15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Montreal
Located as it is on the St. Lawrence, Montréal has prospered as a cosmopolitan hub of communications and trade. Jacques Cartier landed here in 1535 and took the territory for his King, François I of France, but it wasn't until 1642 that Paul de Chomedey founded a small mission station here called Ville Marie de Mont-Réal. This original settlement is today Montréal, the second largest French-speaking city in the world. Despite the city's size, the parts of Montreal that interest tourists are in relatively compact neighborhoods. Major museums and arts venues are in the Centre-Ville (downtown) area, where you'll find Rue Sherbrooke, probably the city's most elegant thoroughfare. It is the spine of the city and the location of many museums and other institutions. Rue Ste-Cathérine is Montréal's main shopping thoroughfare, a busy street lined with department stores, shops, and restaurants.
Vieux-Montreal is where the city began, and its original foundations and streets are preserved in the Pointe-à-Callière museum. This was the heart of the colonial town, and its old buildings make it the most picturesque neighborhood in the city. This is where you'll find most of the historic attractions, as well as the popular waterfront promenade along the Vieux-Port (Old Port). Fewer tourists spend time in The Plateau, but it is the heart of French-speaking Montreal. Strolling along Rue St. Denis often feels like being in Paris, with its smart boutiques, restaurants, and sidewalk cafes. Some of the city's most popular restaurants are here, both along Rue St. Denis and elsewhere in this neighborhood that was largely formed by successive waves of immigrants. At its far edge is Mile End, where small groups of streets have distinctly Italian, Portuguese, or Greek atmospheres.
See also: Where to Stay in Montreal
Mont-Royal rises 233 meters above the city and is the green lung near the city center. A stroll through this lovely park enables the visitor to see monuments to Jacques Cartier and King George VI, to spend some time by Lac-aux-Castors, and to have a look at the cemeteries on the western slope where the city's different ethnic groups have rested in peace together for centuries. From the summit, or rather from a platform below the cross, there unfolds a magnificent panorama of the whole of the 51-kilometer length of the Île de Montréal and the St. Lawrence. On clear days, the view extends to the Adirondack Mountains in the United States of America.
2 Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal)
Old Montréal is a remarkable concentration of buildings dating from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The district has the delightful feel of a Parisian-style quarter, situated as it is between the waterfront and the business hub. Its many historic sites, streets, and landmarks are best explored on foot. Of the many things to do here, the highlights are visiting the Pointe-à-Callière museum of archaeology and history, the twin-towered Notre-Dame Basilica, the quays of the revitalized Old Port, and the open-air gathering space of Place Jacques-Cartier.
3 Jardin Botanique (Botanical Garden)
High above the city in the grounds that hosted the 1976 Summer Olympic Games, Parc Maisonneuve (Pie IX Metro) is the site of Montreal's wonderfully imaginative botanical garden. The diverse plants are grown in 30 themed gardens and 10 exhibition greenhouses, so a wide range of climates are represented. Outdoor gardens include the beautiful Japanese and Chinese gardens, as well as those devoted to alpine, aquatic, medicinal, shade, useful, and even toxic plants. The rose displays are stunning, and especially interesting is a garden devoted to those plants grown or used by First Nations peoples. Soaring greenhouses contain a tropical rain forest, ferns, orchids, bonsai, bromeliads, and penjings (miniature Chinese trees). There is also an interesting Insectarium and huge arboretum on the grounds, as well as ponds supporting a variety of birds.
Address: 4101 Sherbrooke Street East, Montréal, Québec
4 Notre-Dame Basilica
Founded in 1656, Montréal's oldest church, Notre-Dame Basilica, stands in a far grander incarnation than the original. The twin towers of the neo-Gothic façade face Place d'Armes. The intricate and resplendent interior was designed by Victor Bourgeau. Highlights are the magnificent carved pulpit by sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert (1850-1917), the 7,000-pipe organ by the Casavant Frères firm, and the stained-glass windows portraying scenes from the founding of Montreal. The admission charge to the basilica includes a 20-minute tour, or you can take a one-hour tour that gives more historical information and access to private areas, including the second balcony and crypt.
Address: 110 Rue Notre-Dame Ouest, Montréal, Québec
5 Oratoire Saint-Joseph (St. Joseph's Oratory)
The Oratoire Saint-Joseph, near the western exit from Mount Royal Park, is dedicated to Canada's patron saint. It is a mecca for pilgrims, with its huge Renaissance-style domed basilica dating to 1924. Brother André of the Congrégation de Sainte-Croix had already built a small chapel here in 1904, where he performed miraculous acts of healing for which he was canonized in 1982. His tomb is in one part of the sanctuary in the original chapel. Votive gifts are displayed in a second chapel. A cloister behind the church leads up to Mont-Royal. There is a good northwest view from the observatory over Montréal and Lac Saint-Louis.
Address: 3800 Queen Mary, Montréal, Québec
6 Parc Jean Drapeau
Île Sainte-Hélène (named after the wife of Samuel de Champlain) and the artificial island of Notre-Dame were the site of Expo '67. They are now known as Parc Jean Drapeau and have many family-minded attractions. A remnant of the 1967 world fair, the Biosphere is now a museum dedicated to ecological issues. The building is designed in the shape of a sphere and is the largest such structure in the world. Other tourist attractions on the islands include the rides and games of La Ronde Amusement Park, the historic 1820 British arsenal at the Stewart Museum, Bassin Olympique (where the Olympic rowing events were held), and race course Circuit Gilles Villeneuve.
7 Musée des Beaux Arts (Fine Arts Museum)
The Musée des Beaux Arts is the oldest museum in Canada and houses vast collections of painting, sculpture, and new media. Its outstanding collections of World Cultures and Mediterranean Archaeology total nearly 10,000 objects, and there are excellent collections of African, Asian, and Islamic art, as well as art from North and South America.
The more than 1,400 paintings, sculptures, drawings, and prints include masterpieces by Pieter Bruegel the Younger, Canaletto, El Greco, Gainsborough, Goya, Mantegna, Poussin, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, and Veronese, and are particularly strong in art works of the Dutch Golden Age. The collections continue through the Realists and Impressionists to modern art, containing works by Cézanne, Dali, Miró, Monet, Derain, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Rodin, Otto Dix, and other influential artists. Not far from the museum is the extensive campus of McGill University.
Address: 1380 Rue Sherbrooke O, Montréal, Québec
At one corner of Place Royale in Vieux-Montréal is the Pointe-à-Callière, now marked by a striking modern building housing a museum of archaeology and history. Place Royale was the center of life in Montréal's early and colonial days, where the market and parade ground were located until later government buildings displaced them. But underneath today's Montréal, remnants of these early streets and foundations still remain, and you can explore these on a visit to the museum. The route through the city's history begins underground, where you can walk among the original stone-paved streets, drainage channels, and ground floors of 17th-century buildings. The story unfolds in layers of history told through artifacts, maps, and exhibits as you climb through the museum. Special exhibitions cover a wide range of history and archaeology worldwide.
Address: 350 Place Royale, Montréal, Québec
9 Place des Arts
The Place des Arts is an entire complex dedicated to visual and performing arts, the largest of its kind in all Canada. Three great cultural organizations make their home here: the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and the Opéra de Montréal, and its various stages and rehearsal halls provide venues for all kinds of theater, music, dance, films, and events. These sit around a large esplanade decorated with works of art, fountains, and water cascades, a popular venue for events. The most important of these is the annual summer Festival International de Jazz de Montréal held in late June and early July, attracting visitors from all over the world and bringing in some of the biggest names in jazz.
The Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal, a contemporary art museum, is particularly worth a visit, especially as young French-Canadian artists are accorded special prominence.
Address: 185 Rue St. Catherine Ouest, Montréal, Québec
10 Atwater and Jean Talon Markets
Similar establishments with many of the same vendors, the Atwater Market and Jean Talon Market are Montréal's busiest public markets and well worth visiting for their atmosphere and local food specialties and products. Located in warehouse-style buildings, the markets feature vendors selling fruits and vegetables, flowers, meats, fish, cheese, baked goods, and specialty foods. You'll find maple syrup and candies, dried wild blueberries, home-style fruit jams and preserves, and the region's fine cheeses, as well as restaurants and cafés selling luscious pastries. The markets are a favorite stop for locals on Saturday mornings for a boule of coffee and a flaky croissant.
11 St. Mary Queen of the World
The Catholic Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, east of Place du Canada, was built in 1894 as a smaller version of St. Peter's in Rome. The massive statues represent the patron saints of the 13 parishes of Montreal in the 19th century and were all sculpted by Olindo Gratton between 1892 and 1898. The most important artwork in the interior is the crucifix by Philippe Hébert, atop the marble baptismal font. A series of nine paintings, seven of which are by Georges Delfosse, retell Montréal's tumultuous history.
Address: 1085 Rue de la Cathédrale, Montréal, Québec
12 McCord Museum
The McCord Museum has an outstanding collection of exhibits on Canada's social history, especially native peoples. Its collections of costumes, clothing, accessories, quilts, and other hand-made textiles total more than 20,000 objects and include works by Montreal fashion designers. More than a thousand pieces of furniture, silver, ceramics, glass, and items related to food and household uses, as well as toys, sports equipment, and folk art lend color and domestic detail to the picture of early Canadian life. Artifacts and arts of the First Nations peoples include clothing and accessories, hunting and fishing equipment, weapons of war, domestic implements, ceremonial items, and art, as well as archaeological finds from early aboriginal cultures.
Address: 690 Sherbrooke Streeet W, Montreal, Québec
13 Square Saint-Louis and Rue Denis
Near the Sherbrooke Metro Station, Square Saint-Louis rates as one of Montréal's prettiest old squares and is set in a turn-of-the-century French-Canadian residential quarter. In the little streets around the tree-shaded square, there are still a few attractive Victorian houses. Some now house pleasant restaurants. At the square's eastern edge and running parallel to St. Laurent, Rue St. Denis is one of the hippest shopping, arts, and dining streets in Montréal. Historic buildings have been converted into boutiques, bistros, and cafés. At one end, St. Denis starts in the student-minded Quartier Latin neighborhood (it's handy to Université du Québec à Montréal and the Grande Bibliothèque) and heads west into the trendy Plateau area with its independent designers and chef-run restaurants.
14 Lachine Canal National Historic Site
Lachine, on the southeast bank of Montréal Island (in Lac St.-Louis), got its name from the first pioneers who, in the 17th century, made their way up the St. Lawrence looking for a route to China (in French, "la Chine"). The 14.4-kilometer Lachine Canal, a way of getting around the Lachine Rapids, was dug in 1825. It is many years, however, since it was last used for shipping and nowadays, it forms part of a park and offers plenty of opportunities for charming trips along the canal banks. A bike path borders its entire length, through an open green space, and you can also cruise the canal by boat.
Montréal's Chinatown is centered on Rue de la Gauchetière, with Chinese gates marking the heart of the quarter. This colorful neighborhood dates from the late 1860s, when many of the Chinese laborers, who originally came to work in the mines and build the railroad, moved into the cities in search of a better life. Today's Chinatown is filled with Asian restaurants and shops, no longer exclusively Chinese, but a place where locals and tourists go to enjoy a good meal.
Where to Stay in Montreal for Sightseeing
The best place to stay in Montreal is in Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal), not only for the sights but also for the ambience that comes with the old architecture and cobbled streets. This area of the city is small enough to explore on foot, so any hotel here is in a good location. Below are some highly-rated hotels in or near this area of Montreal:
- Luxury Hotels: The Hotel Nelligan is an elegant boutique hotel with impeccable service, inviting décor, and exposed centuries-old brick and stone walls that fit perfectly in Old Montreal. In the same caliber and with a similar historic feel is the 45-room Auberge du Vieux-Port, set along the waterfront of the St. Lawrence River. In a 19th-century building with modern décor, the Hotel Gault is another fine option in Old Montreal. If you are interested in staying in Montreal's modern city center rather than Old Montreal, the Ritz-Carlton is one of the finest hotels in the city and has hosted many celebrities over the years.
- Mid-Range Hotels: On the edge of Old Montreal and the financial district, and just a short walk from the famous Notre-Dame Basilica, is the Embassy Suites by Hilton, with a contemporary feel and a variety of rooms and suites. In the heart of Old Montreal, on what was the city's first public square, the popular Le Petit Hotel offers a mix of old world charm and modern comforts. Nearby, the Auberge Bonaparte is a boutique hotel set in a historic building, with lovely rooms and Louis-Philippe style décor.
- Budget Hotels: In Chinatown, but within walking distance of both Old Montreal and downtown, is the Travelodge, with small rooms but a convenient location. North of Chinatown, but also in a good location close to some of the major attractions, is the Hotel l'Abri du Voyageur. This hotel offers a variety of budget rooms at various price points. The Chateau de l'Argoat is a boutique hotel with plenty of character and large, comfortable rooms, about a 20-minute walk from Old Montreal.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Montreal
- Sightseeing: The most popular tourist area in Montreal is historic Old Montreal. If this is your first time to the city, a guided Walking Tour of Old Montreal is a wonderful way to explore the cobblestone streets and narrow lanes while learning about the history. For a quick overview of a larger portion of the city, the Montreal City Guided Sightseeing Tour offers a three-hour motor coach tour that includes the major sites around Old Montreal as well as other famous sites like Saint Joseph's Oratory, Mount Royal, and the Olympic Stadium. If you have time to explore the city and want a more in-depth experience try the Montreal City Hop-on Hop-off Tour. This option allows you to get off at any of the 10 different stops over a two day period and sightsee at your own pace.
- Day Trips: One of the most popular day trips from Montreal is the Quebec City and Montmorency Falls Day Trip. This full-day guided tour takes you through the historic streets and sites of Quebec City and lets you see some of the countryside, including the spectacular Montmorency Falls. From May to October, you can also add on a St. Lawrence River Cruise or just wander through Old Quebec.