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Top Things to Do in Montreal: Highlights of a Family Vacation
Old Churches, Butterflies, Mummies and Science Experiments in Montreal!
Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in the Canadian province of Quebec, was chosen as the site of our Spring Break family vacation this year. My daughter, the younger half of goldenrulecomics, is an honors student in French, and she wanted to practice.
Late March is an awkward time to vacation in Montreal, however. The winter activities were over -- though there was still plenty of snow on the ground. Many of the attractions considered it the off-season, so some activities were curtailed or just hadn't started.
Even so, we found plenty for the whole family to enjoy. We're offering this online diary of what we did in Montreal to help anyone who is thinking of a trip to the city.
The photo here is of Montreal's Olympic Park. All photos in this review are by us unless otherwise noted.
The Former Market and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Church
Visiting Old Montreal
On our first day we drove down to the Vieux-Montreal area, which is the oldest part of the city. Street parking is horrendously difficult throughout the city, with lots of restrictions. But it was a Sunday and out of season, so we were able to find a free space near the old port.
Our first stop was the Marche Bonsecours, a neoclassical building from the 1840s that once served as the city's vegetable and meat market. It doesn't look like a marketplace from the outside. The building, which is gorgeous, seems more appropriate for government or judicial offices, or maybe a museum or library.
While the old market is gone, inside are boutiques and stalls selling jewelry, art and tourist souvenirs. That wasn't the way we wanted to start our trip so we went next door to the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel and its museum dedicated to Marguerite Bourgeoys, who founded the congregation that led to the original church's construction.
The museum does a very good job of explaining how Bourgeoys traveled to Montreal in 1653 from France, started the congregation, taught and basically helped civilize the early city. The original chapel was built in 1657 but burned down. The current one dates from 1771.
The main attraction for me was the steeple. You climb 69 steps to an outside walkway at the top, which gives you a great view of the old port, the Rue do la Commune and the Bonsecours market. I didn't see any way for handicap access, and it is a pretty steep climb, so just be aware that it might not be accessible to everyone.
The photo here was taken from the steeple and shows one of the church's angels, with the Bonsecours market directly behind.
For More Information... - on The Marguerite Bergouys Museum
Montreal's Museum Of the First Canadian Female Saint: Marguerite Bourgeoys and Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel
French-born Marguerite Bourgeoys arrived in Montreal in 1653, when the Canadian city had about 50 inhabitants, and persuaded them to build the city's first s...
To Help You Find Your Way Around Montreal
This was one of the tour books we used during our visit.
Visiting the Museums of Montreal History and Archeology
And Grabbing a Canadian Maple Winter Treat!
After the chapel, we walked over to the Musee du Chateau Ramezay, the former home of the city's 11th governor which is now a history museum. The museum does a solid, if slightly dull, job of telling the history of the city, from its founding to its growth as a trading post to the industrial revolution and onward.
The exhibits include furniture and household items from various periods, examples of clothing and medicines, and is just about what you'd expect to see in any city's historical museum. It does a credible job, but very little stood out for me.
After lunch, we walked over to the archeology museum, which has the official title Musee d'Archeologie et d'Histoire Pointe-a-Calliere and is located on the site of the former customs office. Or perhaps I should say under the former customs office, because you need to go down through the basement to the actual archeological digs.
Here, amid the ancient walls that once protected the city, is Montreal's history told in layers from its founding on May 16, 1642. You can see remains of the old ramparts that once surrounded Montreal, and you learn that the road next to the museum -- along Place D'Youville -- was once a stream called the Little River that became so polluted that it was bricked over and made into a sewer. The photo here is of some of the walls that have been uncovered.
Though completely off the subject, the museum had a temporary exhibit of Samurai costumes from Japan that also was really quite cool.
Afterward, we stopped by a snack stand to get maple syrup on a stick. The vendor poured the hot liquid into fresh snow, and after it melted rolled it onto the stick. Tasty, but very rich!
For More Information... - on the Musee du Chateau Ramezay
Highlights of Montreal's History Museum, the Musee du Chateau Ramezay
The Musee du Chateau Ramezay is located close to the center of the Old Montreal section, which makes sense since it is housed in a home built in 1705 by the ...
For More Details on Montreal's History:
An Old-Fashioned Maple Syrup Treat Being Prepared!
Have You Ever Had Maple Syrup on a Stick?
The Maple Syrup Stand
Montreal's Science Center and the Notre Dame Basilica!
Visiting the Old Montreal Area For a Second Day
Montreal's science center is located in one of the old port's warehouses, and we spent most of our second day there. The main exhibit hall has several dozen of the typical interactive exhibits that teach children scientific principles, includes leverage, water flow, electric generation, and heat conductivity. The children played for hours, while Mom took a short nap in one of the chairs.
One cool exhibit were three chairs with nails sticking out of their seats (the nails' points were face down, of course). The first had a few large nails set in a row, the second had a larger number medium-sized ones and the third many small nails. Sit in each and you really feel the difference, with the large nails sticking into you very uncomfortably and the smaller ones not hurting as much. The exhibit's sign says this is an example of how force can be dispersed.
The museum also had a TV room, where we made several silly TV reports on subjects like ``should cloning be allowed'' by splicing in short pre-recorded statements from students and scientists with our own opinions, Another room had interactive displays where you learned how to deal with environmental hazards, and there was also an exhibit on cargo handling (in reference to the old port.)
Our children really enjoyed the science center, and we were fortunate that it wasn't too crowded (because Montreal schoolchildren didn't have this week off).
After lunch we visited the Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montreal (see photo), which is a magnificent church opened in 1829. The inside is gorgeous, and this really is a must-see when you visit. Be aware that there is an entrance charge, which helps keep the church is such great shape.
We then walked over to Montreal's Chinatown, but it was only a few blocks long and very forgettable. It was toward the end of the day, so we thought we'd drive up to the top of Mount Royal in the center of the city for a quick view of Montreal.
Unfortunately, we ended up in the Mount Royal neighborhood, which is completely separate! So we decided we'd try again another day and headed back to the hotel.
For More Information ... - About the Science Center
Highlights of Montreal's Science Center
Montreal's Science Center will keep any child entertained and busy for hours! There are plenty of activities and experiments for a child to do, and all have ...
For More Information ... - About the Notre-Dame Basilica
Highlights of Montreal's Notre-Dame Basilica
The Notre-Dame Basilica in the Vieux-Montreal section of the city is well worth a visit, as it is considered one of the grandest churches in North America. C...
Montreal's Olympic Park
The Biodome, Tower and Insectarium/Botanical Gardens
A visit to the Olympic Park takes a full day, so plan accordingly. We got the three-in-one combo ticket for the Biodome, tower and Insectarium/Botanical Gardens, and it was worth it.
The Biodome turns the stadium that was built for the 1976 Olympic bicycling events into natural eco-systems in a climate-controlled area.You walk through recreations of a tropical rain forest, a Laurentian Maple Forest, the Gulf of St. Lawrence habitat and a sub-polar Labrador coast area. In each area are plants and animals native to that particular region, including otters, Canadian lynx, caimans, and a Tamarin monkey.
My favorites were the bat exhibit, which included a Jamaican fruit-eating bat, in the tropical rain forest and the King Penguins of the sub-polar region.
A short walk away is the funicular that enables you to go to the top of the Tour Olympique, the world's largest tilting structure according to the Guinness Book of World Records (a record that is displayed at the base). The 890-foot tower helps hold the roof of the adjacent stadium. The view is great from the top, and you get a clear picture of how Montreal is laid out. And you can see for miles -- Mount Saint-Hilaire, about 18 miles away, was very clear on the day we went to the top. The photo here is a shot of the biodome from the tower.
A path under Rue Sherbrooke leads to the Insectarium/Botanical Gardens, and the walk is about 10 minutes. The Insectarium is on the grounds of the gardens, and if you are squeamish about bugs stay away as the place boasts of having 250,000 insects. Most are mounted, of course, but we were fascinated by the Malaysian stick insects that really are camouflaged.
Because of the season and the snow on the ground, none of the outside gardens were worth visiting. But there are 10 inter-connected greenhouses that are worthwhile. Most are divided by category, including begonias, ferns, orchids, arid regions, etc. I wasn't very impressed with the ferns, but the section on tropical plants that provide food -- including cinnamon, bananas and coffee was pretty cool.
My wife said she thought the gardens were as well-kept as London's Kew Gardens, and she is probably correct. I thought Kew Gardens had more variety, though.
The final greenhouse was turned into a butterfly exhibit, with hundreds of the insects flying around freely. It's always a lot of fun walking through a butterfly exhibit, and if you have children they will really enjoy it.
That night I had a true Montreal dish: smoked ground meat, gravy and cheese curds over french fries. It was called smoked meat poutine, and the waitress warned me that if I ate it every day my stomach wouldn't be happy. It was delicious, but she was right. It's a once-in-a-while dish.
Butterflies at Montreal's Botanical Gardens
The Biosphere and the Old Fort
Visiting Buckminster Fuller's Geodesic Dome!
We drove over to the neighboring island of Ile Ste-Helene, site of the 1967 World Expo (which I visited as a very young boy!). One of the iconic images of that fair was the geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. Only the dome's frame still exists, as the panels were destroyed in a long-ago fire.
The site is now the Biosphere, and it is not to be confused with the Biodome we visited yesterday. The Biosphere is an environmental center designed to teach about the hazards facing the world today including climate change, overfishing, and unsustainable consumption. But there also lots of fun things for the children -- a water play area that kept ours busy for quite a bit of time and a lab area that the younger half of goldenrulecomics really enjoyed. There was also a display of artworks that used recycled materials, like a beautiful dress made out of crushed plastic pill bottles! You also get to go to the top of the tower inside, but the view isn't all that impressive.
Also on the island is the Musee Stewart in the Old Fort, which was built after the War of 1812 to defend the city in case the Americans ever attacked. Needless to say it has never seen any action! Inside the fort is a museum dedicated to telling the history of Montreal from before the city's actual founding to 1867, when Canada became a separate country. I thought this museum was better than the history one we visited on the first day, and would recommend this over that one. During the tourist season there are also re-enactors who talk about the fort's history, but we were too early in the year for that.
Inside the Musee Stewart
For More on the Biosphere... - See Our Separate Review Here:
Montreal's Biosphere: A Great Way to Learn to be Green!
The biosphere is a museum dedicated to increasing public awareness of the environmental issues facing the world today. It does this by mixing a lot of inform...
St. Joseph's Oratory and the Contemporary Arts
And Two More Montreal Culinary Treats!
Afterward we drove to the Oratoire Saint-Joseph, a huge church dedicated to St. Joseph on the side of Mount Royal. Its large copper dome can be seen from almost anywhere in Montreal, and my wife says she read in one tourbook that it is even noticeable from passing airplanes.
The shrine was the work of Brother Andre Besette, who was canonized as a saint in 2010. The main basilica is huge -- a sign said it sits 2112 and I believe it. There's lots of concrete to the walls and it was a bit too sterile for me. Behind it is the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which was nice but had a sort of 1970s feel.
Down below from the main basilica is the crypt church, which was the main one before the basilica was built. In this the feeling was more traditional and even though the space was smaller it felt grander in a way. There were dozens of people in there when we walked through praying to the saint. Andre himself is in a plain tomb behind this room, and people were praying and laying hands on the tomb when we were there. It was pretty powerful to witness. Also on the grounds -- in a separate section -- is a small museum dedicated to the saint's life that includes his preserved heart.
After dinner, we walked through a small section of the contemporary arts museum, which is free on Wednesdays after 5 p.m. Abstract art isn't a big attraction to me, but I did enjoy a 1964 painting by Lise Gervais called Vorace Multiglore that was very long with different splotches of paint at different depths. There were a number of paintings by Jean-Paul Riopelle in the fashion of Jackson Pollock.
There were also a series of large photographs by Montreal artist Lynne Cohen. Her specialty is interiors without people, and a few examples were a police range, a swimming pool and a mannequin factory. For some reason they came across a bit creepy, but memorable.
We had two local dishes today. For lunch I had a smoked meat sandwich, which was very similar to a Reuben but without the cheese or Thousand Island dressing. The meat may have been a bit spicier, and it was served with mustard on rye bread. Tasty and filling.
My wife had a regional dessert called pudding chomeur, or poor man's pudding. Created during the Great Depression, the dish consisted of stale bread and hot syrup or caramel. Now plain cake batter is used instead of the stale bread. She thought it was grand.
For More on Brother Andre
Mummies and a Fancy Lunch
Slowing Down on the Fifth Day
By this point in the trip we were a bit tired, so we slept in and didn't plan to do much.
In late morning we drove to McGill University's Redpath Museum, which is a small institution dedicated to the study of evolution and cultural history. Built in 1882, the museum's three floors are filled with
fossils, minerals and stuffed animals, and it is a real joy to visit. Newer, bigger museums are great, but there's something about an old museum with lots of old exhibits that I find fascinating.
Of particular interest is the Japanese Spider Crab on the first floor, with arms that probably were about six feet long. And the Egyptian and Theban mummies on the third floor. Also cool was the gorgosaurus libratus, a dinosaur that dominates the second floor (see photo). This meat-eater was about 9 feet tall and looked a bit like the dinosaurs from the movie ``Jurassic Park.''
After some shopping, my wife wanted to try a trendy place to eat a late lunch. We chose Olive & Gourmando in the old Montreal section, a very busy sandwich and soup place. It is small, so there was a bit of a wait. And once we sat we realized that this wasn't a particularly child-friendly place -- there really wasn't anything on the menu aimed at simpler tastes. The two children split a Cuban panini, with they liked but would never have chosen if there was anything else available. My wife and I had peanut soup, which was spicy but very good. The desserts were wonderful as well. A bit pricy, but if you are into hip places for lunch this would be a good one.
That night we only wanted a quick meal, so we decided to do takeout and bring the food back to the hotel. Near where we were staying was a true Montreal institution: the Gibeau Orange Julep stand. The building looks like a giant orange (see photo below), of course, and its claim to fame is its frothy orange drink. It takes a lot like an Orange Julius in the States, but the younger half of goldenrulecomics said the Orange Julep had a slight apple taste to it.
It's the only drink the stand serves, and except for a few picnic tables there really isn't any place to eat but your car. It serves mostly hamburgers, french fries and hot dogs, though my wife had a fish sandwich that she said was very good. One bonus is that it took U.S. dollars at par.
The Orange Julep photo is from WikiMedia Commons, and is used with permission from user Khayman. Note that you can see St. Joseph's Oratory in the distance to the right of the restaurant.
Gibeau Orange Julep Restaurant in Montreal
Montmorency Falls and Quebec City
Escaping From Montreal For a Day!
For our last day in Canada, we decided to take a road trip to Quebec City. Or, to be exact, outside Quebec City to revisit Montmorency Falls, which is a beautiful waterfall that we last saw back in the early 2000s. It was a three-hour drive from where we were staying in Montreal, but worth it.
Montmorency Falls is about 272 feet high, which the park's literature says is almost 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls. It could well be. Both are very impressive. Montmorency was fascinating this time because the lake below it was still mostly frozen, and there was a mound of ice near the foot of the falls that we estimated might have been as high as 80 feet tall. The water was rushing down and hitting the mound, with mist rising all over it. Very beautiful.
The really neat thing about the falls is the promenade bridge cross it, so you can look straight down over the falls from about 10 feet above. There are two ways to get to the top -- cable car or a hiking trail. The trail was covered by snow and slush, though some people did go that route. We took the cable car, which afforded some very beautiful views of the falls.
There is a restaurant near the edge of the falls that is open during the tourist season and a cafe open year-round. But the cafe seemed a bit expensive so we decided to head into Quebec for lunch.
We walked around old Quebec and marveled at the Chateau Frontenac, a hotel that is the most prominent landmark in the city. Built in 1893, it is gorgeous and elegant and stands on a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River. The restaurants in the Old Quebec section seemed expensive, so we took a funicular down to the Petit Champlain section, where there were plenty of shops and restaurants. The younger half of goldenrulecomics was so caught up in the French atmosphere that she and I split an appetizer of escargot!
After walking around a bit more, we headed back to Montreal to pack and get a good night's sleep before leaving early the next day. My wife and I were very pleased when both children said it had been a good vacation!
Here is a video montage of the falls taken by the younger half of goldenrulecomics!
Montmorency Falls Souvenirs
Quebec's Chateau Frontenac with a Statue of Samuel de Champlain, who Founded the City
What About You?
Have You Ever Visited Montreal?
The Canadian Flag Flying at the Biosphere
Montreal Travel Guides
We tend to bring several tour books when we travel, as we find each of them contain different information and sometimes very different attractions. We find the Moon series to have the quirkiest places to visit, but all are very useful.
Street Maps for Your Visit
Public Transportation in Montreal - Getting Around the City
We found it easier to drive around Montreal when we visited, though we found parking could be difficult to find and very expensive -- New York prices in some places!
So you might find it easier to take the subway or bus around the city.
To find out more click on the link below.
- SociÃ©tÃ© de transport de MontrÃ©al
The official website of the city's public transportation system.
Book Your Hotel Today!
We have used Hotels.com for several years, including for our trip to Montreal, and have found it very competitive among the various hotel-booking sites. We haven't had any problems, though to be sure we base our choices on the reviews rather than simply price. One bonus is that Hotels.com does have an incentive program where you get credited for one free night after you have purchased 10. That has helped stretch our vacation budget several times! If you are traveling Hotels.com is well worth checking out.
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