I have such fabulous memories of Canada’s second largest city, on its island in Quebec’s St. Lawrence River. It was one of my very first trips out of the United States, and it felt exotic yet familiar. A great family destination, for sure. And indeed, it’s fair to say Montreal is in a league of its own: Bilingual yet multicultural; mixing the centuries-old colonial with the up-to-the-minute cutting edge; almost as active underground as above; and a city of laid-back villages yet also a throbbing center of commerce as well as culture both high and low.
Perhaps we should start where the first settlers did in 1642. The southern shore of Montreal island is now home toVieux Montréal, with handsome centuries-old buildings such asNotre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel(the city’s oldest church, 1655), cobblestone streets and horsedrawn carriages. In fine weather, itsPlace Jacques-Cartieris packed with street performers and restaurant terraces packed with (mostly) out-of-towners.
You can learn the city’s story atPointe-à-Callière(aka theMuseum of Archaeology and History) onPlace Royale; named after the first settlement in this area, it’s a modern structure built over the ruins of Pointe à Callière and mixes the ruins themselves with engrossing multimedia displays. For history there’s also theCentre d’Histoire de MontréalonPlace d’Youvillehoused in a onetime fire station dating from 1903.
Then there are several historic homes to visit, such as theSir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site, reconstructing a pair of 19th century Victorian homes, and the Château Ramezay Museum, the colonial governor’s residence and gardens, a window into the life and times of the 18th century. Finally, if you’re in the mood or travelling with kids, the Montreal Science Centreis also here, and a darn fine example of the genre it is.
Nearby downtown is also, naturally, a focal point for visitors, with its shops; restaurants; handful of museums such as theMuseum of Fine Arts, theContemporary Art Museum, and theMcCord Museumof Canadian history; and a couple of interesting churches such as the AnglicanChrist Church Cathedraland the CatholicMary Queen of the World Cathedral(a smaller-scale replica of St. Peter’s in Rome). A must in this part of town is a ramble around theUnderground City, more than 20 miles (32 kilometres) of tunnels with endless shops, restaurants, entertainment options, and more; in wintertime, this is not just convenient but a downright lifesaver for locals, as average low temperatures in January, for example, are a toasty 7° Fahrenheit (-14° Celsius).
Also nearby is Canada’s third largestChinatown, a colourful bit of business with the requisite Asian restaurants, markets, and other shops, and theGay Village, the largest “gayborhood” in North America and with the rep of being one of the world’s very bestLGBTscenes.
Visitors should also make it a point of heading just west of downtown up to the expansive Mount Royal Park, designed byFrederick Law Olmstead(designer ofNew York City’s Central Park) atop the eponymous hill (one of three in the park, actually). Here you’ll find belvederes; trails; Canada’s largest church, theSt. Joseph Oratory; and sweeping views out over the city and waterways (and if you’re here on a summer Sunday, it’s a joyous, inspiring experience to join the multitudes that gather at the monument onAvenue du Parcto enjoy the big “tam-tam jam” that’s perhaps the world’s biggest drumming circle.
Speaking of waterways, if you have time, I also highly recommend a visit toNotre Dame Island, an artificial isle out in the river east of downtown/Vieux Montréal that was created is 1967 to host what’s considered the 20th century’s most successful World’s Fair, the 1967 Montreal Expo, then partly repurposed for the 1976Summer Olympics. These days you’ll find theParc Jean-Drapeau, which includes gardens; a river beach; an amusement park; sports and cultural venues; swimming pool complex; a geodesic dome housing an environmental museum; and a big, glitzy casino.
There’s even more to see, do, and experience beyond these highlights. But you get the idea: Montréal, c’est magnifique!