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Saint-Louis Square and Rue Prince-Arthur

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Like most cities, Montreal can be ugly and noisy, with its constant construction, heavy traffic, plain gray skyscrapers, chain restaurants, and cloudy days. But it can also be surprisingly beautiful… and nowhere is that more apparent than around Saint-Louis Square, in the neighborhood of the Plateau.

One way to approach Saint-Louis Square is along Rue Prince-Arthur, a pedestrian street that leads from Boulevard Saint-Laurent. This used to be considered one of the top streets in Montreal for dining and nightlife, but its fortunes have taken a downward swing in recent years. It was cool, then gentrified, then known as a tourist trap, then avoided even by tourists, and today most of its buildings are vacant. And all this happened within a couple decades.

Square Sainte Louis Motreal

Today, walking down Prince-Arthur isn’t going to make you swoon with delight, but it’s interesting to see the potential for growth which Montreal still has. I mean, there’s no reason that this pedestrian street, right in the middle of such a cool neighborhood, shouldn’t be able to succeed. I have a feeling that the next phase in Prince-Arthur’s story is coming soon: post-gentrification-regentrification. Savvy investors, get in now!

If Rue Prince-Arthur’s atmosphere is one of lost glory, Saint-Louis Square’s is one of enduring charm. This is possibly the single loveliest square we’ve seen in Montreal. A small park filled with towering trees and crowned with an elegant central fountain, Saint-Louis is surrounded by stone Victorian-style homes with polygonal turrets and brightly-colored friezes.

We’d been in this area numerous times before, whether walking down St. Laurent, getting a drink in the Latin Quarter, or relaxing in the nearby La Fontaine Park. But somehow, we’d never stumbled upon Saint-Louis Square. It feels deliberately tucked away, not quite on any of the main thoroughfares. But it’s worth seeking out, especially if the constant noise and grime of downtown Montreal are getting you down. Grab a coffee and a book, and find a bench; a few minutes in Saint-Louis Square will make you feel better about the city.

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June 27, 2016 at 9:20 pm Comments (0)

The Mont Royal Tam-Tam Festival

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Every Sunday, a curious gathering takes place on the slopes of Mont Royal, near the statue of Sir George-Étienne Cartier. Men and women bring their tam-tams, grab a seat, and spend the entire afternoon pounding out impromptu rhythms, smoking and dancing. You might be thinking, “This sounds like it’d be popular with hippies.” And you would be right.

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We showed up to the Tam-Tam Festival on a sunny afternoon, partly expecting to hate it. Not that we have anything against tam-tams; we’re just not the kinds of guys who “feel” this particular beat. There was absolutely zero chance of us hearing the bongo, and being overtaken by the primal desire to shake our bodies to the rhythm. There was, on the other hand, a very good chance we’d spend the day making fun of those who did.

The festival was everything we hoped and feared it would be. Think dreadlocks, hacky sacks, marijuana and barefoot dancing. But it was also much more fun than we expected, and we had soon dropped our snarky attitudes. Everyone was hanging out with friends, playing games, smoking, drinking and dancing, and there was a great energy to the whole event.

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Oh god, a “great energy?” I’ve been infected! But I mean it, man, there must be something about the rhythm of the tam-tam. After a few minutes of laying on the grass, with the sun warming my face, I kicked off my shoes. I could feel something inside me (was it my ka?) itching to get out and dance. In a delirious semi-trance, I shimmied over to the biggest group of drummers, and jumped into the middle of the circle, twirling and howling like a wolf.

Alright, that’s a total lie. Like I said, there was zero chance of such a thing happening. I did, however, spend almost an entire hour watching others dance, and could have happily stayed for even longer. The dance area had its own complex ecosystem, and it was fascinating to watch it evolve. There were cute girls hopping about, older hippies who still had enough energy to spin, guys doing strange movements with their arms as though they were trying to tell an epic story, and at least one shirtless creep flirting shamelessly with every woman in striking distance. And the drummers were just as fun to watch: a mix of every conceivable type of person. Tam-tam playing apparently doesn’t discriminate on age, gender or race (… or ability).

We had expected to show up, take a few pictures and leave this hippie-fest in a matter of minutes. But we ended up spending most of the day here, and were immediately talking about returning the next week. Our time in Montreal was coming to a close, but we still had one Sunday left, and spending it at the Tam-Tam Festival seemed a smart way to use it.

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June 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm Comments (0)

The Islands: Île Sainte-Hélène

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Visible across from the Old Port of Montreal, Île Sainte-Hélène is home to the Jean-Drapeau Park, and many of Montreal’s favorite summertime activities. With nature trails, weekend festivals, an amusement park and a pool, not to mention the Biosphère, there’s plenty to on the island. We spent the day there, and made sure to swing by the Stewart Museum, located in an old British fort and dedicated to the history of Montreal.

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Although its sister island, the Île Notre-Dame, was artificially created in the 1960s, Île Sainte-Hélène has been a part of Montreal’s history since the very beginning. It was named after the wife of Samuel de Champlain, who “discovered” it in 1611. Sainte-Hélène was private property until 1818, when it was purchased by the British government for defensive purposes. After the War of 1812, the Brits had feared an American invasion and wanted a fort to protect Montreal. The invasion never came, and today the Fort de l’Île Sainte-Hélène is the site of the Stewart Museum.

We’ve talked before about the ridiculous number of museums which Montreal has dedicated to its own history… and the Stewart Museum is yet another. We breezed through it, as the exhibits were largely similar to those we’d seen in the city’s other history museums. But it’s not a bad museum, by any means, and if you’re new to Montreal’s history, you should enjoy it.

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The Stewart Museum is just one of many things to see and do on the Île Sainte-Hélène. This is also where you’ll find the Biosphère, the popular municipal pool and Alexander Kalder’s 1967 giant metal sculpture entitled “Man.” Visible from Montreal, this sculpture is the scene of the Piknic Festival, which is a weekly electronic music event held every Sunday of the summer.

There’s also a network of trails which snake through some attractive woods. We followed one at random, and ended up at the Tour de Lévis, built in 1930 as a water tower. Normally, you can climb to the top of the tower for a view over the park, but it was closed during our visit.

From the tower, it was just a few more minutes to walk to the gates of La Ronde, Montreal’s Six Flags amusement park. But it had already been a long day, and we weren’t about to drop $64 apiece on tickets, so we took a rain check on the roller coasters, and headed down to the ferry station. Île Sainte-Hélène is also served by the metro, but during the summer, it’s more enjoyable to take the express ferry that runs between the island and the Old Port.

Locations on our Map: Jean-Drapeau Metro Station | Stewart Museum | Tour de Lévis | Man Statue / Piknic Festival | Ferry Station
Stewart Museum – Website

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June 26, 2016 at 10:37 pm Comments (0)

The Islands: Île Notre-Dame

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An artificial island created for the 1967 World Expo, the Île Notre-Dame is found in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The Notre-Dame and its sister island, the Île Sainte-Hélène, together make up the Parc Jean-Drapeau, which is among Montreal’s most popular summertime hangout areas.

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Jean Drapeau was the mayor of Montreal for nearly three decades, and presided over some of the city’s most exciting years. In the 1960s, during his second term, he brought a World Expo to town, and initiated the underground metro system. The rocks and dirt unearthed during excavations for the metro were used to create an artificial island along the side of the existing Île Sainte-Hélène. The park which spans the two islands was named in his honor in 1999.

For the Expo, more than sixty nations built pavilions on the two islands. Although most of them have since been demolished, a few of Notre-Dame’s pavilions have survived into the present day: the Montreal Casino is housed inside the former pavilions of France and Quebec, while both the small Jamaican Pavilion and its much-larger Canadian counterpart (known as The Tundra) can be rented for weddings and special events.

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The Île Notre-Dame was also a venue for the 1976 Summer Olympics, when a giant two-kilometer rowing basin was carved into the land: still the largest artificial rowing basin in North America. And the island is also home to the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit, which has been the scene for the Formula One’s Grand Prix of Canada since 1978. For most of the year, this 4.7-kilometer track is open to the public, and its flat, smooth surface is popular with bikers and rollerbladers as well as motorists who want the thrill of completing the same loop as their favorite racers (although, because of the bikes and pedestrians sharing the track, thrills are restricted to 20 mph).

Most of the people who visit the Île Notre-Dame, however, aren’t here for the rowing basin or to take a lap around the F1 circuit: they’ve come either to gamble or to tan. We’ve already written about Montreal’s fantastic casino, but also popular is the Jean-Doré Beach, which opens in the summer months. The beach consists of a decent stretch of sand next to an inland lake, whose water is apparently clean enough to swim in. For Montreal’s heat-exhausted citizens, it’s as good a “day at the beach” as they’re going to get.

Locations on our Map: Canadian Pavilion | Olympic Basin | Jean-Doré Beach

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June 26, 2016 at 3:21 pm Comments (0)

McGill University and the Redpath Museum

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Founded in 1821 on a royal charter from King George IV, McGill is today considered to be Canada’s leading university. Its original, downtown campus located at the foot of Mont Royal is a thing of beauty, and among its Victorian-era buildings, you’ll find the Redpath Museum of Natural History.

McGill Redpath Museum

McGill University has an enrollment of nearly 40,000 students, roughly half of whom are from Quebec. Twelve Nobel laureates studied here, as well as three of Canada’s prime ministers, including Justin Trudeau. Oh, and William Shatner. McGill is Canada’s most prestigious place of higher learning, and its incoming students have the highest average test scores of any school in the country. The school is primarily English-speaking, although students are expected to have a working knowledge of French.

Living in Montreal, it’s impossible to escape the shadow of McGill University. Its facilities are spread throughout the city, and its alumni seem to have their hands in everything. In most museums we visit, we read about discoveries made by McGill researchers, studies initiated by McGill teams, theories offered by McGill professors, etc. Habitat 67 was the master’s thesis of McGill student Moshe Safdie. Arcade Fire met while studying at McGill. And the drunk kids shouting and laughing outside our apartment every Thursday night at 3am are almost certainly McGill undergrads — in addition to its sterling academic reputation, McGill is known as a party school.

Since we’d heard so much about it, we figured we should at least see the campus. Located between Sherbrooke Ave and Mont Royal, and bounded on the east and west by Rue University and Peel, McGill’s main campus is gorgeous, with old limestone school buildings and small grassy parks where you’ll almost always see students studying or taking naps. The Royal Victorian Hospital has recently moved to a more modern facility, but its former home, a Gothic building on the foot of Mont Royal, is now part of McGill.

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It’d be fun to explore all these old buildings, but we limited ourselves to one: the Redpath Museum of Natural History. This museum dates from 1882, and features exhibits that range from fossils and minerals to anthropological items from around the world. The centerpiece of the collection of the full skeleton of a Gorgosaurus. But the best part of the Redpath Museum is the atmosphere of the building in which it’s housed. It looks exactly how you’d expect an “ancient university library” to look, with the scintillating layers of dust and mystery that go along with it. While examining the exhibits, I kept expecting some old professor to suddenly appear and slam shut one of the cabinets, admonishing me not to look inside. “You may examine any of the cabinets, but not this one!”

The Redpath Museum is free to visit, although they do suggest a small donation to keep the museum going. And obviously, the campus is free to visit as well. Both are well worth seeing during your time in Montreal.

Locations on our Map: McGill Campus Main Entrance | Redpath Museum

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June 25, 2016 at 10:25 pm Comments (0)

The Woods of Île Bizard

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A small island found just off the foot of Montreal, Île Bizard is named after one of New France’s original settlers, Jacques Bizard. The island has been largely spared from over-development, and a healthy percentage of it is today protected in the Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard Nature Park. We spent a beautiful summer day there, exploring the park’s diverse ecosystems, which include swampland, plains and forest.

Ile Bizard

Montreal might be a big, dirty city, but you don’t have to travel far to escape into nature. While we were walking through the woods of Île Bizard, it seemed surreal that just forty minutes ago, we had been moaning about the noise and construction in our neighborhood. Here, the only sounds we encountered were those of birds and bullfrogs.

The various trails in the Bois-de-l’Île-Bizard permit a hike of about two hours, though you can make this much shorter if you just stick to the main path. The crown jewel of the park is a gorgeous marshland, which a long wooden bridge will take you across. We paused here for a few minutes, remaining quiet to better appreciate the scene. The bullfrogs were putting on a concert, surrounding us with the strange music of their calls, like muted plucks on a slightly-flat guitar.

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Past the marsh, the park remains just as peaceful, if somewhat less spectacular. I wasn’t complaining though — after spending too much time in downtown Montreal, a quiet walk through the woods with sunlight filtering through the branches feels like a revelation. We continued along the path until reaching the northeastern point of the island, where the Prairies River meets Île Brigas and forms some minor rapids.

Although you can reach Île Bizard with public transportation, it’s a lot easier to get here if you have a car. But as far as escapes from Montreal go, this is probably one of the closest and most beautiful options.

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June 25, 2016 at 4:54 pm Comments (0)

The Exporail Train Museum

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Found in an old maintenance yard near Canada’s first railway line, the Exporail Museum introduces visitors to some of the country’s earliest trains. With dozens of refurbished models, many of which you can enter and explore, exhibitions and movies about the railway culture, and even a miniature train which you can ride, this is a much more impressive museum than we had been expecting.

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Our low expectations were due to the museum’s promotional materials, which feature grinning toddlers and slogans like “Awaken Your Inner Child!” We had the distinct impression that the Exporail was primarily a museum for kids, but that’s not really the case. Kids are going to love it, of course, but the exhibits are equally geared to adults, with in-depth descriptions on each of the trains and overviews on technical topics such as how steam engines work.

In the main exhibition hall, the Angus Pavilion, there are twelve maintenance tracks that hold around forty refurbished trains, each one representing a different era or function. Starting at the far end of the shed, you see some of the trams that crisscrossed the city between 1892 and 1959, including “the Rocket”, which was Montreal’s first electric car, as well as an open-roofed “observation car” designed for sight-seeing trips.

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As you weave around the tracks, the exhibition moves into the golden age of rail, during Canada’s push to the Pacific, when lines like Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific were offering luxury trips across the country. We loved the giant rotary snowplow car, which could handle even the deepest snows with its spinning blade, as well as the “School Car,” which brought its ambulatory classroom to remote communities in northern Ontario. All of the trains have been freshly painted, and are in wonderful condition.

The Angus Pavilion is the biggest section in the museum, but there’s a lot more to see on the rest of the grounds. Montreal’s last tram is still in service at the Exporail, and runs a loop around the premises. The first stop is at a miniature model train — this attraction is designed for children, but that didn’t stop Jürgen and me from hopping aboard and enjoying a five-minute ride through the woods. Other areas in the Exporail include an old ticket booth, and another large maintenance shed filled with refurbished railway cars.

We had planned for our visit to the Exporail to be a quick one, but ended up spending hours here; there was simply too much to see. If you don’t have a car, you can easily reach the museum with the commuter rail: it’s nearby station Saint-Constant, on the Candiac line which starts at Gare Lucien-L’Allier. And really, arriving at this museum by way of train is probably the correct way to do it.

Location on our Map
Exporail – Website

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June 24, 2016 at 9:58 pm Comments (0)

A Walk Along the Lachine Canal

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The opening of the Lachine Canal in 1825 signaled Montreal’s ascendance as a major center of industry and commerce. The canal was made obsolete by the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1970, but today has found new life as a park, with an excellent urban trail running along side its length.

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Although it’s mostly known as a biking path, Jürgen and I decided to walk alongside the Lachine Canal, since we’d be stopping for pictures every few minutes, anyway. From the Old Port to the Lachine Lock, the trail’s length is 12.2 kilometers, and it took us about three hours to complete. Luckily, it’s easy and absolutely flat, so isn’t overly fatiguing despite its considerable length. But if you’re not taking tons of pictures, bikes are the best option.

The Lachine Canal takes you on a journey into Montreal’s industrial past, when the city’s economy was powered by industries like steel, iron and wood. Most of the factories which once lined the canal have since been turned into luxury condominiums, although some are simply ruins, and a few are still in operation.

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The trail bounces between the north and south banks of the river, leading you over a few bridges, including the pale-green mechanical bulk of the Guaron Bridge, which was able to raise to a perpendicular level within a few minutes. You can also see the Lachine Coke Crane, which is the only remnant of the Montreal Coke and Manufacturing Co, established in 1927 (that’s “coke” as in “fuel made from coal“, not “bubbly caffeinated beverage.”)

Most of the touristy highlights are in the first half of the canal’s path, between the Old Port and the Coke Crane. The final five kilometers aren’t all that spectacular, as the highway runs next to the canal and ruins the mood with its noise. But even here, the trail is attractive, as it goes through woods and alongside the water.

At the end of the path, you’ll find the small Lachine Museum, which we decided to skip — after twelve kilometers of walking, we couldn’t bear the idea of even another fifteen minutes on our feet. Instead, we collapsed in the park near the Lachine Lock, the final stage before ships would re-enter the Saint Lawrence, and allowed the sun and the nearby sound of rushing water to lull us to sleep.

Locations on our Map: Guaron Bridge | Coke Crane | Lachine Lock

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June 24, 2016 at 3:33 pm Comments (0)

Mont Royal’s Lac aux Castors and Maison Smith

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After visiting the Kondiaronk Belvedere and taking in the view of downtown Montreal, you can continue your exploration of the mountain by heading west toward the Lac aux Castors. On the way, you’ll pass a sculpture park and the Maison Smith, which was built in 1858 and today is home to a small exhibition about the park.

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Because it’s spread across the dips and ascents of a mountain, it’s easy to forget that Mont Royal is also a carefully considered park. The design is the work of Connecticut-born Frederick Law Olmsted, who’s most famous as the landscape architect of NYC’s Central Park. He was brought to Montreal in 1874 to create plans for what would become this city’s defining park.

Without changing the essential character of the hill, Olmsted created an intricate network of trails that would take visitors to all its corners. The Chemin Olmsted is the most significant of these paths, and leads from the monument of Sir George Etienne Cartier to Mont Royal’s various summits, as well as the Kondiaronk Belvedere and the Maison Smith.

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The Maison Smith is next to Mont Royal’s largest parking lot, and serves as the unofficial entrance to the park. Inside, you’ll find a cafe and an exhibition about the flora and fauna of the park, as well as some archaeological artifacts which have been unearthed here. The exhibition is small and free, so even if you just have a couple minutes, it’s worth popping in.

From here, it’s a short walk along the Chemin Olmsted to the Lac aux Castors. On the way, you’ll find a sloping field studded with strange gray monuments. These are the remains of the International Sculpture Symposium, which in 1964 invited twelve artists from around the world. Over fifty years later, most of the works are still visible… how impressive you find them depends on how generous you’re feeling.

Past the sculptures, you’ll see the Lac aux Castors, or “Beaver Lake.” This is as good a place as any to finish a day on Mont Royal. In the summer, you can rent paddle boats to take out onto the lake, which was created in 1938. And in the winter, you can ice skate. There’s a simple cafe here, where you can stretch out your legs, and appreciate a final view of one of Montreal’s most relaxing spots.

Locations on our Map: Maison Smith | Lac aux Castors

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June 20, 2016 at 8:46 pm Comments (0)

The Montreal Botanical Garden

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Comprising an area of almost 200 acres next to the Olympic Park, Montreal’s Botanical Garden opened in 1931, and is considered to be among the most important in the world. The garden is separated into over twenty thematic zones along with ten greenhouses, dozens of kilometers of trails, and over 22,000 plant species. In other words, you better get started.

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There’s no way you could see everything in the Botanic Garden during a single visit. So perhaps the best course of action is to ask one of the staff what happens to be in bloom. That’s what we did, and the guy at the welcome desk pulled out a map, circled “Lilacs” and “Rhododendrons” and recommended a route that would take us to a few of the park’s other highlights.

We had visited the Botanical Garden’s greenhouses shortly after our arrival in Montreal, to see the annual “Butterflies Go Free” exhibition, so today we were able to concentrate on the outdoor sections. That was useful, because the greenhouses themselves are worth hours of your time.

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Starting on the western edge of the park, we walked through three small zones: the Perennials, Economic Plants (such as those that produce dye) and the Garden of Innovations (where new hybrid flowers and the latest gardening trends are showcased). We then arrived at the field of lilacs which, as the employee had promised, were in fragrant bloom. The weather was perfect, and I could have spent all day under the shade of the trees with a book; in fact, a lot of visitors were doing exactly that. It doesn’t make sense for tourists, but for a reasonable price, residents can become “Friends of the Garden,” which gives them free access for a year.

We continued north, through the First Nations Garden (featuring trees of North America and a few totem poles), and with some trouble found the Leslie Hancock Garden. This is a small, shaded plot filled with heather and rhododendrons, which feels as though it’s been purposefully hidden away in the forest.

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Heading back towards the greenhouse, we passed through the Shade Garden, where low-light plants like ferns and Quebec trilliums thrive, and moved on to the Japanese Garden. They’ve done a good job replicating the atmosphere and layout of the gardens we had become so fond of while in Tokyo. Montreal’s Japanese Garden is the work of horticulturalist Ken Nakajima, and includes a zen stone garden, a bonsai collection, and even a traditional pavilion where you can participate in a tea ceremony.

Next to the Japanese Garden is the Chinese Garden, which is supposed to be fantastic. Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation during our visit (it’s set to reopen in 2017) so we wandered through the Alpine Garden. This zone isn’t as immediately beautiful as the others, but shows off a completely different kind of landscape, with the rocks and flowering shrubs of the Alps.

The Botanic Garden isn’t cheap, and it’s so large that I can only recommend going when you have a lot time to spend there. Keep in mind that your ticket will also get you into the neighboring Insectarium. We loved the garden, and even after spending the whole morning there, I wasn’t nearly ready to leave.

Location on our Map
Montreal Botanical Garden – Website

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Botanical Garden Montreal
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June 20, 2016 at 2:08 pm Comments (0)

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Saint-Louis Square and Rue Prince-Arthur Like most cities, Montreal can be ugly and noisy, with its constant construction, heavy traffic, plain gray skyscrapers, chain restaurants, and cloudy days. But it can also be surprisingly beautiful... and nowhere is that more apparent than around Saint-Louis Square, in the neighborhood of the Plateau.
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