Montreal’s Neighborhoods: Step Back in Time in Vieux-Montreal
Like most large metropolitan areas, Montreal is a city of neighborhoods. And because Montreal is extremely walkable–and boasts a fantastic, easy-to-navigate metro system–exploring all of these neighborhoods could not be easier. Three days there gave me a great overview of each neighborhood–from my home base in the Latin Quarter, I was able to visit the quirky Village and the classic Downtown core; I walked (and rode the metro) from the bustling Chinatown to the quaint streets of the Plateau neighborhood. I even made it up to the top (ok, the middle) of Parc Mont-Royal. And I’ll tell you a bit about each of these areas in posts-to-come. But for now, I’ll start where most tourists do–in Old Town.
American tourists have an obsession with all things old. This seems fair–after all, we’re a relatively new nation with very few well-preserved historical structures or areas (the United States didn’t ‘get’ the whole preservation thing for far too long; I blame the 1950s). It’s this obsession with all things old that drives travelers out of North America to visit the historic cities of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, or the remnants of ancient civilizations in South America and Africa. But cash-and-time-strapped travelers like myself can get a bit of a history fix by making a trip to our neighbors to the north. In many Canadian cities, you’ll find pieces of the not-too-distant past that will make you feel like you are worlds–and centuries–away.
Of course, while you’re there, you’re not just going to wander around and gawk at old buildings (though, to be fair, that’s exactly what I did for a good part of my visit). The super-touristy Old Town of Montreal has many things to offer. And, thankfully, none of them are stressful, crowded, or involve huge amounts of money.
Cheap (and Free) Things to do in Old Town Montreal
Browse the Markets and Shops
I’m not a shopper–but I am a window shopper. And there are tons of great window-shopping–and actual shopping–opportunities in Old Town. You will find everything from cheap and witty t-shirts to hand-carved home decor and hand-made jewelry. If the weather is pleasant, just strolling around browsing the shops is a great way to spend a few hours. And if the weather is less than pleasant, check out the Bonsecours Market–a gorgeous old market building that has been transformed into, well, a gorgeous new market building.
Oh–and as an added bonus, the market building has very clean, very modern, very empty (at least when I visited) public restrooms. And I’m always on the lookout for good public restrooms!
Stroll Along the Waterfront
After checking out the inside of Bonsecours Market, walk around the back of the building for a walk along the waterfront. Here you’ll find lovely views across the river, a variety of boat tour options (I didn’t take one–I’m not sure why), and, four docks down, the Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History.
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
You’ve shopped, you’ve walked–you must be getting hungry by now. And thirsty, too. No worries–there are plenty of places to eat and drink in Vieux-Montreal. In fact, I spent a lovely evening cafe-hopping in Old Town. The plan was to simply have a seat and order a glass of wine. I swear I wasn’t hungry. But when I decided I absolutely needed a beverage, I simply picked the closest place with an available outside cafe table and sat down. I didn’t even know where I was–but it turns out I stopped at a place called Montreal Poutine (how touristy is that?) and, well, I’d never tried poutine. And giant platters of it continued to pour forth from the kitchen. And, well, it smelled really good (it did not, however, look really good. Looking good is not something poutine is able to do.)
It tasted really good, too.
Fortified with fried potatoes and gravy, I made my way back towards Place Jacques Cartier, a cobblestone-paved pedestrian area that serves at the touristic center of Old Town. Where I found another cafe and ordered another glass of wine. And then another and another. A man with a guitar played in the center of the square, and I sat there and listened–for quite some time.
Montreal tip: bring tip money for wandering musicians. Just as you’d tip your waitstaff, it is only fair to pay the man (or women or children or mime or dancing dog) who provides your entertainment.
Visit Notre Dame
If you’re still able to walk after all of that food and wine, continue up the hill and make a left onto Rue Notre Dame (I swear to god I had a brief argument with my husband about whether we were on the right street or not. I was like ‘it’s called RUE NOTRE DAME! They can’t make it any more obvious!’) to visit what must be one of the most beautiful churches in all of North America. In fact, Notre Dame is so impressive, I feel it warrants a post all its own. So you’ll just have to wait a while for that and be content with the one photo I’ve included above. Or you could go to Montreal and check it out yourself. That would probably be more fun.
Take a Self-Guided Photo Tour
Of course, while doing all of the things listed above–the shopping, the strolling, the sipping–my trusty camera was around my neck the entire time. Be warned–if you like taking photos and your spouse or travel companion is bothered by the constant stopping and shooting–maybe leave that spouse or travel partner at home. What? You didn’t think I’d suggest leaving the camera at home, did you? Mon dieu!
And speaking of photos, here are some of my personal Vieux-Montreal shots. They all make me want to return as soon as possible–perhaps in the winter, to see the city covered in snow (and, well, because it is winter now and that would mean I could return sooner!)
Have you been to Montreal? If so, what is your favorite part of the city? Share in the comments below, and stay tuned for future posts Montreal’s Neighborhoods posts!