At the confluence of North America and Europe, Montréal is an international metropolis with vibrant neighbourhoods. The city's population of 3.7 million comprises 120 different cultural groups who speak not only French and English, but many other languages as well. There is a lot to do here, and Montréal’s zest for fun living is by no means limited to the moneyed traveller or citizen.
Getting around the city via public transportation is relatively inexpensive, especially since the Société de transport de Montréal (STM) offers passes valid for a one or three-day period, with unlimited access to the efficient bus and subway (Métro) network. Also, the 747 bus provides 24-hour two-way shuttle service, 7 days a week, 365-days a year, from the Montréal-Trudeau Airport to the downtown core.
From May to November, you can ride around the city on two wheels using the BIXI cycling system, a popular service enabling you to rent a bike from one station and dock it at another located within the extensive BIXI network. There are around 400 stations and 5,000 bikes available in the Montréal area.
For the culture vultures among you (Montréal is an art city par excellence), the reasonably priced Montréal Museums Pass opens the doors to 38 art venues throughout the city and offers a variety of extras.
Meanwhile, La Vitrine culturelle de Montréal (Montreal’s cultural window) is an indispensable stop for all tourists, providing last minute specials on plays, musicals, concerts, and other cultural activities. Also, no matter the season, time, or weather, Montréal hosts over 100 festivals, with loads of free activities and something for everyone to appreciate.
DAY 1 - OLD MONTRÉAL FOR A SONG
Start your day off at the Café-Terrasse Chez Catherine, a charming place for breakfast that serves crepes, sandwiches, and other goodies in an atmosphere enhanced by Québec music, a pastoral décor, and a lovely outdoor terrace.
Once nourished, take a scenic walk down the Quays of the Old Port, a great location to photograph Montréal’s beautifully composed skyline as well as the St. Lawrence River, the Jacques-Cartier Bridge, and some of the structures built for Expo 67, including the Biosphère, Environment Museum, formerly the American Pavilion designed as a geodesic dome by Buckminster Fuller, and Habitat 67, a housing complex comprised of superimposed and linearly connecting cubes designed by Moshe Safdie.
From the waterfront, head to the heart of Old Montréal and stroll down the district’s historic cobblestone streets. Start your journey at one of the quarter’s major points of reference, the Marché Bonsecours on Saint-Paul Street East. Inaugurated in 1847, this imposing building was the city’s main agricultural marketplace for over a century. Recent renovations have turned it once again into a busy centre of commerce that features sidewalk cafés, shops and exhibition spaces.
Just one block east of the Marché Bonsecours is the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, a museum and 1771 chapel that includes a tower offering spectacular views of Old Montréal and its surroundings. The Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel is the oldest in the city.
Next, walk one block north up Bonsecours Street to Notre-Dame Street East, and then turn left to visit the Château Ramezay and its Governor’s Garden, a typically delightful 18th century urban retreat. From here, continue westward on Notre-Dame Street East, and you will see on your right, Montréal’s elegant Second Empire Style City Hall, the interior of which you can visit at no charge, and on your left, Place Jacques-Cartier, a lively gathering place drawing passers-by, visitors, street artists, roving entertainers, face painters, and caricaturists, among others.
Now, head towards the waterfront through Place Jacques-Cartier and turn right (west) on Saint-Paul Street East to take a look at the artisanal boutiques, art galleries, and artists’ studios lining the cobblestone artery.
Up Saint-Sulpice Street is the Cours Le Royer, a section of Le Royer Street that was converted to pedestrian-only use in the early 1980s. Bordered by former store-warehouses and built between 1861 and 1872, this picturesque block was redeveloped into apartments and office space as part of a major, urban renewal project executed between 1976 and 1980.
Further up on Saint-Sulpice is Place d’Armes, a square bordered by buildings representing several major periods of Montréal’s development over hundreds of years. On the south side of the square is Notre-Dame Basilica, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture built between 1824 and 1829 by the Irish-born James O'Donnell.
Just next to the Basilica is the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, the oldest building in the city, which was erected between 1684 and 1687, and then extended 20 years later by the Messrs of Saint-Sulpice who ran the Notre-Dame parish and were seigneurs (lords) of the island of Montréal for nearly two centuries. The structure is a prime example of the institutional architecture of the colony of New France. Its clock, which dates back to 1701, is possibly the oldest of its kind in North America.
On Place d’Armes’ east side is the New York Life Insurance Building, erected in 1887-1889. The eight-story structure, Canada's first skyscraper, contained Montréal’s first elevator and rose above the city’s skyline for 12 years before taller buildings were erected.
Sitting next to the New York Life Insurance Building, also on the east side of Place d’Armes, is the Aldred Building, an Art Deco tour de force completed in 1931.
On the north side of Place d’Armes resides the head office complex of the Bank of Montréal, the oldest bank in Canada, founded in 1817. The Pantheon-like building in the centre was designed and built between 1845 and 1848, while additions were made in 1901 to 1905.
Hungry and need a break? Proceed to the nearby Le Bourlingueur, which offers a menu of seafood specialties in a quaint, unpretentious atmosphere. Bon lunch!
With your appetite satiated and batteries recharged, continue westward, and head to the DHC, a premier venue for exciting contemporary art exhibitions. From there, you can head to Saint-Jacques Street West and follow it westward until you come across Montréal’s World Trade Centre, a multi-use structure incorporating a series of buildings and facades, including the 1888 Nordheimer building, the old Ruelle des Fortifications (Fortification Lane), a hotel, a large glassed-in atrium, and a fragment of the Berlin Wall given to Montréal for its 350th anniversary. The Centre is also connected to the city's underground pedestrian network and the Square-Victoria Métro station, whose Art Nouveau entrance was designed by Hector Guimard in 1900 and offered to the City of Montréal by the City of Paris, on the occasion of Expo 67. For a contemporary art fix, go to the nearby Galerie MX, a venue that shows the works of Besner, Case-Fox, Claes, Lavoie, Niko, Milo, and Prud’homme, to name a few.
Now, move one block east to the Palais des congrès de Montréal (Montréal Convention Centre), which lies on Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle. Combining beauty and function, the Palais’ highlights include the Lipstick Forest, a woodland of abstract pink trees as imagined by artist Claude Cormier. The Palais is listed among the architectural wonders of the world in the book 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die. At the south side (Saint-Antoine Street) of the Palais and housed behind the Fire Station N. 20 façade is the Maison de L'Architecture du Québec, a centre that aims to stimulate and diffuse creativity related to architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning.
As suppertime approaches, hop on over to nearby Chinatown for some gratifying eats at Délicieux Xiang, where kung pao hot spicy chicken with peanuts, fish with spicy bean sauce, steamed shrimps with hot chilli sauce, and duck casserole with beer sauce are just a few of the specialties served at this authentic Szechuan restaurant.
As night falls, return to Place Jean-Paul-Riopelle to see the sculptural fountain, La Joute. Created by Jean-Paul Riopelle, the sculptural forms are made of bronze with a central fountain surrounded by abstract animal and human figures. The fountain runs on a kinetic sequence which takes approximately 32 minutes beginning just before each half hour. During the evening, the square becomes even more magical when fire is illuminated around the sculpture.
DAY 2 – ABOVE THE TREETOPS TO THE UNDERGROUND
There is nothing quite like experiencing nature in the middle of a thriving metropolis, and Montréal offers just this, not only with its many public green spaces, but also with its Botanical Garden, Insectarium, and Biodôme, which are all located around the Olympic Stadium constructed for the 1976 Summer Games. You can take advantage of special rates for visiting the three venues in combination with a trip to the top of the Montréal Tower, where you can take in spectacular views of the city. For some added physical activity, you can even have a swim at the Olympic Pool aquatic complex (at the base of the Montréal Tower).
After checking out these attractions, stroll back to the Botanical Garden restaurant and terrace, which offer a unique and pleasant way to have a midday meal and experience the splendid garden surroundings.
Speaking of splendour, not far from the Botanical Garden is the Château Dufresne Museum, a Beaux Arts style private mansion which was owned by the Dufresne brothers, two important members of Montréal's French-speaking bourgeoisie. Built between 1915 and 1918, it houses a museum dedicated to disseminating the history of Montréal's east end. The venue boasts an interior décor with paintings by artist Guido Nincheri and is testament to the tastes of the roaring twenties.
Did you know that when you take the Métro back to the city centre, you will be privy to the longest art gallery in the world? Yes, it’s true. For the price of a Métro ticket, you can peruse a magnificent part of Montréal’s heritage in the form of the art and architecture of each subway station. So take the time to visit a few stations to get a feel for the abundance of creativity expressed in the underground. At the Champ-de-Mars station, for example, the abstract forms of Marcelle Ferron’s set of stained-glass windows, dating from 1966 to 1968, create a spectacular burst of colour within the station. And, at the Place-des-Arts station, Frédéric Back’s incredible stained glass mural traces the history of music in Montréal, from the representation of the trumpet call heralding the birth of the city to the depiction of recent key figures in Canadian music. Meanwhile, some of the best known works of art in the Métro are found at Peel Station, with Jean-Paul Mousseau’s 54 Circles, created in collaboration with ceramist Claude Vermette in 1964.
Back in the downtown core, you can take advantage of some of the free activities available at certain venues. The permanent collection at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is always free to the public, and, on Thursday nights after 5:30 p.m., the Canadian Centre for Architecture is also free of charge. Selected exhibits at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal are free on Wednesday nights from 6 to 9 p.m., while the Redpath Museum, the UQAM Centre de design, and the Consulate General of Mexico (which often exhibits international works of art) are all great places to buff up your cultural awareness without charge. You can also admire the sculptures located throughout downtown, especially on McGill College Avenue and Sherbrooke Street West.
For an afternoon aperitif, try the Benelux Brewpub and Café, well-known for its relaxed and modern atmosphere and its selection of top-quality homemade beers, namely the Belgian-styled and West Coast-inspired brews.
When pangs of hunger call, Le Taj, which specializes in delectable Indian specialties like lamb chops, kebabs, garlic shrimp, and chicken tikka, is a good, inexpensive spot to have a nice meal. Eat plenty because you will need the extra energy to strut your stuff at the Salsathèque, where for over 30 years, souls and soles have come aflame to the rhythm of Latin beats! You can also check out some of the other happening night venues Montréal has to offer.
DAY 3 - FROM A MARKET TO A FESTIVAL AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
Jean-Talon Market, one of the biggest outdoor markets in North America, has attracted crowds to the Little Italy neighbourhood since 1933. In addition to the ubiquitous fruit, vegetable and flower stalls, the market offers a tasty array of specialty shops featuring spices, oils, cheeses, meats, pastries and exquisite products that are specific to Québec. You can have breakfast at one of several snack bars or cafés, or rely on the numerous and yummy food samples offered by the concession stands for your morning sustenance. Here, food tasting is part of the wonderful experience.
For the rest of the morning, make your way to Du Mont-Royal Avenue, one of the main arteries of the Plateau Mont-Royal neighbourhood, where you can find a terrific range of original boutiques with products not seen anywhere else, along with restaurants and cafés that cater to people who dig good food and good conversation with friends. In front of the Mont-Royal Métro station, at Place Gérald-Godin (a public square named after one of Québec's most celebrated poets), free bicycles are available from the beginning of June to the end of August.
For lunch, a must-eat experience awaits you at Schwartz’s. A true Montréal institution, the restaurant opened on Saint-Laurent Boulevard in 1928 and has since welcomed guests and celebrities from all over the world stopping by for a taste of the diner’s signature smoked meat sandwich. Following Reuben Schwartz’s original recipe, nothing but the freshest meat is marinated in an elaborate mixture of fine herbs and spices. Mmm.
For the rest of the afternoon, you can either visit Saint Joseph's Oratory and its gardens, perched atop one of the peaks of Mount Royal with a huge dome reaching 97 meters (second only in height to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome), or perhaps walk around the trendy Mile End neighbourhood and find yourself amongst a mélange of musicians, artists, hipsters, and students. When you start to feel that need to quench your afternoon thirst, you can try out the Happy Hours at either Laika, Bily Kün, Plan B, Gogo Lounge, or all of the above for some chilling-out to various tunes in these happy-making, yet very distinct venues.
At suppertime, find yourself a bottle of wine and go to either Duluth Street or Prince-Arthur Street, where Bring Your Own Wine (BYOW) restaurants are the norm, and where you can unwind on a pleasant patio, eating, sipping, and Montréal-watching as the sun begins its descent.
To round out your evening, if there is a festival in town (which is very likely since Montréal hosts over 100 festivals yearly), there is a real chance that with it comes a number of free activities or shows that you can participate in or view. Enjoy, and come back soon to eat, drink, and be merry…à la Montréal!