Around Montréal – Vive le Québec

Montréal is an island just like Manhattan in NYC, and it is considered Canada’s second largest city after Toronto, and the largest city in the Francophone province of Québec. The city is also known for having 3 universities around the downtown core, and thus it has a very youthful and vibrant downtown.

Unique Architecture
Unique architecture at Quartier des Spectacles
Chinatown area
Around the Chinatown in Montréal

For the first morning, I explored the UQAM area which could also be considered one of the main transit points in the city centre. The main bus station, Gare d’Autocars also known as the Central Station is located there along with the National Library of Québec. The main subway station Berri-UQAM serving the area is also a major subway interchange. My interest was in visiting the new library building but it was closed on every Monday, so I changed plans and walked around Rue Saint-Denis where I found the branch of Juliette et Chocolat, a recommended chocolaterie and dessert store in Montréal. Rue Saint-Denis also forms part of the village for the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), and I also visited the Frite Alors eatery which serves the local Fries delicacy of Poutine.

Université du Québec à Montréal
Université du Québec à Montréal

Heading southwest from the Berri-UQAM area brought me to the Quartier des Spectacles, or something I refer to as the Theater district since it is anchored by the Place des Arts with the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier and the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal or the Contemporary Museum of Art. Another major landmark in this area is the Complexe Desjardins, a large commercial, shopping and hotel complex that is home to the Desjardins Insurance group and the Hyatt Regency in town. The outdoor spaces around this area also lit up at night and was decked in festive lighting in preparation for Christmas. Concerts are also held here every summer but in winter, the outdoor plazas are really quiet, rightly so due to the chilling temperatures.

Inside Place des Arts
Inside Place des Arts
Complexe Desjardins
Complexe Desjardins

The Quartier des Spectacles can also be accessed via the Place d’Armes metro station that also conveniently serves the station closest to the old town. Montréal is famous for its well preserved heritage buildings in the old waterfront town, giving it a quaint small-town feel. A major attraction in the old town has got to be the Notre-Dame Basilica right across the Place d’Armes which houses the monument to Maisonneuve, the founder of the city.

Grand Notre-Dame
Inside the Basilica Notre-Dame

Another major attraction is the Hôtel de Ville or the City Hall which is constructed in a similar architectural fashion like the one in Paris. The subway station Champ-de-Mars serves the City Hall area along with the Place Jacques-Cartier, the promenade that opens out to the waterfront pier district.

Hôtel de Ville
Hôtel de Ville, the city hall of Montréal
Place Jacques Cartier
Place Jacques Cartier

The waterfront pier district is where visitors could take ferries and leisure boat rides to the Biosphere Museum in the l’Île Sainte-Hélène, but since the St-Lawrence river is frozen in winter the waterfront district instead hosts an ice-skating rink at this time of the year. Shoppers could also head out to Bonsecours market along the waterfront to shop for local crafts and produce such as maple syrup and ice ciders. The market is unmistakeable with the dome on top overlooking the river.

Old Town Promenade
Old Town Promenade with Marche Bonsecours in the middle
Train passing by the old town
Train passing by the old town

Closer to the afternoon, I took the convenient metro once again headed north towards the Mont-Royal station where I transferred to a local bus that brought me two-thirds up to the top of Mont-Royal Park, the hilly plateau overlooking the city. Mount Royal houses the largest park and there are hiking trails around the hills with joggers and hikers even in winter. Snow boots are definitely a must when visiting in winter as there are some hilly terrains though I would rate the hiking as simple and do-able for 99% of the people.

Neighbourhood street
Neighbourhood street in Plateau Mont-Royal

Most visitors head towards the Chalet du Mont Royal or the main lodge with the observatory though I was fortunate enough to meet a fellow photographer. That meant I got the chance to take some photos of the Cross, a landmark that was supposed to commemorate the cross that was placed by Maisonneuve as an act of faith to end a flood that nearly destroyed the town of Montréal.

The Cross
The Cross at Mont-Royal

From the bus stop to the Chalet it took about a 20 minute walk and the Cross is situated along the way. And while it was a cold walk, the views from the chalet was well worth it. Inside the chalet, there are washrooms, some vending machines and a small gift shop that also sells gloves and hats for those who did not come prepared. But at the end of the day, the walk up to the Chalet was definitely worth it for the views over the city skyline.

Montréal Blue Hour
Montréal blue hour as seen from Mont Royal

From downtown Montréal there are also staircases that leads directly to the Chalet, and it was through this means that I walked back to my hotel, as the bottom of the stairs connects to Rue Peel and the McGill University.

On the second day, I had another half a day before travelling to Mont Tremblant by bus. Thus I started out the morning with a visit to the Olympic Park. With the tallest inclined tower, the stadium that was built for the 1976 Summer Olympics was a landmark of its own and naturally the complex construction made it a very expensive endeavour at the time. The Olympic Park is located some way out of downtown and can be accessed via the Pie IX or Viau metro station. The Viau station is closer to the cinema, the Biodome and the Planetarium while the Pie IX station is closer to the Botanical Gardens entrance.

Entrance from the Viau Station
The Olympic Park from the Viau Station exit

Today, the Olympic Park also houses a Biodiversity museum (Biodome) and a Planetarium. Furthermore, there is a huge park where the Botanical Gardens and an Insectarium is located at. Visitors can buy packaged tickets for the observatory at the top of the stadium along with the other attractions, but as I had limited time, I did not even head up the observatory and it was disappointing that visitors could not enter the stadium either. But the architecture of the stadium was definitely worth seeing as I think it was a design way ahead of its time.

Flag plaza
Flag plaza at the Olympic Park

Before heading for my bus ride, I also took some time to return by the National Library where the reading room is really the highlight of the library with the wood panelling, giving it a modern look with warmth tones.

Reading room in the Library
Reading room in the Library

As a result of its historical background, Montréal does offer a distinctively different type of cuisine to those commonly seen in Canada. Most notably, poutine, which is typically French Fries with cheese curds and gravy, is very commonly found in many eateries and a must-try while in town. Another food the city is famous for would be smoked meat and while I had it at Schwartz’s, I can’t really say I like it that much. On the other hand I did enjoy my meal at Bouillon Bilk which I will write about separately and having foie gras at Au Pied de Cochon, a restaurant that I highly recommend.

Winter in the city
Winter in the city

My short stay in Montréal did not allow me to explore all the sights in the city but it made me love the city and has officially become my second favourite city in Canada after Vancouver. In fact for foreign tourists, I think Montréal offers so much more than the average North American city that it should be a stop for travellers visiting Canada.

Square Victoria in winter
Square Victoria in winter
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