Montreal: The Canadian City that turns 375 in 2017

This year Montreal, within Canada’s predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec is commemorating the 375th anniversary of the city’s establishment.

There’s a distinct buzz around the city alongside the St Lawrence River.

The metropolis of more than four million people is also commemorating half-a-century since hosting Expo 67, the 1967 World’s Fair that drew in excess of 13 million attendees.

This year also marks the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, the act that created a dominion and is widely regarded the birth of modern Canada.

Inevitably, that alignment of notable anniversaries means a calendar packed with celebratory events. They are being organised according to four themes — Montreal gets moving, Montreal ignites, Montreal lights up and Montreal reinvents — meaning a broad range of interests and subject matter is being covered.

Light and Sound in Montreal

Wander around the Old Town after darkness falls and you need only look around to discover more about the characters who helped shape Montreal into the dynamic hub it is today. Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon collaborated to create Cité Mémoire (until 10 April 2017). The sound and light show projects video clips onto walls and streets, providing a sense of the city’s evolution over the centuries.

During daytime you might be struck by how the historic facades of Old Montreal bear striking similarities to characterful buildings in the ports of Brittany, from where numerous settlers set sail in bygone times.

The Neo-Gothic Christ Church Cathedral stands in the heart of the city — nearby skyscrapers dwarf the spire of this place of worship, whose wood interiors draw visitors of all beliefs. Equally as iconic is the Classical, cupola-topped façade of the Marché Bonsecours, which opened 170 year ago and continues to draw people into its shops and cafes.

The clock tower by the St Lawrence River.
The clock tower by the St Lawrence River.

Views of the Marché Bonsecours

Some of the best views of the market hall are from Bonsecours Basin, by the St Lawrence River. A 45-metre tall clock tower marks the end of the tree-lined quay leading from the basin and commemorates the seamen who lost their lives during World War One.

You can climb its 192 steps for views over the waterfront district, including the broad Promenade du Vieux-Port, which is a pleasant to stroll along on fine days. Doing so will take you past the Jacques Cartier Basin, named in honour of the explorer who led three major voyages from France to North America between 1534 and 1542.

Should the weather prove inclement, or simply too cold, you can retreat underground, into Montreal’s expansive network of pedestrian passageways. Remarkably, 32km of interconnected corridors criss-cross beneath downtown buildings.

They host around 1,700 stores and 200 restaurants. Locals know this as ‘the underground city’. It attracts half-a-million people every day and is especially popular during winter.

The ice, though, has its attractions. You don’t need to leave the downtown area to visit the home of the city’s most celebrated sporting sons. The Montreal Canadiens play their home fixtures at the Centre Bell, whose 21,273 seats make it the largest venue in the National Hockey League.

Climbing the Mount Royal

To raise your heart rate via activities rather than cheering on the stick work and body checking of the hockey, visit the Mount Royal public park. The park is popular with walkers and joggers in warmer months. When it’s icy you can hire snow shoes and cross-country skis and exhale billowing clouds of breath while following a network of prepared trails.

Locals might tell you the first person of European look down from the 233-metre peak was Jacques Cartier, back in 1535. The paved terrace of the hilltop Kondiaronk Belvedere offers fine views over the trees of the expansive urban park and thrusting skyline.

If you’re aficionado of building design, stop by the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Baile Street). It’s possible to join a guided tour of the premises, Shaughnessy House — a grand, stone-built mansion dating from 1874 — to view exhibitions. The adjacent sculpture park also warrants a visit.

Montreal's Jean-Talon market
Montreal’s Jean-Talon market

Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

For a broader array of artworks, head to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1380 Rue Sherbrooke O.). The collection encompasses archaeological finds plus exhibits from world cultures, as well as artworks by leading Expressionists and contemporary artists such as Antony Gormley.

The Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace was unveiled as recently as November, and its four floors host international artworks by the likes of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Wassily Kandinsky. Until 22 June the exhibition Chagall: Colour and Music, featuring 400 of Mark Chagall’s works, will be drawing visitors to this critically acclaimed venue.

Increasingly, Montreal is regarded as an exciting foodie destination. In part, that’s down to the cross-current of multicultural influences evident in the city. A number of young, innovative chefs are showing that they are unafraid to try new things.

To taste tacos featuring Asian flavours, head to Grumman ‘78 (630 de Courcelle). In addition to being a hip low-cost eatery, its food truck is one of several mobile outlets that visit destinations around the city. Chaud Dogs (serving gourmet hot dogs) and Le Tuk Tuk (creating Thai snacks) count among the trucks that Montreal’s residents look out for.

A stroll in Mile End

The resurgent Mile End district is worth heading to if you want to browse clothing boutiques such as Annex Vintage (56 Rue Saint Viateur O) and Citizen Vintage (5330 St-Laurent Boulevard). It’s also the home of Schwartz’s (3895 St-Laurent Boulevard), a busy deli whose secret seasonings have been attracting diners since 1928. Framed pictures of celebrity diners are displayed on the walls.

Equally as appetising are the stalls at Jean-Talon Market, in the Little Italy district. Farm produce, artisanal cheeses and ice creams count among the products sold. So too is maple syrup harvested from the province’s trees. If you’re a gourmand looking to taste regional produce, spend a couple of hours sampling wares and picking up snacks.

The weather will play a factor in whether you head back to your room or to the nearby Jarry Park. There’s plenty more to explore in this up-and-coming part of Montreal, away from the well-known sights of the downtown and Old Town districts.

Further information

Find out more about the programme of events commemorating the 375th anniversary of the foundation on the Montreal Alive 375 website.

To find out more about the city’s attractions, take a look at the Montreal Tourism Information site, www.mtl.org. If you plan on travelling further afield, see the www.quebecoriginal.com website, which has information about the province.

The www.canada.travel website also has information about Montreal and Quebec, plus information on the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

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Men enjoy sunshine in Jarry Park, Montreal.
Men enjoy sunshine in Jarry Park, Montreal.

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