This is classic Montreal tourist fodder, but also an area so rich in history, beauty and LIFE, I can recommend it without any irony or hesitation (ok, maybe just a warning or two). Old Montréal refers to the part of the city that was walled for about 100 years (17teens – 18teens) plus the Old Port. Montrealers use the two terms interchangeably but now you know the right nomenclature…
You can’t really do a chronological walk through Old Montreal. The place where the first European settlers landed is in an area that was largely redeveloped in the late 19th early 20th century. The sector with the largest collection of older buildings, 17th, 18th early 19th century, is also near the most recent administrative buildings; New court house 1964, Old court house(s) 1859, 1920, and the City Hall 1878, all of which still serve the municipality and the provincial justice system.
Happily, someone smarter than I has decided that the starting point of most Old Montreal Tours is Place d’Armes. A beautifully redesigned public square, west of centre, that has been at the heart of much of the city’s development since it’s beginnings in the 1690’s. Surrounded by some of the best late 19th , early 20th century commercial architecture, it is also the home of the city’s foremost tourist destination, the Notre Dame Basilica. The history of it’s founders, the Sulpician Order is laid out here. Their first church, seminary and their almost absolute control of the religious life of the people and the development of the island of Montreal well into the 19th century is one of the most intriguing stories of the city.
There is also Saint-Jacques Street, the ‘Wall Street’ of the North. A series of beautiful Beaux-arts bank and insurance buildings, which includes the former head office of the Royal Bank of Canada. This is just across the street from the Centre du commerce mondial (World Trade Centre), a beautiful collection of 11 historical buildings, joined by a soaring atrium.
This western end of Old Montreal was the location of the first European settlements, Ville-Marie, which are expressed in an amazing archaeological museum, Pointe-à-Calière. Look for the remains of the cities first hospice, as well as the location of the little known parliament of Canada from the 1840’s.
This whole area is filled by beautiful and austere warehouse buildings from the late 19th century, replacing former hospitals and schools which left to escape the burgeoning industrial city .
As we move east, we cross St-Laurent Boulevard which divides the city in two. It is in the eastern part of city, which had traditionally been French speaking that we are treated to some of its older buildings, Maisons magasins (house-stores) from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many of these still retain the original French building technique of round stone or moellons de calcaire, a construction method that was slowly replaced by the English cut-stone after the 1763 conquest, or the 7 year war (French Indian war for our US readers) There is also the very impressive administrative sector with its Hôtel-de-ville (City Hall) and many court houses.
We cannot ignore the lively, restaurant lined Place Jacques-Cartier. This is the tourist/entertainment centre of Old Montreal. Although too often swarming with people and cameras and selfie-sticks, this is where new arrivals have landed in the city since the 19th century. There is a certain logic to it’s ongoing popularity and it’s hommage to the greatest seaman of them all (pirate) Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson at its northern end.
Further east, you will find, the Chateau de Ramzey, and it’s beautiful French style garden.
The Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel and the Bonsecours Market, the central market of the City until 1963 are just a block away. The Chapel itself was a pilgrimage site for the original French Settlers. Originally built by Marguerite Bourgeoys, she was one of the city’s founders who’s mission upon her arrival in Ville Marie in 1658, was education. It is also known as the sailors chapel, with it’s suspended model ships, gifts from the many seamen and women who prayed and gave thanks for a safe voyage.
From here, close to the eastern limit of the Old City, make your way way down to the end of de la Commune Street, and contemplate the eastern end of the City, the Jacques-Cartier bridge the Peace Tower and Saint-Helene’s Island with it’s iconic geodesic dome from Expo 67.
This is also a good opportunity to start a stroll along the entire Old Port. We can follow the river, through what was the motor of Montreal’s economy in the 19th and early 20th century. With beautiful views back to the city, off to the islands, some of the remaining infrastructure scattered along the quays is classified as industrial heritage. There are also new pavilions, marina’s and the park, which replaced the rail lines when the port moved east in the 70’s and 80’s.
Dedicate half a day to wandering the streets of Old Montreal, more if you want to visit one of the history museums. Know that all of the city’s interesting neighbourhoods, Plateau Mont-Royal, Jean-Talon Market, Mile-End, Mont-Royal Park, (watch for reports on all these neighbourhoods) are easily accessible from one of the three local Metro stops or buses, which makes Old Montreal a great trampoline for your visit of the larger city.
For any questions, or to book your personal tour of my amazing city, get in touch, or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org