From the moment I stepped onto the cobblestone rue Saint-Sulpice, Old Montreal had me under its spell. I wandered the various lanes and boulevards charmed by the buildings spanning almost four hundred years of history. Their arched doors, flower-boxed windows, wrought-iron accents, and stone walls beckoned one to explore. Those fond of North American history will enjoy Old Montreal and its sites from the city’s early French heritage. The city is also renowned for its food and art scenes.
Montrealers are proud of their heritage, as is evidenced by their centuries-old buildings and celebration of diversity. The Montreal flag is a red cross on a white background (representing its Christian founding) with four emblems symbolizing prominent nationalities : Fleur de Lys (French), Lancastrian Rose (England), Thistle (Scottish), and Shamrock (Irish). Today, city officials and citizens have agreed to a Charter of Rights of Responsibilities for Montrealers based on values of human dignity, equality, peace, openness, democracy, and environmental respect. French is the dominant language, but inclusivity is apparent as shopkeepers and restaurateurs bilingually greet guests with “Bonjour/hi.”
The city is great to roam around, especially the historic part! There are many things to do in Montreal, so if you should find yourself there, I highly recommend visiting the following places:
- The commanding Notre-Dame Basilica, with towers very similar to the Paris cathedral of the same name, has a gorgeous Gothic Revival exterior. The first Notre-Dame cathedral opened in 1683, but as the parish grew so did the need for a larger church. New Yorker, James O’Donnell, constructed the basilica between 1824 and 1829; the towers were completed in 1843. It is worth the entry fee to see the church’s colorful interior. Bathed in blue, red, purple, gold, and silver with stained-glass windows depicting Montreal’s social and religious life, the sanctuary is a visual feast. Behind the altar is located the bronzed chapel of Notre-Dame du Sacre Coeur, which gleams gold. It’s certainly worth a peek.
- Pointe à Callière Archaeology & History Museum stands on the site where founders of Ville-Marie (Montréal’s first name), Paul de Chomeday de Maisonneuve and Jeanne Mance, started the colony in 1642. The fort is gone, but across the street from the museum’s main entrance is the former Customs House (1836) where goods from the nearby bustling port passed through inspection. Today, the Customs House hosts some of Pointe à Callière’s exhibits. We saw permanent exhibits on pirates, St. Lawrence Iroquoians, early Montrealers, and archaeology. There were fun, interactive exhibits for children; my husband and I enjoyed standing on wobbly boards to see if we had “sea legs.”
- As you meander past the many places to see in Montreal, including cafés and shops, you will notice many aesthetically-pleasing buildings from various centuries. One that is an architectural show-off is the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). Built between 1872 and 1878 in the Second-Empire style with a mansard roof, classical columns, and tower atop a grand entrance, the building is an elaborate tribute to the municipal activities going on within. Across the street from Hôtel de Ville is a bubbling square of activity, Place Jacques Cartier. With restaurants, artists, souvenir shops, and street performers, travelers can get swept up in the festivities. I enjoyed perusing art stalls. Over the years, the site was home to Native Americans, the governor’s mansion, and a public marketplace. With its close proximity to the water, it’s been an important area for centuries.
- Near Place Jacques Cartier is a gray-colored mansion with a fanciful turret and delightful gardens—Château Ramezay. Built in 1705, it was the residence of Montreal governor, Claude de Ramezay. Numerous dignitaries have passed through its doors, including Benjamin Franklin who came to try to coerce the Québécois into joining the Patriot side of the American Revolution. He failed. Today, the mansion houses a museum where period-dressed guides show daily life and culture in the 18th century.
- If you haven’t had your fill of Montreal history and its grand estates, a beautiful mansion formerly owned by Sir George-Etienne Cartier provides a nice glimpse into a wealthy family’s life and luxuries. This national historic site portrays Victorian grandeur and the life of an important statesman. I enjoyed walking through the richly-decorated rooms.
- Not far from Cartier’s house, is a rock-walled home with a steeply pitched roof—the Pierre du Calvet House. The home screams old-world charm. Make sure you walk by it on your way to my next favorite stop. The piece-de-resistance in this area is the chapel of Notre-Dame de Bonsecours and Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum. The chapel is the oldest active pilgrimage site in the area. Marguerite Bourgeoys arrived in 1653 and founded Montreal’s first school, the original chapel on this site, and the Congrégation of Notre-Dame (a sisterhood who see Mary as a role model and active apostle). The current chapel (1771) showcases Romanesque touches, frescoed ceilings, and model ships hanging from the rafters-it is also known as the Sailor’s Church. The museum (a former school) recounts Marguerite’s life, work, and theology. Viewing the chapel is free, but for the price of admission, you can tour the museum, climb the church tower (phenomenal view of port and city), visit the high-ceilinged, expansive crypt, and receive a personal tour of the underlying archaeological site. This was by far my favorite aspect of all the attractions I visited! A guide took four of us into the locked site where we saw evidence of a 2000+ year-old Native American fire pit, posts from the original wooden stockade, and the foundation of the first stone chapel.
- No Roaming Historian trip would be complete if it didn’t involve food, so we made sure to visit Marché Jean Talon in Little Italy. This expansive market proved to be a culinary delight. Local farmers bring in produce in a kaleidoscope of colors—red tomatoes, blueberries, purple cauliflower, brilliant green broccoli, orange zucchini blossoms, and bright yellow lemons. Vendors sell cheese, oils, meats, spices, and seafood. Although located in Little Italy, food stands represent many ethnic backgrounds selling goodies like poutine, empanadas, samosas, and baklava. I would highly recommend going there on an empty stomach.
There are many fun things to do in Montreal. As the city hosts many historic, artistic, and culinary hotspots, Montreal is a wonderful place to combine history and food. And, if you’re a regular reader, you know that enjoying both is my favorite pastime! I hope you have special moments in this fabulous city. Bon voyage!
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