Hidden Montreal: Seeing More, Beyond its Famous Sights
You go to Montreal because it’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas, with an evocative historic district, splendid museums, and a fascinating French Canadian culture. You go back because after seeing its iconic sights, there are so many other places to explore, dishes to try, and quirks to notice—the city starts to feel like the most delightful scavenger hunt. What do I mean? Read on.
Duck into that alley. Crane your neck to look over that building. Walk across the park to its wall—there’s a reason it shimmers. In the last decade, Montreal has become a city of murals thanks to an annual June festival that brings artists from across the globe to paint. Currently, there are nearly 100 public works, most of them in an area bordered by Rue Sherbrooke and Mont-Royal Avenue, from Clark Street to Sainte-Dominique. This multi-story mural of local musical legend Leonard Cohen is on the side of the Cooper Building, off Saint-Laurent Boulevard (near Chez Schwartz Charcuterie Hébraïque de Montréal).
Take a look at Montreal’s city symbol—you’ll see it on street signs and on any official tourist material. Though it looks like a four leaf clover, it’s actually meant to represent four hearts in an homage to the four "founding" nations of the city—the French, the Irish, the Scottish, and the English. But the people of Montreal are deeply interested in getting history right, and that founding tale is off in a big way: First Nations peoples were actually the first humans to settle on this land, so the city is spending tens of thousands of loonies (Canadian dollars) to replace the symbol with one that better honors its actual past.
Many first-time visitors miss the Village, one of the most vibrant neighborhoods and the heartbeat of Montreal’s LGBTQ community. From May through October, its main thoroughfare, Saint-Catherine Street, is car-free and curtained by 180,000 rainbow-colored resin balls. Locals call the seasonal installation "50 shades of gay." Montreal has long been one of the most tolerant cities in Canada, having hosted the country's first gay rights parade (it’s still its largest), and Quebec was the first province to legalize gay marriage. In summer, Saint-Catherine—a long strip of bars and boutiques—feels like a party with pop-up outdoor art exhibits and open-air cafés.
Notice the signs on shops and restaurants: If only one language is used, it must be French, by law. That’s why Starbucks has the unique wording seen here; you won’t find Starbucks being called Café Starbucks outside of Quebec. But as you wander through the streets, you will find that people aren’t only speaking French and English. Some 81 other languages are spoken—everything from Russian to Tagalog.
There’s a relatively new reason to prowl Vieux-Montreal after dark: personal sound-and-light shows. Created for the 375th anniversary of the city in 2017 but continuing indefinitely, these gorgeously produced snippets will suddenly pop up around Old Montreal on walls, cobbled streets, or even clusters of trees. To be in the right place, look for the markers and get the Cité Mémoire app to hear the accompanying sound and music. (It’s free but large, so download it in advance with Wi-Fi.) The projections cover everything from the dark tale of the city’s first executioner to a circus-clown rendition of one of the most famous matches in Canadian hockey history.
Like many cities, Montreal is a hodgepodge of architectural styles. But the houses here have a unique feature not found many other places: outdoor metal staircases. They’re fun to spot since they come in so many different shapes, but they’re also wildly impractical for a place that gets so much snow and ice. So why are they here? The staircases were first built in response to a 19th-century ordinance that dictated how far from the street buildings had to be. To create as much rentable indoor space as possible, architects saved space by putting staircases outside rather than inside, and they became an iconic feature of Montreal construction.
Walk anywhere and you’ll spot them: wooden platforms that look like little boats moored between the sidewalk and oncoming traffic. Why are they here? Well, socializing is serious business in Montreal. So serious that the city government built these placottoires, or shelters, lined with seating. These have no function other than to allow people to gather, chat, and maybe have an outdoor picnic.
You likely visited the majestic Basilique Notre-Dame on your first visit. You’ll want to go back, however, because a stupendous sound-and-light show called "Aura" has transformed a visit here into an event. Thanks to the projection-mapping wizardry of Montreal’s Moment Factory, the images thrown on the cathedral's features are accurate down to the millimeter, dancing over and across the church’s arches, tracery, and elaborately carved altarpiece—music swells as light creates geometric patterns that flicker across the vaulted ceiling.
The Moment Factory is also the force behind the Jacques Cartier bridge's light show ("Living Connections"), the first interactive one of this sort in the world. After dark, computers start sending signals to the bridge’s 2,800 LED lights based on traffic patterns, wind and water currents, and what’s in the news. According to the project's website, each color has a meaning: "the environment is green, technology is aqua, business is yellow, sports is blue, institutions (religious, political and justice) is pink, civil society (health, education, lifestyle and leisure) is red and arts is purple." The show flickers across the span every hour on the hour. Viewers can influence the intensity of the lights and speed at which they change by tweeting the hashtag #illuminationMTL on Twitter—so no two shows are alike.
Founded by missionaries, Montreal was once known as the City of Spires for its high number of churches per capita. Most of them still remain, but the congregations… not so much. In the recent census, when asked about their religious faith, the largest group in the city was non-believers. So as you pass churches, peer up or peer in. Some are now apartment buildings (you can sometimes see the new homes through the windows), and some are being used for commerce, including one on Rue Saint-Martin that has an excellent restaurant (Candide) in its former vestry.
In the heart of Montreal's Little Italy, this massive covered market, one of the largest in North America, is a whirlwind for the senses. Along with vividly colored produce, vendors sell ciders, wines, prepared foods, meat, fish, fresh breads of all types, foraged foods, and every single maple syrup product known to man. Jean-Talon is easily accessible from a stop of the same name on the Metro.
In 2017, the city debuted a walking trail that takes amblers through many of its most intriguing neighborhoods. Aptly called the Promenade Fleuve-Montagne (River-to-Mountain Trail), it winds 3.8 kilometers (2.4 miles) from the St. Charles River to Mont-Royal. We’d suggest, however, you tackle it from top to bottom unless you’re seeking a workout. The path is marked by yellow triangles (like the one pictured); you’ll run across descriptive plaques giving some background on the area you’re in. The views from the top are stellar.