24 hours in Montreal

With a hired bicycle and his best French accent, Daniel Scott spends a golden day sampling the city's street life.

With 500 kilometres of cycle paths and the Bixi bike-sharing scheme (bixi.com/home) offering more than 5000 bikes at 400 locations across town, Montreal is among North America's most bicycle-friendly cities.

''The city rides hard,'' my Montrealer friend, Marc-Andre Gemme, tells me during a July visit, ''well, mainly in the summer.'' When the city finally thaws out after its long, cold winter, 14 per cent of its population takes up cycling as the primary means of transport. So I set out to see the city the way they do.


I don cycle shorts and walk across Old Montreal from my accommodation - Hotel XIX Siecle (now Lhotel), housed in a 19th-century bank and with an old-world ambience - to the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, at the corner of the Place d'Armes. With most of Montreal's bike paths safely separated from traffic, there's no need to offer prayers but I'm quietly awed by the cathedral's 7000-pipe organ and its gleaming stained-glass windows from Limoges in France.

LHotel, , 262, Rue Saint-Jacques Ouest, from $C130 ($129) a night, phone +1 514 985 0019, see hotelxixsiecle.com.


I tuck into a 100 per cent organic cyclist's breakfast of crepes ($C14) and cafe-au-lait at Cafe Bistro Serafim near the Old Port. According to Gemme, Montrealers see their home town as a perfect blend of Paris and New York, which is good news when it comes to food and culture. It's the second-largest French-speaking city in the world and yet it's just 72 kilometres from the US border.

Cafe Bistro Serafim, 393 Rue Saint-Paul Est.9.30am


I pick up my hired bicycle from Ca Roule bicycle shop in the Old Port. A 24-hour hire costs $C35 and shorter guided tours start from $C22. In 2007, Montreal became the world's first city to sign the National Geographic Geotourism charter and commit to sustainable tourism. A Geotourism map was released to give a local's perspective on the city and I'm armed with it (geomontreal.com).

Ca Roule, 27 Rue de la Commune Est, phone +1 514 866 0633, seecaroulemontreal.com.


Few visitors realise that Montreal is an island, albeit a large one 50 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide. I start my ride on the Ile de Montreal's southern shore, beside the mighty St Lawrence River. From here I forge north out of Old Montreal along the central Rue Berri. I'm already impressed by the city's bike paths. They are well signposted, broad, two way and have their own traffic lights at major intersections. I skirt the Latin Quarter, its sidewalk cafes gradually coming to life with students and trendy singles, and then cut across one of Montreal's many green spaces - Parc de la Fontaine - before heading east to the Olympic Park. Built for the 1976 event, even the marketing leaflet describes it as ''quite an eyeful'' and the Montreal Tower, adjacent to the stadium, is best described as ugly-beautiful. But there are panoramic views over the city from the observatory at the top.


I cycle back into central ''New'' Montreal, taking my time as I weave through Plateau Mont Royal, a residential area with rows of handsome two- and three-storey houses, each with an exterior wrought-iron staircase and a wooden balcony.


I arrive at the colourful, bustling Jean-Talon farmers' market in Little Italy. Strawberries are in season and they're everywhere. I quench my thirst on this sultry July day with a fresh, home-made lemonade.


I cut on to the wide Boulevard Saint Lauren, which dissects Montreal, passing countless Italian ristoranti before hitting Greektown and then Little Portugal. Although Montreal's dominant cultures come from periods of French (1642-1760) and British rule (1760-1867), more than 80 cultures have made their mark on the city. One in three of its 3.6 million people is an immigrant. For lunch, I stop in Montreal's Jewish district, lining up with the locals for a smoked meat sandwich on rye ($C5.90) at Schwartz's Hebrew Deli at 3895 Boulevard Saint Lauren.


Time to do some Tour de France-style climbing, winding through the 190-hectare Mount Royal Park, up the mountain that gave the city its name. From the top, there are wide-ranging views over Montreal and the St Lawrence river plain beyond, and this is where the city's founder, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, planted a wooden cross in 1643 to ask the Virgin Mary to protect the city. A 31-metre illuminated metal cross was installed in 1924 and is a landmark on the Montreal skyline.

Behind Mount Royal I pause at Saint Joseph's Oratory, which has the world's second-largest dome and attracts 2 million visitors each year. Many of those pilgrims come in the hope of having leg problems miraculously cured. It's poignant watching people on crutches struggling up the oratory's many steps.


It's time to shop. I need rubber boots. I head downtown to Montreal's commercial centre around Rue St Catherine and head into the underground city, a 33-kilometre network of subcity tunnels full of shops, art galleries and links to transport and hotels. In the midst of a harsh winter, this system allows Montrealers to get about the city without having to brave the weather. But my search for boots is fruitless - no shops stock them in midsummer.


I'm peering at my map when a friendly local cyclist asks if I'm lost. I explain my predicament and she directs me to a store called Canadian Tire at the edge of town. ''But don't struggle there through the city,'' she adds thoughtfully, ''take the Lachine Canal bike path, it'll be much more pleasant.''

This path threads for 14 kilometres through reclaimed industrial land at the southern edge of Montreal. I join it at the Old Port and ride among rollerbladers, mums pushing prams and other cyclists, from the ponderous to the super-swift. I come off at the art-deco Atwater market and soon find the Canadian Tire branch I'm looking for.


''When summer arrives in Montreal,'' writes local author Kathy Reichs in her novel Deja Dead, ''it flounces in like a rumba dancer.'' By July and August, Montreal is almost dizzyingly vibrant, hosting every event imaginable, including the famous Just For Laughs comedy festival (hahaha.com/en/) and the world's biggest jazz and blues festival (montrealjazzfest.com/default-en.aspx). Just For Laughs is on and I've scored tickets for an early show at Club Soda, at the edge of the city's lively Chinatown.

It's a great line-up hosted by deadpan Brit comedian Jimmy Carr and featuring Jimeoin and Ross Noble, familiar faces from Australian television. It's also a surprisingly intimate venue, with the audience seated around tables or perched on bar stools on long balconies overlooking the stage.

Club Soda, 1225 Boulevard St-Laurent, see clubsoda.ca, phone 1+ 514 286 1010.


Outside there is a noisy street festival, with stalls and music acts, sprawling across several intersections. It's so well attended that I have to get off my bike and wheel it through the crowds. Just as I leave that behind I come across a choir, gathered on three levels of scaffolding at the edge of a big city square, rehearsing an electronic opera.

I'd love to linger but I've got a booking for a late dinner at L'Express restaurant, one of Montreal's best-known bistros. All that good work on my bike today - I've cycled about 50 kilometres - is quickly undone with a dinner of bouillabaisse, steak-frites, creme caramel and a decent Canadian red.

L'Express restaurant, 3927 Rue Saint Denis, phone + 514 845 5333, average dinner $C45 plus wine.


If I weren't so weary after all the pedalling and had my (rumba) dancing shoes on then I'd join the crowds heading to the Sky Complex in Montreal's Gay Village, just east of downtown, around Rue St Catherine.

The party rages here almost until dawn and it's the obvious place to end a day in a city renowned for its openness and celebration.

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission.

Air Canada has a fare for about $2500 flying non-stop from Sydney to Vancouver (about 14hr), then on to Montreal (4hr 45min). Passengers originating in Melbourne fly Qantas to Sydney to connect and pay about the same.

For more information see tourisme-montreal.org.