This lively Canadian city is thrumming with culture and life. But like any tourist, it can be easy to fall into some cultural faux-pas while in Montreal. Here are five that you should avoid:
1. Insist on Speaking English—at Least, at the Start.
On a federal level, Canada is a bilingual country: Services should be available to citizens in both English and French. However, each province dictates which of the two has status in their environ. Quebec—the province where Montreal is located—has French as its solo official language. This means that français has preference over anglais in most, if not all, facets of Montrealer life. Business signs should display French at a more prominent spot compared to English, for instance.
A substantial percentage of Montrealers are bilingual, and you would not have any issues with English in the more touristic neighborhoods of Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal) and Place des Armes, however, much like traveling to any other country that doesn’t have English as an official language, a little politeness goes a long way.
If you have taken French classes in high school, or (like me) you’re a Francophone, Montreal is a great place to practice—although the accent is markedly different, you should be able to get by. Otherwise, a few pleasantries, such as bonjour, merci, je voudrais…, and s’il vous plaît is worth knowing.
2. Buy Maple Syrup at Souvenir Shops
I’ll make it short—the $5 cans of pure maple syrup that you get at the Marchés Publics de Montréal (pictured) are the same as those that you get at tourist shops for three times the price. (Sure, they come in fancier packaging, but how much does that really matter?) You’re not getting watered-down maple syrup at all.
3. Eat Nothing But Poutine
For the sake of your blood pressure, please eat poutine—arguably the province’s most popular fast food—sparingly. You are implored to have this on a visit to Montreal, either plain (cheese curds, fries, and gravy) or embellished with anything under the sun (lobster, hotdogs, and popcorn chicken to name a few), but a serving is an absolute salt bomb. To give you an idea, an order of poutine at McDonald’s has 3250 milligrams of sodium—135 percent of your daily requirement.
As a multi-cultural city, Montreal’s gastronomy is a world tour of flavors that will satisfy anyone’s taste. Enjoy medium-rare steak at Gibbon’s, canard en conserve at Au Petit Cochon, and a quick-and-filling Karaage bowl at Sushi Stop. Montreal is no slouch to the beer game either. Les 3 Brasseurs, Brasserie Benelux, and Réservoir craft brews that would titilate any beerphile’s tastes.
4. DRIVE IN THE CITY
Montreal, much like New York City, Paris, and London, is a city best explored on foot. Although car rentals are generally not expensive, parking—assuming you’ll even find one—is expensive, and most of the places of interest are accessible via the city’s extensive bus-and-train system.
When you arrive in the city, pick up an OPUS card. This stored-value card allows you access to Montreal’s public transportation network, reloadable with either value (a single ride is $3.50) or time (a one-week unlimited pass is $26.75).
5. ACT FRENCH IN MONTREAL
Despite the city’s heavy French roots, Montreal is still at its heart Quebecois and Canadian. Travel guides may talk breathlessly about how it is a slice of France in North America, but that’s a very surface-level comparison. Do not come to Montreal expecting to enjoy crêpes, baguettes, and inexpensive red wine—these are typical in France, but feel out-of-place in Quebec.
Rather than finding Paris without having to fly to a different continent, appreciate Montreal for what it is: a Canadian city that has been through a lot of changes in its 475-some years. And its unique character is what you’re about to experience during your trip.
(If you absolutely want to experience France in North America, visit Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, a French overseas territory accessible via plane or boat from Newfoundland and Labrador. They not only speak French from France there, they also use the Euro, close shops in the afternoon, and have 230-volt outlets.)