Nearly 400 years old, the Old Montreal neighbourhood is a historic place and home to numerous attractions including museums, public squares, chapels and more.
Historic and Beautiful Old Montreal
An area with so much history and many places to visit, Old Montreal sits in the southeastern portion of the Island of Montreal. Although it covers less than a square kilometre there is a lot packed into this neighbourhood. Originally founded back in 1642, Old Montreal is one of the oldest European settlements in the country.
Today, Old Montreal is a top tourist attraction in the city and an official Historic District of Quebec. While the settlement’s original fortress is long gone, there are parts of the district that have survived from the New France era to the present day. Below are some of the best places to visit in Old Montreal, as well as some more history of the area.
Places to Visit in Old Montreal
The district is a great place to explore on foot as it’s both not that big (or at least, not difficult to walk through) and also has a high concentration of interesting spots to explore. Below are a few specific areas within Old Montreal that are well-worth checking out.
The oldest street in the city, Rue Saint-Paul used to be the most-travelled one as well. The road still has cobblestones as it did back in the 17th century. There are a number of old buildings that line it as well.
Two of the most famous sites along Rue Saint-Paul are the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel and the Bonsecours Market. The chapel is not the same as the Notre-Dame Basilica (also in Old Montreal), and it’s historic in its own right. 2021 marks 250 years since it was built, and the chapel has both a crypt open to visitors as well as a lookout tower at the top of the building that gives great views of the Old Port and the surrounding area.
The Bonsecours Market used to be the biggest public market in Montreal and is a National Historic Site of Canada. Open since 1847, a regular farmers market was held at the site for over a century. Today, the building is still open to the public although it now holds boutique stores and cafes.
Venturing down Rue Saint-Paul takes you to Place Jacques-Cartier, one of the oldest city squares in Montreal. While nice year-round, the square is an especially great spot to visit in the summer. That’s because the area turns into a pedestrian-only zone during the warmer months, and various performers and events take over where cars otherwise roll.
There are plenty of restaurants around the square meaning it’s a good place to stop and eat. As well, Montreal’s oldest public monument (Nelson’s Column) was erected here back in 1809. The statue had to be moved to an indoor display in 1997 to preserve it, but a replica still stands today in the square.
The Old Port of Montreal
Place Jacques-Cartier is also an entrance to the Old Port. Sitting on the Saint Lawrence River, the port dates back to the 1600s when it was a crucial trading station. The port’s facilities aren’t used by as many ships in the 21st century, but it’s a popular place to visit on land.
The Old Port is most known for the fun activities available at the site. There’s obstacle courses, ziplines and even a ferris wheel, all of which provide fun and great views of the area to participants. For those who want to explore the river there are boat tours and private rentals on offer.
Place d’Armes is another public square and one of the central sites within Old Montreal. About a five-minute walk from Place Jacques-Cartier, Place d’Armes was a lumber and hay market before it was fully renovated in the 1830s. The square contains the Maisonneuve Monument, which celebrates Paul de Chomedey who founded Fort Ville-Marie (that later developed into Montreal).
Place d’Armes has a number of notable historic buildings flanking the square. The most famous is the Notre-Dame Basilica, a massive building and one of the most visited churches on the entire continent. Millions of people check out the intricate design and grand stature of the basilica each year.
As well, there is the Saint-Sulpice Seminary which is the second-oldest still-standing building in Montreal. Built in the 1680s, the seminary is a National Historic Site of Canada. More modern (but still old) structures around the square include the New York Life Insurance Building which was the tallest commercial building in the city when it opened in 1887, and also the Bank of Montreal Head Office which is over 200 years old and the oldest bank in the country.
Champ de Mars
Now a public park, the Champ de Mars is where the fortress built to protect Montreal used to stand. The fortress was torn down in the early 1800s to make room for both the City Hall and also the Palais de Justice (a courthouse).
Previously serving as a parking lot for those two buildings, the Champ de Mars found new life in the 1980s. That’s when the city decided to turn the site into a park, which it remains today. As a bonus, during these renovations some remains of the old city walls were discovered. They now provide a nice addition to the park and remind visitors of the history held in the area.
Other Points of Interest
The following attractions aren’t part of one of the specific spots listed above, but they’re all within Old Montreal and are worth visiting.
The Château Ramezay is a National Historic Site and a museum focused on the time of New France. Originally the private residence of the successful leader and politician Claude de Ramezay, the building has served many roles in the over 300 years it’s stood at 280 Rue Notre-Dame Est. Along with the museum the Château has a garden modelled after those of New France that is free to explore.
Centre d’Histoire de Montreal
Located at 335 Place d’Youville, this museum focuses entirely on the history of the city. Sitting on the site of a former fire station, the museum is a relatively recent addition to the district, opening in 1983. While extensive, a large portion of the museum’s collection is from the 20th century onwards.
This building has stood for well over three centuries and was the first inn in North America. L’Auberge Saint-Gabriel was also the first inn on the continent to be given a liquor license (in 1754). Today, while it still has Auberge in its name, the building is a fine-dining restaurant and a nightclub. It can also be rented for conferences and other special events. It’s located at 426 Saint-Gabriel Street.
Located at 350 Place Royale, this museum opened in 1992 to mark Montreal’s 350th anniversary. The different buildings of the museum cover three different archaeological sites. This includes a crypt, heritage buildings and an archaeological field school at the former Fort Ville-Marie.
Royal Bank Tower
This skyscraper at 360 Saint-Jacques street was massive when it was built in 1928. In fact, it briefly held the title of the tallest building in the entire British Empire at 121 metres, before it was surpassed the very next year by the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. Today the building is a tourist attraction as RBC has since moved its headquarters elsewhere.
History of Old Montreal
The history of Montreal dates all the way back to the beginning of the 17th century. It started when Samuel de Champlain set up a trading post in what is now Place Royale in 1605. While that post was later abandoned, Paul de Chomedey established a permanent settlement in the same spot in 1642. This was known as Fort Ville-Marie, a name that persisted until the turn of the century.
The settlement grew in the 1660s when King Louis XIV sent over a thousand men from France to settle in the area. This is when the first proper streets were created as well as buildings like the Saint-Sulpice Seminary and the original Notre-Dame Church. In the early 1700s the town (now known as Montreal) remained well-fortified. This was due to fears of British attack, and although that never directly happened the British did take control of New France in 1763.
The walls that surrounded Old Montreal were taken down in the early 1800s. As time went on the district became more of a business one with banks and other companies moving in. Interestingly, it was not until relatively recently that Old Montreal was taken seriously as a heritage site. Many old buildings were nearly torn down in a plan to widen streets and despite the area being named a Quebec Historic District the government still tore down some older buildings in the 1960s for a modern courthouse.
In the second half of the 20th century, however, attitudes changed. Old Montreal received newfound appreciation for its history and was revitalized. The city has sponsored renovations of multiple areas within the district and it’s become a popular tourist destination. It’s a good place for Montreal residents to visit too.
For more information you can visit the Tourism Montreal website.
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