Canada: the history and must see sights of Montreal

Kieran Meeke / 25 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The 12th installment in a series of articles, we look at Montreal.



Montréal is the second largest city in Canada after Toronto and the 15th largest in North America.

Celebrating its 375th anniversary in 2017, it will see a major boost in visitors as its hosts a number of major commemorative events and opens a new cruise port. 

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences Find out more here.

History

Montréal is built around Mont Royal, a small hill with three peaks, from which it also takes its name. 

The hill was named after Francis I of France by French explorer Jacques Cartier in 1535, at which time there was a small Iroquois village at its foot.

The first permanent European settlement was established in 1642 as a centre for the fur trade. It passed from French into British hands in 1760, along with the rest of Canada, a year after Wolfe’s at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City.

Scots replaced the French fur traders and it was English-speaking merchants who in 1817 founded the Bank of Montreal (BMO), Canada’s oldest. 

It financed the nine-mile Canal de Lachine, which opened in 1825 to bypass the treacherous Lachine Rapids.

Taking shipping away from Quebec City, the canal made Montréal into a major North America port and in turn spurred the growth of industry in factories built on its banks.

Montréal’s population quadrupled over the 50 years after the canal’s construction, with thousands of Irish immigrants and an influx of rural French from the rest of Quebec.

The economic boom continued after Canadian Confederation in 1867, when Montréal was recognised as the new country’s financial centre, as well as a railway hub and port. 

A new wave of European immigrants, many from Eastern Europe and Russia, saw French-speakers becoming a minority and an economic underclass.

Tensions flared in the inter-war years, when Montréal became “Sin City” for American’s escaping Prohibition, and then again during World War II conscription.

Mayor Jean Drapeau transformed the city in the 1950s and ‘60s with his plans to build up and down: a city of skyscrapers connected by a Metro and underground passages to escape winter.

The Metro was vital to Montréal’s Expo ‘67, which attracted 50 million visitors and put the city on the world map. The 1976 Olympics were less successful, with massive cost overruns that left a major debt.

The election of Parti Québécois the same year made French the sole official language of Quebec and drove many English speakers out. That led to the direct rise of Toronto as the new financial capital.

By the 1990s, Montréal was in real trouble financially but has slowly rebounded after Quebec’s separatists lost an independence referendum by only a 1 per cent margin. 

Low wages attracted new business and the economy is booming again, particularly in the high tech and new media sectors.

Getting Around

Montréal is a walking city, and there are 20 miles of Underground City (RESÓ) to protect you from the weather. 

This underground set of passageways connects offices, theatres, museums and other major sites, and also offers shopping, restaurants and other services. It’s open all year but obviously more popular, indeed vital, in winter. 

The RESÓ also connects to the underground Métro, which offers a faster way to get around Montréal. Buy a 24-hour pass for sightseeing. 

It runs from 5.30am to 1am (1.30 am on Saturdays). The RESÓ is open for roughly the same hours. The Métro does not connect to the airport but there is an express bus, as well as taxis. 

Free maps of the RESÓ are available at Métro stations. 

Discover Quebec and Atlantic Canada on a 14 night tour Find out more here.

Major Sights

Old Montréal

The oldest part of the city, Old Montreal, sits on the Saint Lawrence River and some of its winding, cobbled alleys and historic buildings date back to the 1700s. 

Once walled, the compact area had filled with wooden buildings by the 1770s, which made it vulnerable to fire. 

The rebuilt areas had a more British feel and you’ll find many Victorian-style buildings, as well as a few that retain a French influence. There are also some earliest skyscrapers, including the 1888 New York Life Building, Canada’s oldest.

Must-do: Visit the Bonsecours Market, built in domed Classical Revival style in the 1840s as the City Hall but now an upmarket shopping mall. 

Pointe-à-Callière

Named for Chevalier Louis Hector de Callière, third governor of the city who had a home built here in 1688, the Pointe-à-Callière museumhas extensive displays of the city’s history and archaeology. 

Set on the waterfront of Old Montréal, the underground caverns reveal the actual foundations of the city. A major extension is planned to open in mid-2017.

Must-do: Catch the 18-minute multimedia show that takes you from the birth of Montréal to the present, via the Ice Age.

Mount Royal Park

Officially opened on Queen Victoria’s birthday in 1876, the Mount Royal Park was originally designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, more famous for his work on New York’s Central Park. 

Set around the three peaks of Mount Royal, it is popular with skaters, skiers, snowshoers and tobogganists in winter, and in other seasons hosts regular events such as tango dancing and drumming circles. 

There is also a sculpture garden and scenic forest.

Must-do: Take one of the regular walking tours which explore different parts of the park’s history every week.

Notre-Dame Basilica

The neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica was the largest church in North America when it was dedicated in 1829. 

Architect James O’Donnell was so moved by the experience of building it that he converted to Catholicism. The splendid, polychromed interior took another 50 years to complete, and the 32-foot pipe organ was completed in 1891. 

It was the setting for Celine Dion’s wedding in 1994, broadcast on Canadian national TV, and the state funeral of prime minister Pierre Trudeau in 2000.

Must-do: Try to catch one of the regular organ recitals.

Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (Musee des Beaux-Arts)

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is Montréal’s largest museum and its rich collection celebrates the best in European and especially Canadian art, both historic and contemporary, including works by Rembrandt, Picasso and Monet. 

Other highlights include art objects from Egyptian, Greco-Roman and other civilisations, as well as some 500 Inuit pieces and 180 Amerindian artefacts.

Must-do: Visit the striking Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, opened in December 2016 in time for Montréal’s 375th Anniversary and the 150th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

Biodôme de Montréal

Anyone who has visited the Eden Project will be familiar with the concept of displaying different climate zones, in this case from the Americas. 

Originally the velodrome for the 1976 Olympic Games, the Biodome de Montreal is now split into areas reproducing a South American rainforest, a North American maple forest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and both sub-Arctic (Labrador) and sub-Antarctic environment. 

Animals typical of each region, including lynx and penguins, inhabit their respective zones.

Must-do: Combine this with a trip to the nearby Montréal Insectarium or Montréal Botanical Garden.

Maison Saint-Gabriel

Explore the history of the New France at the Maison Saint-Gabriel Museum, set in an original farmhouse from 1668. 

More than 15,000 artefacts show how life was for the nuns who ran the farm, and costumed staff bring the experience of early settlers to life. The gardens are also a loving recreation of this period of Quebec’s history.

Must-do: Hear the story of how the nuns acted as matchmakers to local soldiers.

Major Events

Montréal AVUDO

Running from mid-May to September, 2017, the Old Port hosts a multimedia show by Daniele Finzi Pasca that is a “poetic tribute“ to the Saint Lawrence River. 

There will be more than 100 free performances of the show during the summer as part of the 375th anniversary celebrations.

Montréal Fireworks Festival

This international fireworks competition lights up La Ronde amusement park on Saint Helen’s Island and the Saint Lawrence River every June/July. 

Recognised as the world’s largest, the Montreal Fireworks Festival entertains three million spectators with shows twice-weekly that are synchronised to music broadcast on local radio.

Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix

The waterfront track on Ile Notre-Dame, named for local F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve after his death in 1982, is a magnificent setting for the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, a race that the whole city gets behind. 

Rue Ste Catherine is transformed with street parties and F1 events, and the rest of Montréal shuts down for the June race weekend.

Montréal Cirque Festival

The Montreal Cirque Festival is an international festival of circus arts in July which brings in hundreds of artists and acrobats from all over the world to display their skills. 

There are both indoor and free outdoor events throughout the city that is home to Cirque du Soleil.

Just for Laughs Comedy Festival

Held over two weeks in July, the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival draws plenty of big names for the world’s largest international comedy festival. 

Montréal’s Quartier Latin is the heart of the event, which hosts 1,500 events in a multitude of venues, and is famed for discovering new talent.

Montréal en Lumière

One of the largest winter festivals in the world, the Montreal en Lumiere combines gastronomy and performing arts to cheer up winter nights

Around 500 chefs show off their skills around the city, while music concerts, dance events and circus shows entertain the crowds against a backdrop of illuminations.

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