Montreal is a city of festivals, public art, culture and MUCH fun! This really is a city for it’s people and its visitors and there always seems to be something going on around every corner! There is an endless list of free festivals and street parties marked on the calendar, they do not need a big excuse for a whole street or section of the city to be shut off and stages erected for the fun to begin!
Montreal gave me a huge impression of being people focused, I left with thoughts that the city wants people living there to feel proud of their city and to have a sense of community, to feel like the city belongs to them, and for people to have a sense of pride in welcoming visitors to their city. I left convinced that they had pulled this off!
We stayed on Rue Saint Denis at Montreal Espace Confort which is a hotel with a hostel section, we stayed in the hotel part, the room had a kitchen area which was quite cool, it was clean…although there was a strange smell which we couldn’t figure out! It was very basic but we were on a budget, it was purely a base for us and the location was really great! Here we were in the heart of the Latin Quarter with so much within walking distance and easy access to the metro and transport links. If I was going again, I probably wouldn’t stay at this hotel…but I would definitely recommend staying in this area. Rue Saint Denis is lined with lovely independent bars, cafes and restaurants of pretty much every taste…and plenty of craft beer pubs! We really liked Saint-Houblon – a bar which serves food with a good selection of beers and a really nice atmosphere…it got pretty busy though during the afternoon. It’s a cool area (the man bun is very common here!) but very laid back and a nice area to wander and spend time.
During our visit, Rue Saint Denis was closed to vehicles and was host to OUMF 2016, Au Quartier Des Spectacles! A free festival in the Quartier Latin with a huge variety of things going on! We stepped out of our hotel onto the street and found it had been totally decorated with graffiti, there were stalls set up with Playstations and X-Box’s for people to play, further along there were mini half pipes set up for people to skate on with displays happening, stages with musicians performing throughout the day into the evening, cabaret shows…so much! The atmosphere was buzzing, we hadn’t known about this festival when booking our trip but we were lucky, it really had a festival feel. The weather helped as well…again we were blessed with bright sunshine and around 30° for most of the time during our visit to Montreal.
Walking east along Rue Saint Denis and continuing towards the St Lawrence River brings you to the historic old port of Montreal. Much of this has been redeveloped and is home to shops and restaurants, there is a city beach here (although it wasn’t open during our visit) and some interesting activities including a zip wire. I don’t know what it was but this area seemed pretty quiet while we were there, it’s a really lovely area but it gave me the impression that things weren’t really catching on here, although we were only in this area during the afternoon, maybe things pick up during the evening.
We walked along the waterfront and had lunch at Scena a restaurant with a lovely terrace, I was feeling really hungry and went straight for the comfort of a cold beer and a burger with sweet potato fries…it was really good. The only problem was the wasps! My friend John was with us again during this trip and having lived in Canada for a while now was telling me that it was the time of year…it was the same in Ottawa…whenever you were sitting outside at a restaurant it was like you were a magnet to at least 5 of them! I felt sorry for the bar staff at the outside bar here, they were pretty much surrounded by a swarm of them! I spent a lot of my time here on red alert, nothing, including a swarm of angry wasps was going to get between me, my burger, and my lovely cold beer! I’m sure it was the time of year though, the food really was good.
Fully refuelled we wandered the pretty cobbled streets of Old Montreal, the original site of Montreal dating back to 1642. This area is home to museums, art galleries, cafes…and the hugely impressive Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.
Described as a masterpiece of gothic revival architecture it was built between 1824 and 1829 on the site of a smaller church. From outside it is an impressive building, but there is no clue as to the intricacy and elaborate decoration within. There are thousands of photographs on social media and is a regular on travellers Instagram accounts, it is so beautiful this is totally understandable! Stepping inside here is 100% a “WOW moment!” Full of colour and light it is amazing. The vaulted ceiling is a deep turquoise with gold stars and the backlit wooden sculptures behind the main altar seem very dramatic.
We had a pretty surreal moment inside here…Montreal was our last destination in Canada before moving onto New York. Inside the cathedral is the famous Casavant organ, the organ player began a performance and to our surprise Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York was belted out! The sound was so loud and intense I think it’s taken a few months off my life with the shock! It must have been a sign!! This obviously led to me and John singing this repeatedly around Montreal to the annoyance of pretty much anyone else in earshot (but mostly my fiancée!).
We had fun discovering Old Montreal but with our time in the city a little on the short side there was a lot we didn’t have the chance to see. High on the list of things for us to explore on our next visit will be the museum of fine arts and Pointe-á-Calliere Museum – a museum of archeology and history along with much much more.
It’s a great area to explore and with more time I would have loved to have spent an afternoon cafe hopping. This area in particular still holds it’s strong French identity and influences in a strong way and in a moment of daydream you could easily picture yourself being in France.
So why is it a city for the people?
There is such a focus on the people! Simple as that! Like I explained earlier there are so many free public festivals organised it is beyond belief, and these are not just festivals in name only…they are HUGE and some really are world class. The Montreal Jazz Festival is world renown and is the biggest jazz festival in the world attracting 2.5 million visitors with crowds reaching well over 100,000 for some shows. When we arrived one festival had just finished, but we could still see that there is a lot of semi permanent infrastructure put in place for them.
Here at the Place des Festivals, which plays host to concerts and shows during various festivals, huge flood lights have been installed, this is just one example of the city really throwing it’s support behind these events.
Another example is MU MTL – an organisation with a mission to turn Montreal into an open air art museum. The founders of this organisation were inspired by a visit to Philadelphia and experiencing the street art here and believed that Montreal would be a perfect place to create this kind of project. With the help of partners, local people, and some world famous graffiti artists MU MTL have helped to “Beautify” parts of the city including social housing areas with amazing pieces of street art, hoping that through this project people will experience art on a daily basis and as they state in their vision “Sustain our relationship with the city every day”. A really great idea.
The works of art are painted over every year so it is constantly refreshing and continues to be fresh for the citizens, the pieces are really striking thought provoking and fun.
Then there is also the Green Alleyways project, where neighbours are encouraged to form a citizens committee and turn alleys between housing into green spaces planting different kinds of plants and maintaining them…another really great way of encouraging a sense of community and pride in where you live.
The Olympic Park
This is a really fun area with so much to do! Located in the Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district north of the city centre, this site was the location of the 1976 Summer Olympics and has been developed into a hub of attractions and entertainment. The Olympic stadium is still here hosting various events, shows and exhibitions and includes the Montreal Tower, the worlds tallest inclined tower! A ticket can be bought to ride to the top and admire the city views from the viewing platform. Also found here are the Biodome, Planetarium, and the insectarium and botanical gardens area just next to this area.
We loved the Biodome and entered twice to savour all of the sights inside. There are four areas/ecosystems where the environment and conditions are recreated as they would be in areas of the Americas. A tropical rainforest, Laurentian Maple Forest which changes with the seasons, the Gulf of St Lawrence, and subpolar regions recreating the conditions of the Labrador Coast and the Sub-Antarctic Islands .
The humidity really has been recreated in the rainforest area, so much so I really was (I’m sorry for this) a sweaty mess by the end of our time here!!! But there is s much to look at, so much happening, I could easily have stayed in this one area for a few hours! Monkeys jumping between trees playing around, parrots perched above your head, an elusive sloth…which I could not find to save my life! Really great fun!
Other highlights for me at the Biodome included feeding time for the River Otters, they are fed live fish and these guys are really efficient…fast hunters! Caiman Crocodilus…There is something really riveting about seeing these reptiles, maybe it is that they are such ferocious predators or their prehistoric appearance, i’m not sure but I was hooked gazing at them for quite a while….even though I didn’t see one actually move! My fiancée needed convincing that they were actually real!! I was watching a recent episode of the island with Bear Grylls where he explained that the strength of their bite was something ridiculous like 40 times more powerful than a lions…DANGER! There were some really chilled out racoons, sleeping beavers, amazing Lynx cats with some cute playful cubs, and a really cool aquarium. BUT…the winner of the most entertaining inhabitants of the bio-dome definitely goes to the penguins in the Sub-Antarctic islands area! They are just so awesome and it is like they are putting on a performance for the visitors! I couldn’t stop thinking of the penguins from the Madagascar Movies! They brought a smile to everyone’s face!
I took so many photos here of the animals, I just couldn’t stop snapping, I’ll post another blog with some more photographs separately!
Here there are great display areas about the final frontier and I particularly found the exhibit on asteroids which have fallen to earth interesting and educational. The highlight of our visit though were the two shows, We are Stars and One Day on Mars. We are Stars is shown on a planetarium dome screen above you whilst you lie on the most comfortable bean bags in the universe! This is a really entertaining, educational animated production narrated by Andy Serkis (Gollum, Lord of the Rings) about the building blocks of life suitable for all ages and explained so well!
One Day on Mars uses the information beamed back by the Curiosity Rover on Mars which takes you into the Gale crater, mapped out exactly using this information. It explains the discoveries made by the rover including evidence of the presence of water and clay, this is held in a more traditional planetarium…in very very comfy chairs…have a coffee before this one!
North America’s largest insect museum with over 150,000 specimens. Huge tarantulas, bird eating spiders, scorpions…all manner of creepy crawlies lurk here! This is a real hit with the kids, but easily enough to give arachnophobes nightmares!
The Botanical Gardens
During September and October the Botanical gardens are lit up at dusk, we were lucky enough to be visiting during this time and the lights create a magical scene, albeit a slightly crowded scene due to how popular the attraction is. The Chinese and Japanese gardens are lit using different techniques creating different environments. The Chinese garden is full of colours reflecting on water with models of Chinese Dragons, animals, things from Chinese culture, spectacular.
The Japanese gardens are more relaxed with lower lighting and slow changing colours creating an atmosphere of contemplation…but there is the haunted Japanese forest…I would not want to be lost in there!
The Biodome, Planetarium, Insectarium and Botanical Gardens are part of the Space For Life Group (Espace Pour la Vie Montreal) you can get a combined ticket including these four attractions and the Montreal Tower for $68.50 per adult $33.75 for kids from their official website I would recommend this if paying for the tickets while you are there. However through TripAdvisor for £68.88 you can purchase the Montreal Pass which gives you access to 23 different attractions including these, plus if you go to Casino Montreal you will be given $25 in gaming credit! Sounds like a great deal if booking in advance!
This park covers the two islands in the St Lawrence River, Ile Sainte-Helene and the man made Ile Notre-Dame, which hosted Expo 67 and is named after mayor Jean-Drapeau who was the person pushing Expo 67. This resulted in some really cool architecture. Ile Notre-Dame was created for the expo and is now where the fantastic Casino Montreal (click the link to check out our experience there and find out a little more about the history) is located and where the Canadian Grand Prix is held.
Ile Sainte-Helene is now a huge pretty park with miles of cycle paths and is where the Biosphere Environmental Museum is located, again housed in a structure built for Expo 67. Also on the island is La Ronde – a six flags amusement park. This island seems to used for activities round the clock, when we passed through there was a fun run being organised and a mass yoga session!
Montreal – Our Final Destination in Canada
During our recent travels Montreal was our final destination in Canada which saw us take in Niagara Falls, Toronto (including the EdgeWalk at the CN Tower and The Distillery District), and then Montreal. We then caught an Amtrak train down to New York City, a really cool experience in itself, a 9 hour train journey crossing the border into the USA, passing some beautiful scenery, a brilliant budget way of visiting two awesome cities during the same trip!
As I said in the introduction, I left Montreal really feeling as if the people living there were proud of their city and were happy to welcome us into their home and show it off! As I’ve said in my other posts, we found Canada to be a very friendly country and Montreal was no different, even at times when there was a language barrier with French being the first language, this was a small hurdle which was easily overcome.
Montreal does have a reputation traditionally of being a party town due to the age of people being able to buy alcohol being 18 instead of 21 in neighbouring New York State! It has a pretty big student population as well which also adds to this reputation…so if you are looking for nightlife, Montreal parties hard! But at no time was the atmosphere intimidating or uncomfortable like it can get for some people in some British town and city centres at the weekend. The mood…to me…always seemed happy.
When To Go?
No time like the present eh? Again if you’ve read my previous posts on our time in Canada you’ll know I’ve been banging on about this…but it is so true! Flights to Canada and the east coast of the USA really are more affordable now due to the number of operators entering the market place, and like we did, I would really recommend looking at including a stopover in Iceland on the way with Iceland Air or WOW Airlines. With Iceland Air this can be included without effecting the cost of the flight. We flew with WestJet to Canada on flights I found searching through TripAdvisor and they were the cheapest I could find, and TripAdvisor at the time was the only search engine showing WestJet in their results, definitely worth checking out.
2017 though is the big year in Canada…they will be celebrating their 150th Birthday as a nation, and it will be Montreal’s 375th Birthday…the planning for these celebrations are already well under way and in Montreal…I get the feeling they may well throw the biggest party Canada has ever seen!
The Canadian Grand Prix is scheduled for 11th June 2017 and would be a great experience and a fantastic time to visit for any fan of F1.
Thanks to all of you who have taken the time to read, share and like these posts from our time in Canada and I really hope you have enjoyed them and they have maybe sowed the seed in your mind about visiting this awesome country. We will definitely be heading back some time, I really want to visit some of the parks and take in the more wild side of Canada, Banff National Park is high on my to do list, as is Vancouver which I have heard many great things about!
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Let me know what you think and if you’ve visited any of these places by either commenting on this post, or by reaching out on social media…I’d love to hear from you!
We were supported by Tourism Montreal in part for our visit and owe them a big thank you! They are a great source of information and if you are planning a trip to Montreal I am sure they would love to hear from you. All opinions are my own.