Start: Bonaventure Métro station
Finish: Musée des Beaux-Arts and the lively rue Crescent
Time: 2 hours
Best Times: Weekdays in the morning or after 2pm, when the streets hum with big-city vibrancy but aren’t too busy.
Worst Times: Weekdays from noon to 2pm, when the streets are crowded with businesspeople on lunch-break errands; Monday, when museums are closed; and Sunday, when many stores are closed and much of downtown is nearly deserted.
After a tour of Vieux-Montréal, a look around the commercial heart of the 21st-century city will highlight the ample contrast between these two areas. To see the city at its contemporary best, take the Métro to the Bonaventure stop to start this tour.
After you’ve emerged from the Métro station, the dramatic skyscraper immediately to the west (or directly above you, depending on which exit you take) is:
1 1000 rue de la Gauchetière
Also called "Le 1000," this contribution to downtown Montréal is easily identified along the skyline by its copper-and-blue pyramidal top, which rises to the maximum height permitted by the municipal building code. Although it’s mostly offices inside, it also has a year-round indoor skating rink under a glass dome.
Walk west on rue de la Gauchetière. Ahead is Le Marriott Château Champlain, whose distinctive facade of half-moon windows inspired its nickname “the Cheese Grater.” Turn right on rue de la Cathedrale, heading north. At the next corner, you reach:
2 Boulevard René-Lévesque
Formerly Dorchester Boulevard, this street was renamed in 1988 following the death of René Lévesque, the Parti Québécois leader who led the movement for Québec independence and the province’s use of the French language. Boulevard René-Lévesque is the city’s broadest downtown thoroughfare.
Across bd. René-Lévesque is:
3 Square Dorchester
This is one of downtown’s central locations. It’s a gathering point for tour buses and horse-drawn calèches, and the square’s shade trees and benches invite lunchtime brown-baggers. This used to be called Dominion Square, but it was renamed for Baron Dorchester, an early English governor, when the adjacent street, once named for Dorchester, was changed to boulevard René-Lévesque. The square was built over an old cemetery for 1832 cholera epidemic victims. Along the square’s east side is the Sun Life Insurance building, built in three stages between 1914 and 1931, and the tallest building in Québec from 1931 until the skyscraper boom of the post–World War II era.
At the north end of the square is:
4 Montréal’s Central Tourist Office
The Infotouriste Centre at 1255 rue Peel has maps and brochures and bilingual attendants, who are eager to answer questions, point you in the right direction, or give advice about hotels or tours. It's open daily.
On bd. René-Lévesque at the corner of Square Dorchester is the:
5 Basilique-Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde
Suddenly get the feeling you’re in Rome? This cathedral is a copy of St. Peter’s Basilica, albeit a fraction of the size. It was built as the headquarters for Montréal’s Roman Catholic bishop. The statue in front is of Bishop Ignace Bourget, the force behind the project. Construction lasted from 1875 to 1894, its start delayed by the bishop’s desire to place it not in Francophone east Montréal, but in the heart of the Protestant Anglophone west.
Continue on bd. René-Lévesque past the cathedral. In the next block, on the right, is:
6 Fairmont the Queen Elizabeth (Le Reine Elizabeth)
Montréal’s largest hotel is right above Gare Centrale, the main railroad station. The Fairmont (www.fairmont.com/queen-elizabeth-montreal; tel 866/540-4483 or 514/861-3511) is also where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their famous weeklong “Bed-in for Peace” in 1969.
On the other side of bd. René-Lévesque, directly across from the hotel, is:
7 Place Ville-Marie
One thing to keep in mind is that the French word place, or plaza, sometimes means an outdoor square, such as Place Jacques-Cartier in Vieux-Montréal. Other times, it refers to a building or complex that includes stores and offices. Place Ville-Marie is in this category. Known as PVM, the glass building was considered a gem of the 1960s urban redevelopment efforts. Its architect was I.M. Pei, who also designed the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris. Pei gave the skyscraper a cross-shaped footprint, recalling the cross atop Mont Royal. The underground houses a large shopping mall (www.placevillemarie.com).
Continue on bd. René-Lévesque to the end of the block and turn left on rue University. As you walk, look to the top of the skyscraper a few blocks down; this pink, postmodern glass office building is Tour KPMG and was completed in 1987. The two-peaked top is meant to resemble a bishop’s miter, or cap, but many see the ears and mask of a certain DC Comics superhero. In 2 blocks, you’ll reach:
8 Rue Ste-Catherine
This is one of the city’s prime shopping streets, with name brands, local businesses, and department stores. Among them, to the right, is La Baie—or “the Bay”—successor to the famous fur-trapping firm Hudson’s Bay Co., founded in the 17th century. Also here is Henry Birks et Fils, a preeminent jeweler since 1879 (the company is now known as Maison Birks, but the original name remains on the building.) Its Birks Café is a decidedly posh spot to enjoy lunch, high tea, or buy super-premium chocolates or macarons.
If you’re in the mood to shop, stroll west on this main shopping drag. (Be aware that there are adult shops here, too, most of which are above street level.) If you were to turn right and walk 5 short blocks to the east, you would reach Quartier des Spectacles, the city’s central arts district. To continue the tour, return to this corner and the:
9 Cathédrale Christ Church
Built from 1856 to 1859, this neo-Gothic building stands in glorious contrast to the city’s downtown skyscrapers and is the seat of the Anglican bishop of Montréal. The church garden is modeled on a medieval European cloister. It offers a Sunday 10am Sung Eucharist and 4pm Choral Evensong, and weekday services at 8:15am, 12:15, and 5:15pm. www.montrealcathedral.ca.
Walk east on rue Ste-Catherine to avenue Union, where the La Baie department store is. Turn left on av. Union and go north 3 blocks, to rue Sherbrooke. As you cross boulevard de Maisonneuve, note the prominent bike lanes the city has installed, part of its massive biking network. At rue Sherbrooke, you’ll be in front of McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.
10 Java U
This casual eatery offers fresh and healthy options: sandwiches, quiche, fresh fruit, ice cream, and pastries. The atmosphere is collegiate and slightly upscale.
Head left (west) on rue Sherbrooke. This is the city’s grand boulevard, and the rest of the tour will take you past the former mansions, ritzy hotels, high-end boutiques, and special museums that give it its personality today. One block down on the left is:
11 Musée McCord
This museum of Canadian history opened in 1921 and was substantially renovated in 1992. Named for its founder, David Ross McCord, the museum maintains an eclectic collection of photographs, paintings, and First Nations folk art. Its special exhibits make it especially worth a visit.
Continue west. On your right is:
12 McGill University
The gate is usually open to Canada’s most prestigious university. It was founded in 1821 after a bequest from a Scottish-born fur trader, James McGill. The central campus mixes modern concrete and glass structures alongside older stone buildings and is the focal point for the school’s 39,000 students.
On campus is the:
13 Musée Redpath
This quirky natural history museum is housed in an 1882 building with a grandly proportioned and richly appointed interior. Its main draws—worth a half-hour visit—are the mummies and coffin that are part of Canada’s second-largest collection of Egyptian antiquities, and skeletons of whales and prehistoric beasts. Admission is free.
Continue on rue Sherbrooke. About 9m (30 ft.) past McGill’s front gate, note the large stone on the lawn. This marks the:
14 Site of the Amerindian Hochelaga Settlement
Near this spot was the village of Hochelaga, a community of Iroquois who lived and farmed here before the first Europeans arrived. When French explorer Jacques Cartier stepped from his ship onto the land and visited Hochelaga in 1535, he noted that the village had 50 large homes, each housing several families. When the French returned in 1603, the village was empty.
15 Café Vasco da Gama
Downtown is full of restaurants both fancy and casual. Right in between is Café Vasco Da Gama, 1472 rue Peel (1 block south of rue Sherbrooke), a sleek, high-ceilinged eatery with a Portuguese feel—the owners also run the esteemed Ferreira Café on the same block. It features big breakfasts, pastries, sandwiches, and tapas.
Two blocks farther down on rue Sherbrooke, at no. 1188, just past rue Stanley, is:
16 Maison Alcan
Rue Sherbrooke is the heart of what’s historically been known as the “Golden Square Mile.” This is where the city’s most luxurious residences of the 19th and early 20th centuries were, and where the vast majority of the country’s wealthiest citizens lived. (For a period of time, 79 families who lived in this neighborhood controlled 80 percent of Canada’s wealth.) Maison Alcan is an example of a modern office building that has nicely incorporated one of those 19th-century mansions into its late-20th-century facade. In 2015, longtime residents Rio Tinto Alcan will move out of the building; plans for the building’s future have not yet been announced. On the opposite side of the street are Maison Louis-Joseph Forget at no. 1195 and Maison Reid Wilson at no 1201, both designated historic monuments.
Continue on rue Sherbrooke, passing on your left the newly renovated Ritz Carlton and the high-end Holt Renfrew department store. At the corner of rue Crescent is:
17 Musée des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts)
This is Canada’s oldest museum and Montréal’s most prominent. Enter through the modern annex on the left side of rue Sherbrooke, which was added in 1991. It is connected to the original stately Beaux Arts building (1912) on the right side by an underground tunnel that doubles as a gallery. The adjacent church, which has Tiffany windows, was converted in 2011 into an addition to the museum, although it can only be visited on guided tours or when attending a classical concert there.
There are several options at this point. If you have time to explore the museum, take the opportunity—a visit to the Musée des Beaux-Arts should be part of any trip to Montréal. For high-end boutique shopping, continue on rue Sherbrooke. For drinking or eating, turn left onto:
18 Rue Crescent
Welcome to party central. Rue Crescent and nearby streets are the focal point of the downtown social and dining district. The area is largely yuppie-Anglo in character, if not necessarily in strict demographics. Crescent’s first block has small boutiques and jewelers, but the next 2 blocks are a gumbo of terraced bars and dance clubs, inexpensive pizza joints, and upscale restaurants, all drawing enthusiastic consumers looking to party the afternoon and evening away. It’s hard to imagine that this was once a run-down slum slated for demolition. Luckily, buyers saw potential in these late-19th-century row houses and brought them back to life.
19 Sir Winston Churchill
Lively spots for food and drink are abundant along rue Crescent. Sir Winston Churchill Pub (no. 1459) is one. If you can, find a seat on the balcony.
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.