Fun fact: I’m a big fan of neighbourhoods. (Truth: we all enjoy neighbourhoods) Everyone has a favourite neighbourhood in their hometown, a collection of blocks dotted with establishments and public spaces that please a particular slice of the population. Growing up on the outskirts of Montreal, my favourite neighbourhood was the historic core of the original European settlement: Old Montreal.
I got my first taste of Old Montreal on elementary school field trips that, to be honest, I found boring and old. The charms of the 17th century quarter were clearly lost on my 7-year-old self. Fortunately for me, I developed some taste and started appreciating the window into the origins of my birthplace. I gradually started noticing the beauty that filled the neighbourhood: the cobblestones streets, the 17th century architecture, the faded building ads, the majestic Notre-Dame basilica. How had I missed all this awesomeness?!
Over the years, my friends and I spent balmy weekend days lazing in the pedestrian Jacques Cartier Square, all ice cream cones and people watching. It had been a while since I had visited the area, so on my last trip to home to visit my family, I grabbed my photographer extraordinaire sister (check out her work here), my videographer-in-training brother, and my fun-loving boyfriend to revisit the neighbourhood that puts the Montreal in Vieux Montréal.
The jaunt to Old Montreal almost didn’t happen, as the mercury dipped below -20degC… which really felt like -34degC when you count for windchill! I was dragging my feet to be honest, but out of respect for my curiosity at what this area had become, the moderate enthusiasm by each member of our gang combined to enough motivation to brave the cold. And can I just say that I’m very happy we did, because we got to enjoy a really rare side of the ‘hood. It was nearly empty! (Of course it was!)
Our afternoon started near Marché Bonsecours, a multi-use space housing shops, art galleries, restaurants, and an event space. The twinkle lights were still lit from Christmas giving the building a quaint, village-y feel. In fact, Place Jacques Cartier (the main pedestrian thruway on which the Old Montreal is centered) also twinkled in the afternoon light making the whole area into one magical ‘hood. Sidebar: I love twinkle lights enough to vote to keep them on year-round. Anyone else with me? Sidebar over.
If you really want to get a feel for that famous Montreal vibe, Place Jacques Cartier is a great place to get started… but in the summer! From there you can explore the sidestreets, with their restaurants, lounges, and clubs decorated in as eclectic a style as one neighbourhood can get. The Old Port of Montreal is at the base of Place Jacques Cartier, and houses a number of places to play for all ages: from the maze game SOS Labyrinthe, IMAX theatre, and Montreal Science Center for the young and young-at-heart, to the scenester Terrasse Bonsecours hosting outdoor 5à7s (that’s Montreal for happy hour) and good music when the weather is warmer. During the depths of winter, the Old Port keeps the party going with Igloofest, the outdoor music festival making the most of our coldest (and unfortunately longest) season.
Igloofest is proof enough that the party doesn’t die down when the city freezes over, it just moves indoors! Kind of like us, after freezing out fingers, toes, and a lot more, we had to move indoors to avoid the threat of hypothermia. We decided to warm up with the quintessential cold weather drink: hot chocolate. Tommy Café was our location of choice, with its white interior and hanging garden décor. The place was chock-full of people, attesting to the fact that it was freezing outside. See? Montrealers don’t scare too easy. A good time is always had by all. (The hot chocolate was divine in case you’re wondering)
Neighbouring this very pretty café is one of the most beautiful churches in the city: the Notre-Dame Basilica. In a city filled with churches, that’s saying something. It’s slightly off the major foot traffic of Place Jacques Cartier, but remains one of the biggest draws of the neighbourhood. Its soaring façade will leave you in awe, until you walk into the basilica. There I am willing to bet your jaw will drop at the stunning blue interior with yellow stars painted all over the ceiling (mine always does). It’s not a wonder that Céline Dion got married there!
I’ve been living in Toronto for the last 10 years now, and I’ll be honest, there are some parts of Montreal that have lost the lustre they once had in my eyes. I think that happens to most people who move away from their hometown. That, however, does not apply to Old Montreal. It has become more vibrant than the days I spent near the fountain at the top of Place Jacques Cartier. History is preserved and mixed in with modern life, so that it’s no longer something to look at but something to experience. It’s definitely increased in touristic appeal, but still kept its cool so that the locals don’t turn their backs on a really special place in the city. I like my off-the-beaten-path destinations as much as the next explorer but I have to admit, some spots are touristy not because they’ve watered it down to appeal to masses from all over the world, but because they truly are special pockets representing a city’s unique flavour. Old Montreal is the latter and definitely deserves the attention it gets. Vieux Montreal, je t’aime!