By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I intended to fly to Montreal from Washington, D.C. for a five-day trip. On the morning of the flight, Air Canada canceled our flight. Rather than postpone our trip, we changed our plans and drove 600 miles on a very long day to salvage our vacation!
We spent our first full day in Old Montreal/Old Port. To get a good overview of the Historic District, we scheduled an afternoon two-hour walking tour.
Old Montreal/Old Port:
We took the Montreal Metro to Champ de Mars. Prior to the walking tour, we visited several of the historic sites on our own. This historic center still contains cobbled stones from the seventeenth century. The Old Port is on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal: The Basilica is located within Old Montreal at 110 Notre-Dame Street West. The Basilica was Canada’s first Gothic Revival church and was inspired by church buildings in Europe and the United States. Construction began in 1824 and the work was completed in 1829. This Catholic church was declared a minor basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1982 and then a national historic site of Canada in 1989 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Admission ($15) includes a self-guided tour and advanced on-line tickets were required. We spent about one hour admiring the church inside and outside.
The exterior façade (which looks somewhat like Notre-Dame in Paris) includes three great statutes (Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist). Inside under the impressive, vaulted ceiling with its deep-blue color dotted with golden stars, there are wonderful paintings, rose windows and intricate gold ornamentation. The interior stained-glass windows depict the history of Montreal’s foundation. These colorful windows were made in France. The huge pipe organ, originally crafted in 1891, contains 7000 pipes. The sanctuary, altarpiece and pulpit include scenes and sculptures from both the Old Testament and New Testament, including the Last Supper. Home | Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal (basiliquenotredame.ca).
Historic Site – Marguerite Bourgeoys: The Marguerite Bourgeoys site contains an archaeological area, an eighteenth-century stone vault and the highest view of Old Montreal! Located at 400 St. Paul Street East, the space pays tribute to the life of Marguerite, a New World pioneer (born in 1620 in France), as she welcomed immigrants, forged respected bonds with Native peoples and founded a Catholic school, religious order, and chapel. | Museum Historic site Marguerite-Bourgeoys (margueritebourgeoys.org)
The present chapel (Chappelle Notre Dame de Bon Secours) was built in 1771. The suggested donation is $14, and we spent one hour touring the 300-year-old chapel and ascending to the two levels of the tower. This historic site dates to the very origins of Montreal. In 2001, the organ made in 1910 was restored. An amazing chandelier hangs down from the ceiling. Beautiful stained-glass windows line both the sanctuary and on the higher floor. Once up the tower, we had wonderful views of the Saint Lawrence River, the Old Port, the clock tower, and Old Montreal.
Walking Tour of Old Montreal: Our guide Laura, a native of Quebec, was very knowledgeable and did not hesitate to answer our questions during our two-hour tour. We started by the City Hall, near what is left of the city’s original fortifications. Payment is by tip, and we pay $20 per person for the “free tour.” Advanced on-line registration is mandatory. During the tour, we learned many stories about the history, culture and architecture of Montreal and the province of Quebec. Discussions ranged from questions about Federal and provincial taxes to health care to abortion in Canada! The tour ended right by the Place d’Armes metro station. Freemontrealtours.com.
During the tour, we briefly walked through Chateau Ramezay’s unique garden, a peaceful oasis in the heart of Old Montreal. Its layout offers a return to the 18th century and an opportunity to recall the beauty and usefulness of plants”, says the designer of the Governor’s Garden, Robert Desjardins. https://www.chateauramezay.qc.ca/en/exhibitions/garden. Most of the plants used today are hybrids of the species cultivated in New France (that is now Quebec).
We spent a few minutes inside the imposing Bonescours Market. Inaugurated in 1847 and renovated in 1964, the domed market now houses 15 high-quality “made in Québec” creation shops: arts and crafts, fashion, accessories and jewelry, design objects, and Québec furniture of yesteryear. Several restaurants are attached to the Palladian-style building, as well. https://www.marchebonsecours.qc.ca/fr/index.html. This neoclassical building was completed in 1847. It is recognized is one of the most beautiful buildings in Canada. It has housed the city’s largest public market, a large concert hall, the Parliament of Canada, and the headquarters of the municipal government. Located at 50 rue Saint-Paul, the building was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1984.
In Old Montreal/Old Port, we walked through many quaint narrow streets, filled with restaurants and stores. The pedestrian street Place Jacques-Cartier is especially lively. In Old Port, there is a recreational area with a huge Ferris Wheel, a Zipline and the iconic we love Montreal letters (J MTL) with a maple leaf, the site of picture taking by tourists. Old Port opened in 1830 and served as a port until the 1970s.
We walked by quite a few statutes. Outside the National Bank building, a pair of 7-foot-high bronze sculptures at Place d’Armes are a reminder of both the English and French heritage of Quebec. Erected in 2013, these two “tongue in cheek” statues are of a well-dressed French lady with her poodle and a dashing English gent with a pug. The English Pug and the French Poodle | Art Public Montréal (artpublicmontreal.ca)
Outside Old Port/Old Montreal:
We spent three days visiting attractions in other areas of the city.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musee Des Beaux-Arts Montreal): This major art and fine arts museum extends over a five-building complex and features an outdoor sculpture garden with 22 sculptures. The buildings include the two floor Stewart pavilion featuring decorative arts and design (including glass in all its forms), the four level Pavilion for Peace focusing on European art, the three floor Hornstein pavilion with a superb Impressionist art gallery, the six level Desmarais pavilion with international contemporary art and the bistro and the Bourgie pavilion containing six floors of Canadian art ranging from Intuit art to scenes of Montreal. We particularly struck by the Kehinde Wiley oil painting entitled “Simeon the God Receiver” near the ticket office. Wiley was the first African American artist commissioned to paint the portrait of the U.S. President (Barack Obama). An amazing red Chihuly glass sculpture hangs inside the Steward pavilion. Our favorite galleries contained amazing Impressionist art.
The museum is worthy of a visit of at least half of a day. Located at 1380 Sherbrooke Street West, the museum is a short walk from the Guy-Concordia metro stop. Timed tickets cost $24 and advanced online orders are recommended. The oldest art museum in Canada, founded in 1860, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the great art museums in North America. Its collection allowed us to discover Quebec and Canadian heritage and international art, from a critical and intercultural perspective. The museum brings together nearly 45,000 paintings, sculptures, graphic works of art, photographs, multimedia installations and decorative arts objects, from antiquity to the present day. Montreal Museum of Fine Arts | MMFA (mbam.qc.ca).
Montreal Botanical Gardens (Jardin Botanique): We spent most of one day at the now world-renowned gardens. Founded in 1931, by Brother Marie-Victorin, the Botanical Gardens contain 20 thematic gardens, with a collection of about 10,000 plant species, 10 exhibition greenhouses and 3 cultural gardens. We spent most of our time wandering through the Chinese Garden, the First Nations Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Rose Garden, and the Aquatic Garden. We brough food with us and ate lunch at the small outdoor café near the entrance.
One of the world’s most established botanical gardens, Montreal’s gardens are within walking distance of the Pie IX metro stop on the green line. The address is 4101 Sherbrooke Street East. On the way to the Gardens we walked on Pie IX Boulevard by remaining buildings from the 1976 summer Olympics (which are not currently open to tour). The Gardens cost $22 and advanced online reservations are recommended. Space for Life (espacepourlavie.ca).
Parks: Parc La Fountaine is located at 3500 Avenue LaVallee in the Mount Royal-Plateau neighborhoods. It is not far from the Mont-Royl metro stop. The pretty, little park is mostly flat. We enjoyed walking on the trail around the two linked ponds. La Fontaine Park | City of Montreal
At the other end of the Mount Royal-Plateau neighborhood, the large Mount Royal Park extends up and up to allow views of Montreal. The park is an exceptional green space in the heart of the city. Inaugurated in 1876, this park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, the highly skilled designer of New York’s Central Park. https://www.mtl.org/en/what-to-do/activities/mount-royal-park. Both parks are free to the public.
Jewish Montreal: We took a two-hour walking tour of Jewish sites in Montreal. The cost was $28 per person (and we gave a tip to our tour guide). A series of walking tours are sponsored by the Museum of Jewish Montreal. Different tours focus on slightly different time periods and neighborhoods. The Museum itself is currently closed for renovations.
Our tour took us through the historic Jewish neighborhoods, now located in Mont-Royal and Plateau. The tour initially took us along St. Laurent Boulevard which was the heart of the Jewish community. Our tour guide Hanna, a museum researcher, explained that during various waves of Jewish immigration, this area was the site of Jewish schools (such as the Baron Byng High School), synagogues, and cultural organizations (including the former Jewish Y). The epicentre of Jewish life in Montreal from the turn of the 20th century until the 1950s, today’s Plateau neighborhood once teemed with tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Today most of Montreal’s Jews have moved to other neighborhoods. Canadian heritage laws did not prevent many of these Jewish sites from being converted to churches or for secular use.
The tour ended by the site of two remaining Jewish culinary establishments in this area – Fairmont Bagels (established in 1919) and Moe Wilensky’s. Wilensky’s was not open on Sunday afternoon, but we did try a vegan Montreal style bagel! The Montreal wood fired, handmade bagel is smaller, thinner, denser, and sweeter than New York bagels, with a larger hole. firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saint Joseph’s Oratory: The Oratory is a Roman Catholic minor basilica and national shrine. Located at 3800 Queen Mary Road in the Cote-des-Neiges neighborhood, we took the metro to the Cotes-des-Neiges stop and walked uphill for about 15 minutes to visit the Oratory. There were free shuttle buses available, but we ascended the very steep hill to the summit. Saint Joseph’s in a national historic site of Canada and Canada’s largest church with one of the biggest church domes in the world. This Catholic sanctuary is visited by millions yearly.
Founded in 1904 in Saint Joesph’s honor, the Oratory is recognizable around the world with its Art Deco interior and Italian Renaissance Revival façade. Donations are accepted. There is no entrance fee. https://www.saint-joseph.org/en. Construction outside the Oratory makes walking up to the entrance even more challenging. The inside features a huge organ, lovely stained-glass windows, artwork featuring Saint Joseph and beautiful tributes to the New Testament.
Getting around on the Montreal Metro: With four major lines (Orange, Blue, Green, and Yellow), the Metro was easy to use. The system is underground, and several stations feature decorative murals. Although announcements and signage were only in French, we had no difficulty understating station announcements or switching from one line to another. Paper tickets can be purchased at machines or from attendants at stations, using cash or credit cards. The two-trip ticket ($6.50) saves a little money when we went back and forth from one stop to another. When traveling from many stations per day, the 24-hour pass ($11) is the better value.
STM | Société de transport de Montréal
Where to stay: Staying the in Mount-Royal Plateau neighborhoods gave us a feel of being more of a resident than a tourist. Our Airbnb was a short walk from the Mont – Royal station on the orange line. During the summer, Mont-Royal Avenue is turned into a pedestrian only street. The avenue is lined with restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and small parks. Several times we people-watched from Café Starbucks. This area was lively during day and night.
Driving: Drive on the right side of the road. Speed is in kilometers not miles per hour. Signage is almost exclusively in French (except on Federal property). The stop signs read Arret, not Stop. To park on the streets in neighborhoods, we had to purchase a pass for each day (at $12 per day) from the local market; the pass identified the sector where parking was allowed for our car. There are certain portions of streets where sector passes are not required.
Money exchange: Most establishments accept credit cards. Where cash is required, we kept in mind that the Canadian dollar is currently valued at 80 percent of the U.S. dollar. Prices in this article are in Canadian dollars.
Food options: There were many markets in the Mont-Royal Plateau neighborhoods where we could purchase food for meals at the Airbnb. Near the Jean Talon metro stop at 7070 Henri Julien Avenue, the Jean Talon market (Marche Jean-Talon) is one of the oldest public markets in Montreal. Inaugurated in May 1933, the name was changed in 1983 to honor the first intendant of New France (now Quebec). The market contains a diverse range of about 300 small shopkeepers and restaurants. Open year round, Jean Talon is one of the largest open-air markets in North America. After exploring, we ate lunch at a small vegan friendly restaurant which had indoor and outdoor seating. Jean-Talon Market | Montreal’s Public Markets (marchespublics-mtl.com).
Safety: There definitely is a homeless population wandering around even the nicer neighborhoods, like Mount Royal and Plateau. We were also surprised at the amount of garbage on the streets in these areas, in parks and in front of houses. Even the small Parc Denise-Morelle at 4923 Rue Rivard, near our Airbnb, contained garbage and appeared to be frequented by the homeless. Parc Denise-Morelle | Ville de Montréal (montreal.ca).
Border crossing: U.S. passports are required for U.S. citizens. We saved time by entering health and travel information into the ArriveCAN application on-line. Currently, there is no COVID testing requirement to travel from the U.S. to Canada. COVID-19: Use ArriveCAN to enter Canada – Canada.ca.
There were plenty of activities to keep us busy for five days in Montreal. We felt that this city gave us a “touch of Europe” with its French flair. Although French speaking predominates, everyone we encountered during our trip was fluent in English. At the conclusion of the five days, we were very glad we did not cancel our trip despite the airline issue.