Make a run for the border
First, getting there. Drivers from Ontario who are making a road trip east for an island getaway in Montréal should note that once you cross the Quebec border, highway 401 becomes highway 20, so just keep going straight. In about 20 minutes, the highway will transition into a large residential boulevard with stop lights as you pass over Île Perrot and onto the Island of Montréal. You might expect some construction (the result of a years-long road improvement project), but for the most part east/west work on the 20 has been completed, so again just keep going straight, following the signs that say “Centre-ville” (downtown).
The home stretch: getting off the highway
You didn’t notice, but as you got closer to downtown, highway 20 became Boulevard Ville-Marie (also known as the Ville-Marie Expressway). Stay in the right-hand lane until you see the mouth of the underground portion of the expressway. At its opening you will see a sign for exit #4 that says Rue de la Montagne / Rue St-Jacques. Keep right and take the exit — it’s your ticket off the highway. Follow the off-ramp, keeping to the left side towards Rue de la Montagne if you’re staying downtown, or keeping to the right towards Rue St-Jacques if you’re staying in Old Montréal. Et voila! You’re downtown. And if you happen to miss the Rue de la Montagne / Rue St-Jacques exit, no worries at all, you’ll have another chance at the Rue Berri exit. (Try not to miss that one.)
You’ve made it downtown… now what?
It’s time to get into the particularities (and peculiarities) of driving in la belle ville. Some quick things to keep in mind:
- You can’t turn right on a red light on the Island of Montréal (a measure to protect pedestrians). However, it’s perfectly okay to do so in the majority of red lights throughout the cities in the province of Québec.
- Green does not necessarily mean go. A green arrow means that you can proceed straight through the intersection but you can’t turn right or left. Drivers must wait until the full green light appears, or another green turning arrow illuminates, before making a turn.
- Candlestick lights appear as a white bar that lights up four to five seconds before the traffic lights turn green, giving buses a headstart over other motorists stopped at the intersection.
- Like most major Canadian cities, Montréal’s streets form a grid, with major arteries running east/west and north/south. It’s worth noting, however, they were laid out as though the St. Lawrence River flows west to east, which it mostly does, except when it gets to Montréal and takes a northward turn. So what we call north is actually closer to west, what’s west is more south and so on. It does, however, make for some beautiful summer sunsets right at the end of St. Laurent Boulevard looking, um, north.
What’s up with parking?!
Good question. Even native Montrealers are prone to a fair bit of head scratching when trying to figure out where you can park on city streets. Parking downtown is predominantly either in public parking lots or metered parking spaces, which takes the guesswork out of knowing where you can leave your wheels. Outside the downtown core, major thoroughfares are generally metered, while residential areas usually have free, albeit limited, on-street parking.
At the meters, prices range from $1.50 (select neighbourhoods outside downtown, like Saint-Henri) to $3.50 an hour (downtown and high-demand areas like the Old Port). However, until September 6, on-street parking downtown in spaces that are usually paid is free of charge on Fridays from 6-9 pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays. A useful website for determining price and location of metered parking spots can be found here.
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Montréal is no different than any other major city when it comes driving signage except for one key thing: ours is in French. So it pays to know a few key rudimentary French words: arrêt (stop), rue (street), route barrée (road closed), sortie (exit), pont (bridge), and the aforementioned centre-ville (downtown). Now that you’ve brushed up on your française, it’s time to demystify the Montréal parking sign.
Montréal parking signs 101:
- All times posted on parking signs use the 24-hour clock (e.g., 19h is 7 pm).
- Don’t be put off by a street that seems to be full of “no parking” signs. Signs almost always tell you when you can’t park, not when you can.
- Streets will very often feature a mixed bag of public parking and parking for permit holders only. The spaces designated for permit holders will feature signs with a red square in the bottom right corner with the parking zone number (e.g., “55”) and an arrow at the bottom pointing toward the section of the street where they can park and you can’t. You can park in sections of the street that have signs without the little red square, but…
- Read the times carefully. Some streets limit the amount of time you can park to one or two hours (usually shopping areas). On others, you can park for the whole week except during a short period on one specific day when street cleaning is taking place.
- If the sign is still unclear, don’t be afraid to ask a local human being where it’s okay to park. We all do it.
And then there’s always…
Just parking your car for the duration of your stay and rockin’ the walkin’. Montréal is a very compact, walkable city with a first-rate public transportation system (the STM) that will get you anywhere you’d want to go. And yes, you can even take a bus to the top of Mount Royal.