montreal has been a strategic location since before the arrival of Europeans in Canada. A Native American village called Hochelaga was on the site of present-day Montreal when explorer Jacques Cartier first visited in 1535. A hundred years later, in 1642, the tiny town of Ville-Marie was founded as a Jesuit mission, but soon became a center of the fur trade. After its capture by the English in 1762, Montreal remained the most important city in francophone Canada, and was briefly capital of the province in the 1840s.
Prohibition on sales of alcohol in the United States during the 1920s and 30s made Montreal a mecca for cross-border fun seekers from nearby New England and New York. The city built up a seedy yet playful industry in alcohol, burlesque, and other vices. In the 1960s, an urban renewal drive centered around the Expo 67, the World's Fair in Montreal, brought a subway system and a number of attractive urban parks. The 1976 Olympics left a strikingly idiosyncratic stadium and many other urban improvements.
The opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959, though much lauded as an economic boon, spelled the beginning of the end for Montreal's economic dominance in Canada. Once the transition point between western rail roads and eastern sea carriers, Montreal watched helplessly as this business moved farther west, up the now navigable Seaway, to ports in Ontario and on Lake Superior. The Quebec sovereignty movement, which began to pick up steam in the 1960s, further chilled the atmosphere for Canada-wide businesses, many of which moved their headquarters to Toronto.
After an economic depression in the 1980s and 1990s -- due to automotive and aerospace plant closures in the surrounding area -- Montreal today has become more secure in its place in North America and the world. The second-largest francophone city in the world after Paris, it remains steadfastly confident in its own relevance in the face of the previous difficult years. It remains center of culture, arts, computer technology and media for all of Canada and for the French-speaking world.
Montreal is home to Canada's oldest university, McGill, sometimes called "Canada's Harvard". McGill is very well known for its expertise in medicine and biology. Concordia University is the other English-speaking university and has over 20,000 students. The University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM) and the University of Montreal cater to French-speaking students.
Montreal has a huge variety of food options, from diners and fast food to low-cost ethnic restaurants to haute cuisine. The large local Jewish population has contributed local specialties including a huge smoked meat sandwich called viande fumée and small, crusty bagels. Other specialties are "all-dressed" pizza (with smoked meat), and Quebecois favorites like split pea soup.
No visit to Montreal is complete without at least one plate of poutine (from English "pudding"). This unique dish is a plate of french fries, drowned in gravy, and topped with with chewy curds of white cheddar. There are variations on the theme -- adding chicken, beef, vegetables or sausage, or replacing the gravy with tomato sauce (poutine italienne). Every Montrealer has their favorite poutine restaurant where you can get "the real stuff."
Many Montreal restaurants require you to bring your own bottle of wine (apportez votre vin). This may sound like a hassle, but you end up paying much less for wine with dinner if you bring it yourself. There's usually a SAQ -- the province's official liquor store -- nearby; ask your waiter.
Restaurants lie thick on the ground in Montreal. A stroll down Duluth Street or Prince Arthur -- both pedestrian streets -- will turn up at least a few worth trying.
Specific accommodation info, or general idea of good areas of the destination to try. Other good info to include is high/low season, the importance of reservation, things to request (quiet room, view, airport pick up, etc)
Montreal makes an excellent entryway for visiting other cities and destinations in Quebec. Quebec City, about 3 hours to the north east on Highway 40, is almost but not quite a day trip -- you'll want to stay over, anyways. Mont Tremblant lies less than 2 hours north in the Laurentides, while the Eastern Townships are about the same distance straight east. If you're continuing to Ontario, Ottawa is 2 hours west by car, and Toronto is a more distant, but still doable, 6 hour drive.