Spring is in the air in this impressive Canadian city, where the accent is French, the cuisine sophisticated and the cycling superb.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

The burlap sacking is coming off garden shrubs, street entertainers are returning to the Place Jacques-Cartier (1) in the old town and Montrealers are emerging into spring sunshine. Yesterday, the BIXI public bicycle system that served as the blueprint for London's "Boris Bikes" came out of hibernation, offering anyone who pays the C$5 (£3.30) access charge free rides of up to half an hour during a 24-hour period ( montreal.bixi.com). Each Sunday afternoon from now on, the "Tam Tam" event takes place around the statue of Canada's founding father George-Étienne Cartier (2) on the east side of Mont Royal. Here, children of the Sixties gather to express themselves through mass improvised dancing, attracting an audience content to observe the time warp without entering it.

Touch down

You can fly direct to Montreal from Heathrow on Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) or British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com). Charter flights on Air Transat operate from Gatwick once a week; book through specialist operators such as Canadian Affair (020-7616 9184; canadianaffair.com).

Montreal Trudeau Airport is 20km west of the city centre. On landing, follow signs to the buses, buy a C$8 (£5.30) ticket from a machine beside the exit and bus 747, which departs every 10 to 15 minutes for the city centre. The ticket is valid on the whole transport network for 24 hours.

Get your bearings

Montreal straddles Mont Royal and is itself bisected by the St Lawrence River. The city's most interesting districts are eminently walkable and connected by public transport. The compact Old Montreal neighbourhood, with many well-preserved buildings, encompasses the river port where 17th-century French traders settled. (French is the city's official language, the mother tongue of more than two-thirds of Montrealers.) A short walk brings you to the gates of Chinatown (3) and a further stroll will see you arrive at Rue Ste-Catherine Ouest, the city's commercial thoroughfare. The 233m-high Mont Royal (4) is always in view, looming above the downtown area and the Plateau, a bohemian residential district.

Pick up a tourist guide with area-by-area maps in the Infotouriste Centre (5) on the north side of Square Dorchester at 1255 Rue Peel (001 514 873 2015; bonjourquebec.com) or in the Old Montreal Tourist Welcome Office (6) at 174 Rue Notre Dame Est ( tourism-montreal.org). Both are open daily from 9am-6pm.

Check in

Gîte Romain-Montagne (7) at 4351 Rue Saint-Urbain (001 514 843 6882; romainmontagne.com) in the Plateau is a B&B with décor that is both elegant and fanciful. But it's the unforced hospitality which makes this establishment stand out. Doubles including breakfast cost from C$109 (£72).

Occupying an old mansion on the west edge of downtown, Château Versailles (8) at 1659 Rue Sherbrooke Ouest (001 514 933 3611; chateauversaillesmontreal.com) is a hotel with creaky floors and lots of architectural character. Prices for a superior double room hover about C$200 (£130) including breakfast.

A good choice for travellers on a budget in Old Montreal is the Auberge Alternative (9) at 358 Rue St-Pierre (001 514 282 8069; auberge-alternative.qc.ca). Dorm beds cost from C$25 (£16).

Day one

Take a view

Those with a fear of heights may be reassured by the company of two life-size bronze angels when they climb the tower of Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (10) at the eastern end of rue Saint-Paul. The view across the St Lawrence River takes in monuments of the 1960s including Habitat 67 (11), the jumble of interlocking concrete boxes and Buckminster Fuller's Biosphère (12), an environmental museum resembling Cornwall's Eden Project. Stairs leading higher allow a different aspect over the city landmarks. Access to the tower is through a museum about the life of Marguerite Bourgeoys, a 17th-century teacher who founded the original chapel in 1657 ( marguerite-bourgeoys.com). Open 11am-3.30pm daily except Mondays until the end of April; 10am-5.30pm thereafter; C$10 (£6.70).

Lunch on the run

Casa del Popolo (13) at 4873 Boulevard St-Laurent (001 514 284 0122; casadelpopolo.com) serves wholesome vegetarian food without being puritanical, so you can enjoy a glass of artisan dark ale alongside your sweet potato and ginger soup, together costing C$7.50 (£5). The bagels sold by the legendary Fairmount Bakery (14) at 74 Avenue Fairmount Ouest are worth queuing for, especially if you have picked up some cream cheese and smoked salmon for a DIY picnic.

Window shopping

Head for the western end of Avenue Laurier in the trendy Mile End area north of the Plateau to admire the French sense of design in the window-dressing of shops such as Marché G Young (15) at No 232, selling fleurs exotiques. Three blocks south, Avenue du Mont Royal is free of cloned shops. A great place for imaginative and affordable gifts is Curio-Cité (16) at No 81 (001 514 282 0737; curiocite.com), where the eye feasts on merchandise of every hue and material from wicker to silicone, organza to hemp. It is open daily 10.30am-6.30pm with late opening till 9pm on Thursday and Friday.

An apéritif

Even the most glamorous Montrealers seem to drink beer. At Dieu du Ciel (17), 29 Avenue Laurier Ouest (001 514 490 9555; dieuduciel.com) as many as 20 beers brewed in-house are chalked up alongside their strength. With names such as Mea Culpa and Péché Mortel, it is no surprise that few are less than five per cent by volume. The atmosphere is simultaneously buzzing and chilled. Pints cost about C$8 (£5.30).

Dine with the locals

Montreal's culinary landscape is more 5th Arrondissement than Fifth Avenue. The influence of the early French settlers survives not only in the language but also in the food culture. The appealing concept at sophisticated L'Un des Sens (18) at 108 Avenue Laurier Ouest (001 514 439 4330; lundessens.com) is to serve portion sizes between a starter and a main. Three choices cost C$33 (£22), four for C$44 (£29) and five for C$55 (£36). For more casual dining, visit Les 3 Brasseurs (19) in the Latin Quarter (1685 Rue Saint-Denis; 001 514 845 1660; les3brasseurs.ca) where brasserie fare such as choucroutes saucisses and Québecoise Flammeküche (the Alsatian version of pizza) cost C$12-$13 (£8-£8.50).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

St Joseph's Oratory (20) sits on the third of the peaks that comprise Mont Royal overlooking the wealthy Anglophone enclave of Westmount. The scale of its dome is enormous, second only to St Peter's in Rome where, last October, the Oratory's founder, Brother André, was canonised. Pilgrims congregate to touch his tomb. Sunday Mass is said in English at 11.15am in the Crypt Church (001 514 733 8211; saint-joseph.org).

Out to brunch

With its understated sign, you could easily walk past Le Cartet (21) at 106 Rue McGill (001 514 871 8887; lecartet.com) without realising it is a superlative brunch spot. Between 9am and 3.30pm every Saturday and Sunday, urbanites gather at either the refectory or smaller tables in this "resto-boutique" where the faultless service is never condescending. You can choose from five brunch platters including smoked salmon and fish cakes or the sucré with French toast and fruit coulis. The price of C$15 (£10) includes unlimited Illy coffee and an amuse-bouche such as almond and berry cake.

Take a hike

As Central Park is to New York, Mont Royal Park (001 514 843 8240; lemontroyal.qc.ca) is to Montreal, a giant playground for generations of locals. In fact both were laid out by the same landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmstead. Presiding over the city, "The Mountain" is criss-crossed with trails. The least strenuous way to explore is to take bus 11 from Mont-Royal metro station to the highest point and get off when you see the sign pointing to Beaver Lake (22). As you wind down through oak and spruce forest, you can easily forget you are in a city.

Take a ride

The public transport system (001 514 786 4636; stm.info) is frequent and reliable. The cash fare of C$3 (£2) covers metro and bus trips for two hours, or you can buy a three-day card for C$16 (£10.50). The yellow metro line crosses the river with a stop on Sainte-Hélène island near the Biosphère (12). Admission is reduced from C$12 (£8) to C$9 (£6) when you show a metro ticket or arrive by bike. A BIXI self-service bike dock at the exit of the island's Jean-Drapeau metro station might entice you to take a free whiz round the island. The Gilles-Villeneuve Grand Prix circuit (23) on the adjacent island of Notre-Dame is accessible to the public for cycling, roller-blading and strolling. For exploring more of the city's 350km of bike paths, you can hire a bike, for example from Ça Roule (24) in the Old Port at 27 de la Commune Est (001 514 866 0633; caroulemontreal.com); a full day's rental costs C$25 (£16.70).

Cultural afternoon

The Pointe-à-Callière Museum of Archaeology and History (25) in Place Royale near the Old Port (001 514 872 9150; pacmusee.qc.ca) occupies the actual spot where Iroquois people once had an encampment and later European adventurers traded furs. The film projected on to a 270-degree screen around the excavations of the 17th-century Catholic cemetery provides a context for the finds on display, such as coins minted under Louis XIV and tiny glass beads traded with the natives. The museum is open daily except Monday, 10am-5pm, and from 11am on weekends; admission is C$15 (£10).

Icing on the cake

From early May, visitors to Montreal can career through the nearby Lachine Rapids on a powerful jetboat – as thrilling as a roller coaster ride, and a lot wetter. Cruises with Saute-Mouton at 47 rue de la Commune (001 514 284 9607; jetboatingmontreal.com) start from the Clock Tower Quay (26) and cost C$65 (£43).