Old Montreal Walking Tour, Montreal

Old Montreal Walking Tour (Self Guided), Montreal

Old Montreal (French: Vieux-Montréal) is a historic neighborhood southeast of downtown. Founded by French settlers in 1642 as Fort Ville-Marie, Old Montreal is home to many structures dating back to the era of New France. The 17th-century settlement lends its name to the borough in which the neighborhood lies, Ville-Marie.

Most of the city's earliest still-standing buildings, characterized by their uniquely French influence and grey stone construction, dating back 300 years, are clustered around the Old Montreal district. Preserved in their original form, they make up one of the oldest urban areas in North America. Even the streets, varying from paved to cobble-stoned (well maintained or restored), some still named as they were centuries ago, each offer a variety of architectural styles. Horse-drawn calèches help preserve the look of the city as it was back in its earliest days as a settlement.

Churches abound here, but landmarks such as Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours should definitely not be missed. In the eastern part of the old city (near Place Jacques-Cartier) several notable buildings can be found, such as Montreal City Hall, Bonsecours Market, as well as a fine piece of early colonial architecture – Château Ramezay, built in 1705. Further west, Place d'Armes is dominated by Notre-Dame Basilica on its southern side, which is arguably one of the world's most beautiful sanctuaries.

The Old Town's riverbank is taken up by the Old Port (Vieux-Port), whose maritime facilities are surrounded with recreational space and a variety of museums and attractions. The southwest of the old city contains important archaeological remains of Montreal's first settlement in the Pointe-à-Callière museum. To see these and other unique sights and to soak up the charming European and colonial flair of Montreal's historic centerpiece at your own pace and in your good time, take our self-guided walking tour.
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Old Montreal Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Old Montreal Walking Tour
Guide Location: Canada » Montreal (See other walking tours in Montreal)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 11
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.3 Km or 2.1 Miles
Author: doris
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours
  • Bonsecours Market (Marche Bonsecours)
  • City Hall (Hotel de Ville)
  • Chateau Ramezay Museum
  • Notre-Dame Basilica
  • Place d'Armes
  • Montreal History Center (Centre d'Histoire de Montréal)
  • Pointe-a-Calliere Museum
  • Saint-Paul Street (Rue St-Paul)
  • Grande Roue de Montréal
  • Old Port (Vieux-Port)
Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours

1) Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours

Built in 1771 as the first Marian pilgrimage site of Montreal, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours is today regarded as a treasure. The oldest surviving chapel in the Old City, it sits directly on top of an older church of 1675 that was destroyed by fire. Recently uncovered, the ruins of the original chapel are now accessible, and excavations give an insight into times when Montreal was still under French rule.

The interior decor is simple and elegant, with pretty hanging lamps shaped like sailing ships that give the chapel a nautical flair in keeping with its reputation as a Sailors' Church. Additionally, you may climb the wooden stairs up the spire to enjoy spectacular views of St Lawrence River with the Old Port, remnants of Expo 67 and, of course, angels on the chapel itself.

The chapel also houses a museum dedicated to Marguerite Bourgeoys, founder of the Notre-Dame congregation, which includes a guided audio tour of the underground former crypt.

Why You Should Visit:
Definitely worth a peek inside to see the gorgeous ship replicas hanging from the ceiling and to climb the tower looking out over the harbour. Around the front, you'll see Our Lady of the Harbour herself, immortalized in the Leonard Cohen song 'Suzanne' ("And the sun pours down like honey / On our lady of the harbour"). The attached museum is also worth the time.

Make sure you go around to the back, facing out to the St. Lawrence, as this could be the only church you'll ever see where the view of the back eclipses that of the front!

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 11am-4pm
Jan 16 - Feb 28: closed
Bonsecours Market (Marche Bonsecours)

2) 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)

3) 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
Chateau Ramezay Museum

4) Chateau Ramezay Museum

Built in 1705, this "chateau" first served as a residence of the governor of Montreal, Claude de Ramezay, who paid for construction out of his own pocket. The building has gone through many incarnations in its three-century history, including head offices for the French West India Company (1745-64), the base for American Revolutionaries including Benjamin Franklin (1775-76), and Université de Montréal's first Faculty of Medicine (1884-89). The first building proclaimed as a historical monument in Quebec, it currently houses an extensive collection of 30,000 objects including manuscripts, printed works, numismatic and ethnological items, works of art, paintings, prints and furniture. Those passionate about history should make a stop at this informative and interesting museum when passing through Old Montreal.

Though multimedia displays take you through the building's evolution, the real focus is on the history and progression of the city, from the time of its discovery until Confederation. One of the highlights includes the Salle de Nantes, a mahogany-paneled room from 1725 whose decoration was rightly or wrongly attributed to Germain Boffrand, chief architect to Louis XIV and Louis XV. The room was part of the French pavilion at the 1967 Expo and was donated to the museum shortly after. Of the entire house, the basement feels the most preserved, with vaulted ceilings and authentic fireplaces; it's also where the life of Montréal's 18th-century inhabitants is depicted, with re-creations of one-room homes, mannequins in traditional dress, examples of farming material, and a room dedicated to the furniture found in homes during the period. All in all, you will probably spent about an hour here, which is fine for a self-guided tour.

Why You Should Visit:
Plenty of easily-digested visual and written info about the history of Montreal packed into a historic building, plus a wonderful garden out back replete with 18th-century touches, and helpful staff.

There are kid-oriented exhibits at the end (basement level) if they can manage to hang on.

Opening Hours:
Daily: 9:30am–4:30pm (May 29–Oct 31); Tue-Sun: 10am–4:30pm (Nov 1–May 31)
Notre-Dame Basilica

5) 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
Place d'Armes

6) Place d'Armes

One of the oldest public sites in Montreal, this square has got an epic history dating back to the 1690s when it was first named Place de la Fabrique. As early as 1720, citizens of the Ville-Marie settlement would gather here to watch military maneuvers, following which it became the site of hay and wood markets and, later, of a Victorian garden and tramway hub. The square's real significance, however, comes not so much from the spot itself as from what surrounds it.

Sitting in the heart of historic Montréal, Place d'Armes is bordered on all sides by structures that define the city's diverse heritage. Directly to the right of Notre-Dame Basilica is the U-shaped Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice, Montréal's oldest building, constructed by French Sulpician priests in the 1680s. The building's clock is the oldest of its kind in N America, and the gardens are considered to be among the oldest on the continent.

Erected in 1888, the New York Life building became the city's first skyscraper, a whole eight floors up and furnished with an elevator that was quite a novelty at that time. Across the way, the Royal Trust and the Duluth Building (to the left of the basilica) are two early-20th-century skyscrapers that mark a distinct architectural shift, cemented with the arrival in 1931 of the Art-Deco-style Aldred Building, inspired by New York's Empire State Building (and designed to ensure maximum natural lighting for the streets below). A post-war glass and steel structure, the only example of its kind in the city, now known as the National Bank Tower (NBT), completed the square's architectural timeline in 1968.

Directly in front of the NBT, you'll find two sculptures: a caricature of an haughty Englishman with a pug, and one of a French woman with a poodle. While the dogs eye at each other, just wanting to play, the lady gives an evident look of disdain towards the symbol of English power (that being the old Bank of Montreal), while the gentleman looks down his nose the Notre-Dame Basilica, symbolizing historical French influence in the region.

The pedestrian-friendly square also features a monument depicting the founders of Montréal, including French officer, Paul de Chomedey de Maisonneuve, and is fitted with sprawling benches that provide relief from the surrounding concrete.

Why You Should Visit:
Beautiful place to stop, have a coffee or snack and marvel at the historical, French-inspired architecture and monuments including a memorial to the founders of Montreal. Beautiful views of Notre-Dame to boot!
Montreal History Center (Centre d'Histoire de Montréal)

7) 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
Pointe-a-Calliere Museum

8) Pointe-a-Calliere Museum (must see)

Old Montréal is, well, old. Walking through it, you will pass through narrow streets lined with buildings that, in some cases, predate Canada being an independent nation – but step inside this museum and you will see things that are even older – right from the Natives era. Opened in 1992, Pointe-à-Callière marks the very site where Montréal (originally Ville-Marie) was established and is therefore quintessential for those wishing to trace the city's history through ages. Across from the ticket counter is an excavated wall, while he theater for the introduction film has screens suspended over a dig site.

Get into the museum itself, located underground, and you'll be walking among ruins of buildings or standing above the remains of Fort Ville-Marie. Hours can be easily spent examining all of the displays, which vary from artifacts revealing the trade beads, European jewelry, metal objects and pottery pieces found in the dig; to dioramas showing the layout of the Fort and an Iroquois village; to seeing a section of the Fort's burial ground with information about the people who had been buried there and their cause of death; to seeing a section of the trench built to hold the Fort's palisades (the tree trunks had left their marks in the ground!). The many bilingual information boards help to sort out what one is looking at.

It is not often that you get to see such archaeological digs done under the streets and buildings, nor even a chance to walk through a once-used sewer. Despite the underground location, there is lots of head room, the AC is good, and there's no dirt on the walkways. As one would expect with underground diggings, the paths are a bit of a maze, but there are stairs as well as elevators to use, and exit signs are well marked and lit overhead. WC and café at the upper level, too!

Why You Should Visit:
Specializing in the many component parts of the city's history and combining this with archaeological discoveries provides one of the more unique museum experiences you will find anywhere. A fun and fascinating introduction to Montréal!

If you have kids, it's worth checking the museum website to see what's going on for the little ones.
Note that the museum also has a bistro with a lovely view, that closes at 4pm.

Opening Hours:
Tue-Sun: 11am–5pm
Saint-Paul Street (Rue St-Paul)

9) Saint-Paul Street (Rue St-Paul) (must see)

Oldest in the city, this cavernous cobblestone street boasts perhaps the highest concentration of Montréal's tourist-themed souvenir shops, but also some incredible galleries, historic buildings, boutique hotels, lively rooftop terraces, cafés and eateries with international cuisine, a singalong "boîte à chanson" pub, and some truly inspired Québécois arts and crafts themed shops that are turning the tacky souvenir on its overpriced head.

This is where the fur trade began, putting Montréal on the map as the fashion capital of Canada. It's where the remnants of city fortifications, ancient artifacts and the original underground sewer system can still be found. It's also where Cirque du Soleil started out on stilts; indeed, it's the reason Montreal is considered to have such a combo of urban and European flair and where its roots are deeply planted in the diverse cultures that first sailed down the St-Lawrence River and settled in.

Always remember that tourist prices are higher than usual in this area, so if you are budget-conscious, it's worth it just for a nice stroll and browse-through – especially after dark to enjoy the street lights and extra lighting.
Grande Roue de Montréal

10) Grande Roue de Montréal

Open to the public since 2017, on the city's 375th anniversary, La Grande Roue is Canada's tallest Ferris wheel at 197ft (~60m) and the fourth of its type installed worldwide following ones in Hong Kong (2014), Baku (2014), and Chicago (2016).

Situated directly on the river, on a sort of "mini-island" at the port, the wheel offers good 360-degree views of the city, including Old Montreal, its historic buildings, Place Jacques-Cartier, and the architecture of Downtown Montreal with Mont Royal as the backdrop, while the St-Lawrence River and its seaway unfolds to the south. There is plenty to see and do in the immediate area, too, so you can definitely make a morning, afternoon, or night of your visit.

Fitted with climate-controlled cabins, La Grande Roue is open year-round, day and night, rain or shine. A small park surrounds it with modern and clean facilities including a restaurant, cafe and ice cream parlor, gift shop, and restrooms. Packages are available for families, those wanting VIP rides, yearly passes, and more. You do not have to book or reserve a time in advance – just show up and pay. Certainly not a bad addition to an Old Montreal itinerary!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 10am–11pm
Old Port (Vieux-Port)

11) Old Port (Vieux-Port) (must see)

Have a couple of hours to kill in Montreal? Wandering around the Vieux-Port is worth considering. The sheds, grain silos, and quays that line the port are relics from its heyday, but a major revamp in the 1980s transformed it into a booming recreation spot with new features added every year, including quay-side restaurants, cafés, and boutiques.

You'll find a "labyrinth" in Shed 16 (i.e. a maze of alleys and obstacles built inside an old waterfront warehouse), the Montréal Science Center and IMAX on King Edward Pier, and also a Clock Tower for a good view of the waterfront and the Islands.

The only things separating Vieux-Montréal from the Vieux-Port are Rue de la Commune and a thin park. The latter runs the entire length of the Old Port Promenade, offering tourists and locals an ideal spot to relax and catch a cool breeze off the water. You can access the riverfront for various activities (e.g. rollerblading, cycling, quadricycling, pleasure boating), take a boat cruise on the St-Lawrence, attend cultural events, or rent a pedal boat for a trip around Bonsecours Basin.

Why You Should Visit:
A port for all seasons, as there's always something happening here! Summer is great for all the activities & cruises or ferry rides on the river; Winter is great for skating on the outdoor rink or just playing in the snow. At all times of the year, the St-Lawrence river is awe-inspiring and powerful.

One of the Port's gems is the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil that often sets up its signature blue-and-yellow-striped tents here in spring. Highly recommended for those wishing to see amazing feats, but be warned: tickets sell fast!

Opening Hours:
Daily: 6am–11pm

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