Old Montreal is a safe and lively neighbourhood tucked away between the St. Lawrence River and the centre of town. It dates back more than 350 years and is the city’s birthplace. The area has a long and interesting history and it helped shape the Montreal of today.
Since the best way to know a place is on foot, here is a walking tour that will take you along quaint streets and show the highlights of Old Montreal.
What better than a hearty breakfast to start the day? Head to Olive + Gourmando (351 Rue Saint-Paul Ouest) It opens at 8 and by 11 it’s already jam-packed. It’s closed on Sundays and Mondays, so plan accordingly. Their delicious cafe au lait and moist chocolate and banana brioche will fortify you for this walk and leave you begging for more.
If you must inevitably take this tour on a Monday, start at the museum and then have your cafe au lait at Creme de la Creme (21 rue de la Commune, it has another entrance on the corner of Rue St-Paul and Rue Saint-Jean-Baptiste), a more traditional local cafe.
As you leave the cafe, walk down Rue St-Paul to your left as far as Place Royal. Turn right and head towards Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History. The museum was built on the very site where Mass was held on May 17, 1642 to celebrate the funding of Montreal. Its underground archaeological exhibition covers six centuries of history: from the time the First Nations lived there to the present.
You can also see the first man-made structure associated with the founding of Montreal: the city’s first Catholic cemetery discovered as recently as 1989. In the archaeological crypt you’ll find an interactive installation that showcases scenes of daily life in 1750. There are free guided tours every Saturday, both in French and in English.
Walk back to Rue Saint-Paul. Amble past overpriced souvenir shops, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. Soak up the European atmosphere. As you approach Rue Dizier, look out for Les Chuchoteuses, a bronze sculpture of three chubby town gossips by Quebecois artist Rose-Aimee Belanger placed right on the corner.
A few blocks further up Rue Saint-Paul you’ll see the Bonsecours Market on your right. It was built in 1847 and went through many reincarnations until the present one as headquarters of the Conseil des metiers d’art du Quebec (Quebec Crafts Council). The market houses art shops, boutiques and cafes, as well as free exhibitions of arts and crafts. Its building is considered one of Canada’s ten finest heritage buildings.
Across Rue Bonsecours is the church of Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours. It was built in 1771 over the ruins of an earlier stone chapel. It is also known as the Sailors’ Church. Sailors have left carved wood replicas of sailing ships as tokens of thanks. Take time to visit the Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum next door (closed on Mondays, opening times vary throughout the year, adult admission fee $12) dedicated to the founder of the Congregation of Notre Dame of Montreal and pioneer of Montreal.
Through the crypt you enter an archaeological site where you can see remains of the foundations of the first stone chapel, traces of the First Nations people’s everyday life 2400 years ago, as well as artifacts that trace the history of this site. Climb to the top of the tower, the highest point on Montreal, for fantastic views of Old Montreal, the river, the Old Port and beyond. Have a peek of all the activities you can do at the Old Port, like the Observation Wheel of the seasonal Winter Park.
Now walk up Rue Bonsecours as far as Rue Notre-Dame and turn left. One block over, on your left, is the Chateau Ramezay Museum (280 Rue Notre-Dame Est). A former governor’s residence built in 1706 in the French Regime style; its displays show economic and social life in the 18th and 19th century Quebec.
As you leave the museum, walk along Rue Notre-Dame to your left. You’ll see the Hotel Ville (City Hall, 1872-1878) on your right and next to it, the Vieux Palais de Justice (Old Courthouse, 1856. The palace is part of the cultural heritage of Quebec). Almost across from the City Hall is the Place Jacques-Cartier, a pedestrian street that slopes towards the waterfront. It is lined with cafes and restaurants, park benches, artists selling sketches and paintings, and lots of flowers in the warmer months.
Return to Rue Notre-Dame. A few blocks further south west is the Notre-Dame Basilica. It was built in 1824-1829 and its interior design was inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. The nave is kept relatively dark so that the brightly lit altar stands out in all its grandeur. There is a $5 admission fee. It was built by an Irish Protestant architect who converted to Catholicism before the church was finished, undoubtedly moved by this powerful work of art.
Across the street from the basilica is the Place d’Armes. At its centre is a monument to the founder or Montreal, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve (1612-1676). Old Montreal is a real gem well worth a visit.