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Although the guidebooks rave over Place Jacques-Cartier, my favorite square in Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) was the Place d'Armes which was surrounded by interesting architecture, the Maisonneuve Monument and the Notre Dame Basilica.
While here, there are several buildings of note, be sure to go inside the Bank of Montreal if it's open, built before direct deposit and online banking when banks, were actually meant to be visited in person and meant to be impressive. There's a small museum inside with the early history of banking in Canada, be sure to find the check written on a seal skin.
The art deco Prevoyance Building, formerly the Aldred Building, which bears a slight resemblance to New York's Empire State Building has an interesting interior.
Next door to the Prevoyance Building is the New York Life Company Building, not much to see inside but the exterior is a beautiful red, Scottish sandstone. Built in 1887, it was Montreal's first skyscraper, couldn't find any reference as to why the sign over the door says The Quebec Bank (unless I have the wrong building?).
Vieux (Old) Montreal is probably the best place to start your visit to Montreal, it's here that the history of the city starts back in 1642 when the French pioneers led by Maisonneuve landed in Montreal and started the first settlement. The center of the city evenutally moved from this area which led to a period of decay but the area has undergone revitalization and is now one of the prime tourist draws in the city. We loosely followed a guided tour in our guidebook, you can also pick up a map of Old Montreal at the tourism bureau. Touring Vieux Montreal is an outdoor activity with the exception of a couple of stops so plan it for a day with plenty of sunshine.
Highlights of Old Montreal include:
Marche Bonsecour, Hotel de Ville (City Hall), Basilica de Notre Dame, Place d'Armes, Place Jacques-Cartier
Most of what I read regarding eating in Vieux Montreal said that the restaurants were tourist oriented and/or overpriced so if you are planning on eating in the area, you might want to come armed with a few recommendations to save yourself wasting a meal, a real pity in a city with so many terrific restaurants.
Boat Ride on the St Lawrence River
Here's a great way for new visitors to see and learn about Montreal. With 45-minute tours of the harbor and 90-minute tours of the Lachine Canal, in both French and English, this is one of the more enjoyable things to do in Montreal.
This small boat can accomodate up to 30 passengers. Run on electric power, it's both clean and quiet. Private tours are also available.
City Hall / Hôtel de Ville
You just have to be impressed by the Montréal City Hall, with its green copper roofs and soaring chimneys. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in France, and looks as if it dates from the time of Louis XIV! Despite appearances though, it dates from the 1870s, about 150 years later. A serious fire caused extensive damage in the 1920s, but it now is restored to its full glory.
While I am sure the Councillors may consider that many important events have taken place here, without doubt the building’s most significant moment of international fame came in 1967, when General De Gaulle stood on the balcony (maybe the one at the left in photo 2) and said "Vive le Québec libre!" (“Long live Free Quebec”). I gather it nearly brought the house down (apart from causing a "diplomatic incident)!
We also noticed the ornamental garden at the front of the building (photo 3): going by the design, it seemed to relate to some kind of soccer event.
Two from the 1800s
Two other significant buildings at Place d’Armes are the Notre Dame Basilica built in 1827, and the New York Life Building, Canada’s first skyscraper and built in 1888.
The Notre Dame Basilica lays claim to having the largest bell in North America and is able to seat 5000 people. Yes, it’s a very substantial building, but by this part of our trip I was “churched out”, so I left it to Pauline to pay the entrance fee and visit the spectacular interior which also features a superb pipe organ (photos 2,3) while I went to the Aldred Building.
Across the way, the New York Life building in its red bricks (photo 4) was very much “the latest thing” when it was built: with its eight storeys and even a lift, it must have really created a stir! It still warrants a photo, after all I doubt that many places had anything like it when it was built!
- Historical Travel
World Trade Centre
World Trade Centre in the Old Montreal is kind of an indoor village. You may stroll around anytime of the year and experience Montreal cafes and restaurants, the shopping mall with its specialty shops, boutiques, and art galleries.
You can also find within the premises, the 5-star Inter-Continental Hotel which is a better location if you are on a business trip. The place has easy access to Square-Victoria metro station so much so that you can conveniently move around the city. And mind you, if you are meeting friends or relatives, the World Trade Centre is a perfect location as it is the best place to start exploring the Old Montreal.
Enjoy your tour of the Centre de Commerce Mondial de Montreal.
- Business Travel
Old City Walls
Living in Montréal was not without risk in the early days: there were constant worries about attacks by the Indians or the English. Not surprisingly, the French settlers followed the European tradition of building city walls. A timber palisade had to suffice until 1715, when Louis XIV authorised construction of a stone wall 6 metres high and 3.4 km long around the city. Construction took 30 years, but demolishing the wall in the early 1800s took only 20 years! And then it was forgotten.
In 1965, when new courts were being erected, the footings of the old walls were rediscovered and an archaeological dig was made. Finally, the section seen in the main photo was preserved. I must admit to being less than totally overwhelmed by the meagre remains of what must have been an impressive construction in its time. Still, it provided a photo opportunity (second photo) for a “wandering tourist” shot!
Be sure to either keep this tip handy, or have a good guidebook to tell you about the walls, because the signage provided by the “powers that be” will be totally useless to you unless can you read French! (third photo)
This is the original part of the city of Montreal which includes the Vieux-Port, its original trade port. This section of the city is quite walkable and contains many of its most historic buildings. Some of the houses there date back over 300 years and are among the oldest in North Amercia.
Walking around Old Montreal is truly a pleasure. You really can lose yourself and spend an entire day, or a romantic evening, looking in all the art galleries and shops; there seems to be a new one around every corner. This is also home to two of Montreal's most famous churches: The Basilique de Notre Dame and the Chapelle de Notre Dame de Bon-Secours, the latter built as a shrine and place of prayer for the city's sailors and their famiies.
History buffs will enjoy the Musee d'archeologie et d'histoire. At 350 rue Royale, this museum chronicles the history of the city. Its exhibits include contents of unearthed graves and other acheological goodies, complete with a section of Montreal's original fortification wall. Part of the building is even located on what was once Place Royale, a former market and the exact founding point of the city in 1642.
Be sure also to visit Place Jacques Cartier, the large public square at the heart of the old city. The square is lined with restaurants and cafes where you can sip wine and watch the passersby, or catch the show of a street performer or two. The last night we visited we were treated to a juggling act complete with flaming torches.
Vieux-Montreal is also home to some of the city's most romantic restaurants. They are gorgeous on a summer evening with candlelit tables and open windows letting in the warm breeze. Follow up your dinner with a walk along the St. Laurent waterfront and you'll have yourself a perfect night.
- Historical Travel
- Romantic Travel and Honeymoons
Near the City Hall/Hôtel de Ville
Before you dash away after your visit to the old city walls, spare a moment to look around. To your west are the old law courts, across the way to the east is the unmistakable bulk of the City Hall, with its green copper roof. But between those, you will find you are near the statue in the main photo. It is of Jean Vauquelin, a French naval hero who became commander of the French fleet in the St Lawrence, and who made the British invasion of New France somewhat more difficult than it would otherwise have been, with his defence of Quebec and Louisbourg! Fittingly, in this statue erected in 1930, he is shown at the mast of a ship (photo 2).
Most significantly, Vauquelin’s statue (in Pl. Vauquelin), is placed to directly confront the column commemorating the British naval hero, Admiral Nelson (photo 3), across Rue Notre Dame in Pl Jacques Cartier. The erection of this as early as 1809, only four years after Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, must have galled the French population considerably!
- Historical Travel
The Old Port
The Old Port is another wonderful place to just stroll about. The piers offer boat tours and trips to the islands. The views of the city and the St Lawrence River are great.
The high point is the Clock Tower. Built after World War I, it commemorates Canada's sailors who served in that war. The view from the top is one of the best in the city. For decades, it has greeted ships entering the port.
- Hiking and Walking
The Place to Start
You will probably want to begin your visit to Montreal in or near the Old City. Montreal was founded in 1642, not too long after Quebec City. Originally named Ville-Marie, it was fortified by the French. Following the French and Indian War (the Seven Years' War in Europe), the British took control.
Wandering the narrow streets lined with quaint shops and cafes, you don't need to be going anywhere in particular. One can browse in the stores inside Bonsecours Market, have a cup of coffee at the Place Jacques-Cartier, take a carriage ride along the Rue de la Commune, or go window-shopping along the Rue Notre Dame.
- Hiking and Walking
- Historical Travel
Place Jacques Cartier
Situated up a slow incline at the base of Old Town, the Place Jacques Cartier is Old Town's focal point and central square. In the summer time, when crowds cram the square for its boutiques, restaurants, and fountain, it's the place to be seen and heard, and people watching is the norm.
Sitting also in Place Jacques Cartier is Montreal's Hotel de Ville (City Hall), a grand-looking stone structure built like a traditional Parisian stately building during the time of Napoloen III. It was from here in 1967 that French President Charles de Gaulle (always the agitator) declared to a cheering crowd of thousands "Vive le Quebec libre!"--"Live free Quebec!" It made French Canadians blush and made many become separatists. English Canadians and Federalist Quebecois panicked. It appeared the French themselves were endorsing Quebec to separate from Canada. So began decades of the Quebec Question, all from this spot, and still lingers today in many Canadians minds.
- Historical Travel
In English, the Bonsecours Market is one Old Town's largest and most prominent buildings. Built in the 1840s, this building served as Montreal's main market. Yet when space was needed, this building has temporarily served as Montreal's City Hall and even the Parliament of Lower Canada. Today however, the Bonsecours Market is now home to trendy boutique stores and art galleries for Quebecois, First Nations, and other Canadian artists.
- Arts and Culture
- Historical Travel
In my pages, I’ve made no secret that modern city centres with endless glass skyscrapers fail to excite me. So, for one of my tips to be tagged as ‘interesting skyscraper’, the subject has to be well and truly different. I’m glad to say the Aldred Building, built in 1931, fits that description. It is pure classical Art Deco, a style that I always enjoy, and best of all it has not been ‘modernised’ inside (at least in the public area).
While the crowds at Pl d’Armes all head for the Basilique Notre Dame, slip away for a few minutes as I did, and look around the building’s foyer: apart from a few office workers, you’ll have it to yourself. The entry comes from two sides, rue St Sulpice and rue Notre Dame Ouest, and what you see first will depend which way you enter: from one direction you will be facing the superb glass doors in photo 2, from the other you are approaching the lifts in photo 3. From either direction, if Art Deco appeals, you’re sure to be delighted by the details, such as the lift door in photo 4 and the brass letterbox in photo 5.
This remarkably uninspiring plaza in front of the old Customs House now occupies the spot where the first settlement in what is now Montréal, named Ville Marie, was built in 1642. In those days, the French were battling the Iroquois, so the little town was fortified with a stockade. As Montréal developed, this area became its market place.
Out in the middle of the plaza area you will find an unidentified ‘sculpture’ (or is it fountain?) made from copper plumbing, as seen in photo 2 - it’s the industrial object on the right. As you may gather, I really feel this particularly historic area deserves to be marked (at least externally) by something a little more inspired than the present offerings.
Across the way, behind the camera in the heading photo, is the modernistic “Point à Callière Museum of Archaeology and History” museum which apparently is very good and which extends as an archaeological crypt under the plaza area to encompass Montréal’s old Customs House (dating from the 1830s) at the far side of the plaza, and also shown in photo 3. So yes, for those with time to explore the museum, there is more of interest.
- Historical Travel
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