You will often hear (and read) that Montreal is very European, but that's not really it. Montreal is as close to Europe as you'll get in North America (not in a geographical sense... or if you don't consider Quebec city). So Montreal is in between continents but culturally, and certainly physically, Montreal is a bit more North American (I'd say 65% north American, 45% European and 35% from everywhere else... I know it's more than 100% but that's Montreal).
Some people travel but want to feel exactly like they are back home, they want all the comforts of home without having to adapt to the place they are visiting. Those visitors will be somewhat surprised because Montreal is not like other American or Canadian cities, the fact that a majority of montrealers speak French is one reason. Other visitors, on the other hand, like the truly exotic but Montreal is not radically different from other large cities to fully satisfy them... probably (they are the kind to travel to Tibet or to a jungle in south America anyway). It all depends on your style of tourism and expectations but I assure you that some things will surprise and please you in Montreal even if you have traveled to world. Before you read on I'd like to say, and I am somewhat biased, that Montreal is a truly great and unique city... it's all the little details that make this city what it is and I hope this e-guide will act as a "magnifying glass" so that everyone can see them.
If you can't understand a word of French, you'll have no problem... you can easily get by (more than get by since most montrealers are bilingual and all the museums, for instance, have guided tours in English, all events are partly in English, most restaurants have bilingual menus, there are a dozen radio and television stations in English, you can get local, national and international papers in English, etc... you get the idea). Will you have a good feel of the place? That's another question... you will be missing part of "the story". This is true for all other cities and countries, it's like visiting Moscow and not speak any Russian or visit Barcelona and not speak any Catalan or Spanish, etc. But Montreal is not like French or European cities either because of its North American influenced culture and style right down to the street layout. Again, if you don't understand a word of English (you won't be able to read of word of this guide for one thing...) you will also be missing part of "the story", although to a lesser extent. I hope this guide will fill in the parts that could be missing.
So it is just enough different to make it interesting but not different enough that you will feel that you are on another planet. I think I caused enough confusion for one day so now that the opening remarks are over, here's some real information.
Here's an overview of Montreal. What we usually call Montreal is the island of Montreal, well actually it's a little more complicated than that. There use to be 29 different cities on the island of Montreal, each with their own mayor and city council including the Ville de Montreal itself with more than one million citizens. Theses municipalities were grouped under the MUC (Montreal Urban Community, or the Communauté Urbaine de Montréal in French - CUM for short).
As of January 2002, all these municipalities have merged into one big city, officially called the Ville de Montreal. This big city is divided into burroughs pretty much following the old boundaries of the municipalities. The confusing part came when people had different definition of Montreal, some refer to Montreal as the Ville de Montréal itself, other refer to the MUC and others refer to the whole greater Montreal region (ie. Montreal and its off-island suburbs) which includes about 100 municipalities of different sizes. It all depends on who you talk to. Now it's a little simpler.
The population of the island of Montreal is about 1.8 million and the population in the greater Montreal region is around 3.3 million. In the Ville de Montreal, about 65% of the population are Francophone (who's main language and culture are French), 25% are allophone (who's main language and culture are neither French or English) and 10% are Anglophone (who's main language and culture are English).
Now to get your directions straight while in Montreal. The street that separates east from west is St-Laurent boulevard which is a north-south street in the "middle" of the city (it's also known as the Main). This is important because the street numbers on east-west streets are all in reference to St-Laurent blvd. So when someone gives you an address on a street that crosses St-Laurent blvd (ie east-west streets), make sure you know if it east of St-Laurent or west of St-Laurent because 3756 Sherbrooke east is a long way from 3756 Sherbrooke west. The Main also has another significance, it's the street that historically divided the French and the English communities (or the Francophones and Anglophones if you prefer since those terms are used here). The French community pretty much lived east of St-Laurent and the English lived west of St-Laurent. That boundary is blurred now but it remains mostly true in districts in opposite sides of the island, the middle part is a more "gray" area. By the way, you don't really need a compass to tell east from west here, as a matter of fact it wouldn't help at all since what is called north in Montreal is actually northwest on the compass. That's because the east-west streets run parallel to the St-Laurent river which is actually on a northeast/southwest axis. So the rule of thumb is to follow the street layout and not the compass, for example, if you are standing on the corner of Ste-Catherine street and St-Laurent blvd. facing the St-Laurent river (you won't see it from there but you get the idea), east will be to your left, west to your right, south is in front of you and north on the other side.
The city can be divided into various districts that are called by different names. I'll use the most used names for these districts. Some of the usual districts have been expanded to included smaller neighboring district because, honestly, I didn't know where else to put them. So, for instance, the gay village and the "center-sud" is included in the quartier latin even though is not really part of it but they are close. Those districts or neighborhood will, in turn, be divided into sub-districts or sub-sections. These districts are : Old Montreal (the old part of the city and the tourist Mecca), Downtown (the shopping and business center of the city), the Quartier latin (bars, clubs, the red light, etc) and the gay village, the Plateau Mont-Royal (mostly residential district with lot's of neighborhood bars and restaurants), Chinatown (small but still interesting), the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district (the Olympic stadium, the Biodome, the botanical gardens, etc), the islands (the Casino, La Ronde amusement park, etc.), the southwest districts (the Lachine canal, Notre-Dame street west, the Atwater market), Côte-des-Neiges and Notre-Dame-de-Grace (residential districts), Outremont and Westmount (rich Francophone and Anglophone residential districts respectively) and other districts (little italy, etc).