When the great cities of North America are listed, names like New York, New Orleans and Vancouver are usually mentioned. But a city that truly belongs on the list is Montreal, the premier city of French Canada and one of the most interesting and exciting cities on the continent.
Montreal isn’t the biggest city in Canada, or its financial centre – those honours go to Toronto. But for a mixture of beauty, culture and French joie de vivre, it’s hard to beat. Like New Orleans, it mixes a modern downtown and an ancient historic district with great ethnic neighbourhoods, some bohemian culture, and an impressive assortment of public entertainment spaces. As well, it has some great architecture: Montreal is a UNESCO City of Design, one of only three in the world.
For six months of the year, the city on the St. Lawrence can be a frigid place. But come May, when the sun starts to shine, Montrealers come out to play, at events like the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs comedy festival. Or they chill out in the abundant green spaces in and around the city, from Mount Royal to Parc la Fontaine.
If you choose to join them, you’ll have a good time. And you’ll have no trouble getting around: downtown Montreal is pretty compact, so if you stay close to the centre, you can walk to most of the major attractions in 30 minutes or less. Failing that, there’s an extensive subway system and good bus service.
On a recent trip, my schedule was limited to two days. But I found I was able to see most of Montreal’s best sights in 48 hours or so – including a lot of time at Just for Laughs. What to see in Montreal? Here’s my list of the best sights to visit in 48 hours.
The Basilica and the Place d’Armes
Possibly the most impressive sight in Montreal is the Basilique Notre-Dame, the huge church that fronts the Place d’Armes, the town square of old Montreal. The Gothic Revival building isn’t that ornate from the outside, but inside it’s breathtaking, filled with an extravagance of beautiful carvings, paintings and stained glass. But the centrepiece is the ornate altar, set against a huge, illuminated backdrop filled with statues and tableaux.
This is where French Canada holds its major religious events, including the funerals of Quebec royalty such as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and hockey star Maurice “Rocket” Richard. And it’s all set to the music of a massive pipe organ that boasts 7,000 pipes. For happier occasions like the wedding of superstar Céline Dion, there’s the less extravagant Chapelle du Sacré-Cœur behind the main altar.
The Place d’Armes, once the ground where the French settlers fought it out with the local Indians for control of the land, now serves as the entrance to the Old Town. But it’s also a symbol of Montreal’s development into a major business centre. The square is surrounded by the 19th-century office buildings of Canada’s major banks and insurance companies, including the classically styled Bank of Montreal building. Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, founder of Montreal, is immortalized by a statue in the middle of the square — he would be proud.
Montreal is one of the oldest cities in North America, already a thriving European settlement when places like Toronto were still Indian villages. The original city is located near the waterfront, just east of the modern downtown, and it’s still pretty much intact.
Spend some time admiring the ancient, picturesque buildings, then catch a bite at some of the restaurants and bistros that line the cobblestone streets. Or have a drink on one of the patios surrounding the lovely Place Jacques-Cartier (seen here), which leads to the old city hall. If you’re in the mood for shopping, there are lots of places to pick up some souvenirs, including the Bonsecours Market, which features a cornucopia of Quebec handicrafts – and of course, lots of maple syrup.
Montreal doesn’t have a spectacular waterfront district, but if you’re visiting the Old City, it’s worth strolling down to see Place Royale, the site of the first European trading post on the island of Montreal. Then continue east to see the array of recreation venues that occupy the old port, including a mock pirate ship with a zip line and the launching area for boat cruises of the riverfront.
And of course, there’s the multi-coloured tents of Cirque du Soleil, the entertainment phenomenon that went from Quebec street theatre to world domination. If there’s a show happening, it’s your chance to see the Cirque in its native habitat.
The Quartier des spectacles
Covering a square kilometre of downtown Montreal, this entertainment complex is one of the most amazing entertainment districts around. And its location, right on a section of Ste-Catherine Street, the city’s main drag, makes it an easy walk from almost anywhere downtown.
The hub is Place des Arts, Montreal’s modern arts centre, but there are a staggering 40 performance venues in the quarter. And when there’s an event going, it turns into an artsy version of a summer fair, with lots of pedestrian spaces, fun and food of all kinds, from poutine to foie gras and pinot noir.
This is a good place to wander the streets a bit and enjoy some dim sum, noodles or spicy Szechuan food. And it’s just down the street from the Quartier des spectacles, so it makes a nice break from the action. You’ll know you’re there by the big red Chinese gates at the entrance to the district.
The Latin Quarter
East of the Quartier des spectacles is Montreal’s bohemian district, where the city’s hipsters go to hang out, browse in quirky shops, drink wine in trendy bistros and enjoy the lively night life. To get a glimpse, stroll down Rue St. Denis, and maybe stop at one of the patios for dinner or drinks. Then turn onto Ste-Catherine Street to see what’s happening on Place Émilie-Gamelin: the night I stopped by, there was an open-air dance party that looked like it was going to go on all night.
The Gay Village
Head east along Ste-Catherine Street from the Latin Quarter and you’ll find yourself in Montreal’s gay village. If you’re in the mood for a few drinks or some bar-hopping, this is the place to go. But there are also lots of interesting shops, bookstores and restaurants to check out, and just walking down the street at night under the canopy of red lights is a fun experience.
One of the major landmarks of Montreal is the small mountain that gave the city its name (Mont Réal, in old French). It’s topped by a huge, illuminated cross, a tribute to Maisonneuve, who vowed to carry one up the mountain if the city was saved from disastrous floods. The modern cross, erected in 1924, can be seen across the city and is a symbol of Montreal.
Most of the mountain is an extensive park, landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park in New York. It’s a favourite place for joggers, hikers and other sports-minded Montrealers. But it’s also a good place for a picnic or a walk in the woods, and the view from the top is impressive.
Once you’ve seen the highlights of the city and need a little break, hop over to île Ste-Hélène and île Notre Dame, a couple of islands in the St. Lawrence that offer even more entertainment opportunities. This where Montreal held the Expo 67 World’s Fair back in 1967, and it’s named after the mayor who pushed it through.
You can visit La Ronde, an amusement park that boasts the largest wooden roller coaster in the world; check out the Biosphere (located in the geodesic dome that was the U.S. pavilion at Expo 67); or visit Musée Stewart, an old British fort. There’s a casino, too, if gambling’s your game.
The city – and the underground city
With all the history and entertainment in Montreal, the city’s modern downtown can be overlooked. But it’s an impressive, bustling place, filled with glass skyscrapers and major hotels. As well, there’s a touch of history, with some venerable old churches, and expansive public spaces like Victoria Square, with its Parisian-styled subway entrance. A walk along Ste-Catherine Street is a great experience, too, with interesting shops, restaurants and street musicians.
Step into a doorway, however, and you’re likely to find yourself in one of Montreal’s other great achievements – the underground city, or RÉSO. Running under the streets of the downtown area are 32 kilometres (20 miles) of tunnels filled with shops, restaurants, bars, theatres and almost everything else you could need. These underground streets make it possible to walk all over downtown without braving the harsh Montreal winter – they’re nice and cool in summer, too.
That’s a snapshot of what to do in Montreal in 48 hours. If you’ve got a good pair of walking shoes, you should be able to get to all of it without much trouble. And to help you find your way around, here’s a handy map that lets you customize an itinerary for your visit.
If you don’t speak French, don’t worry: most Montrealers speak at least a little English, and there’s always Google translate.
If you have more time to spend in the city, there are lots of other places to explore, like the Jean Talon market, the Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens, and neighbourhoods like the Plateau and Westmount. Or, you could just sit in a café, have another espresso and watch Montreal going about the business of having a good time.