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Aaaaah, Montréal. A city with few comparisons -- is it European with its old town, sidewalk café culture, and its multicultural and multilingual sophistication, or is it American with its wide boulevards, shiny glass towers, and friendlier and flatter social interaction? Either way, Montréal is a tourist-pleaser that manages to be relaxed but vibrant and has a joie-de-vivre that is impossible to resist.
Visitors to Montréal are often surprised with how comfortable the city is. At 3.8 million, it is big enough to be interesting, but its relaxed pace, safe neighbourhoods, and easy-going attitude make it a pleasure to explore. Physically, it is well put-together -- a very walkable, dense city with a well-preserved historic centre beside a modern downtown, plenty of public spaces and parks, a quick and clean transit system, some beautiful (and some not-so-beautiful and some downright quirky) architecture and neighbourhoods, and of course lots of sidewalk cafés for people watching.
As well, Montreal puts great importance on having fun and enjoying the easy life. It is an incredibly tolerant place that epitomizes the idea of live and let live. Indeed, Montreal seems to work so well not because its citizens proudly do their civic duty or adhere to social rules, but quite the opposite: that in encouraging the sometimes chaotic expression of the individual, everything seems to work out very well after all -- and that, despite astonishingly diverse opinions and cultures and languages and beliefs found in this multicultural city. Montréal's tolerance, plus pioneering anti-discrimination legislation dating back to the 70s and of course gay marriage being legal in Canada since 2005, has made the city a favourite gay destination, too, with one of the largest gay Villages where Sainte-Catherine is pedestrian-only during the summer and quite festive, and in the fall, the Black and Blue festival is one of the biggest gay circut parties. But for Montrealers, it's just another excuse to party, so it's incredibly mixed gay and straight, and young and old.
And Montréal is fun. With short summers, Montrealers cram as much partying in as they can, with festivals and whole nightclub areas awash with party-goers and sidewalk sales and street fairs and art and fireworks and noisy F1 races and jazz and parades and tam-tams on the mountain and fantastic restaurants and... well, the list goes on. As a party town, Montreal is also a naughty city, where the legal drinking age is 18, strip clubs for any kind of clientele and other naughtiness is generally well tolerated and found throughout the city, not shoved aside to the "bad" part of town.
Even in the harsh winter, Montrealers manage to live it up, although aside from outdoor sports and a few festivals such as the Highlights Festival, most everything happens indoors -- winter time is theatre season, for example, and although broadway shows are rare, smaller productions abound in theatres scattered throughout the city. The French theatre scene is much larger and more vibrant than the English one, with both classical and modern productions and, most of times, top notch production values. In fact the Montréal theater scene is probably the most vibrant and less Broadway oriented city in North-America outside of New-York and Chicage. Luckily, there is normally an impressive array of mime and dance/theatre productions where language is not so important -- not to forget the circus, an area where Montreal has gained international reputation. Surprisingly, Cirque du Soleil has no permanent show in Montréal, but the Cirque usually tries its new big top creation every two years in the spring here, brings back older shows reworked for arenas every year during the Holidays. There are other local circus companies that present shows during the year including at La Tohu, the only permanent circus building in North-America which also features the Completement Cirque Festival in summer.
Public art seems to be everywhere, even in its métro stations (although some admittedly has not aged well). Montreal has plethora of art spaces and galleries, and lately there as a significant increase in new media and avant-guarde venues. Plus, Montreal's tolerance and low cost means it has all the starving artists dressed in black or with dreadlocks that you could possibly want, and then some. Montreal is a creative city, and has a unique role as the centre for French-language culture in Canada, producing an astonishing amount of TV programmes, movies, books, magazines, theatre, music, and so on for local consumption. Richard Florida -- the creative class guru -- gives Montreal high marks indeed, marvelling at its "unique capacity to blend arts and culture with engineering and technology, and to combine that with street-level creativity energy." He states that "more than a third of the region’s workforce comes from the creative class – scientists, technology workers, entertainers, artists and designers, as well as managers and financial types – putting it in the top 10 per cent of all regions in North America, and a global leader as well."
While Montreal may seem like a great place to brush up your high-school French, it also has the highest percentage of bilingual and trilingual people in the country, and it is common for people to switch to English as soon as they hear an accent; this is considered polite, not a comment on your poor French. If you want to practise, just continue in French and they will probably switch back. You will notice that the accent is quite different from French elsewhere, but persevere! Most people in Montreal will graciously slow down and use a more neutral accent and choose more internationally-understood words when they notice your quizzical look.
Although language can be a sensitive issue in Québec, most Montrealers manage to live in harmony, and indeed the multicultural and multilingual blend adds a cosmopolitan and sophisticated flair while letting tourists enjoy an exotic destination without relying on a dictionary all the time. Together with Montrealer's friendliness and openness, it makes for a memorable and enjoyable vacation destination.