Today, few are surprised when they visit Montreal and discover a unique cosmopolitan city in North America – a blend of the romantic charms of Europe with the modern urbanity of a 21st century world class metropolis. In downtown, you’ll see high-rises and skyscrapers while in Old Montreal, you’ll get to experience a historic district full of pavement cafes along cobbled streets – strolled by horse-drawn carriages amid the sparkling St. Lawrence River and the backdrop of the 232 meter extinct volcano, Mont Royal, which is crowned with a cross and lights visible for miles on end at night.
Like Manhattan, Montreal is actually a large island sandwiched between the St. Lawrence River and the Rivière des Prairies. But while Montreal is like the Big Apple – a city of neighborhoods made up of more than 100 different ethnic groups from around the world – it pulsates with a strong French character. Its people live in peaceful co-existence, but with a certain zest for life. How do you say it? “Joie du vivre”? This goes well with the city’s more “New York” side. The combination is intoxicating: a gleaming city that bustles efficiently, modernly, yet playfully as well.
Vieux Montreal, Old Montreal, or Old Town is the area bounded by the waterfront, rue McGill, rue Berri, and rue St. Antoine. Until the 19th century, all of Montreal was confined to this area. Old Town, however, fell into disuse and disrepair by the 1960s and was no longer the city center. The government designated it as a historic area and restored its old buildings to its former glory. Today, the district is rejuvenated. Restaurants, galleries, shops, bars, sidewalk cafes, and street entertainment combine to create a bustling quarter. It is best explored not by car, but on foot. The squares and narrow streets are charmingly Old Europe. To reach Vieux Montreal, just take the metro and stop at either Champs de Mars or Place d’Armes.
Place Jacques Cartier
Place Jacques Cartiers is a cobbled square lined with restaurants, cafes, shops, and old houses. It is extremely popular in the summer with Montrealers and tourists. The outdoor cafes bring an atmosphere to the square. Color is added to the scene with the street performers and the flower and craft markets.
The north side of the square features a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson perched atop a column erected back in 1809. The statue was placed to honor Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. The original 8-foot statue was removed in 1997 to preserve it from any further damage and has been replaced with a copy. At the Notre Dame side of the square, you’ll find the Tourist Information Bureau. The south side of the square is the lively street of rue St. Paul. This is the main street and has a series of trendy restaurants and fashionable shops.
Hotel de Ville
Hotel de Ville on rue Notre Dame sits across from Place Jacques Cartiers. This Second Empire style building was built in the 1870’s and has served as City Hall ever since. From the balcony of this building, French President Charles de Gaulle gave his famous “Vive le Quebec libre” speech, igniting the separatist sentiments of Quebecois.
Château de Ramezay
The Chateau de Ramezay is located at 280 Notre Dame Est. It is an elegant building built in 1705 that now houses a museum completely with period furnishings and displays of artifacts, costumes and other items tracing the history of the Chateau and of the city. The Chateau was once the home of French governors.
Maison du Calvet
The Maison du Calvet is located along the beautiful little street of rue Bonsecours, which is between St. Paul and Notre Dame about one block east of the Place Jacques Cartiers square. The Maison du Calvet is a French colonial house that was built in 1725. It is furnished with antiques.
Notre Dame de Bonsecours
The Notre Dame de Bonsecours is at the bottom of rue Bonsecours. It is affectionately known as the Sailors’ Chapel. This lovely church once stood waterside before the land was reclaimed. The original church dates back to 1657. It was built by Marguerite Bourgeois who founded a nunnery. The church underwent a few rebuilds and renovations, including one in 1678 and another in 1772. The interior has model ships that hang from the ceiling as well as small museum that honors the life of Bourgeois. She is depicted by tableaux that are made with dolls. The tower of the church offers great views of the harbor and Old Montreal.
Le Vieux Port or the Old Port is by the water’s edge and features restaurants, cafes, and parks. The whole area has been redeveloped. It is particularly lively in the summers when cruises set out from here. There are also open-air entertainment and exhibitions during those warmer months. Bargain hunters should come and browse Vieux Port’s flea market.
Place d’Armes is another major square of Montreal and is only a few blocks west of Place Jacques Cartiers. It is located along rue Notre Dame and has history to it. In 1644, a battle took place between the Iroquois Indians and the early settlers. The French prevailed and the victory is commemorated by a statue at the center of the square honoring Sieur de Maisonneuve. North of the square, there is a Banque de Montreal classical building featuring a columned portico. The building has a bank museum. At the other end of the square is the Seminary of St. Sulpice. Built in 1685, it is the oldest structure in Montreal. Unfortunately, it can’t be explored. It is still used by Sulpician monks and closed to the public.
The Notre Dame Basilica is another sight at Place d’Armes. This neo-Gothic structure boasts twin towers. Built in 1829, its interior is richly decorated with fine carvings and an ornate main altar. There is also a museum inside that traces the church’s history. While the museum is open only on select days, the Notre Dame Basilica is open daily with guided tours offered.
Montreal History Centre
The Montreal History Centre at 335 Place d’Youville is in the same building that was used for the old fire station. If you are interested in the history of Montreal, go inside and check out the audio-visual displays.
Musee Fortin at 118 rue St. Pierre is a few steps away from the Montreal History Centre. It is a museum dedicated to the works of Marc-Aurele Fortin (1888-1970). This famous painter of Quebecois landscape specialized in large free forms and combined them with vibrant colors. While his works are the feature attraction, the Musee Fortin also has temporary exhibitions of local artists.
Les Écuries d’Youville
Les Ecuries d’Youville is directly facing the Montreal History Centre. It is a group of factory and warehouse buildings originally built in the early 1800s using old stone walls. After much renovation, the buildings are now used by nice restaurants, shops, and offices.
Downtown Montreal is the area bordered by St. Antoine, Sherbrooke, Atwater, and St. Denis. This is the city center and is the most modern-looking part of town. Steel and glass skyscrapers dominate the scene along with towering hotels and office complexes. Most of the buildings were developed in the 1960s during the Drapeau era.
Montreal’s Underground City is a must! It is the largest and most famous underground network in the world. Developed during the modernization movement of the 1960s, Underground City has 32 kilometers worth of tunnels that spread out over a 12-square kilometer area in downtown. There are 120 access points from the exterior. The tunnels are used by 500,000 people everyday and allow residents to access restaurants, hotels, railway stations, public squares, arenas, shopping and business centers, and subway lines without having to brace the winter snow and rain of Montreal. Complexes that are linked by the walkways include Place Ville Marie, Place Bonaventure, and Place du Canada. Others are only a subway ride away.
Place Ville Marie
Place Ville Marie, which is often known as PVM, is the center of the underground system in Montreal. It was the first underground complex built. The square above ground features a 45-story Royal Bank Tower designed by architect I.M. Pei. It is a stunning cruciform structure and is one of the most famous landmarks of Montreal.
Dominion Square is at the heart of Montreal. It’s a good place for tourists to start their touring of the city. Many tour buses wait here to pick up traveling patrons. The square has many buildings worth a look. The Sun Life Building, on one side of the square, was the first skyscraper built in Montreal. At one time, it was the largest building in Canada. Across from Sun Life is the Bank of Commerce. This skyscraper is oozing slick with its glass. On the same side of the square, don’t miss eyeballing the Chateau Champlain hotel. It is nicknamed “the cheese-grater” for its semi-circular windows. At the other end of the square is Marie Reine du Monde or Mary Queen of the World Cathedral. This is a miniature copy of St. Peter’s in Rome. Even in the presence of several modern behemoth skyscrapers, the cathedral does not get lost in the shuffle. It sits along boulevard Rene Levesque, which was once boulevard Dorchester before being renamed.
Christ Church Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral is a Gothic-style church that was built in the 1850s. It is on rue Ste. Catherine about a couple of blocks away from Place Ville Marie. Rue Ste. Catherine is actually the city’s main shopping street, so it’s interesting to see a cathedral in the midst of major department stores. Westward along Ste. Catherine past the cathedral around Bishop and Crescent Streets are even more stores, mostly chic and trendy boutiques. The area at one time was quite seedy, but the Victorian buildings were restored and now feature great shops as well as nice restaurants and cafes.
Place des Arts, Chinatown
Place des Arts is an arts complex where theatre, ballet, opera, music, and art can be enjoyed. The complex can be reached by going east along rue Ste. Catherine. When people are in the fix for a cultural interlude, Place des Arts is the place to hit up.
Complexe Desjardins is a mall that is both underground and above ground. It has an underground link from Place des Arts. The mall features mostly fashion shops, but it also has a number of restaurants as well as a food court.
Montreal’s Chinatown is on rue de la Gauchetiere, south of the Complexe Desjardin and close to the Place d’Armes Metro. It offers a different kind of shopping. Go there if you need your fix of Chinese food and goods. The nightlife in Chinatown is also surprisingly decent, with some happening clubs and bars. By contrast, other Chinatowns in Canada are usually empty at night.
McGill University sits on the north end of the rue Sherbrooke and University intersection. The campus is at the foot of Mont Royal. Of interest to tourists is the McCord Museum at 690 Sherbrooke Ouest. It traces the history of Canada and Montreal and has an impressive collection of photographs, artifacts, costumes, art, and educational displays.
Musée des Beaux Arts
Musee des Beaux Arts at 1379 Sherbrooke Ouest is west of McGill University. IUt is the oldest museum in Canada and has a collection that spans centuries and continents. Canadian art makes up the largest share of its collections, followed by European art. All the European art movements are covered, including Renaissance, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist, etc. The museum also has Inuit sculptures and other Native American art. African masks and pre-Columbian figurines highlight some of the permanent exhibits.
Centre Canadien d’Architecture
Le Centre Canadian d’Architecture or the Canadian Center for Architecture is located on boulevard Rene Levesque as it intersects rue Fort. This museum of architecture and research has a library of artifacts and books on all topics of architecture. Outside, there is a sculpture garden with sculptures and constructs representing different themes of architecture.
Montreal’s Latin Quarter is centered around rue St. Denis where colorful art galleries, trendy shops, lively restaurants, bars, clubs, and cafes are found. This neighborhood has a lot of atmosphere and won’t empty your wallet. It is most popular with students from the University of Quebec, whose campus is nearby. The annual Montreal International Jazz Festival takes place mostly in this quarter during the summer month of July.
Square St. Louis
Square St. Louis is a block away from the intersection of St. Denis and Sherbrooke. The square is surrounded by beautiful Victorian houses and includes a park where many artsy types congregate, including musicians, writers, and artists. Prince Arthur sits on the west side of the square, enlivening the area with street entertainment, ethnic food, and interesting shops.
St. Laurent (“The Main”)
Boulevard St. Laurent, which is also known as “The Main”, is an immigrant neighborhood that’s not quite seedy but not exactly gentrified either, but that’s how many like it. Ethnic aromas spew onto the streets from the restaurants, cafes, and delis. You’ll find food from Italy, Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. There are also ethnic shops and lively bars.
There was a time when St. Laurent served as the dividing street between the Anglophone and Francophone communities in Montreal. While this division still separates east-west for street numbers, the cultural divide has faded over the years.
Mont Royal is the mountain that dominates Montreal’s horizon. It is more than just a mountain, however. It serves as the city’s finest park, designed from the same Olmstead who planned New York’s Central Park.
In the summer, everyone comes out to Mont Royal for jogs, strolls, bike rides, picnics, sunbathes, and panoramic views. People come out just as well in the winter, bringing their snowshoes, skis, skates and sleighs. You can get to the park by taking the car, riding one of the horse-drawn carriages, or walking from Drummon, Peel, or du Parc.
Mont Royal has a chalet that serves food and refreshments from a terrace overlooking the stunning views. It’s easy to know where the chalet is – just east of it is a large metal cross, which is illuminated at night and seen all over town. The cross commemorates the original wooden one that was erected in 1643 by Sieur de Maisonneuve.
Oratoire St. Joseph
Oratoire St. Joseph or St. Joseph’s Oratory sits on the northwest slope of Mont Royal at 3800 Queen Mary Road. The Oratory is open everyday and can be reached by subway, stoppng at the Snowdon or Cote des Neiges stations. The Oratory consists of both a chapel and a large-domed basilica. The chapel was built in 1904 by a monk called Brother Andre, who used it to treat the sick. He soon developed a reputation for having healing powers. The basilica was constructed in 1960 and can be seen for miles around.
Between Papineau Avenue and Avenue du Parc-La Fontaine just off Sherbrooke Est, you’ll find Parc Lafontaine, an ideal place in the Latin Quarter to rest and enjoy some recreational fun. At Parc Lafontaine, you can stroll the English and French-style gardens, swim in the public pools, row a canoe or kayak, or sit in for one of the many free open-air entertainments taking place. In the summer, the children’s zoo houses animals in a fun, storybook setting.
Parc Maisonneuve or Maisonneuve Park is at the eastern fringes of the city along Sherbrooke. It covers 118 hectares of greenery. It is an open space with trails and foot paths. People come for picnics and afternoon walks or runs. In the winter, the park is enjoyed for snowshoeing, ice skating, and cross-country skiing.
The Olympic Park is fairly close to the Maisonneuve Park. The park was constructed for the 1976 Summer Olympics, but was not fully completed until 1987, however. This complex is highlighted by the gigantic Olympic Stadium, which seats 80,000 people and has a tilted tower used to retract the roof. This tower rises 583 feet or 175 meters high and is the world’s tallest inclined structure. It has an observation deck that can be reached by cable car. The deck has views of the Olympic complex that span 50 miles (80 kilometers) and beyond when there is clear visibility. Other structures in the park include the Velodrome and the Aquatic Centre, which has six different pools.
To reach Olympic Park, you can take the subway to Pie IX or Viau. Guided tours in both English and French are provided. This is the best way to check out the insides of the structures.
The Montreal Botanical Garden or Jardin Botanique is one of the world’s largest botanical gardens, boasting more than 22,000 plant species around the world in an area of 180 acres. The flora is exhibited in 10 greenhouses and 30 thematic gardens. The summer is the best time to check out the gardens with the flowers in full bloom. The botanical gardens also have a celestial Japanese Garden, which is considered a must. Guided tours of the gardens are provided in the comfort of a small train.
Jardin Botanique at 4101 Sherbrook Est is open every day. While the gardens are free, the conservatories are not. Take the subway and stop at Pie IX.
Île Ste. Hélène & Île Notre-Dame
Île Ste. Hélène is an island in the St. Lawrence River that sits across from Old Montreal. The island was enlarged in the 1960s by dumping landfill. Its neighbor, Île Notre-Dame, on the other hand, is completely man-made, using the earth dug up during the construction of Montreal’s subway system.
Both Île Ste. Hélène and Île Notre-Dame were used as the setting for EXPO’67. When the World’s Fair ended, the pavilions became permanent exhibition halls. The complex now hosts entertainment events and exhibitions. To reach Île Ste-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame, take the subway to the Île Ste. Hélène Station station. Île Ste-Hélène is directly under the Jacques Cartier Bridge.
Casino de Montreal
Île Notre-Dame has a casino complex called Casino de Montreal. It consists of five floors and over 3,200 slots and 120 gaming tables.
On Île Ste. Hélène, there’s an enormous amusement park called La Ronde. It features the second highest roller coaster in the world as well as many more thrills, rides and shows. La Ronde is open everyday from May to August each year. Next to the amusement is an Aquarium, where you’ll find penguins, seals, sharks, and other aquatic life. It is open everyday, even in the winter.
David M. Stewart Museum
The David M. Stewart Museum is an Old Fort built in 1822 by the British. It is now used as a museum and has a collection of British military equipment, uniforms, and artifacts. In the summer, mock battles and military parades are conducted. The fort and museum is open everyday, except in the winter when it is closed on some days.
Montreal’s name dates back to 1535, when Jacques Cartier is said to have described the island's volcanic peak as "un mont réal", which means "a royal mountain". The city was founded in 1611, thanks to explorer Samuel de Champlain who set up a trading post on the island. Three decades later, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maissoneuve and more than 50 other Frenchmen established a permanent settlement on the site of what is known today as Vieux Montreal or Old Montreal. They named the settlement Ville Marie. Little did they know how difficult life would be thereafter. The settlers faced constant attacks from the Iroquois Indians, which only abated when Ville Marie became a bustling town during the 18th century and was renamed Montreal. The transformation was owed to the expansion of the fur trade and the prosperity it brought to the settlers.
Montreal was ultimately captured by the British in 1760. The population at the time was 5,000, all of whom made their home in present-day Vieux Montreal. The British conquest resulted in the cession of Canada to Britain in 1763. Many French noblemen and military officers returned to France and were replaced by a wave of immigrants from Scotland. The city continued its growth through the flourishing fur trade. In 1775, Montreal endured a seven-month occupation by General Montgomery and his American troops during the Revolutionary War. The occupation had little impact on the city or its residents. But after the war, the city saw thousands of British Loyalists flood into town to escape the newly-formed United States.
In 1783, the Northwest Trading Company was founded as a partnership of Montreal fur traders. The company solidified Montreal’s preeminence in the trade. Large-scale exports of furs to Europe was now possible. Unfortunately, the fur trade declined gradually after 1821, when the Northwest Trading Company merged with the larger Hudson’s Bay Company. Fortunately, the economic boom continued as other industries replaced fur. During the early 19th century, Montreal also welcomed a mass wave of Jewish immigrants from Europe. They brought business skills that helped the city develop as a financial center. In 1832, Montreal was finally incorporated as a city and by then had become a major force in Canadian life. When Canada became a nation in 1867, Montreal was the largest and most important city in the new country.
Its importance only increased well into the 20th century. During the period between WWI and WWII, however, the city developed a reputation for being “Sin City”. Prostitution and illegal gambling thrived, as the mafia ran their operations under the protection of corrupt city officials. This came to an end rather abruptly in 1954 when Jean Drapeau was elected as mayor. He weeded out corruption, prosecuted hoodlums, and shut down gambling houses and brothels. He also redeveloped and rejuvenated slum areas, instituted a subway system, built Place Ville Marie, an underground shopping complex in downtown. Drapeau continued as mayor until the mid-1980s. His 30 year-span witnessed a stunning modernization of Montreal. Buildings and structures were erected for highly successful Expo ’67. Place des Arts was built to serve as the city’s cultural and performing arts center. Today, Montreal is among the top cities in which to live and also ranks among the top 10 cleanest in the world.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Chinatown, Montreal.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinatown,_Montreal>
“Montreal Casino.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montreal_Casino>
Simpkins, Mary Ann. Canada. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994. ISBN: 0671882783.
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