Montréal is a lovely, very multicultural city. It has the feel of a big city without being too busy, too spread out or too crowded. One of the things I loved most about it was that it felt like a mix of Europe and America, and that one day you could wake up and decide to only speak English, and the next only speak French and you would be able to be understood exactly the same both days. Being in such a bilingual city is very rare and it is wonderful to experience if you get the chance.
If you are not going to UdeM, or UQAM, and are going to Concordia or McGill and can't speak a word of French don't worry. Everyone in Montréal speaks English, especially in the downtown areas where all the McGill and Concordia students are. Most shop workers will greet you with “Bonjour hi” and then you can choose which language to respond in. Signs are predominantly in French with English usually written smaller underneath. If you are learning French, the québécois accent can take some getting used to if you have not really been exposed to it before. Not all French Canadians have a distinct accent but some do and it can take some getting used to, especially at first and if your lecturers happen to have a really strong accent. I found that I picked up the accent on some words, but in terms of grammar and vocabulary, there isn't too much of a difference from France French on a day-to-day basis.
What to pack
However cold you think it is going to be, it will be colder. The summer in Montréal is lovely and I would really recommend going out in August if you can just to experience the two different sides to Montréal. When I arrived it was 26ºC and when I left it was -18ºC (the coldest it got in Montréal was -22ºC). You will need a really thick pair of gloves, a good winter coat. If you are staying in Montréal over the winter, a good winter coat is essential as are a pair of wellies or, even better, a pair of snow boots. Snow boots are not necessarily cheaper in Canada and can range from $50 to over $200 depending on the make. The cheapest ones can be found at Payless Shoe Source (there are many branches of this shop all over Montréal), although the choice is more limited. You can find good bargains on coats on Boxing Day, if you are around then, and some shops even pay the tax if you are quick enough. You will need clothes that are good for layering as you will constantly be going from the freezing cold outside to the boiling inside of shops, classrooms and the metro. Scarves and hats are also a must and if you can take thick jumpers, socks etc., with you it is better as having to buy all of them can get expensive.
One key thing to remember when doing any shopping in Canada is that tax is not included in any prices unless otherwise stated. Montreal does have some great shopping, although it isn't always necessarily cheap. The underground city means that once you get on the metro, you don't even have to step outside to go clothes or even food shopping. Place des Ailes and the Eaton Centre are the best places to go for shopping and it's possible to buy almost whatever you want in there. Plus, around Christmas they are decorated and look brilliant without having to brave the cold and snow. Alcohol, for the most part, is sold in government shops called SAQ and can be expensive. Some wine and beer is sold in supermarkets but anything stronger needs to be bought at the SAQ. Dépanneurs (a cross between a corner shop and an off-licence) also sell beer and wine but often have a limited, and more expensive than usual, selection.
Montréal is full of bars and clubs for varied tastes and price ranges. The best places to go for bars and clubs are Boul. Saint Laurent and Rue Crescent. Sainte Suplice and Cafe Campus are probably two of the cheapest places to go for a drink. Sainte Suplice is a mix between a bar and a club, where the basement and the top floor have dance floors and more of a club atmosphere and in between there are floors with bars that tend to show sports matches such as hockey and even English football matches. On nights when the Montréal Canadiens are playing, they have special offers on food. Cafe Campus is a club where they have different 'themed' nights such as retro Tuesdays and 90's Thursdays. Here they have special offers such as a pitcher of beer for $7 before 11pm and free entry before 10pm. One thing to remember is that tipping of bar staff is essential, usually $1 per drink. Some staff can get quite rude if you do not tip them as they are only paid through tips (this goes for waiters/waitresses in restaurants as well). One club worth a visit, if only for the view, is 737. Entry is usually $15 but if you put your name on the guest list you can get in for free. 737 is located at the top of one of the banking buildings and offers amazing views of Montreal all lit up at night. The drinks are a little more pricey but the view is worth at least a visit. Also, if you happen to be in a group of seven girls all arriving together at the same time, you can get a free bottle of champagne.
As I was only at university in Québec for one semester, and was there in total for under six months, I was able to go on a tourist visa which was free, did not require any paperwork and was just a stamp in my passport at the airport when I arrived. However, if you are planning on going for longer than six months you will need a CAQ which you will need to pay for and can take a while to process.
L'Université de Montréal
Université de Montréal is quite different to many English universities. When registering for modules be prepared to take a ticket and queue up for a while, and to most likely find out you cannot register for the modules you originally plan on taking. This is mostly true for arts and sciences but I know the process is a lot easier for law at least. Each lecture is 3 hours long and they can start at 8.30am and finish at 10pm. All lectures do have a 15-20 minute break about half way through, some have 10 minutes every hour depending on the lecturer. There tends to be a lot more work required than I guess most English students would be used to, but it is very common to get 80% or even 90%+ in exams, essays and homework. A lot of modules will require at least one 15-page essay written in French per session, essay limits are given in pages rather than in word counts.
If you are going to UdeM I would not recommend at all living on campus, despite how much you are tempted by the cheap price (around $360 a month). There are three accommodation buildings: a girls only tower, and two mixed buildings. If you apply to the mixed, you will most likely end up in 2350 Edouard Montpetit, where there are 32 bedrooms to one microwave and that is the only means of cooking in your building. Halls here are very different to halls in England and you will most likely never meet or even speak to your neighbours. It is fairly easy to find apartments either on your own or in a small group, as almost all the buildings on the road where the university is advertise apartments to rent most of the year round.
Get a photo Opus card as soon as you can! I made the mistake of going a month without one and travel gets expensive without one. You need to get a form stamped by your university to say that you are a student there, as well as proof of your current address in Montréal (such as a letter from a Canadian bank). The card itself costs $15 and it costs $43 a month for unlimited travel on the STM. You have to top it up on the 1st of each month, you can't top it up on say the 27th of the month hoping it will be ok for the next month as it will get wiped. The metro is really easy to use (there are only four lines) and takes around 30 minutes to get anywhere. The buses are usually good and often, and most major bus routes have a night route as well. The night buses are not very regular and it's worth checking the times before heading out so you don't have to stand at the bus stop in the cold (or seek shelter in Couche Tard) for 45 minutes. Taxis aren't too expensive. Expect to pay around $40 for a taxi from the airport to downtown Montreal. You can get the bus from the airport, which costs $8, but you must have the exact change as you feed a machine on the bus, and don't give the money to the driver. If you go to Laval or Longeuil you will need to buy an extra ticket ($3) to get back into Montreal and the buses there do not accept STM tickets including Opus cards. If you fancy going further afield, it takes around 2 hours on the coach to get to either Québec City or Ottawa, and will cost around $70 for the coach to Québec City (around $100 on the train) or about $40 on the coach to Ottawa ($70 on the train) (all return). To get to Toronto you can get the Megabus for around $40 return but it will take you about 6 hours. A friend and I went to New York for 4 days on the Greyhound bus. Whilst it did take 7 hours each way the bus only cost $120 return so was worth the journey!
Key things to do in Montréal:
- Go to Tim Hortons: This Canadian institution offers great coffee and amazing doughnuts really cheaply ($1.50 for a medium coffee!). You have to try the Tim Bits at least once.
- Go ice skating at the old port: just remember to wrap up really warm as it is outside.
- See a hockey match: If you can't afford to go and see the Montréal Canadiens (tickets start at $41 and are difficult to get hold of), McGill have a male hockey team and tickets start at $5 for students. You can't go to Canada and not see a hockey match!
- Have pancakes! It's Canada, like hockey, it's a must. Eggspectation do a great choice of pancakes covered in maple syrup or fruit for around $10.
- Try poutine: This is a staple food in Québec consisting of French Fries, a special gravy and québécois cheese. It is actually a lot nicer than it sounds and you will see people eating it every where, from McDonalds to the cinema. La Banquise near Mont-Royal is the best place to go and sample it and there you can get everything from an original to one with salsa and guacamole on top (an acquired taste I guess).