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It may be Canada that stamps your passport when you arrive in Montreal, but at your first glimpse of the city's cobblestone streets, sunny sidewalk cafes and wrought-iron balcony railings, you'll feel as though you've been whisked off to Europe. From the French street signs and the high fashion of its upscale boutiques to the joyful elan of its people, Montreal feels more like Paris than a major North American metropolis. But of course it's the latter too -- it's Canada's second-largest city, home not only to its French-speaking majority but also to native English speakers and immigrants from all over the world.

Montreal balances its opposing forces gracefully, maintaining its historic old town area just across the St. Lawrence River from the innovative geometric architecture of Habitat 67, a modern experimental housing development. The towering office buildings in Montreal's downtown core reach for the sky alongside Mont-Royal, the gentle mountain whose acres of parkland provide quiet respite just a few blocks from the city's energetic commercial district.

Photos: 11 Best Canada Experiences

Montreal's contradictions don't always sit so smoothly -- the political and cultural differences between the French province of Quebec and the rest of English-speaking Canada have caused quite a bit of tension over the years. Montreal was founded by French Catholic settlers in 1642 as Ville-Marie and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The small colony survived years of harsh winter weather and bloody skirmishes with the local Iroquois only to be taken over, along with the rest of French Canada, by the British following the French and Indian War. Despite the British occupation, the present-day province of Quebec has staunchly maintained its French language and culture, leading to some 20th-century efforts to make the province its own sovereign nation. (In a 1995 referendum, voters narrowly elected not to secede by a 1 percent margin.) But despite this recent controversy, Montreal is a safe, friendly city, welcoming visitors of all languages and cultures with its signature charm and style.

--written by Sarah Schlichter


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