One of the tourist guides to Montreal - avoiding the routine hyperbole of such literature - states that it's a "better city to live in than to visit". This, however, is a point in its favour; you do not have to dig through a top layer of tourism to find the real Montreal. Maybe it cannot boast the same calibre of museums and art galleries as, say, Paris or New York, but it is a real city: one that is inhabited, not just shown to visitors. It has a tremendous atmosphere, too, combining the legendary hospitality of North America with an idiosyncratic Gallic charm.

Why go? Montreal's intriguing fusion of the French and North American traditions has resulted in a compelling hybrid city, made up of a patchwork of distinct districts. The Latin Quarter, Montreal's Left Bank, is a pulsing mish-mash of boho chic eating houses, smoky bars, cafés, clubs and cinemas. Downtown is altogether less whimsical with a brisk atmosphere, lofty financial institutions and punitively expensive shops.

Old Montreal has fine 17th-century architecture, the venerable Notre-Dame Basilica and roguish carriage drivers cajoling visitors into horse-drawn excursions. And although Montreal is fundamentally a coalescence of French and North American culture, the metropolitan mix here is multi-ethnic: there is Chinatown, Little Portugal, the old Jewish district, and Little Italy, where the Italians bury their fig trees each autumn and dig them up again in the spring.

Why now? For the picturesque factor, Montreal's gabled Victorian houses look immensely appealing draped in snow, as do its busy streets. And it is nice to know that you can relax and enjoy the snow without all the conveniences known to modern man grinding to a halt as they seem to in the UK.

Fans of real fur might consider a visit, too. Animal pelts can be worn without incurring the opprobrium of the moral majority.

The mission The French author Thierry Soufflard, who wrote Où s'embrasser à Paris ( Where to Kiss in Paris), has written a similar guide to Montreal. His suggestions include in front of Westmount's City Hall, a magnificent Hitchcockian monument, and Lafontaine Park. Assessing a city purely for its kissing potential might be far too frivolous for some, so what about combining it with art?

The Museum Quarter owes its name to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and is terribly fashionable and elegant - should you be tempted to embrace here you will have to do so in a wistful, nostalgic fashion, as if you have stepped out of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. Scores of slick galleries house wonderful paintings with similarly impressive price tags. If the opulence of the Museum Quarter starts to stick in the craw, head for the Museum of Contemporary Art, located at the infinitely earthier Place des Arts.

Remember this Jazz here is eclectic and does not just appeal to pretentious boffins called Art and Chet, as lampooned in The Fast Show. Jazz en Haut (Jazz Upstairs), a sleek venue on rue Mackay, is in fact in a basement, where the food and buzzing ambience are every bit as important as the music. If you like people to be quiet during the performance, don't go.

The robust Jazz'iz on rue Saint-Denis, a jazz joint that is not afraid to push the boat out, comes up with some funky sounds. Biddles on rue Aylmer is your place for more "trad" offerings. For information about the famous Jazz Festival, which runs from 27 June to 8 July, visit www.montrealjazzfest.com. But if jazz is not your scene, there is plenty more music on offer - blues, funk, house, techno, disco, rock, metal, reggae, classical ...

Where to stay Staying in downtown Montreal is very practical, but it lacks the distinctive character of the Latin Quarter. Downtown could, at a pinch, be another North American city, but the Latin Quarter could only be Montreal. An extensive bed and breakfast network operates throughout the city - sift through the homes on offer at www.bbcanada.com/montreal.

Le Manoir Ambrose on rue Stanley (tel: 00 1 514 288 6922) is a small and cosy 19th-century home that has been converted to an hotel. It is on a quiet residential street, yet only a couple of minutes' walk from the grand downtown department stores and Peel subway station. A similarly homely option is Le Jardin Antoine (tel: 00 1 514 843 4506) on rue Saint-Denis in the Latin Quarter. The Hotel Europa (tel: 00 1 514 866 6492) on rue Drummond, in the heart of the downtown area, offers functional if impersonal accommodation.

What to buy Shopping is where it's at in Montreal. Glamorous stores flaunt all the top names: Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Moschino, Armani, Prada ... Thankfully, style does not always come with a hefty price tag and scores of shops sell deliciously chic but affordable items. In bad weather a cavernous subterranean shopping complex housing almost 2,000 stores provides an opportunity for pain-free retail perusal.

Eating out Eating out is pleasantly informal (unless you choose a restaurant in the snootier districts, the Museum Quarter, for example). The cosmopolitan nature of the city comes out in the cuisine and it is easy to dabble in any number of different culinary genres: Lebanese, Tibetan, Italian, Vietnamese, Swiss and, of course, French.

L'Academie in the Latin Quarter is an excellent example of the former, where good food comes at a very modest price. It is hugely popular and justifiably so, but it is not possible to book, which is why long queues form outside at weekends. However, the streams of diners-in-waiting are seated quickly thanks to a fairly rapid turnover of clientele, and you never feel you are being hurried. You will need to bring your own wine (there is a liquor store practically opposite).

The Mikado, a Japanese restaurant in the Quartier Latin, is worth a whirl and the food is a lot more original than the name might imply. A meal for two, including excellent sushi, lots of appetising tapas- sized dishes and plenty of warm sake, costs about £20 per head.

For something with a little more pomp and circumstance there is Chez Queux in Old Montreal, known as the temple of French gastronomy, or the elegant Café des Beaux-Arts located in the Museum of Fine Arts on Sherbrooke Street West.

Getting about A comprehensive underground network connects all the different areas of the city. Unlike London, travelling on the underground is cheap: the average one-way journey costs no more than 60p. Travel cards can be purchased at most stations and these are valid on the buses as well. Taxi fares are reasonable.

Getting there The specialist company AmeriCan & Worldwide Travel (tel: 01892 511894) organises tailor-made holidays to North America which cater to an individual's detailed needs. Air Canada (tel: 08705 247226) operates one direct daily flight to Montreal from Heathrow. Economy return flights start from £391.

Further information To find out more about the city, visit Montreal Tourism's official website at www.tourisme-montreal.org, or call the Visit Canada office in London (tel: 0906 871 5000). Calls cost a prohibitive 60p per minute at all times - luckily the assistants are extremely competent.

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