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Montreal: Je Me Souviens

There are many great cities to visit in Canada, two of my favorites (for different reasons) being Vancouver and Montreal.  Vancouver has one of the most breath-takingly beautiful settings of any city in the world, and I’ll be discussing it at another time.  Montreal is a truly world-class city of history, youthful energy, and a rich cultural and culinary tradition.


Montreal-2009-041 (Montreal skyline, viewed from Mont Royal)


Montreal (named after the hill that dominates it, Mont Royal) is built on an island and is the second largest city in Canada.  Founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, it is also one of Canada’s oldest cities.  Montreal has something to offer almost everyone.  The historic portion of the city (Vieux Montreal) dates back four centuries and is a great area to leisurely explore on foot.  Montreal has grown significantly beyond its historic roots.  Its now a major center of banking, commerce and education, and has a dynamic youth and nightlife scene (if you’re into that).  And of far greater interest to me, it is the culinary center of Canada. There are large numbers of restaurants of great diversity – all busy – most superb.  While French is the main language of the province, and the Quebecois are very proud of their heritage, almost everyone in Montreal speaks English quite well so you can easily get by without knowing French – which is not true of the smaller towns and villages of the province.  I think its a good idea for everyone to try to learn at least a few phrases of the language of the region they plan to visit — it entertains the locals and opens their hearts to welcome you as a friend into their hometown.



(Altar, Notre Dame basilica, MontrealB


I love exploring old cities and Vieux Montreal (historic city) and Port, which straddles the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, makes for an interesting day of exploration.  The heart of Vieux Montreal is the Notre Dame Basilica.  This beautiful old church should be a stop on every visit to the city.  Be sure to take the tour of the cathedral as the guides are very informative and will entertain you with their wit and Francois accents.  How else would you find out in which pew and exact spot Celine Dion was seated during the baptism of her firstborn?  Did you know Prime Minister Trudeau and Henri Richard (the Rocket, of hockey fame) had funeral masses here?  Explore the Place d’Armes square outside of the church, and cross the street into the old Banque du Montreal building, with its elegant architecture and vaulted ceilings.



(Vieux Montreal)


Wander the cobblestone streets of old Montreal and explore those buildings that interest you.  We spent time at the Musee de Chateau Ramezay, a nicely preserved historic residence, and Bonsecours Market, a collection of small shops in a beautiful old building.  Be sure you stop for a coffee and pastry in at least one cafe and take time to relax and people watch; for this its hard to beat a cafe on Place Jacques-Cartier,  especially on a warm spring or fall day.  Winters can be fiercely cold and summers hot and humid, but the shoulder seasons are often very lovely.



 (Chapel Notre Dame Bon Secours, Montreal's oldest church)


Move north from the river and spend some time exploring the newer more vibrant parts of Montreal most of which are clustered around Rene Levesque boulevard.  The city demonstrates an interesting blend and assortment of skyscrapers and older buildings.


The best way to see all of Montreal is to hike up Mont Royal to the Chalet Du Mont Royal, which offers panoramic views of the city.  Take time to walk around this beautiful and large park and explore some if its side trails which offer nice views of the St. Lawrence River and Olympic stadium.  During our travels we always enjoy visiting colleges and universities for their bookstores, history and beautiful architecture.  So stop off at McGill University, one of Canada’s pre-eminent institutes of secondary education.



(Olympic Stadium, Montreal)


Another worthwhile stop is at Olympic Park, conveniently reached by the metro.  Montreal’s Olympic stadium remains one of the most architecturally unique athletic venues in the world, with its distinctive leaning tower and (problematic) retractable roof.  Site of the 1976 Summer Olympic games, the stadium was home to the Montreal Expos baseball and Alouette football teams, but now is only rarely used.  Rides up its leaning tower (which suspends the umbrella-like roof) are available.  While interesting to look at the stadium has been a financial drain on the people of Montreal who have (at best) mixed feelings about it.


Next door to the Olympic stadium is the Biodome, site of Olympic cycling and now a natural history museum.  Across the street is the Montreal Botanical Garden, a place we highly recommend spending at least a half day on your visit.  Besides hundreds of acres of beautiful manicured plant gardens, lawns, hedges and trees, there are several themed gardens (eg. Chinese and Japanese) and the fascinating Montreal Insectarium, housing a rather tastefully presented (not really “gross” in any sense) display of some of the planet’s most fascinating bugs.  Kids especially will be fascinating by these exhibits, as will the kid in you.



(Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal) 


While we did not visit it, Parc Jean-Drapeau, another island south of Montreal, is visible from Vieux Port, is a popular place for families to visit.  It was site of the 1967 World Expo; of the many persisting structures, the Biosphere dominates the landscape and is best known.  Other frequently recommended places we didn’t have time to get to include the Museum of Archeology and History and Museum of Fine Arts.  You might want to visit these if you enjoy museums, or on a particularly cold or rainy day.


There is no shortage of restaurants in town and I can honestly way we've never had a bad meal during our visits to Montreal.  Chinatown has dozens of small restaurants offering excellent, inexpensive and tasty Chinese cuisine.  A number of fine restaurants are established in Vieux Montreal.  Of these, we especially enjoyed Vieux-Port Restaurant.  The highlight of our visits has been dinner at the historic Beaver Club Restaurant in the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel.  Wonderfully prepared and presented food and pastries — a treat we guarantee you’ll always remember.  If you can, order the Beef Wellington (needs to be requested in advance).  The Beaver Club remains one of our all time favorite restaurants.


Je Me Souviens — its the official moto for the Province of Quebec, and you’ll see it on each license plate.  It means “I remember”.  I do.  You will too after your first visit to Montreal.


 For an extended high resolution slide show of Montreal, please go to this link.  The slide show is at the bottom of the post.  Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.



Images (23)
  • Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal
  • Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal: Place d'Armes is in the foreground
  • Place d'Armes, Montreal: Bank of Montreal building in background
  • Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal
  • Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal
  • Vieux Seminaire de St-Sulpice, Montreal: Historic clock-face, gift from Louis XIV in 1701
  • City Hall, Vieux Montreal
  • Chapel Notre Dame Bon Secours, Montreal: The oldest church in Montreal
  • Chapel Notre Dame Bon Secours, Montreal
  • Vieux Montreal
  • Vieux Montreal
  • Fountain, Vieux Montreal
  • McGill University campus, Montreal
  • Park on St. Lawrence River, Vieux Montreal
  • Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montrea: Dominated by the  biosphere
  • Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montrea: Site of the 1967 World Expo
  • Parc Jean-Drapeau, Montreal: Site of the 1967 World Expo
  • View of Montreal from Mont Royal
  • Cross at top of Mont Royal, Montreal
  • Olympic Stadium, Montreal: Viewed from the top of Mont Royal
  • Olympic Stadium, Montreal
  • Olympic Stadium from Botanical Garden, Montreal: View from Chinese Garden
  • Montreal Botanical Garden: Chinese garden exhibit

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

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Re the name "Montreal":  there is a town in France with the same name so it is  not certain that the City of Montreal is called that because of Mont Royal.  Apart from that small quibble, I heartily agree with all you have written about my home city.  Oh, wait ... it really isn't so that "almost everyone speaks English quite well".  Venture east of Blvd St Laurent and you'll soon find that isn't the case.  But then the average visitor, unless by accident, will not find him/herself  in the part of the city except for the Olympic Stadium or the Botanical Gardens.

Thanks for your note, Arion!  I really didn't run into anyone in Montreal who couldn't speak some English.  My French is weak at best, but got by here.  That certainly wasn't the case as we headed further east.  


Maybe we can convince you to do a piece on the "hidden Montreal" -- the places only locals know about.  I'd like to explore some of them the next time I'm there.

I'll give it some thought while cruising the Hawaiian Islands later this month, if I have a minute when not learning to hula dance, eat poi and look down into volcano craters.  Aloha from Montreal, in the Province of Quebec where our provincial government wants to pass a law making it illegal for Muslim women to wear the hijab, for Jewish men to wear the skull cap (forget the proper name) and for South Asian men to wear turbans,  if they work in government institutions (i.e. schools, hospitals, government offices, etc.  Small Catholic crosses are allowed. Needless to say, just the very idea of this is permission for some yahoos to insult & assault these fellow citizens of theirs.  Google PQ's Charter of Values.

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