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A student’s guide to living in Montreal
Canada is a country full of diverse people, cultures, languages and food and there is probably no better place to start to experience that than in Montreal, a hot-spot for international students.
Montréal is the largest city in the French-speaking province of Québec and is full of historical sites, students, and plenty of good eats. It combines the old and the new in interesting and dynamic ways, and truly is a taste of Europe in North America.
French phrases you’ll need to know
Montréal is one of the most bilingual cities in Canada, with nearly two thirds of the population possessing the ability to speak both English and French.
It’s always helpful to know a few French phrases to help you get around.
‘How much?’ or ‘how many?’
For when you’re debating how much you want to splurge on poutine.
Je ne comprend pas.
‘I do not understand.’
Je ne parle pas de français.
‘I do not speak French.’ Always applicable.
Ou est l’universite?
‘Where is the university?’
Anglais, s’il vous plaît?
In Montréal, especially downtown, most people that you encounter will speak English. They will certainly appreciate your effort to speak French.
‘It’s very nice to meet you.’
A nice French phrase to greet Montrealers that you encounter during your studies.
‘Have a great day.’
How to survive Montréal’s winter
Montréal is known for its long and cold winters.
With winters often spanning from late November to April, it’s likely that you’ll experience the season if you come here to study. You’ll deal with your fair share of snow, ice, freezing cold temperatures and maybe even a few snow days (when classes or exams are cancelled because of extreme weather).
With this in mind, here are some tips for tackling all that comes with Montreal’s winters.
Be ready to bundle up
With the right gear, you’ll survive the season like a pro and experience a true Canadian winter. Aside from a warm winter coat (some affordable brands are The North Face, Columbia, and Patagonia), gloves and a tocque (slang for a knitted winter cap) are essential.
Check out downtown Saint-Catherine St (from Bleury to Guy) to purchase all your must-have winter items. Here you’ll find North Face, Columbia, and The Bay (a centuries-old Canadian department store).
Get to know the Underground City
Known locally as RÉSO (French for network), the Underground City is an interconnected network of shops, office towers, hotels, convention halls and residential complexes that form the heart of downtown Montréal.
The network is adjoined to various metro stations and is heated during the winter providing the perfect cover to get around downtown and away from sub-zero temperatures.
Parts of Montréal, especially on the McGill campus are quite hilly. When it gets icy, ICEtrekkers will be your best friend. This winter accessory attaches to your boots and provides traction to protect slipping in icy conditions.
While Montréal winters can be long, they create a great opportunity for some amazing scenic pictures. Don’t let the lengthy season discourage you from going outside and getting some great pictures to show your friends and family.
Drink up your favourite hot beverage
To make the winter more bearable, be sure to check out some of Montreal’s many cafés where you can grab yourself a hot chocolate and a delicious pastry. Some student favourites are Milton B, MELK Bar à Café and Dispatch Coffee (locations across the city).
Eating out like a local
As a student, you definitely want to know about the best spots to eat in Montreal.
After trying out the local food, you will soon understand why Montréal is considered one of the best food cities in Canada.
For a signature Montréal smoked meat sandwich, this historic delicatessen is your go-to spot. Established more than 90 years ago, Schwartz’s continues to serve as a landmark of Jewish immigrant cuisine on lively St. Laurent Blvd.
Be ready to wait in line - you won’t regret it!
Located downtown between McGill and Concordia University, this is a popular restaurant and bar for students. With every food item on their menu being $5, this is an affordable, laid-back, fun spot for students on a budget.
This spot is known for its wood fire baked Montreal styled bagels. An age-old debate exists between Montrealers over which joint makes the best batch hot from the oven: St. Viateur or Fairmount? To be fair, check out both. Either way, you won’t leave disappointed.
Pro-tip: come early so you don’t miss out.
Looking for a late-night fix? This hip joint offers various different styles of poutine – one of Quebec’s signature delicacies. The dish, which consists of French fries (frites in French), cheese curds and gravy is a Montréal classic.
Visit one of Frite Alors’ many locations to try a poutine specialised to your liking (there’s even one topped with Montréal smoked meat).
Known by locals as “The Big Orange,” this roadside attraction doubling as a fast food restaurant is an iconic giant orange orb that serves hot dogs, hamburgers, French fries, and (predictably) orange crush! The restaurant is also accessible by metro via Namur station.
Not too far from McGill University (the oldest university in Canada, where the current Prime Minister is an alumni) there’s a cute little café called Juliette et Chocolat that serves delicious crepes and desserts.
It’s perfect for brunch on the weekend or for enjoying a well-deserved piece of chocolate cake and coffee during exam season.
A taste of Montréal’s nightlife
For the best nightlife Montréal has to offer, check out St. Laurent Blvd. The street is filled with clubs, bars, pubs and other venues to satisfy your tastes. It historically represented the border separating Montreal’s English (Anglophone) community to the West and the French (Francophone) community to the East.
This is a hot spot for drinks, bar food and late-night snacks. Complete with vintage décor, the atmosphere is lively and laid-back, the perfect spot to hang out with friends after a day of classes.
TRH-BAR (pronounced Trash Bar)
An underground club with live music, a dance floor as well as an indoor mini-skatepark to test out your skills. A great spot for late night dancing. Most bars in Montréal are open till 6 AM.
A buzzing spot with a bar, pool table, and retro arcade games that turns into a nightclub with a live DJ during the late hours.
If you’re seeking to venture outside of St. Laurent Blvd., check out this spot in Saint-Catherine. It is a great restaurant, serving Asian fusion, while also doubling as a nightclub with a tropical feel, decorated with lots of beautiful plants.
Evident by its name, Café Campus is a go-to spot for students in the area. The nightclub has multiple floors, bars, live music, and dancing.
Different days are assigned different themes: Retro Tuesdays feature music from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, while Thursdays feature your favourite songs from the 2000s.
Where to make friends (in a city of students)
An interesting blend of the old and the new, Montréal embraces the city’s historical legacy, while also welcoming the future. That makes it a great place to explore with friends, and to make new friends to begin with.
A young, hip area populated by students, couples and young families. It’s known for its Bohemian character, laid-back cafés and restaurants, and funky townhouses known with spiral staircases. Especially if you’re here during the school-year, you’re sure to encounter other students in local cafes, bars, or just exploring the neighborhood.
This neighborhood dates back to the 17th century with its narrow cobblestone streets. Located along the St. Lawrence river, the area heavily resembles the city of Paris.
Students come here to hang out, meet new people and even study. There’s a café here called Crew and Collective which resembles New York City’s Grand Central Station and has a great menu of sandwiches, soups and pastries.
Hiking up the mountain
For breathtaking, can’t-miss panoramic views of the city, take the well worth-it hike up Mount Roya. It’s easily accessible by walking north on Peel Street. Here, you’re sure to make friends and bond over your love of the outdoors!
Pro-tip: be sure to do this before winter hits.
Go to a music festival
Montréal's cold winters don’t stop the city from hosting Igloofest, one of the year’s trendiest music festivals. Hosted in the Old Port district in January, festival-goers (mostly students) come dressed in their most retro winter gear.
If you’re not a fan of the cold, a festival in August is called Osheaga with six stages set up in Parc Jean-Drapeau on Saint Helen’s Island.
Your university is your best resource
Both of Montréal’s main English-speaking universities have great resources for international students: the Concordia International Students Association (CISA) and the International Students Services (ISS) at McGill.
These groups hold events, connect you with other international students and will serve as your best support-base. Other international students are in a similar situation and will be eager to make friends, so don’t hesitate to make the most of these services.
A city as busy as Montréal is always looking for volunteers to help events run more smoothly.
Although as a student you’ll be very busy, get out in the city and volunteer for things that align with what you’re passionate about.
Check out the city’s volunteer website, with a list of ongoing activities and available shifts.
To ensure you’re with other people your own age, you may want to check out a student run community outreach program, which connects you to student groups that are volunteering in the city. These events happen on campus and throughout the city.