Montreal is Canada's second largest city and the cultural capital of Quebec. Situated on the banks of the St. Lawrence river, the city was historically an important trade hub. The French Canadian city has beautiful parks, great shopping, historical districts and world renowned restaurants. Montreal is actually home to the second-largest population of native French speakers after Paris, but rest assured, both French and English are spoken here, so monolingual Americans can feel comfortable getting around. If you are looking for a North American destination that feels truly international (albeit European), then Montreal is the place to go.

WHAT TO DO

Visiting Vieux Montreal (Old City) is a main reason many tourists flock to this Canadian city. Old cobblestone streets are lined with buildings dating from the 17th century and tourists can dine in one of the many old French restaurants (and of course drink some great wine), visit history museums, shop in the boutique stores and visit the riverfront at the old port. In the summer months, Places Jacques Cartier (named after a famous French explorer who mapped the region) is packed with street performers and people, restaurants and tourists. Due to the extremely cold weather, this area is much more subdued in the winter months, with warmly bundled visitors scurrying from hotel to gallery to restaurant.

Although a large metropolitan area, Montreal has many activities to offer visitors outside of shops, restaurants and museums/galleries. You can ice-skate year-round, cross-country ski (in the winter of course), kayak the St. Lawrence River (in the summer only, as the river is frozen solid about 5 months a year) or explore Montreal's many parks. The city also has a variety of famous festivals in both the summer and winter months. If you find yourself in the city on Quebec's national holiday (June 24) you can take part in the Fete de St. Jean-Baptiste, with a huge show in Maisonneuve Park and street parties throughout the city. In the winter (February), the Montreal en lumiere festival has both indoor and outdoor activities that include tasting of food and wine and performing arts.

Montreal is also known as the most gay-friendly city in North America. They city is home to the largest gay village in North America (yes, it's even bigger than the Castro), which stretches from rue Sainte-Catherine to rue Saint-Hubert. Montreal has a huge pride celebration, which takes place the last week of July-first week in August. Gay and lesbian couples looking to get hitched can do so in Montreal, where same-sex unions are legal and neither residency nor citizenship are required for a marriage license.

GETTING THERE

Unless you plan to rent and car and drive into Montreal from the United States, you'll want to book a flight into Montreal, which puts you in at the city's Pierre Elliott Tudeau Airport (YUL), located about half an hour west of the city. The airport is served by all major Canadian and U.S. airlines and is a major hub for Air Canada. There are also many trans-Atlantic flights daily, which bring visitors from Europe. Another option for flights into Montreal, is to use the Plattsburgh International Airport (PBG), which is across the border in Plattsburgh, New York. The drive from here into the city is about one-hour by car, and often domestic flights from the U.S. are cheaper here than an international flight to Canada.

From the Pierre Tudeau Airport, there are several options for how to get into the city. You can rent a car, take a $35 taxi ride (fixed fare), or book a shuttle into downtown for $24 roundtrip. There is also a public bus that leaves every half an hour from the main terminal and will drop tourists at the Dorval train station, where they can access the metro to take them to their final destination.

WHERE TO STAY

There are several appealing districts for tourists looking for a hotel in Montreal. The Latin Quarter is home to the most budget and mid-ranged accommodations in the city. There are several affordable and charming bed and breakfasts in this area of the city. Downtown there are many of the standard hotel chains and other larger hotels, which are conveniently located for those looking to explore all of the city's sites. If you are looking for a better budget option, there are a few Montreal hostels to choose from, which can be a great option for young people, people traveling alone or backpackers.