What makes Montreal unique? – 11 Cool Reasons 🇨🇦

Well, it doesn’t take much to see how special of a city Montreal is in Canada, let alone the world. A big city, one of the safest big cities, a popular spot for students and travelers looking for a one-of-a-kind corner of North America. Montreal is French but the English presence is apparent. Are you aching to learn some more? Take a journey into the royal city.

So what makes Montreal so unique, then?

Map of Montreal highlighting Montreal Island
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MONTRÉAL: Quick Geography

First off, Montreal is Canada’s second-biggest city by population and the biggest in Quebec province. It’s got over 1,704,000 people in the city and over 1,942,000 in the urban area. The city is located on a group of islands, mainly the Île de Montréal (Il-de-Mon-trhey-all) or Montreal Island. The big island sits between the mighty St. Lawrence River and the smaller Prairie River, also standing at the head of the Ottawa River.

Once called Ville-Marie, 16th-century French came to name the city after a three-hill point called Mount Royal or Mont-Réal back in those days. In Ojibwe, the city is known as Mooniyaang after a “first stopping place” in their migration legend. Otherwise, it’s called Tiohtià:ke Tsi in Mohawk meaning “a place where nations and rivers unite and divide.” That fits the city pretty well.

Montreal is divided into 19 boroughs with their own mayors and councils too. Let’s look at some features!

1. Because of the St. Lawrence Riverfront

Jean-Drapeau Park and the Biosphere on the Île Sainte-Hélène
Jean-Drapeau Park, Île Sainte-Hélène – by Guillaume TECHER

Montreal’s main riverfront is home to a couple of core attractions, including a few islands. The Île Sainte-Hélène (Il-Sent-Eh-len) or “Saint Helen’s Island” is right in the middle of the river. It is home to a major theme park called La Ronde, as well as the famous Jean-Drapeau Park with the giant Biosphere globe.

Just next to it is the Île Notre-Dame which has the prettily designed adult playground known as Montreal Casino. There’s also the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, a major track used for the Canadian Grand Prix. It’s also great for casual strolls to take in a view of Old Montreal.

Montreal's Old Port at dusk with the clock tower and bridge in the background
Old Port of Montreal – by Walid Amghar

On the main island is the Old Port where old boats still sail like they did back in colonial times. There’s also a promenade with the pretty Montreal Clock Tower looming above the water. Out on a little strip by the port is Habitat 67, a building complex with unique box-shaped sections that looks like a giant Tetris game. That’s different.

2. Because of Old Montreal

Notre-Dame Basilica interior, Old Montreal
Notre-Dame Basilica – by Annie Spratt

Old Montreal is the classic cobblestone and horse carriage image of the city that visitors love. The place is stocked with beautiful old architecture like at City Hall and the Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in North America.

There’s also the famous Notre-Dame Basilica with the extremely beautiful interior appreciated by both pro- and non-Catholics around the world. The Château Ramezay is an old hotel establishment and one of several places that offer an experience to go back in time to Quebec’s good olden days. That’s why Old Montreal is a national historic site in Canada.

3. Because of Ville-Marie

a view of Ville-Marie, downtown Montreal with the riverfront
view of Ville-Marie – by Annie Spratt

Ville-Marie is basically the main core of Montreal being one of its boroughs. Besides Old Montreal, there are a number of really nice cultural centers like the Redpath Museum and the Museum of Beaux-Arts.

Besides the many squares and skyscrapers, the queen of them is the 1000 de la Gauchetière which stands at the height of Mount Royal. They would build it taller, but the city doesn’t allow for buildings any higher than those hills. The top has an awesome aerial view of the city and its surroundings, and it holds a big skating rink for those who want a less lofty adventure.

On the sub-ground level, Ville-Marie has an Underground City full of shops and eateries. It’s a popular place to do some shopping and escape the bitter Montreal winters.

4. Because of the Entertainment

the Quartier des Spectacles square at evening with colorful decorations
Quartier des Spectacles – from QuartierdesSpectacles.com

One of the main spots near downtown is this big square called Quartier des Spectacles. It’s a very interestingly designed locale that lights up with parties and festivals all throughout the year. Especially around the Place des Arts, the area is also full of galleries and theaters of all kinds, as well as the Grande Library.

Montreal, in general, is famous for its big festivals, some of them being the biggest or only of their kind in the world! To list a few you have the:

  • International Jazz Festival
  • Nuits d’Afrique (African Nights)
  • Circus Festival
  • International Fireworks Festival
  • Igloofest
  • Canadian Grand Prix
  • Just for Laughs (comedy fest)
  • Les Francos de Montréal (French music festival)

5. Because of the Food & Neighborhoods

Poutine with a thicker beef gravy, plate originated from Quebec
Poutine, a Quebec original – By Jonathunder

Montreal is very famous for its food and drink scene, having some of the most unique cuisines in North America for a number of reasons. World-famous restaurants and good wine or craft bars are found throughout, and you can’t go without the poutine!

Read more: Food & Culture tours

colorful graffiti and street art at a corner around Saint Laurent Boulevard, Montreal
graffiti art around Boulevard St.-Laurent – by Benoit Debaix

Other cool neighborhoods to explore shops and historic architecture are Mile End and Rue Saint-Denis. In this area is the Jean-Talon Market, Montreal’s biggest open-air market to get your eat on. Lastly, Boulevard Saint-Laurent is another quirky hood to explore with tons of weird and cool street art, as well as some shops of its own.

6. Because of Mont-Royal

view from a belvedere on Mount Royal, Montreal
view from Mont-Royal – by Matthias Mullie

The city’s namesake isn’t just some mountain but a massive park space with lots of serene nature. With tons of natural space and activities year-round, Mont-Royal also has a number of monuments, major cemeteries, and belvederes to take in the view of Montreal.

The views alone are enough to make you grateful they don’t build skyscrapers higher than the mountain. One of the main sights to take in the park’s beauty is Saint Joseph’s Observatory.

7. Because of the Islands & Nature Parks

Despite being one of Canada’s biggest cities, Montreal has left plenty of room for nature to stay in play. This shows in places like the lush Bois-de-Liesse Nature Park along the Prairie River, or the Cap-Saint-Jacques Nature Park.

This big park has cool activities like maple shacks to extract syrup, livestock farms to interact with animals, and even some decent beaches for the summertime. Much of the park is undeveloped and remains a quiet wood area.

Other isolated parks located on islands are Île-Bizard and the Îles-de-Boucherville National Park. These places are ideal for exploring the waterways and natural landscapes around the city. Île-Perrot offers similar parks with a few historic structures to add to this quaint setting.

8. Because of Urban Parks

fountain and tranquil pond setting at La Fontaine Park, Montreal
the fountain at La Fontaine Park – By Jeangagnon

Other than Mont-Royal, the city is also stacked with nice urban parks. This includes La-Fontaine Park with its pretty ponds and forest scenery. A similar park with tranquil settings is Agrignon Park on the south side.

Frédéric-Back Park is a former quarry / landfill that’s in the process of becoming one of Montreal’s biggest urban parks. As of now, it’s got a few cool works of art in it, and it’s dotted by a bunch of weird scattered spheres. These things are a part of the biogas cleanup in the park and make for an interesting sight even if they’re not intended to be.

9. Because of the Botanical Gardens & Olympic Park

Montreal Botanical Garden and the Japanese Garden section
Japanese Garden, Botanical Gardens – by Hansel Wong

Montreal’s Botanical Gardens are some of the most awarded and revered gardens in the world. They are actually a group of gardens with international themes, and whether it’s the Japanese, Chinese, or First Nations, you can’t really go wrong. They’re also really nice because the gardens stay remarkably pretty no matter the season of the year.

Read more: Jardin Botanique

Olympic Stadium and Leaning tower at Olympic Park in Montreal
Olympic Stadium – By Tolivero

Next door at the Olympic Park are a few attractions like the Montreal Biodome and the park itself. Over here is the Leaning Tower which allows visitors to get a more “slanted” view of the city from above. There’s also the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, a popular place to learn about astronomy and make crafts or watch movies, among other fun activities.

10. Because of the Suburbs

the Rivière-des-Mille-Îles or thousand islands river in the suburbs of Montreal, Laval
Rivière-des-Mille-Îles – By Pierre Bona

Another cool thing about Montreal is its suburbs which add their own mix of nature and history to the urban area. Mont-Royal (the city) has a few of these places, centered nicely on a main square and the interesting Connaught Park.

Further from the center are places like Pointe-Claire with several nice parks, historic architecture, and art galleries on the St. Lawrence riverfront. Terrebonne has lots of nature and provides venues for skiers and snow sport lovers, as well as the historic Île-des-Moulins (Il-de-Mu-lunn). This area was a hotspot for Quebec’s noble landowners and houses several historic sights like 18th-century mills still standing in place.

Terrebonne-Ecluse des Moulins, church in Terrebonne, Quebec
Terrebonne – By Pierre Bona

Laval is another suburb popular for its nature and beautifully-built University of Laval. There’s also the Rivière-des-Mille-Îles (He-vyehr-deh-Mill-Il) or “Thousand Islands River” where explorers can walk or boat through the forested waterways and many isles.

Read more: What makes Northern & Southern Quebec special?

11. Because of its Culture (+ closing thoughts)

Often the name Montreal speaks for itself. This city stands alone in all the world for its impressive array of cultural sights, festive events, and beautifully preserved buildings. That speaks to a city that hasn’t lost its origins. Often split between French and English influences, Montreal has been able to balance these nicely into its identity.

It’s the second biggest city where French is the majority language, but English can be heard by a large portion of the people too. This even makes it unique within Quebec, since more rural areas are almost entirely French-speaking. A haven for students and art lovers, the cuisine and shopping alone could attract people from all over. And they do.

Strong religious roots have sculpted some of the most beautiful structures in Canada while new traditions create an impressively modern and entirely unique feel to the city. Montreal is diverse, a world leader, a trend-setter, and a genuinely standalone place in this world. Thank you for reading, and I hope this opened the door to your discovery of this spectacular world city!

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