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!

What makes Iceland unique? Part 4 – Eastern Region

Iceland is absolutely a blessed country. There is so much beauty and so much that makes it stand out. This is Part 4 on what makes Iceland unique. You can read the other parts here to learn about Iceland’s other regions. In this post, we’ll look at what makes the Eastern Region special in this Nordic nation. Follow any of the links I’ve shared to learn more, and I always recommend looking up some of these places for yourself. Google Images is pretty inspiring on its own!

Okay then. What’s so special about Iceland’s Eastern Region?

Iceland's Eastern Region or Austurland, in red on the map
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Austurland: Quick Geography

There’s no hiding where this region is located on the map. The Eastern Region is in the east with its capital at Egilsstaðir (Egilsstadir). Its name in Icelandic is Austurland, which means the same as its English name. It’s got a pretty rugged coastline with lots of fjords. Its capital is also the biggest town in the east of Iceland. Like all the other regions, it’s got a mostly mountainous terrain with Alpine and polar climates, though the coast is generally warmer and more populous. Iceland’s highest peak and deepest lake are also in this region. Now that we know where it is …

1. Seyðisfjörður – Arts & Nature

First place that deserves a mention in the Eastern Region is the town of Seyðisfjörður. What is that? I know, it looks impossible to read. It can also be spelled “Seydisfjoerdur” if that helps. This place is pretty unique as far as towns go, considering what’s in and around it. The town itself has a vibrant art scene with lots of artistic style being integrated into it. Some entire streets are brightly painted and lined with colorful wooden buildings. Probably the most iconic of those is the Seyðisfjörður Church at the heart of it all.

Speaking more on the arts, this town has the only two cinemas in east Iceland, good to know in case you’re in the area. The town sits along fjords and has mountainous scenery, including the Skálanes Nature & Heritage Center and the nearby Gufufoss waterfall and puffin nesting grounds. History also runs deep here, where the Vestdalseyri ruins of an old settlement can be found. Apparently, these are the ruins from where they transported the town’s Church.

Seyðisfjörður happens to be the only place in Iceland where ferry transport between the island and continental Europe is possible. Also, don’t forget the nearby Tvísöngur sculptures. They are these radical concrete domes where singers can create musical sensations based on traditional Icelandic music. Very cool.

2. Egilsstaðir – Nature & Hot Springs

Remembering that it’s the capital, Egilsstaðir is also a major hub in the middle of the Eastern Region. Besides having a nifty Heritage Museum, the town is especially special for what surrounds it. Not far are the rocky waterfalls, Hengifoss and Fardagafoss.

Also not far is the Hallormsstaðaskógur (Hallorms-stadas-kogur — trying to help out). This guy is important as a national forest for being the biggest forest standing in Iceland. That’s a big deal because this country used to be covered in forests before it was settled and they were mostly mowed down. It’s a homage to the ancient and natural characteristics of Iceland as a whole. If that wasn’t enough, nearby you can find the Vök Baths. These are a set of natural hot baths built inside of a lake. I know, those people are so privileged!

3. Vatnajökull National Park – Volcanoes & Waterfalls

In the post about Northeastern Region, I told you a little about this huge national park called Vatnajökull. In the Eastern Region side of the park is the great Öræfajökull (Orefa-yoekull), a looming volcano that forms part of the highest peak in the nation. Next door is the amazingly pretty Skaftafell region filled with green hills and towering mountaintops. One of the most famous places here is Svartifoss, a waterfall that drops into a gorge formed out of cool hexagonal-shaped rocks. It’s a phenomenal sight and something really worth a handclap.

4. Jökulsárlón & Höfn – Glacial Lakes & Landscapes

Another popular feature of this region is its glacier lakes. Two notable ones are Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón, the former being the deepest lake in Iceland. They are very popular places for visitors and an amazing stop to watch innumerous icebergs float around in the deep blue waters. These lakes stream off of the mountains and glaciers high up in Skaftafell.

One great place to get a sense of the amazing scenery is this town called Höfn. It’s right there on the coast and offers views of the surrounding mountains, including the almighty volcano. One last mountain to appreciate here is called Vestrahorn. It’s very close driving from Höfn and is well worth a look. It’s a popular place for photographs, telling from its rugged “horn-like” shape and location near the coast. There are lots of interesting viewpoints from which to see the mountain like stony shores, rugged hills, and even some dunes. This whole southern section of the Eastern Region really is just breathtaking.

5. Culture (Last Thoughts)

The Eastern Region is a unique cultural outpost inside of Iceland. On one end, you have some major towns with their own arts-enthusiast identities. Because of its location and ferry service, it has some stronger historic and current connections with Scandinavia. Still rural and full of scenic thermal landscapes like the rest of Iceland, this place has its own twist on Icelandic identity with a strong link between traditional identity and modern expression, knotted together by a proud heritage. Its unique landforms and features also give it its own fearsome identity on the east edge of the nation. That’s it for the Eastern Region. Stay tuned for the article about the South.

**Thank you for coming by and taking the time to read this post! You are an awesome world citizen and I think it’s amazing you’re so interested in all the small corners of our planet. Keep learning and enjoy yourself! Peace.

What makes Iceland unique? Part 3 – Northeastern & Northwestern Regions

If you haven’t noticed yet, Iceland has a lot that makes it a unique country in and of itself. Making our way around the island, this post will dwell a bit on the two northern regions. Being so far up there, these are the two parts of the country that reach closest to the Arctic. Here you can read parts one and two of Iceland. It’s a little colder and more remote so far north. But what is it that makes the Northwestern and Northeastern Regions so unique? Let’s start by getting acquainted with this part of Iceland, shall we?

Location of Northeastern Region (Norðurland eystra) on the map
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Location of Northwestern Region (Norðurland vestra) on the map
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Quick Geography: Norðurland Vestra & Norðurland Eystra

The names of both of these regions describe exactly where they stand on the map, and that goes for both in Icelandic and English. So, we at least know where they are. Common for subarctic countries, they also have some big fjords (though not quite like the Westfjords).

The capital of Northwestern is Sauðárkrókur (Saudarkrokur), and Akureyri for Northeastern. Both of these regions have pretty extensive coastlines and mountains, though there are some full-blown ice sheets down in the south of them. The northernmost points in both the island and the country of Iceland are in the Northeastern Region, where there are a few isles that reach above the Arctic Circle. Now on to the uniqueness!

Fjord and harbor with a scenic mountainous landscape around the town of Akureyri, capital of the Northeastern Region, Iceland
Public Domain

Features & Places

1. The Capitals

Since we already mentioned them, let’s just start with the capital towns. I know the names might be a little confusing, so I’ll just refer to them here as S-Town and A-Town. Both of these northern regions look to be quite rural and country, even for Iceland standards. Still, this gives these towns even more of a cozy feel within the country.

Not only are these towns surrounded by scenic landscapes like sweeping harbors and snowcapped peaks. Especially with A-Town, there are a couple of other places to see like the Into the Arctic center, Iceland’s Motorcycle Museum for those who like motor grease, and a quiet Botanical Garden for those who like to sit in nature.

2. Northwestern: The Countryside

Of course, there is plenty to see outside of the capitals. In the Northwestern Region, Blönduós and Skagafjörður (Skagafjordur) come to mind out of the many idyllic countrysides here. In the area, there are even more scenes of majestic nature and landscapes stooped with watery valleys. A very cool feature of both these regions is that you can find many of those traditional sod-roof Nordic houses covered in grasses. When the ice has melted away, these homes and cabins are a pretty sight to see.

Panoramic view east across Skagafjörður valley, from Vatnsskarð pass, Northwestern Region
Skagafjörður valley – By Debivort

3. Special Lakes

If you like lakes, this is your place! 😀 Well, there are some interesting bodies of water out here. In Northwestern is a big one called Lake Hóp. Something really cool about it is that there are parts that seem to be shallow where groups of people can ride across the water on horseback!

If that doesn’t spark your interest, then check out this other place called Askja. Now, Askja itself is an active volcano or a series of calderas, really. Besides the feeling of being way out in the central highlands of a country that’s already pretty isolated, there are also a couple of big crater lakes, including the very large Lake Askja herself. Big beautiful bodies of water surrounded by snow-powdered hills and steamy calderas has to make a case for Northeastern Region being a special one.

3. Dettifoss & Vatnajökull

Particularly in Northeastern, you can find a few second-placers of Europe. Two of these would be Dettifoss (considered the second-most powerful waterfall) and the Vatnajökull (second largest glacier). With that said, they are definitely in first place inside of Iceland’s watery borders.

By writing this, you can probably picture for yourself the powerful, roaring waters and vast sheets of rugged ice and frozen caves. The glacier itself does stretch across a few different regions, but the larger part of Vatnajökull National Park is in Northeastern which is exactly where Dettifoss Falls are located. Okay, done with that.

Culture

I noticed doing research that these places seemed to be even more rustic and rural than the other regions of Iceland. It looks like there’s a stronger horse and farm life culture out here, and that’s great for giving some separation from the rest of the country. This area was traditionally (and still is) the least contacted for being so far up top. This has allowed the region to preserve certain aspects of rural and traditional Icelandic life that have fallen away in other parts.

There are still lots of amazing places to see and explore, and I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface. Ride a horse on a lake, catch the 2nd-most powerful waterfall in Europe, and reach the Arctic. All can be done in the wonderful Northeastern and Northwestern regions of beautiful Iceland!

**Thanks again for stopping by! I hope you enjoyed learning more about these regions of Iceland with me. I appreciate your thirst for knowledge and interest in other worlds. Please take care of yourselves and have happy travels!