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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
More Things to Do in Montreal
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.
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.
Running from Old Montreal to Lake St. Louis in western Montreal, Canal de Lachine is a 14.5 kilometer-long (9 miles) inland waterway that was mainly used for commercial shipping. It was built to allow ships to bypass the treacherous Lachine Rapids, which were not navigable. Work on the canal started in 1821, and it opened for navigation in 1825. The opening not only made Montreal one of the most important ports in North America and a significant trade center for wood, iron and steel, but it also helped develop the neighborhoods surrounding the canal like Petite-Bourgogne, Saint-Henri, Griffintown and Pointe St-Charles – in fact, Montreal’s population quadrupled over the 50 years following the canal’s construction.
Although the canal is now obsolete for commercial navigation, it is possible to visit its historic docks, the most popular ones being located in Old-Montreal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What would a visit to Montreal be without spending some time in gourmet Little Italy? Montreal is nothing if not about food and history, and few other places than Little Italy can boast having these two – in spades. With some cafés having been opened for 100 years (a rarity on this side of the pond) and the presence of the world-class Jean-Talon Market (North America’s largest open-air market and one of the top tourist attractions in the city), Montreal’s Little Italy is not to be missed.
Although only a handful of Italians families have been calling Montreal home since the 17th century, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the population of Italian descent really started to form a community. Unbeknownst to them, this camaraderie would not only end up being beneficial to Montreal’s industrialization, but also act as the perfect family reunification pretext for 15,000 of devastated families struck by Italy’s infamous implication in World War II.
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