The best way to begin exploring Montreal is to start where the city did. Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal) is where the largest city in Quebec first took root and is still a mix of cobbled streets, small shops, cozy bistros and the occasional horse-drawn carriage.
This Olde Worlde feel is somehow enhanced by the contrast involved in the journey here, which almost inevitably involves frenetic boulevard traffic between modern high-rises.
Metro station Place-d’Armes is an ideal starting point for an Old Montreal walking tour.
The first obvious stop is Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal’s oldest church (1656), which is impressively overstuffed with carvings, sculptures and stained glass. Gaudy? Maybe, but certainly unmissable.
Make your way downhill to the water’s edge from here and you’ll be looking at the giant Saint Lawrence River from Montreal’s Old Port. Long the city’s commercial hub, industrial buildings of all vintages stand here, but few still serve their original purposes. Some are derelict. Others have new purpose catering to visitors wandering the broad promenade. River cruises depart from here in summer, while in winter there’s outdoor ice-skating.
Walk two minutes or so north along the promenade and you’ll be alongside Jacques Cartier Pier; which often hosts festivals.
A block inland of Jacques Cartier Pier you’ll find Place Jacques-Cartier, a flowery European-style plaza occupied by buskers, market stalls and strolling visitors – at least in the summer. Cafés here are tempting spots for a bit of people-watching, but the choice location is reflected in high prices and very ordinary food.
Back toward the Old Port lies the district’s most inviting street to wander: the cobbled Rue Saint Paul, which parallels the waterfront block. It’s lined with bistros and gift shops and is a good route to make your way south to the Pointe-a-Calliere Archeology Museum. Here the city’s beginnings are unraveled through excavated city foundations, along with quite a few revealing First-Nation and early settler artifacts. Whatever your feelings about visiting the museum, the building’s lookout tower is always worth a look. Climbing it is free of charge and the port views are great.
Next head back uphill, past the Notre-Dame Basilica, and you’ll be halfway to Montreal’s Chinatown – a five minute walk via Rue Saint-Urbain. Sadly, Chinatown lacks any specific attractions, yet its brisk ethnic vibe is worth experiencing and the many authentic and inexpensive restaurants make it a great lunch stop.
Another five minutes’ walk beyond this (via Rue Saint-Urban and Rue Saint-Catherine) and you’ll be at Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art. This is the foremost exhibition space of a city hooked on contemporary art – a multitude of art studios congregate in its low-rent neighborhoods – making it a great place to get a handle on the city today.
The museum is located within the Place des Arts complex – and part of Montreal’s Underground City, with shops galore and six concert halls, so you may find something interesting to go onto afterward.
From the Place-des-Artes metro station it’s two stops (or a 12-minute walk) to Berri-UQAM, the nearest stop to a stretch of Rue St. Denis where restaurants and bars buzz until the small hours.