MONTREAL — Canada’s second-largest city (after Toronto) is home to a delightful mixture — or, if you will, melange — of English and French civilizations.
Montreal, founded by the French in 1642, was conquered by the English in 1760 during the Seven Years War. Although the commercial hub of Quebec now has a definite Anglo vibe, it remains French at heart.
The city’s fascinating story and culture are on display at more than 40 museums or public galleries devoted to history, art, technology, architecture or the environment. Exploring them, and the rest of the huge metropolitan area of 4 million people, would easily take as long as the aforementioned war.
With limited time, I devoted much of my stay to wandering Old Montreal, the downtown neighborhood once surrounded by the original city walls that is now a favorite tourist district.
The oldest part of the city is directly beneath the Pointe-a-Calliere Archaeology and History Complex, whose motto, “The place where Montreal began,” is meant quite literally.
A multimedia show at the museum uses video, lights, music and narration (available in eight languages) that incorporate actual archaeological digs below the theater screens to illustrate the city’s history. Glass floors in another part of the museum reveal, directly underfoot, remains of the first French settlement, Fort Ville-Marie.
More of old French Montreal can be seen at the Chateau Ramezay historic site, the first building in the city declared a historic monument. Costumed guides welcome guests to the restored early 18th-century mansion and gardens, which have housed a museum of Montreal history since 1895.
A few blocks from the chateau is an important monument to Canadian national history, the Sir George-Etienne Cartier House. The 19th-century townhouse, now a national historic site, was the home of the man dubbed the Father of Canadian Confederation. Cartier helped negotiate the merger of Quebec with the rest of Canada in 1867 while promoting the rights of French Canadians. The townhouse interior has been restored to reflect the Victorian period, when Cartier occupied it.
Another nearby Victorian-era architectural beauty is Montreal City Hall, finished in 1878 in the Second Empire style and, after a major fire, rebuilt in the 1920s.
Visitors to Old Montreal will also be struck by the Marche Bonsecours, a former city marketplace built in 1847 with an ostentatious dome that looks like it should be sitting atop a state capitol somewhere in America’s Midwest. These days, the grand old building houses cafes, boutiques and exhibition space.
The oldest chapel in the city, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, sits next to the Marche Bonsecours. In the chapel’s Marguerite Bourgeoys Museum, visitors can descend into an 18th-century stone crypt, then climb to the top of the chapel tower for remarkable views of Old Montreal and the St. Lawrence River waterfront.
Other beautiful downtown churches include Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, a Catholic edifice built in the late 19th century in what was the city’s leading Anglo-Protestant neighborhood; and, very nearby, St. George’s Anglican Church, a magnificent 1870 structure with a Gothic clock-and-carillon tower added in the 1890s.
The most popular church for visitors is Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, a Gothic Revival gem finished in 1829. Notre-Dame sits on the Place d’Armes, across from the historic Bank of Montreal, a financial center (and symbol of Anglo commercial power) constructed in 1847.
The Place d’Armes, flanked by the basilica and the bank, is a good location to ponder the city’s English-French rivalries and tensions. It’s home to a set of satiric statues: a French-Canadian woman holding her French poodle and an Anglo-Canadian man holding his English pug. The two, comically fitted with false-face noses, stand in the square, backs turned, noses raised, as their dogs eye each other longingly.
The Old Montreal district is easily walkable. For a better look at more of the city, though, I signed up for an excellent downtown bicycle tour with Montreal on Wheels.
Montreal is extremely bicycle-friendly, with many dedicated bike lanes throughout the city, some with their own traffic signals. Although “right turn on red” is the law in most of Canada, it’s illegal in Montreal.
The three-hour bike tour conveniently began and ended in the heart of Old Montreal. During the tour, our small group — with our friendly and knowledgeable guide — visited many of the city’s most interesting downtown neighborhoods.
We biked through Old Port, an entertainment district on the St. Lawrence River adjacent to Old Montreal, around the massive La Grande Roue de Montreal, a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel, and past the ships and pleasure boats docked at the piers there.
The tour also included the verdant campus of McGill University; the Latin Quarter and Gay Village, the heart of Montreal’s thriving LGBT community; and the downtown financial district.
Near the end of the tour, we stopped briefly in Square Victoria to experience another example of Montreal’s Anglo-French potpourri.
There, a monumental sculpture of the English monarch who gave the square its name gazes out over a historic, and very French, art nouveau cast-iron subway entrance that once served the same purpose in Paris.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.