A historic neighborhood dating back to the early 1600s, Old Montreal is a vibrant area that seamlessly bridges the city’s past and present. Here are the top things to do in the district.
Montreal’s oldest neighborhood – aptly called Old Montreal – is also one of its liveliest. Spanning several blocks near the waterfront of the Saint Lawrence River, Old Montreal is home to historical sites dating back to the 17th century that showcase the city’s indigenous and colonial past. The district also offers a taste of Montreal’s contemporary cultural standing, from art and food to health. With markets, historical landmarks, museums and architectural gems, there are many things to see and do in this cobblestone quarter. Below are Culture Trip’s top things to do in Old Montreal.
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Place d’Armes is a historical public square in the heart of Old Montreal and the second-oldest public site in the city. Today, it is a popular spot where tourists can enjoy talented buskers and admire some of Montreal’s most impressive architecture, which borders the square. On Place d’Armes’ north side, you’ll find the old Bank of Montreal, while on the western side are the Art Deco Aldred Building and the New York Life Building. On the south side is the famous Notre-Dame Basilica, where Canadian superstar Céline Dion was married.
Montreal City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) is an impressive building. Built between 1872 and 1878 by architects Henri-Maurice Perrault and Alexander Cowper Hutchison and inspired by the Hôtel de Ville Tours in France, the building embodies the Second Empire style. Located next to Vauquelin Square and its beautiful fountain, Montreal City Hall is no longer home to the mayor’s office – which moved to the neighboring Lucien-Saulnier Building – but is still a landmark worth visiting.
Not only is Saint-Paul Street the oldest street in Montreal, it is also one of the most picturesque in the city. Paved in 1672, the cobblestone artery is home to many historic greystone buildings, which are emblematic of Montreal. While walking down Saint-Paul Street, you’ll encounter all manner of shops, galleries and restaurants. It is also a pleasure just to stroll down the narrow street, which runs parallel to the Old Port waterfront. Eventually, you’ll hit Place Jacques-Cartier, a square named after the eponymous explorer who claimed Canada for France in 1535.
Located at the intersection of de la Commune Street and Place d’Youville, Pointe-à-Callière is a history and archaeology museum dedicated to Old Montreal. The museum is, in a way, all about intersections. The building’s modern architecture seamlessly blends with the historical artefacts inside its walls, and its collections demonstrate how French and English colonists interacted and co-existed with First Nations people. The award-winning museum is also located on archaeological ruins, which were discovered during the its construction in the early 1990s and left intact. Today, the ruins form a permanent display through which visitors can walk.
History is palpable at the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, which was built in 1771 over the ruins of an earlier church destroyed in a fire, and is among the oldest chapels in Montreal. Because of its location near the Old Port and its historical relevance to sailors as a pilgrimage site, the chapel is commonly known as the Sailors’ Church. The site is also the home of the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum, which honors the woman who was Montreal’s first teacher and the founder of the original Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours. A lookout at the top of the chapel provides a stunning view of the Old Port.
The Old Port of Montreal (Vieux-Port) was used as early as 1611 by French fur traders. Though Montreal’s major port operations were moved in the 1970s, the Old Port still has an important purpose, drawing 6 million tourists annually for a plethora of reasons. Here, you can catch a bite to eat, walk, cycle, rollerblade and rent a paddleboat or quadricycle. Other attractions in the Old Port include the Montreal Science Centre, a wintertime skating rink, a Ferris wheel and a zip line.
With three floors and several exhibitions, the Centre d’Histoire de Montréal is a museum in which you can spend hours learning about the city’s eventful history. It opened in the 1980s and is housed in an old fire station at Place d’Youville, which was in use from 1904 to 1972. The museum’s collections trace Montreal’s long history and include many artefacts, images and testimonies. Particular highlights include its excellent Montreal Expo 67 collection and fascinating information about the city’s metro system and underground city.
Found in the heart of Old Montreal, the Phi Centre is a multidisciplinary art center that proves that for all of Montreal’s history, the city is also at the cutting edge of culture and art. Inside the historic building that the Phi Centre is housed in, visitors can find an art gallery, theater and performance space, a cinema and production facilities. These spaces host a variety of interactive exhibitions, highlighting artists working in the spheres of augmented and virtual reality, video mapping and simulation, among others. Along with its sister gallery, the free Phi Foundation, the Phi Centre brings global trends in art and culture to the forefront in Montreal.
Place Jacques-Cartier is a historical square that leads from Montreal City Hall down to the Old Port. The stretch of cobblestone street is closed off to cars in the summer months while it hosts various events, street performers, artisans and artists. At the north end of Place Jacques-Cartier stands Montreal’s oldest public monument, Nelson’s Column, which was erected in 1809 to commemorate British officer Horatio Nelson. The square is also flanked by various restaurants and is a lovely spot to sit and take in Montreal’s oldest quarter.
One of Montreal’s most acclaimed architectural structures is undoubtedly the Notre-Dame Basilica. The 19th-century church, which rises from Place d’Armes, is stately from the outside, but its claim to fame is its vibrant interior. Decorated by Montreal architect Victor Bourgeau in the late 1800s, the basilica’s inside is brilliantly colorful, with blue-and-gold vaulted ceilings, ornately decorated carvings and vivid touches in every corner. From an architectural perspective, the Notre-Dame Basilica is also notable as being the first Gothic Revival-style church in Canada.
Jutting into the Saint Lawrence River, the Grand Quay is a newly refurbished feature in the Old Port, which was not open to the public until 2018. The multifunctional quay serves as a cruise terminal as well as a public space, where residents and tourists can take in views of the waterway and its surroundings. The Grand Quay is one of the best vantage points to see Habitat 67, a cube-like housing complex famously designed by architect Moshe Safdie for Expo 67, the world’s fair hosted by Montreal in 1967.
Once the tallest building in all of Canada, the 1920s Royal Bank Tower is still an incredible sight to behold. The Neoclassical building is thankfully more accessible to the public than ever, as it now houses a café and co-working space in its opulent lobby and a chic nightclub in its historical bank vaults. Located on Saint-Jacques Street, the Royal Bank Tower is also known for its gilded front entrance and luxurious bronze elevators.
Built in 1688 and converted into an inn in 1754, L’Auberge Saint-Gabriel was the first establishment in Canada to receive a liquor license. To this day, the historic building continues to welcome guests for dining and imbibing and is a popular destination for weddings and events. Inside the establishment’s thick stone walls, visitors will find a restaurant that serves dishes made with local, seasonal ingredients, as well as a terrace, banquet rooms and the Velvet Speakeasy, where people dance late into the night.
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