Things to Do in Montreal
The epicenter of the city’s sea trade back in the 17th-century, Montreal’s Old Port lost its role as a trading post in the 1970s, falling temporarily into ruin until a major renovation transformed it into one of the city’s most important entertainment centers in the 1990s. Today, the vibrant waterfront district is home to an IMAX cinema, the acclaimed Montréal Science Centre and a landmark Clock Tower, as well a large outdoor skating rink in winter and an urban beach in summer. The scenic Old Port makes an atmospheric spot for walking, cycling and Segway tours, but other popular pastimes for visitors include river cruises, renting a paddleboat (pedalo) to paddle around the calm waters of Bonsecours Basin Park or soaring overhead in a seaplane for a unique bird’s eye view of the historic waterfront.
The mountain is the site of Mount Royal Park, the work of New York Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted. It's a sprawling, leafy playground that's perfect for cycling, jogging, horseback riding, picnicking; in winter, miles of paths and trails draw cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
On clear days, you can enjoy panoramic views from the Kondiaronk lookout near Chalet du Mont Royal, a grand old white villa that hosts big-band concerts in summer; or from the Observatoire de l'Est, a favorite rendezvous spot for lovebirds. En route you'll spot the landmark Cross of Montréal, which is illuminated at night.
Other features of the park include Lac des Castors (Beaver Lake), a sculpture garden, a lush forest, with numerous sets of stairs, and two cemeteries.
One of Montreal's most enduring symbols, the Notre Dame Basilica occupies a site rich with three centuries of history, with its most recent claim to fame being the baptism of Céline Dion's son.
Inside, one of the highlights is the altar, which displays 32 bronze panels representing birth, life, and death. The west tower houses one massive bell, which when rung, vibrates right up through your feet. The Chapelle du Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart Chapel) located behind the main hall is nicknamed the Wedding Chapel and is so popular that there is a two years wait to tie the knot.
Tuesday through Saturday, an evening sound and light display called "Et la lumière fut" ("And then there was light") uses cutting-edge technology to tell the story of the church and the city.
Site of the 1976 Olympic Games, Olympic Park is now a family-friendly destination packed with sites and activities. The four attractions are the Olympic Stadium (State Olympique), the Montreal Biodome (Biodôme de Montréal), the Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanique), and the Montreal Insectarium (Insectarium de Montreal). Plus, they are all within walking distance of each other.
Olympic Stadium is mainly used for baseball, festivals, fairs, and shows. It’s one of the most visited stadiums in the world. A platform at the top affords panoramic views of Montreal and its surroundings. At the Montreal Biodome, you can an amble through a rainforest, the Arctic Circle, rolling woodlands, or along the raw Atlantic oceanfront - all without ever leaving the building.
Inside the Botanical Gardens you can wander around 10 large, fragrant conservatory greenhouses, each with a theme, from orchids and begonias to ferns and rainforest flora.
As one of the longest and most historic rivers in the world – penetrating 3,058 kilometers into North America- the St Lawrence River is omnipresent everywhere visitors look. Stretching from the mighty Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes of Ontario, the land on either side of it has been occupied by Native tribes for almost 10,000 years. And although many studies suggest Vikings were the first European explorers to navigate its waters, the river was only officially discovered by Jacques Cartier in the 16th century – which turned out to be one of the most important turning points in North American history. Indeed, the Saint Lawrence River served as the main route for European exploration of the North American interior in order to establish a lucrative colonial empire resulting from the trade with the Montagnais, the Etchemin and the Algonquin people.
Nestled in the heart of historic Old-Montreal, Place d’Armes is the second oldest public site in Montreal. The Sulpicians, who played a major role in the founding of the city and built the still-existing Saint-Sulpice Seminary on the southern side of the square, called it Place de la Fabrique as it was used as a hay and wood market. The name was, however, changed to Place d’Armes in 1721 when it became the stage of various military events.
Place d’Armes more or less kept it actual size and allure since the completion of Notre-Dame Basilica in 1830, with the notable exception that it is now flanked by the city’s first high rise buildings -representing major periods of Montreal's development- the New York Life Insurance Building as well as the Art deco gem and Empire State Building lookalike Aldred Building.
More Things to Do in Montreal
As the only park in the province entirely dedicated to preserve and enhance an exclusively marine environment, the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park understandably boasts exceptional whale watching opportunities. The limpid waters of the biggest estuary in the world, the St Lawrence River, joins those of the longest fjord in Eastern Canada, the Saguenay Fjord; the marine park that is created in the process is abundant in natural treasures and biological diversity, including some of the world’s most impressive cetaceans like the furtive blue whales, belugas, the harbor porpoise, the minke whale, the fin whale and the humpback whale as well as three types of seals and 150 species of birds.Stretching over 1,245 square kilometers, the park requires an entire day to visit, if not more! It offers a myriad of activities like scuba diving.
Stretching from the Rue Notre-Dame in the north to the Old Port in the south, Jacques Cartier Place (Place Jacques Cartier) is the famed cobbled square at the heart of Vieux MontrÃ©al. In this lively carnival, you can watch lively street performers, have your portrait painted, or watch the unfolding pageant of colorful people.
Under Nelsonâs Column, a popular market sells arts, crafts, flowers, and souvenirs. You can see all the action from a table in one of the inviting street cafÃ©s that line the square. Sip a glass of beer or wine and soak up the atmosphere, relax and let the afternoon go by, enjoy people-watching at its best. Afterward, you can stroll down the slope toward the Old Port, while marveling at the opulent 19th century townhouses and mansions.
While technically a borough of Montreal, le Plateau Mont-Royal cannot be defined by geographical zones. Le Plateau is a lifestyle, a mindset, a way of seeing beauty in everything and appreciating the smallest of things. It’s having al fresco lunch in centennial parks, it’s hopping from one indie coffee shop to another, it’s shopping at the plethora of local designer boutiques, it’s getting a table at the newest French bistro or Japanese izakaya. It’s the place to be. This once working class-only neighborhood evolved into grooviest and most sought-after scene in Montréal.
Filled with hipsters on the eastern side and young, hip families on the western side, le Plateau is basically Montreal in a nutshell. It is where the iconic, colorful staircases of Montreal are found, in the charming and narrow tree-lined streets perpendicular to Mont-Royal Avenue, the main thoroughfare.
Known as the artistic and hipster hub of Montreal, the Mile End is a neighborhood situated in the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough of Montreal. This is where most fashionable eateries, speakeasy bars, vintage shops, and underground music venues are located, along with plentiful Hassidic Jewish and Portuguese communities – which just goes to show just how diverse Mile End really is. In fact, the neighborhood’s ethnic composition has changed a great deal ever since its beginnings in the late 19th century when the transcontinental railway station was built, and retains a strong international yet very local flair, as most ethnic groups have been living alongside each other for decades.
Few people knew of Ville-Marie yet everyone has been; it’s the technical name for Montreal’s downtown area, and one of the most vibrant places in the world. It encompasses Old-Montreal, downtown Montreal, the Latin Quarter, the Gay Village, most of Mount Royal Park and the islands on the St. Lawrence River – indeed, it covers quite a lot of ground! It is therefore one of the most visited areas in North America, and one of the most densely populated too.
Attraction-wise, Ville-Marie isn’t a bore. Three of the four Montreal universities are located within its boundaries, as well as the notable district of Old-Montreal (and its historic museums, chapels and quaint squares), the lively Gay Village and its drag-queen bars, the business and high street shopping oriented downtown core area and, of course, the luxuriant Mount Royal and its unobstructed view of the neighborhood.
Montreal’s Underground City (Montréal Souterrain) is the largest underground complex in the world. A labyrinthine maze of downtown tunnels connecting malls and hotels, offices, museums, banks, universities, and seven metro stations, the complex holds its own during the cold Canadian winter months, when over half a million use the space every day. There are 120 access points to Underground City, and with 80% of downtown Montreal’s office and commercial space connected via over 20 miles of tunnels spread over 4.6 square miles, as an urban planning achievement it’s impressive.
You can get maps of Underground City for free from all of the metro stations, and you might need one. This place is huge and practically a city in itself with some 5,000 stores, restaurants, boutiques, theaters, and connections to everything from a church to a hockey and ice skating museum.
To truly experience Montreal’s melting pot of cultures head to Chinatown. Dating back to the 1860s when Chinese immigrants went to Canada to work on the railroad and in the mines, the neighborhood has preserved its Asian culture for over 100 years. Walking the streets, it’s not uncommon to hear French, English, Vietnamese, Cantonese, Mandarin and other Asian dialects spoken on the same block. Moreover, Chinatown is where you’ll find a range of unique experiences you won’t find anywhere else in the city.
Conveniently, Montreal’s Chinatown is located in the city center, so you’ll be able to continue exploring. Enter on Saint Laurent Boulevard to walk through a traditional Chinese gate to get you in the right mindset. No trip to Chinatown would be complete without sampling the cuisine, especially as the food here tends not only to be delicious, but budget-friendly.
Located in the beautiful historic neighborhood of Old Montreal, Pointe-à-Callière is an archaeology and history museum dedicated to Montreal’s and Canada’s tortuous past. The museum was built on what is believed to be the birthplace of Montreal; archaeological studies have shown evidence of over 1,000 years of human activity in this very location. Pointe-à-Callière opened in 1992 for the city of Montreal’s 350th anniversary celebrations, and, after 10 years of extensive digs, became one of the largest archaeological collections in the country. Guided tours and information sessions are available every day at no extra charge. Visitors will a disability should not that the museum is entirely wheelchair accessible except for sections in the archaeological crypt below ground level.
The Americas are home to four ecosystems, and at the Biodome de Montreal you’ll be able to walk through them all (well, replicas of them at least). Visitors will be guided by naturalists through the biodome, traveling through the tropical rainforest, Laurentian maple forest, Gulf of St. Lawrence and Sub-Antarctic Islands, and observing over 4,800 animals representing 230 species and about 750 plants. Interestingly, these exhibits are housed in what was once the cycling stadium used in the 1976 Summer Olympics. Essentially, the experience is similar to visiting a zoo but delivers more of an immersive experience that makes you feel like you’re really in the wild.
While there is much to learn about as well as flora and fauna to see in these four ecosystems, there are a few highlights of a visit to the Biodome de Montreal.
A lasting structure and symbol of Expo 67, the Biosphere is a unique architectural treasure of Montreal and the masterpiece of architect Buckminster Fuller.
Since 1995, it has been home to exhibitions, permanent and temporary, that are geared toward educating people about major environmental issues. Its interactive exhibits help those of all ages better understand the profound effects of climate change and provides information on how to make a lighter footprint on this Earth.
Such exhibits as "+1 Degree Celsius: What Difference Does it Make?" uses an interactive digital Earth globe and short films to demonstrate the science behind climate change.
Another exhibit, "Finding Balance", looks at how our consumer habits shape the environment while a temporary exhibit, "Water Wonders!", takes a fun spin on all things H2O with games and experiments for guests to tackle.
Open since 1933, Atwater Market is an important part of Montreal’s culinary heritage. While the city has a number of great markets, this one is considered to be more upscale than the norm. Here you’ll be able to get a true taste of the city, as the market features artisans and purveyors selling only the freshest foods, ingredients and products. Spread across two spacious floors -- as well as outdoor stalls when the weather is warm -- you’ll need a few hours to really see (and sample!) all that’s offered.
Keep an eye out for hard-to-find and specialty items, including ethnic specialties and rare spices. If you’re looking for fresh meats, upstairs you’ll find about 10 butchers. In their onsite wine store you can peruse many local varietals, while a large array of flower shops allows you to explore the colorful side of Montreal.
Located just south of artsy, boho-chic Plateau Mont-Royal, the Latin Quarter has been a center of student life since the 18th century. Now home to one of the largest universities in the country, its name doesn’t exactly come as a surprise; the neighborhood is filled with students, bookstores and inexpensive cafés with exceptional people watching opportunities. It is known for its many theatres, artistic atmosphere, lively restaurants, microbreweries and whisky bars, as well as independently-owned boutiques.
The best thing about the Latin Quarter is undeniably its eclectic crowd and its joie de vivre: both the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy, the local and the ethnic, the artistic and the intellectual mingle on the streets, be it during a summer festival or while queuing to get hot chocolate. Definitely a multi-layer neighborhood if there ever was one! One of the main attraction of the area, outside its buzzing nightlife, is the Grande bibliothèque du Québec.
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