10 Things to Know Before Visiting Montreal

Exploring Old Montreal
Exploring Old Montreal | © Daniel Kuhn / Flickr

With its mix of Old World charm and youthful energy, Montreal is a popular destination for all kinds of travelers from around the world. There are, however, some laws, customs, and terms that might be confusing when you’re navigating the city for the first time. Here are some local quirks that you should know about before you visit Montreal.

You can’t turn right on a red

The Island of Montreal is one of the only places in Canada where it’s not permitted to make a right turn on a red light—unless otherwise indicated. It’s a hard and fast local rule that trips up some out-of-towners who are used to being able to make that turn. It’s a law that benefits pedestrians, putting their safety first. In the rest of Quebec, however, turning right on a red light is allowed.

A Montreal intersection

A “Dep” is a convenience store

You’ll hear this word frequently in casual conversation, as in: “I’m just going to get some wine at the dep,” or “Can we stop at a dep on the way?” In Montreal lingo, “dep” is short for the French word dépanneur, which refers to a corner or convenience store. You might run to the nearby dep for cigarettes, milk, a chocolate bar, or yes, (cheap) wine or beer.

A Montreal dep

“5-à-7” means “Happy Hour”

During the week, you’ll see signs in front of pubs, bars, and some restaurants that advertise special prices or deals for “5-à-7,” said in both French and English as cinq-à-sept. This is simply the Montreal way of referring to Happy Hour. On a related note, the outdoor seating area is not a patio. It’s a terrasse, which is not pronounced the same as the English word “terrace.” Instead, you keep the French pronunciation: /teʀas/. Along with “Dep” above, these are examples of the way that Montreal English sometimes borrows from Québécois terminology.

There are festivals—lots of festivals

Montreal is one of the most festive cities in Canada, and that’s one of the reasons why that people love to visit. There’s a wide range of fun and exciting events happening year-round, and especially during the warmer months (June–September); it can feel like there’s one long city-wide festival going on. You can easily walk through multiple neighborhoods and find yourself in the middle of a different event, open-air market, or impromptu live music session in each one. So, when you’re planning your trip to Montreal, look ahead of time to see what’s on and make the most of your time here.

Montreal International Jazz Festival

Some seasons are better than others

Winter in Montreal can be difficult, especially in January and February. However, there are some fun events even at this frigid time of year, including an outdoor EDM concert called Igloofest, but in general, it’s not a recommended season to visit the city if you want to really revel in the best that Montreal has to offer.

Skating in the Old Port, Montreal

Montreal is a bilingual city

The city is officially French and holds the distinction of being the second-largest primarily French-speaking city in the world—second only to Paris. At the same time, Montreal is also the most bilingual city in Canada, with almost 60% of its residents able to speak both English and French. When visiting, then, there’s no need to worry about whether or not you’ll be able to communicate with servers and locals. You might want to master some basic vocabulary, especially for greeting and thanking, as a matter of politeness.

The Quebec flag alongside the Canadian and Montreal flags

North is not quite north

When you’re figuring out directions around the city and trying to orient yourself, it’s important to remember that north isn’t quite north here. Indeed, the way that locals talk about directions is one of the quirks of Montreal’s geography. For example, the St. Lawrence River is locally interpreted as flowing from west to east, even though in reality it flows north or northeast past the island. As a result, directions along streets that run parallel to the river are referred to as “west” and “east,” and those along streets perpendicular to the river are called “north” and “south.” Strictly speaking, “north” is actually northwest in most of Montreal, and in some areas, it’s even due west. Because of this quirk, Montreal has been referred to as “the only city where the sun sets in the north.”

The “metro” means the subway

In Montreal, the public transportation system is officially named the STM. In common parlance, however, locals will say that they’re taking either the metro or a bus, depending on the situation. This might be mildly confusing to people hailing from nearby cities like Toronto, where the underground train is called the subway and people will also say more generally that they’re “taking the TTC,” which is the city’s public transportation company. In Montreal, the company’s initials are not used in the same way.

The Metro

The legal drinking age is 18

In the majority of Canada’s provinces and territories, the legal drinking age is 19. Montreal’s drinking age is one of the reasons why it is a popular city to party in, in addition to the fact that there are so many festivals. As a result, you’ll find the downtown pubs, bars, and clubs brimming with students who might not even be in university yet; if they’re Quebeckers, then they’re probably in the province’s intermediary college year between high school and university, known as CÉGEP. Knowing this, you can plan to be in the middle of the weekend party action on Crescent Street—or avoid it.

Quebec beer is probably stronger than your beer

Local and regional microbreweries produce flavourful and creative beers that also have a considerably high alcohol level—frequently 6% or more, and even going higher into the double digits. Keep this in mind when you order a pint or pitcher in Montreal.

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