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Vieux-Montréal

Getting there: If you’re coming from outside Vieux-Montréal, take the Métro to the Place d’Armes station, which lets off next to the Palais des Congrès, the convention center. Follow the signs up the short hill 2 blocks toward Vieux-Montréal (Old Montréal). You’ll find yourself in a central outdoor plaza.

StartPlace d’ Armes, opposite the Notre-Dame Basilica

FinishVieux-Port

Time: 2 hours

Best Times: Almost any day the weather is decent. Vieux-Montréal is lively and safe, day or night. Note that most museums are closed on Monday. On warm weekends and holidays, Montréalers and visitors turn out in full force, enjoying the plazas, the 18th- and 19th-century architecture, and the ambience of the most picturesque part of their city.

Worst Times: Evenings, days that are too cold, and times when museums and historic buildings are closed. Sunny days in winter are known to be particularly cold (as opposed to those when it is snowing and temperatures are notably warmer), but you can take advantage of the bright light. Do as the locals do and wear a warm coat, hat, mitts, and good boots.

Vieux-Montréal is where the city was born. Its architectural heritage has been substantially preserved, and restored 18th- and 19th-century structures now house shops, boutique hotels, galleries, cafes, bars, and apartments. This tour gives you a lay of the land, passing many of the neighborhood’s highlights and some of its best and most atmospheric dining spots.

Start at:

1  Place d’Armes

The architecture of the buildings that surround this plaza is representative of Montréal’s growth: the Sulpician residence of the 17th century; the Banque de Montréal and Basilique Notre-Dame of the 19th century; and the Art Deco Edifice Aldred of the 20th century.

The centerpiece of the square is a monument to city founder Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve (1612–1676). The five statues mark the spot where settlers defeated Iroquois warriors in bloody hand-to-hand fighting, with de Maisonneuve himself locked in combat with the Iroquois chief. De Maisonneuve won and lived here another 23 years. The inscription on the monument reads (in French): you are the buckwheat seed which will grow and multiply and spread throughout the country.

The sculptures at the base of the monument represent other prominent citizens of early Montréal: Charles Lemoyne (1626–1685), a farmer; Jeanne Mance (1606–1673), a woman who founded the city’s first hospital; Raphael-Lambert Closse (1618–1662), a soldier and the mayor of Ville-Marie; and an unnamed Iroquois brave. Closse is depicted with his dog, Pilote, whose bark once warned the early settlers of an impending Iroquois attack.

On the north side of the plaza, at 119 St-Jacques, is the domed, colonnaded:

2  Banque de Montréal

Montréal’s oldest bank building dates from 1847. From 1901 to 1905, American architect Stanford White (1853–1906) extended the original building, and in this enlarged space, he created a vast chamber with green-marble columns topped with golden capitals. The public is welcome to stop in for a look. Besides being lavishly appointed inside and out, the bank also houses a small and quirky banking museum, which illustrates early operations. It’s just off the main lobby to the left and admission is free.

Facing the Notre-Dame Basilica from the square, look over to the left. At the corner of St-Jacques is the:

3  Edifice New York Life

This red-stone Richardson Romanesque building, with a striking wrought-iron door and clock tower, is at 511 Place d’Armes. It’s also known as the Québec Bank Building. At all of eight stories, this became Montréal’s first skyscraper in 1888, and it was equipped with a technological marvel—an elevator.

Next to it, on the right, stands the 23-story Art Deco:

4  Edifice Aldred

If this building looks somehow familiar, there’s a reason: Built in 1931, it clearly resembles New York’s Empire State Building, also completed that year. The building’s original tenant was Aldred and Co. Ltd., a New York–based finance company with other offices in New York, London, and Paris.

Vieux Séminaire de St-Sulpice

The city’s oldest building is surrounded by equally ancient stone walls. It feels almost like you’ve traveled back in time. This seminary was erected by Sulpician priests who arrived in Ville-Marie in 1657, 15 years after the colony was founded (the Sulpicians are part of an order founded in Paris in 1641). The clock on the facade dates from 1701, and its gears are made almost entirely of wood. The seminary is not open to the public.

After a look through the seminary’s iron gate, head to the magnificent Gothic Revival–style church itself:

6  Basilique Notre-Dame

This brilliantly crafted church was designed in 1824 by James O’Donnell, an Irish Protestant living in New York. Transformed by his experience, he converted to Roman Catholicism and is the only person interred here. The main altar is made from a hand-carved linden tree. Behind it is the Chapel of the Sacred Heart (1982), a perennially popular choice for weddings (Québec-born singer Céline Dion married René Angélil here in 1994). The chapel’s altar, 32 bronze panels by Montréal artist Charles Daudelin, represents birth, life, and death. Some 4,000 people can attend mass at a time, and the bell, one of North America’s largest, weighs 12 tons. There’s a small museum beside the chapel. Come back at night for a romantic take on the city, when more than a score of buildings in the area, including this one, are illuminated. During the Christmas season, three white angels are suspended at the entrance with ethereal blue lighting.

Exiting the basilica, turn right (east) on rue Notre-Dame. Cross rue St-Sulpice. On the north side of rue Notre-Dame is Claude Postel, a great place for sandwiches and pastries. Walk 4 blocks, passing chintzy souvenir shops, until you reach, on the left side, the grand:

7  Vieux Palais de Justice (Old Courthouse)

Most of this structure was built in 1856. The third floor and dome were added in 1891, and the difference between the original structure and the addition can be easily discerned with a close look. A second city courthouse, designed by Ernest-Cormier, was built in 1925 and is across the street, with a long colonnade. Since 1971, all legal business has been conducted in a third courthouse, the glass-encased building 1 block back, at 1 rue Notre-Dame est. The statue beside the Old Courthouse, called Homage to Marguerite Bourgeoys, depicts a teacher and nun and is the work of sculptor Jules LaSalle.

Also on your left, just past the courthouse, is:

8  Place Vauquelin

This small public square, with a splashing fountain and view of the Champ-de-Mars park, was created in 1858. The statue is of Jean Vauquelin (1728–1772), commander of the French fleet in New France. Vauquelin stares across rue Notre-Dame at his counterpart, the English admiral Horatio Nelson (1758–1805). The two statues are symbols of Montréal’s French and British duality.

On the opposite corner is a small but helpful:

9  Tourist Information Office

A bilingual staff stands ready to answer questions and hand out useful brochures and maps. It's open daily from April through October and closed in winter. The famed Silver Dollar Saloon once stood on this site. It got its name from the 350 silver dollars that were embedded in its floor.

Around the corner, on the right, is the Place Jacques-Cartier, a magnet for citizens and visitors year-round, which we will visit later in the stroll. Rising on the other side of rue Notre-Dame, opposite the top of the square, is the impressive, green-capped:

10  Hôtel de Ville (City Hall)

Built between 1872 and 1878 in the florid French Second Empire style, the edifice is seen to particular advantage when it is illuminated at night. In 1922, it barely survived a disastrous fire. Only the exterior walls remained, and after substantial rebuilding and the addition of another floor, it reopened in 1926. Take a minute to look inside at the generous use of French marble, the Art Deco lamps, and the bronze-and-glass chandelier. The sculptures at the entry are “Woman with a Pail” and “The Sower,” both by Québec sculptor Alfred Laliberté.

Exiting City Hall, across rue Notre-Dame, you’ll see a small, terraced park with orderly ranks of trees. The statue inside the park honors Montréal’s controversial longtime mayor, Jean Drapeau (1916–1999). Next to it is:

11  Château Ramezay

Beginning in 1705, this was the home of the city’s French governors for 4 decades, starting with Claude de Ramezay, before being taken over and used for the same purpose by the British. In 1775, an army of American rebels invaded and held Montréal, using the house as their headquarters. Benjamin Franklin was sent to try to persuade Montréalers to join the American revolt against British rule, and he stayed in this château. He failed to sway Québec’s leaders to join the radical cause. Today, the house shows off furnishings, oil paintings, costumes, and other objects related to the economic and social activities of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century.

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:

12  La Maison Pierre du Calvet (Calvet House)

Built in the 18th century and sumptuously restored between 1964 and 1966, this house was inhabited by a fairly well-to-do family in its first years. Pierre du Calvet, believed to be the original owner, was a French Huguenot who supported the American Revolution. Calvet met with Benjamin Franklin here in 1775 and was imprisoned from 1780 to 1783 for supplying money to the Americans. With a characteristic sloped roof meant to discourage snow buildup and raised end walls that serve as firebreaks, the building is constructed of Montréal gray stone. It is now a restaurant and hostellerie with an entrance at no. 405.

13   Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet

There is a voluptuously appointed dining room inside the Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet, 405 rue Bonsecours, called Les Filles du Roy ( tel 866/544-1725 or 514/282-1725), and it’s a real splurge (we’re talking C$28–C$42 mains). In the warm months, lunches, dinners, and Sunday brunches (a relative steal at C$25) are served in an outdoor courtyard. Take a peek to see the greenhouse and parrots that lead to the stone-walled terrace.

The next street, rue St-Paul, is Montréal’s oldest thoroughfare, dating from 1672. The church at this intersection is the small:

14  Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours

Called the Sailors’ Church because so many seamen made pilgrimages here to give thanks for being saved at sea, this chapel was founded by Marguerite Bourgeoys, a nun and teacher who was canonized in 1982. Excavations have unearthed foundations of her original 1675 church—although the building has been much altered, and the present facade was built in the late 18th century. A museum tells the story of Bourgeoys’s life and incorporates the archaeological site. Climb up to the tower for a view of the port and Old Town.

Head west on rue St-Paul. Just beyond the Sailors’ Church is an imposing building with a colonnaded facade and silvery dome, the limestone:

15  Marché Bonsecours (Bonsecours Market)

Completed in 1847, this building was used first as the Parliament of United Canada and then as the City Hall, the central market, a music hall, and then the home of the municipality’s housing and planning offices. It was restored in 1992 for the city’s 350th birthday celebration to house temporary exhibitions and musical performances. It continues to be used for exhibitions, but it’s more of a retail center now, with an eclectic selection of local art shops, clothing boutiques, and sidewalk cafes. When Bonsecours Market was first built, the dome could be seen from everywhere in the city and served as a landmark for seafarers sailing into the harbor. Today, it is lit at night.

Continue down rue St-Paul. At no. 281 is the former:

16  Hôtel Rasco

An Italian, Francisco Rasco, came to Canada to manage a hotel for the Molson family (of beer-brewing fame) and later became successful with his own hotel on this spot. The 150-room Rasco was the Ritz-Carlton of its day, hosting Charles Dickens and his wife in 1842, when the author was directing his plays at a theater that used to stand across the street. The hotel lives on in legend, if not in fact, as it’s devoid of much of its original architectural detail and no longer hosts overnight guests. Between 1960 and 1981, the space stood empty, but the city took it over and restored it in 1982. It has contained a succession of eateries on the ground floor. The current occupant is L'Autre Version restaurant, whose inner courtyard/al fresco dining space is a hidden gem (www.restoversion.com).

Continue heading west on rue St-Paul, turning right when you reach:

17  Place Jacques-Cartier

Opened as a marketplace in 1804, this is the most appealing of Vieux-Montréal’s squares, even with its obviously touristy aspects. The square’s cobbled cross streets, gentle downhill slope, and ancient buildings set the mood, while outdoor cafes, street entertainers, itinerant artists, and assorted vendors invite lingering in warm weather. The Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream shop doesn’t hurt either. Calèches (horse-drawn carriages) depart from both the lower and the upper ends of the square for tours of Vieux-Montréal.

Walk slowly uphill, taking in the old buildings that bracket the plaza (plaques describe some of them in French and English). All these houses were well suited to the rigors of life in the raw young settlement. Their steeply pitched roofs shed the heavy winter snows, rather than collapsing under the burden, and small windows with double casements let in light while keeping out wintry breezes. When shuttered, the windows were almost as effective as the heavy stonewalls in deflecting hostile arrows or the antics of trappers fresh from nearby taverns. At the plaza’s northern end stands a monument to Horatio Nelson, hero of Trafalgar, erected in 1809. This monument preceded London’s much larger version by several years. After years of vandalism, presumably by Québec separatists, the statue had to be temporarily removed for restoration. The original Nelson is now back in place at the crown of the column.

18   Le Jardin Nelson

Most of the old buildings in and around the inclined plaza house restaurants and cafes. For a drink or snack during the warm months, try to find a seat in Le Jardin Nelson (no. 407), near the bottom of the hill. It’s extremely popular with tourists, and for good reason. The tiered-level courtyard in back often has live jazz, while tables on the terrace overlook the square’s activity.

Return to rue St-Paul and continue west. Take time to window-shop the many art galleries that have sprung up alongside the loud souvenir shops on the street. If time permits, enjoy a drink at one of the bars along the way. The street numbers will get lower as you approach boulevard St-Laurent, the north-south thoroughfare that divides Montréal into its east and west halves. Numbers will start to rise again as you move onto St-Paul ouest (west). At 150 rue St-Paul ouest is the neoclassical:

19  Vieille Douane (Old Customs House)

Erected from 1836 to 1838, this building was doubled in size when an extension to the south side was added in 1882; walk around to the building’s other side to see how the addition is different. That end of the building faces Place Royale, the first public square in the 17th-century settlement of Ville-Marie. It’s where Europeans and Amerindians used to come to trade.

Continue on rue St-Paul to rue St-François-Xavier. Turn right for a short detour; up rue St-François-Xavier, on the right, is the stately:

20  Centaur Theatre

The home of Montréal’s principal English-language theater is a former stock-exchange building. The Beaux Arts architecture is interesting in that the two entrances are on either side, rather than in the center, of the facade. American architect George Post, who was also responsible for designing the New York Stock Exchange, designed this building, erected in 1903. It served its original function until 1965, when it was redesigned as a theater with two stages.

Return back down rue St-François-Xavier to rue St-Paul.

21   Stash Café & L’Arrivage

One possibility for lunch or a pick-me-up is the moderately priced Stash Café at 200 rue St-Paul ouest (at the corner of rue St-François-Xavier). It specializes in Polish fare and opens daily at noon. Another option is the glass-walled, second-floor L’Arrivage at the Pointe-à-Callière museum, your next stop. Its lunchtime “express menu” starts at C$12.

Continue on rue St-François-Xavier past St-Paul. At the next corner, the gray wedge-shaped building to the left is the:

22  Pointe-à-Callière

Known in English as the Museum of Archaeology and History, Pointe-à-Callière  is a top-notch museum, packed with artifacts unearthed during more than a decade of excavation at the spot, where the settlement of Ville-Marie was founded in 1642. An underground connection also incorporates the Old Customs House you just passed.

A fort stood here in 1645. Thirty years later, a château was built on the site for Louis-Hector de Callière, the governor of New France, from whom the museum and triangular square that it’s on 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. The museum’s gift shop is located at the Mariner’s House building at 165 Place d’Youville.

Proceeding west from Pointe-à-Callière, near rue St-François-Xavier, stands an:

23  Obelisk

Commemorating the founding of Ville-Marie on May 18, 1642, the obelisk was erected here in 1893 by the Montréal Historical Society. It bears the names of the city’s early pioneers, including French officer Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve, who landed in Montréal in 1642, and fellow settler Jeanne Mance, who founded North America’s first hospital, l’Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal.

Continuing west from the obelisk 2 blocks to 296–316 Place d’Youville, you’ll find, on the left, the:

24  Ecuries d’Youville (Youville Stables)

Despite the name, the rooms in the iron-gated compound, built in 1825 on land owned by the Grey Nuns, were used mainly as warehouses, rather than as horse stables (the actual stables, next door, were made of wood and disappeared long ago). Like much of the waterfront area, the U-shaped Youville building was run-down and forgotten until the 1960s, when a group of enterprising businesspeople bought and renovated it. Today, the compound contains offices and a steakhouse, Gibby’s, 298 Place d’Youville ( tel 514/282-1837), which is an institution, although not as hip with locals as Moishes. If the gates are open, go through the passage toward the restaurant door to see the inner courtyard.

Continue another block west to the front door of the brick building on your right, 335 Place d’Youville and the:

25  Centre d’Histoire de Montréal (Montréal History Center)

Built in 1903 as Montréal’s central fire station, this building now houses exhibits about life in Montréal, past and present. Visitors learn about traditions of the Amerindians, early exploration, and the evolution of industry, architecture, and professions in the city from 1535 to current day.

Head down rue St-Pierre toward the water. Midway down the block, on the right at no. 138, is the former:

26  Hôpital des Soeurs Grises (Grey Nuns Hospital)

The hospital was founded in 1693 by the Charon Brothers to serve the city's poor and homeless. Bankrupt by 1747, it was taken over by Marguerite d'Youville, founder in 1737 of the Sisters of Charity of Montréal, commonly known as the Grey Nuns. It was expanded several times, but by 1871, the nuns had moved away and portions were demolished to extend rue St-Pierre and make room for commercial buildings. A century later, the Grey Nuns returned to live in their original home. From the sidewalk, visitors can see a very cool contemporary sculpture of inscribed bronze strips that cover the surviving chapel walls. The text on the sculpture comes from a letter signed by Louis XIV in 1694, incorporating the hospital. There are three exhibition rooms open to the public, by appointment only ( tel 514/842-9411).

Continue down rue St-Pierre and cross the main street, rue de la Commune, and then the railroad tracks to this tour’s final stop:

27  Vieux-Port (Old Port)

Montréal’s historic commercial wharves have been reborn as a waterfront park, which, in good weather, is frequented by cyclists, in-line skaters, joggers, walkers, strollers, and couples. Across the water is the distinctive 158-unit modular housing project Habitat 67, built by famed architect Moshe Safdie for the 1967 World’s Fair, which Montréal called Expo 67. Safdie’s vision was to show what affordable community housing could be. Today, it’s a higher-end apartment complex and not open to the public (aerial photos are at Safdie’s website, www.msafdie.com). River surfers are known to “hit the waves” in a not-so-publicized spot just in back of this building.

Walk to your right. The triangular building you see is the entrance to Jardin des Ecluses (Locks Garden), a canal-side path where the St. Lawrence River’s first locks are located. From here, you have several options: If the weather’s nice, consider entering the Jardin des Ecluses to stroll the path along Lachine Canal. In under an hour, you’ll arrive at Montréal’s colorful Marché Atwater, which is 3.8km (2 1/4 miles) down the path. If you walk the other direction, you’ll take in the busiest section of the waterfront park and end up back at Place Jacques-Cartier.

To get to the subway, walk north along rue McGill to the Square-Victoria Métro station, the staircase to which is marked by an authentic Art Nouveau portal, designed by Hector Guimard for the Paris subway system.

Or return to the small streets parallel to rue St-Paul, where you’ll find more boutiques and one of the highest concentrations of art galleries in Canada.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.