Montreal

Short history

Montreal’s history is deeply rooted in the presence of Indigenous communities who lived in the region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European explorers. The island of Montreal caught the attention of Jacques Cartier, a French navigator, in 1535. Cartier named it Mont Royal, a moniker that would evolve into the city’s current name. The founding of a Roman Catholic mission named Ville-Marie by Paul de Chomedey in 1642 marked a turn in the area’s history, establishing what is now known as Montreal. During its early years, Montreal emerged as a crucial center for the fur trade, playing a significant role in the industry’s development.

Following the 1760 Conquest, the city transitioned to British rule after the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, leading to a period of expansion and development. The opening of the Lachine Canal in the 1820s was instrumental in transforming Montreal into a vital hub for industry and transportation in North America. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Montreal experienced rapid urban growth and the arrival of diverse immigrant groups.

Despite economic challenges in the latter half of the 20th century, Montreal remained an influential center for arts, commerce, and education. The hosting of the 1976 Summer Olympics showed the city’s global appeal and capacity to host major international events. The evolution of Montreal from a small missionary outpost to a modern urban center reflects the complex intermingling of Indigenous, French, and British influences.

Geography

Located in the province of Quebec, Canada, Montreal enjoys a prime position on the Island of Montreal, where the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers merge. The city derives its name from Mount Royal, the triple-peaked hill that dominates its skyline, thus playing a pivotal role in shaping Montreal’s topographical features.

Montreal experiences a humid continental climate, typified by its hot, moist summers and brisk, snowy winter months. The sharp contrast in seasonal temperatures can be attributed to its geographic setting away from the coast, exposing it to frigid Arctic air blasts in the wintertime while basking in the warm currents from the Gulf of Mexico during summer.

The city’s governance structure is segmented into various boroughs, each overseen by its own council and mayor. 

Population

Montreal, with a population of 1,762,949 as of the 2021 census, is the largest city in the province of Quebec and the second most populous city in Canada. Immigrants play a significant role in the city’s demographic profile, accounting for over 30% of its total population. The city is a mosaic of communities including, but not limited to, French, Italian, Chinese, Haitian, Arabic, and Latin American groups. The city is recognized for its inclusive and liberal ethos. Despite the historical dominance of Roman Catholicism, deriving from its French colonial heritage, Montreal today is home to many religious communities including Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu congregations, among others.

Language plays a central role in shaping the cultural identity of Montreal. The city is predominantly bilingual; French is the official language and is spoken by approximately half of the population, with English serving as the second most common language. More than 20% of the population speaks a third language in addition to French and English, reflecting the multilingual nature of its residents.

Main sights

  • Mount Royal. This significant geographical feature is popular for its hiking trails, picnic spots, and the Mount Royal Cross, an iconic symbol that lights up the night sky. Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal) is a district characterized by many historical sites. Among these, the Notre-Dame Basilica stands out for its Gothic Revival architecture. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal) is renowned as the leading art institution in Montreal and among Canada’s foremost museums. It has a collection that spans from antiquity to contemporary periods. The Underground City (La Ville Souterraine) is an extensive network of pedestrian walkways located beneath the city’s surface. This interconnected complex combines shopping centers, subway stations, and offices. Place Jacques-Cartier, situated within Old Montreal, is a lively square surrounded by historic buildings and cafes.  Saint Joseph’s Oratory (L’Oratoire Saint-Joseph), located on Westmount Summit, is Italian Renaissance-style basilica. It is the largest church in Canada and a place of pilgrimage thanks to its vast dome, peaceful gardens, and spiritual significance. The Montreal Biosphere (Biosphère de Montréal) in Parc Jean-Drapeau represents is hosted within the geodesic dome created by Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World Expo. The Biosphere functions as an environmental museum that fosters awareness and action towards ecological issues.

Food

  • Montreal-style Bagels: Compared to their New York kin, these bagels are notably smaller, denser, and have a hint of sweetness, typically coming out of wood-fired ovens with choices like sesame and poppy seed.
  • Poutine: This iconic dish from Quebec is an assembly of fries with cheese curds, generously drizzled with gravy. Smoked meat or pulled pork are popular add-ons.
  • Smoked Meat: A delicacy in Montreal, the smoked meat is famously served on rye bread with a smear of mustard. The beef brisket undergoes a curing and smoking process that imparts deep flavors.
  • Tourtière: This meat pie is a comforting choice in the colder months. It’s typically prepared with a mix of minced pork, veal, or beef and seasoned with a blend of spices.
  • St. Viateur Bagel: This establishment has earned its place in the city’s culinary lore, offering the quintessential bagel experience.
  • Maple Syrup Pie: Quebec’s sweet pride. The pie’s sweetness and rich flavor pay homage to the beloved syrup.

Fun facts

  • After Paris, Montreal is the world’s second-largest French-speaking city, and a bastion of Francophone culture.
  • Initially named Ville-Marie, or “City of Mary,” the name Montreal, which draws from Mont Royal—the city’s iconic triple-peaked hill—eventually took precedence.
  • Underground City in Montreal consists of a sprawling network of over 32 kilometers of pedestrian pathways beneath its surface. 
  • Montreal has the highest ratio of restaurants to residents in Canada and ranking second in North America following New York City.