Historical Buildings Walking Tour, Montreal

Historical Buildings Walking Tour (Self Guided), Montreal

Home to four centuries of architecture, Montréal is a place all its own, shaped by French and English influences, where modern buildings coexist with some of the oldest and most fascinating structures. Along with areas from Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics, Old Montréal's historic buildings stand out as some of the most enduring sights, continuing to thrive in the city and to define its architectural identity. On the way over to them, there are many interesting little boutiques in which to poke around and buy souvenirs or other goods, as well as tasty and diverse restaurants where you'll be wined and dined in style. Take this self-guided walking tour for an excellent opportunity to admire the historic side of Montréal.
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Historical Buildings Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Historical Buildings Walking Tour
Guide Location: Canada » Montreal (See other walking tours in Montreal)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 10
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.8 Km or 2.4 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Bonsecours Market (Marche Bonsecours)
  • City Hall (Hotel de Ville)
  • Notre-Dame Basilica
  • Old Saint-Sulpice Seminary
  • Montreal History Center (Centre d'Histoire de Montréal)
  • Molson Bank
  • Hudson's Bay (La Baie d'Hudson)
  • Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde
  • Sun Life Building
  • Windsor Station (Gare Windsor)
Bonsecours Market (Marche Bonsecours)

1) Bonsecours Market (Marche Bonsecours)

For over a century this elongated two-story building, inaugurated in 1847, housed the main agricultural market for the Montreal area. With its tin-plated dome and neoclassical style, it's considered one of the ten major achievements in the history of Canadian architecture. After standing idle for a few years there was some talk of tearing it down, but that changed in 1963 when it was re-purposed as a place for exclusive boutiques selling everything from authentic Canadian crafts to jewelry, leather, and hand-blown glass, all designed and made in Québec. All the maple tree products you can imagine can be found here, too: maple beer, maple wine, maple butter, and even maple lollipop.

If shopping doesn't appeal, just walk around the exterior of the grand-looking building to find great angles to photograph its architectural features such as the dome and columns. Cafés and restaurants line the facade, and there are still events being hosted – from banquets to trade fairs, weddings and conferences.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–6pm (Jan-Mar / Nov–Dec 15); Sun-Wed: 10am–6pm; Thu-Sat: 10am–9pm (Apr 1–Jun 22 / Labor Day–Oct 31); Mon-Sat: 10am–9pm; Sun: 10am–6pm (Jun 23–Labor Day); Mon-Sat: 10am–7pm; Sun: 10am–6pm (last two weeks of Dec)
City Hall (Hotel de Ville)

2) City Hall (Hotel de Ville)

As is the case with some cities, city halls tend to be icons and featured on postcards and in tour books. Such is definitely the case with Montréal's Hôtel de Ville of the late 19th century, which overlooks the port and takes its place alongside other important administrative buildings. One of the best examples of the Second Empire style in Canada, its front and its sides are beautifully decorated with attractive turrets, balconies, and mansard roofs, and that's what you see if walking along Rue Notre-Dame or if walking up Place Jacques-Cartier.

Inside, the Hall of Honour is an open space full of marble/gold embellishments that houses Art Deco lamps from Paris and a bronze-and-glass chandelier, also from France, weighing a metric ton. In the council room, the five stained-glass windows, installed in the 1920s, depict the fundamental aspects of the city: religion, agriculture, the port, commerce, and finance.

Behind Hôtel de Ville is a pocket of green known as the Champ-de-Mars, which served as a military parade ground and city parking lot before it was converted into a park in the 1980s. During the conversion, workers unearthed remains from the city's old fortifications, and parts of the restored city walls were incorporated into the site.

As opposed to many gov't buildings with restricted public entry, the Montréal City Hall permits visitors to take a quick free tour. There are a handful of these to choose from, with the separate FR/EN schedules clearly visible when walking in.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 8:30am–5pm
Notre-Dame Basilica

3) Notre-Dame Basilica (must see)

A stunning example of Gothic Revival architecture, the Notre-Dame Basilica is renowned for its lavish, colorful and dramatic interior. Filled with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and several religious statues, it was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989. The $10 admission fee doesn't turn away tourists who line up to be admitted, using the very informative brochure as a self-guide (additionally, a 20-minute English/French tour is free with entry).

You get a feel for the basilica's grandness right as you approach its bell towers rising high and its three statues looking out over the metropolis: the Virgin Mary (representing Montréal), St. John the Baptist (representing Québec), and St. Joseph (representing Canada). Inside, the vaults are colored deep blue and decorated with golden stars, while the rest of the sanctuary is decorated in blues, azures, reds, purples, silver, and gold. Unusual for a church, too, the stained glass windows along the walls do not depict biblical scenes, but rather the religious and social life of the early Ville-Marie settlement, showing the city's strong ties to the Catholic religion. Another spectacular highlight is the Casavant Frères pipe organ, dated 1891, which comprises four keyboards and 7000 individual pipes.

Notre-Dame Basilica has witnessed several grand weddings (including Céline Dion's) and funerals of eminent personalities. If you're interested in classical and religious music, the building plays host to concerts throughout the year.

The 'AURA' light show (presented usually at 7 and 9pm) is exceptional but sometimes full so plan your visit: you can book your ticket online or come early before the show timing. Try sitting somewhere in the middle – between 50-70% from the front, and more towards the middle to get the best music & light experience.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 8am–4:30pm; Sat: 8am–4pm; Sun: 12:30pm–4pm
Old Saint-Sulpice Seminary

4) Old Saint-Sulpice Seminary

Montréal's second-oldest structure, the Sulpician Seminary located next to Notre-Dame Basilica was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980, taking into consideration the quality of the architecture, which is a rare and remarkable example of 17th-century classical design built during the French Regime, but also the remarkable integrity of its convent garden, which once served as a means of subsistence, besides its use for meditation and leisure.

Since the 1680s, the seminary has served as the residence and administrative centre of the Messieurs of Saint-Sulpice who were the seigneurs of the Island of Montréal until the end of the seigneurial regime. The main building, which is the oldest part, is also the one that has been the least changed over the centuries. Its façade, of rough-cut limestone masonry, has a remarkable neoclassical-style entrance gate, built in 1740, through which you can peek at the clock – one of the oldest of its kind in North America. A real window on Montréal's past, and the oldest Seminary where priests still live today!
Montreal History Center (Centre d'Histoire de Montréal)

5) Montreal History Center (Centre d'Histoire de Montréal)

At more than 100 years of age, this former fire station could tell a story or two. Note that the architecture is a lot different from the other buildings in Montréal. Why? Because it's Flemish (the scallops up the side are the dead giveaway)! Adding to the charm is its proximity to many other heritage sites and historic buildings, such as Pointe-à-Calliere, the city's birthplace.

Boasting a collection of over 2,500 artifacts, some of which date back as far as the first contact with the indigenous Iroquis in 1535, the repurposed fire station looks at six important time frames in Montréal's civic history through archival footage, animated maps and reconstructions. The artifacts displayed are obviously meant to fit into the space, and you will be surprised to find plenty of information, including an overview of the period, the popular housing architecture of the time, as well as notable Montréalers and the changing maps as the city expanded.

The top floor is used for fascinating temporary exhibitions, and you're welcome to explore the Center's virtual museum on the website, featuring all previous installments, prior to actually visiting the venue.

Opening Hours:
Wed-Sun: 10am–5pm
Molson Bank

6) Molson Bank

Molson Bank sits at the heart of the city's (and country's) former business center, in the western part of Rue St-Jacques, which speaks favorably of, and largely added to, its commercial prestige over the years. The bank's mansion-like appearance is in dramatic contrast with the very tall neighboring structures built in later periods; that notwithstanding, the Ohio buff sandstone facing, an innovation at the time, harmonizes well with the variety of stone used later in the area.

As part of the classical-minded composition, the ground floor's rusticated masonry, and the more delicately treated floor above, owe their architectural vocabulary to northern Italian Renaissance design, recalled by the mascaron keystones. The centre porch and all of the upper part of the building, on the other hand, derived their design from contemporaneous French architecture, as evidenced by the red granite twin columns, segmental windows, spiral-shaped window fins, the crowning sculpture, the mansard roof and the metallic cresting. Imported from London, this manner of combining Italian Renaissance and French influences made the Molson Bank building a participant, before any New York bank, in what would later be designated as the Second Empire style.

Harry Markland Molson, one of the bank's directors, was among the passengers who died in the Titanic disaster. He was last seen on board, removing his shoes with intentions to swim to a nearby ship. His body was never recovered.
Hudson's Bay (La Baie d'Hudson)

7) Hudson's Bay (La Baie d'Hudson)

A Canadian colonial institution, the Hudson's Bay Company was first founded in 1670 and controlled much of North America's fur trade. By the early 20th century, it had morphed into one of the biggest chain department stores in Canada. Housed in a grand Neo-Romanesque redbrick building constructed in 1891, the Bay's seven floors offer everything from clothes/footwear for all occasions to great selections of perfumes, jewelry, electronics, as well as a small section of Canadian souvenirs (mysteriously located far from the tourists on the last floor).

Fans of Canadiana should pick up an iconic Hudson's Bay point blanket, a large wool quilt woven with large colored stripes. The blanket was traditionally south after by the First Nations in exchange for beaver pelts, and has now become a Canadian classic and collector's item. What could be more representative of a Montreal visit than a warm quilt to snuggle yourself in on those chilly nights?

Opening Hours:
Daily: 11am–6pm
Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde

8) Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde (must see)

Montréal has many beautiful churches and this is one of those that you should see when visiting downtown. Despite being nestled among many high-rise structures, its dome is unmistakable, modeled on St. Peter's in Rome. Though somewhat “scaled-down”, the church is a perfect replica of the same, right down to the red copper baldachin over the altar that was fully hand-carved in Rome.

Dating back to in the 1890s, the cathedral appears older than its years, while at the same time feeling relatively modern as compared to Notre-Dame across town or even other cathedrals in other major cities – mostly due to the cleaner, simpler design. While not particularly ornate, the interior is still pretty, marked by soft hues that lend a gentle and slightly feminine touch. On a sunny day, the brilliant colors of the stained glass windows make it easy to observe the details – from the vibrant ceiling to the altar and the beautiful organ pipes at the back. You may also notice the baptismal font is surmounted by an impressive stucco crucifix – one of the most important pieces of religious sculpture in Quebec.

While the floor and walls are covered in Italian marble the main works of art are dedicated to the city's devout Catholics, including depictions of Marguerite Bourgeoys and Grey Nuns founder Marguerite d'Youville. Like St. Peter's, the cathedral also has 13 statues that adorn the facade, but breaking with tradition they do not represent Jesus and the 12 apostles. Instead, they represent the patron saints of parishes that offered them to the diocese and include Saint Hyacinthe, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint John the Baptist.

Why You Should Visit:
Peaceful and ornate, this Cathedral will make you feel as if you are in an old basilica in Europe.

Don't forget to check the gift shop that has many unique gift and jewelry items.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Fri: 7am-6:15pm; Sat-Sun: 7:30am-6:15pm; free admission
Sun Life Building

9) Sun Life Building

This 24-story office building was an imposing figure when it was completed in 1931, and it continues to stand its ground as one of the most impressive sights on the Montréal skyline. Presiding over the east side of Dorchester Square, its architectural presence is rivaled only by the Dominion Square Building at the north end. If you are around at 5pm, you can still hear the chime music when sitting outside near the park; not only that, but the beautiful lobby is publicly accessible and definitely worth a look.

Here's for some interesting historic background: During WWII, Britain's gold reserves and negotiable foreign securities were secretly packed in crates labelled 'Fish' and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to Canada. Upon finally reaching Halifax, on 1 July 1940, the British treasure was transferred to trains and the gold sent to Ottawa while the securities were shipped to the Sun Life Building and locked in an underground vault three stories beneath, which was guarded around the clock by police. The extremely secretive United Kingdom Security Deposit, operating in the specially constructed vault, arranged for the sale of Britain's negotiable securities on the New York Stock Exchange over the next few years to pay for Britain's war expenses. The 5,000 employees of Sun Life never suspected what was stored in their basement, and while unloading the treasure ships, not one crate of the cargo went missing. Even though thousands of people were involved, Axis intelligence agencies never found out about 'Operation Fish'.
Windsor Station (Gare Windsor)

10) Windsor Station (Gare Windsor)

Former headquarters of the Canadian Pacific Railway, this Romanesque Revival building was completed in 1889, and you can still visit its old arrivals terminal. Designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1975, it is no longer an active station, but you can still walk through and appreciate the architecture, have dinner in the on-site restaurant, or just poke your head inside to see how it is now, comparing to the historic photographs on display. Surroundings are well designed as well, with some very interesting statues of hockey greats (Centre Bell, home of the Montreal Canadiens, is right next door). The 13 terminal tracks running into the station and the overhead canopy have been removed, and replaced by a public square.

Great washrooms here!

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