Sure, Ottawa might be the capital… but for many Montreal remains the liveliest, most exciting city in Canada. It’s a first-rate city with a notable list of seconds: Montreal is the second largest city in the second largest country in the world and is the second largest French-speaking city in the world (behind Paris).
But make no mistake: Montreal is first in many Canadians – and foreigners – hearts.
For many, Vieux Montreal (aka Old Montreal) is what people come here for: cobblestone streets, small Parisian style cafes, 17th century architecture, art galleries, museums and the waterfront. Street performers, artists, a thriving gay scene and some of Canada’s finest cuisine make Old Montreal a great place to eat, drink, explore and dance.
In other words: travel at it’s very best.
The following is a simple two-hour walking tour which highlights Montreal’s different neighborhoods. Taxis and public transportation are plentiful; feel free to pieces of this tour as you see fit.
The tour includes mentions of numerous architectural styles. Use this guide to brush up on your architecture.
Montreal Walking Tour
Start: Place d’ Armes, opposite the Notre-Dame Basilica.
Notes: Most museums are closed on Mondays, and weekends – especially during summer – may get crowded.
To get to Old Montreal, take the metro to the Place d’Armes station and follow the signs to Vieux-Montreal. This will lead you to the…
1. Place d’Armes
This charming small square was once a scene of terrible violence. The five statues in the center represent the struggle between settlers and Iroquois warriors. Paul de Chomedey, Montreal’s founder, engaged in hand-to-combat with the Iroquois chief. He and his fellow settlers won the battle, and Montreal was born.
There is an inscription underneath the statues which reads (translated from French): “You are the buckwheat seed which will grow and multiply and spread throughout the country.”
The other four statues represent Jeanne Mance (founder of Montreal’s first hospital), an unnamed Iroquois brave, Charles Lemoyne (a farmer) and Raphael-Lambert Closse (montreal’s first mayor) and his dog Pilote.
Across rue Notre-Dame is the…
Credit: laura padgett
3. Vieux Séminaire de St-Sulpice
Montreal’s oldest building was constructed in 1657, just 15 years after the town was colonized. From the Seminary, venture east on rue Notre-Dame to…
4. Basilique Notre-Dame
James O’Donnell designed this Gothic Revival-style basilica in 124. A Protestant, he became so inspired with his work he converted to Catholicism. How’s that for dedication?
Feel free to walk inside: there’s plenty of room. The basilica can house over 4,000 people for service and is home to one of the largest bells in North America (over 12 tons).
While this walking tour works best during the day, this area is especially nice in the evening when the basilica – and other buildings – light up the neighborhood.
As you exit the basilica, head east on rue Notre Dame for five blocks until you hit the:
Exiting the basilica, turn right (east) on rue Notre-Dame, crossing rue St-Sulpice. Walk 4 blocks, passing chintzy souvenir shops, then face left to see the:
5. Vieux Palais de Justice (Old Courthouse)
This old courthouse was mostly erected in 1856. The dome and third floor were added in 1891 (architecture buffs will notice the difference). The Old Courthouse used to try civil cases until 197 when the Palais de Justice was built next door.
To your left you’ll see the…
6. Place Vauquelin
Montreal – and Quebec in general – is a combination of French and British. Place Vauqeulin’s sculpture highlights this: Jean Vauquelin – French Navy commander – looks across the rue Notre Dame at his English counterpart, admiral Horatio Nelson.
Across the street is…
7. Hôtel de Ville (City Hall)
City Hall represents the French Second Empire architectural style. Completed in 1878 it narrowly survived the major fire of 1922. The insides were completely destroyed and the building remained vacant until 1926, when a newly constructed third floor was added.
And speaking of government, across the street is…
8. Château Ramezay
This was home to French governors for over forty years, before being taken over by British rulers (it’s now a museum). It represents the French Regime style and was completed in 1706. During the American Revolutionary War, American colonists occupied Montreal. Benjamin Franklin – ever popular with Frenchmen – stayed in the Chateau while attempting to persuade Montreal citizens to join him in fighting the British. Needless to say, he failed.
From here, continue down rue Notre Dame and hang a right on rue Bonsecours. Look for a red colored house with stone building attached. That’s…
Continue in the same direction (east) along rue Notre-Dame. In the far distance, you’ll see the Molson beer factory. At rue Bonsecours, turn right. Near the bottom of the street, on the left, is a house with a low maroon roof and an attached stone building on the corner. This is:
9. La Maison Pierre du Calvet (Calvet House)
Maybe Ben Franklin should have stayed here. Originally an upscale home for Pierre du Calvet – French Huguenot and American supporter – this building is now a hotel and restaurant, serving up mouth-watering lunches daily in a charming outdoor courtyard. You may want to stop here for a bite to eat before continuing.
From there head to rue St-Paul, which has been in use in 1672.
See the small church? That’s the…
10. Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours
This was originally referred to as the “Sailor’s Church” due to the large number of rescued sailors who came to offer thanks to God. The chapel itself was erected in 1675, though much of its architecture is currently 18th century. While there, head up the tower for a nice view of the waterfront and old town.
From the church, venture west on rue St-Paul towards the large building with silver dome. That’s…
11. Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market)
This building’s had many forms. It began as a Parliament building, then subsequently became City Hall, market and music hall. It’s currently used for temporary exhibitions, and houses several small shops. If possible, visit this area again at night, when the building is fully illuminated.
Continue down rue St-Paul until you hit the…
12. Place Jacques-Cartier
Sure, it’s touristy… but Place Jacque-Cartier remains Old Montreal’s most charming square. It’s a delightful combination of Old World icons: cobblestone streets, medieval buildings, street performers, musicians and small cafes make it easy to sit down, drink coffee (or beer) and just enjoy the people watching. If you’d like to take a break from walking, horse drawn carriages (called caleches) offer rides on both ends of the square.
Remember Horatio Nelson?
The Navy commander who’s statue stands across from Place Vauqeulin? You’ll see a large statue dedicated to him at the north end of the square. It’s still the original statue that’s been there since 1809.
Continue west on rue St-Paul and turn right on rue St-François-Xavier. You’ll then see a large…
Housing the Museum of Archaeology and History, with artifacts unearthed here during more than a decade of excavation, this is where the settlement of Ville-Marie was founded in 1642. The museum also incorporates, via an underground connection, the Old Customs House you just passed.
A fort stood here in 1645. Thirty years later, this same spot became the château of Louis-Hector de Callière, the governor of New France, from whom the building and triangular square take their names. At that time, the St. Pierre River separated this piece of land from the mainland. It was made a canal in the 19th century and later filled in.
Proceeding west from Pointe-à-Callière, near rue St-François-Xavier, stands an:
Erected in 1893, this obelisk honors the founding of Ville-Marie on May 18, 1642 and includes names of prominent settlers.
Head west three blocks and look for 335 rue St-Pierre. The large brick building on your right is the…
15. Centre d’Histoire de Montréal (Montréal History Center)
Originally Montreal’s main fire station, the History Center now displays numerous exhibits on Montreal’s history, including pioneer routes, seal hunting, the fur trade, railroad, architecture and current projects.
Credit: Ken Lund
Continue down rue St-Pierre towards the harbor. You’ll cross rue de la Cummune and the train tracks before hitting the…
16. Vieux-Port (Old Port)
The Old Port features numerous cafes, bars and winding walks. The waterfront park is especially nice during the summer. Look over the water and you’ll see Habitat 67; originally desiged by Moshe Safdie for the 1967 Expo, it’s been converted to high-end apartments.
From the Old Port, you can either head to Parc des Ecluses and walk along the Lachine Canal to the Atwater Market (highly recommended) or walk along rue McGill to the Square-Victoria Métro station.
When To Go
Montreal can be visited year round the the weather is warmest from May to September.
From May to September, the average high temperatures range from 65.3 to 79.2°F (18.5 to 26.2°C), low temperatures range from 45.1 to 59.7°F (7.3 to 15.4°C), and precipitations ranges from 2.8 to 4.1 inches (68.3 to 100.3mm) each month. July is the warmest month and May is the coldest month during this time period.
Getting There & Around
Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport is located a 40 to 60 minute drive from the city center. Budget $35 for a taxi ride to downtown.
- Mid-range accommodations: $100-150
- Meals: $20-25
- Bottle of beer: $4
- Visit the main information center for maps and discounts to local activities.
- Take the underground metro system as a means of transportation.
- Start your exploring in the old-world area of Vieux Montreal packed with narrow streets and quaint squares.
- Stay in a hotel. Instead opt for a B&B in some charming neighborhoods like Plateau.
- Miss a stroll down Rue St Paul for a plethora of art galleries and gift shop.
- Consider taking a boat trip out of the Vieux Port to get a scenic view of the city.
- Montreal is Canada’s second largest city after Toronto.
- Two-thirds of the city’s population is of French extraction.
- Montreal has a climate-controlled “Underground City” that covers roughly 18 miles (29km) and features over 2,000 shops.
Feature Image Credit: abdallahh