Montreal and its suburbs sprawl all over the largest island in the St. Lawrence River. The Greater Montreal area is home to over 3 million people, almost half of the province’s entire population. Its strategic location at the center of Canada’s major waterway trade route made it the richest city in Canada within a few years of its founding in 1642. After the union of Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Quebec) Canada in 1840, Montreal became the new country’s first capital.
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Already Canada’s major inland port, the city solidified its position as the country’s major center of commerce and transportation in 1873 with the founding of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. By 1885, with Canada linked together by railroad from the East Coast to the West, Montreal became its industrial heartland. For the next 50 years, it led the country’s growth and by the beginning of the 20th century, with a population of 370,000, it was Canada’s largest and wealthiest city. Today, Canada’s wealth is much more evenly distributed across the country. The West has boomed and Ontario has pulled ahead of Quebec as the motor of the country’s economy. However, Montreal is still widely considered to be the city with the highest quality of life. The city skyline has undergone major changes in the past 30 years, and in the past five years intensive commercial development has transformed the downtown core.
One third of Montrealers speak English as their first language, making it the fourth largest English-speaking city in Canada. It is also the largest Frenchspeaking city outside of France. It is this mix of culture that gives the city its unique flair, it is why people move here.
Other cultures too have settled here: Jews, Italians, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Greeks, Argentinians, Chileans, Haitians, Jamaicans, Lebanese and Latvians are just some of le,s autres. Aside from bringing their cultural traditions, religious customs and trade ties with them, these communities have enriched Montreal with their respective gastronomic specialties, which accounts these days for the city’s well-established reputation as a paradise for the connoisseur.
The boundaries of the city’s central business district and downtown core have unofficially been extended north to the uppermost streets of Vieux Montreal in recent years. There is a historical precedent for this: rue St-Jacques or St. James Street as it was known at the turn-of-thecentury. Once famed as the “Wall Street of Canada,” it has somewhat regained its former stature with the opening of Montreal’s award-winning Centre de Commerce Mondial (World Trade Centre) in 1992. Occupying several city blocks, this massive complex incorporates a wintergarden, office, retail and restaurant facilities and the Hotel IntercontinentalMontreal in a mix of restored landmark buildings and new structures designed to complement the former’s architectural styles. This has helped to revitalize Vieux Montreal’s original vocation as a center of commerce, though business never entirely left the area. Canada’s oldest bank, the Bank of Montreal, founded in 1817 has been headquartered on Place d’Armes since 1840 in a neoclassical edifice modelled after Rome’s Pantheon.
Square Victoria, a pleasant landscaped tribute to Queen Victoria, whose statue adorns it, is home to the Bourse de Montreal (Montreal Stock Exchange) and Bell Canada-Banque Nationale complex, both of which form the extreme southeastern end of Montreal’s Ville Souterraine (Underground City). Something of a misnomer, as much of it is at street level, this is the ten miles of weather-protected arcade comprising ten shopping concourses with over 1400 shops, seven hotels, more than twelve commercial buildings, residential highrises, hundreds of restaurants, bars and cafes, 30 cinemas, two train stations and several Metro stations linking much of the downtown area by underground passage – a blessing considering the severity of Montreal winters.
Just five minutes north of Square Victoria and next to Chinatown, the Palais de Congres (Montreal Convention Center), Complexe Guy Fabreau and Complexe Desjardins, with its multilevel La Place galleria and 600-room deluxe Hotel Le Meridien, are all part of this network.
But no trip to the downtown area would be complete without visiting the carriage trade department store Ogilvy, a few blocks south on rue Ste-Catherine. Despite being significantly revamped recently, it still retains the wonderful cranberry-glass chandeliers, sweeping staircase and noon-hour ritual of kilted bagpiper marching through the store as it did when it first opened as a linen shop in 1866, serving English, Scottish and Irish matrons of the day.
First established in 1837 in Quebec City as Henderson, Holt and Renfrew Furriers, Montreal’s Holt Renfrew (at Sherbrooke Ouest and Montague) was the first to introduce haute couture fashions to Montrealers and, like La Baie once was, has always been famous for its fur salon. Four generations of British royalty, including Queen Elizabeth II, who received a custom-designed Labrador mink coat from Holt’s as a wedding gift, have worn its furs.
Montreal’s downtown is also the center of its arts and cultural attractions, with most of the major institutions located between rue Atwater to the extreme southwest and rue St-Denis to the extreme northeast, rue Sherbrooke in the west and boulevard Rene-Levesque in the east.
Downtown Montreal’s other major attractions are all within blocks of one another on rue Sherbrooke, in what is still called Montreal’s Square Mile, where the English, Scottish, and Irish social and business elite of the Victorian and Edwardian eras built their estates and spawned family dynasties. Some of these magnificient homes are still standing, though most along this stretch of Sherbrooke are now public institutions, private clubs, high-class boutiques, art galleries, university quarters and embassies.