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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.

Botanical Garden Montreal

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.

Botanical Garden Montreal

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.

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Montreal Botanical Garden – Website

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

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

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Since arriving in Montreal, we had been planning to check out the Museum of Fine Arts, but kept finding reasons to postpone our visit. “It’s too sunny out for a museum,” or “it’s Sunday, and will be too crowded,” or “it’s already too late, and we won’t be able to see everything.” But if we’re being honest, the museum simply intimidated us. With over 40,000 pieces in its permanent collection, this the largest and most important museum in Montreal, and one that requires a lot of time to see properly.

Montreal Fine Arts Museum

Finally, on a rainy Thursday morning with nothing else to do, we ran out of excuses. And I’m glad we waited for the right moment… this museum really is a place you’ll want to visit when you don’t have any other plans. It’s spread across four buildings (or “pavilions”), each of which could easily be a museum of its own. You could spend the entire day here, and still not see everything.

The museum is audacious in its scope, attempting to cover the entire gamut of humanity’s dabblings in art, from ancient archaeological finds in Mesopotamia to modern Inuit sculptures from northern Canada, and everything in between. You’ll find rooms dedicated to Contemporary Design, Decorative Arts, Graphic Arts, Medieval Religious Iconography, Napoleonic Art, and much more.

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Not only is the museum massive, it’s also wonderfully presented. The pieces of art are perfectly illuminated, and each comes with detailed information of its creator and the work itself. And all of the museum’s various sections are quite different from one another, each as compelling as the last. As the day wore on, Jürgen and I would repeatedly say to each other, “Alright, let’s do the next room quickly.” And inevitably, we found ourselves stuck. There’s almost nothing that you’ll want to skip over.

The museum has paintings from European greats, such as Picasso, El Greco, Monet and Rembrandt, as well as contemporary works from artists around the world. There’s a wonderful section in the Stewart Pavilion dedicated to early North American design, featuring everyday items like chairs, lamps, ceramics and vases. And we loved the exhibition on African Art, with its masks, tools and sculptures.

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And all of this is just from the museum’s permanent collections. There are also first-class temporary exhibits which stay for months at a time. We were able to see one dedicated to the lost city of Pompeii, with artwork and sculptures recovered from the site (including some that were surprisingly erotic), as well as plaster molds made from the bodies covered in ash.

By the time we finished with the museum, we were exhausted. It didn’t seem like it, but our visit had lasted nearly four hours, and still we felt like we had rushed through. If you’re into art, and have a lot of time to kill, you’re going to love this place. Even if you can’t stomach the idea of such a long day, you should still consider a visit. The price is reasonable, so you’ll get your money’s worth even if you see just a fraction of the exhibits.

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Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – Website

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June 19, 2016 at 3:23 pm Comments (0)

Montreal’s Biosphère

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Built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, the Biosphère on Île Sainte-Hélène has become one of the defining landmarks of Montreal. Today, this geodesic dome is home to a museum about the state of our planet’s environment.

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The Biosphère is one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal, and is at its most impressive when you’re standing inside it. The geometric pattern used to create the dome (a Class 1, Frequency 16 icosahedron, since you asked) is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to become dizzy while staring up and around at the intricate system of interlocked metal bars. This is the work of the famous American architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who helped to popularize geodesic domes in the 1950s.

When it was built for the Expo, the Biosphère had been covered with a plastic shell. But in 1976, the shell caught fire in spectacular fashion. The metal girder remained unscathed, but the sphere was closed to the public for nineteen years, before reopening in 1995 as a museum dedicated to water. In 2007, it was re-branded as the Biosphère.

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The exhibitions inside the Biosphère are what you might expect from an environmental museum, though they’ve done a good job of balancing the doom and gloom with optimism for the future. The best exhibit is a 360° cinema experience that recreates wind, rain and snow, and provides concrete examples of how humans are applying lessons from nature within our newest technology. For example, we’re learning how to make LEDs more efficient by studying fireflies, and designing optimal mass transport systems by looking at the veins of a leaf.

Other exhibits allowed us to re-enact a scientific study into water and air pollution, and take a walk through a tribute to the forests. On the top floor of the museum, there’s a viewpoint which offers a view of Montreal’s skyline through the bars of the dome.

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Montreal Biosphère – Website

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June 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)

The Parc La Fontaine

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Located in the neighborhood of Plateau Mont-Royal, the Parc La Fontaine is a popular place for picnics, strolls, and laying out in the sun. This is among the city’s largest parks, at 84 acres, and on summer weekends, you’ll find nearly every square inch of it occupied.

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During the course of a normal year, Montrealers don’t get to enjoy a lot of warm weekends. So when that rare trifecta of Sunny + Summer + Weekend hits, it’s not like they’ll be content to spend the day chilling on the couch and binge-watching television. Nope, they’ll be outside. And a healthy percentage of them will be at the Parc La Fontaine.

Originally named Logan Park, this green space has been a municipal park since 1874, when the city purchased what had previously been farmland. Because of its location in the eastern part of the city, it was mostly popular with Montreal’s French-speaking citizens, so in 1901, it was renamed in honor of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, the first francophone Prime Minister of the Province of Canada.

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Parc La Fontaine is certainly an attractive place. There are twin ponds connected by a waterfall, a cultural center, restaurant, volleyball courts, playgrounds, and a couple monuments, including one of a giant slingshot. But most of the park is just open fields and green spaces, where visitors can spread out their blankets and while away the afternoon hours.

Speaking of “attractive”… while Montreal isn’t necessarily better-looking than other North American cities, it seems to have a weirdly elevated percentage of acrobats, thanks probably to the influence of the Cirque du Soleil. And many of them seem to congregate in this park to practice. I wouldn’t suggest you visit La Fontaine to ogle these ultra-fit athletes… that would be creepy! But if you happen to be walking by… they don’t do any damage to the park’s aesthetic beauty, that’s all I’m saying.

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June 14, 2016 at 10:19 pm Comments (0)

A Night at the Casino

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Housed in the former French Pavilion from the 1967 World Expo, Montreal’s state-run casino opened in 1993, and has become one of the most popular spots in the city. This is the largest casino in Canada, and is as memorable for its unique architecture as for its rollicking atmosphere. We were invited to check it out on a Saturday night.

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The last couple casinos we’ve visited haven’t been so great; sad, dingy places with chain-smokers joylessly feeding machines and lifeless tables, where you leave feeling bad about yourself even if you happen to have won. But I’m happy to report that Montreal’s Casino is not like that. This is the fun type. It’s the kind of place you go to have a good time, and where gambling is almost an afterthought.

We started enjoying ourselves the moment we stepped inside. Just past the entrance, a band was rocking out in front of a large crowd, most of whom were dancing. The bar area was packed, the machines were ringing, the noise level was insane, and everything was lit up by a massive LED-backdrop the size of a tennis court which extends from behind the stage all the way up to the top floor.

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Unlike in most casinos, there are plenty of windows and a real sense of space; in Montreal, they’re not trying to confuse you with a maze of slot machines, or make you forget the time of day. The floors of the casino are interconnected by an open central atrium, so that even from the top, you can look all the way down to see the band jamming. And the views are beautiful… the casino is mostly surrounded by water, and the skyline of downtown Montreal is visible in the near distance.

The main building of the casino is the former French Pavilion, built for Expo 67, and it’s also connected to the neighboring gold cube of the Quebec Pavilion, where you’ll find yet more floors of games, as well as the poker tables. This was perhaps the only place in the casino that I would characterize as “quiet.” The people seated around these tables were concentrating so intensely, it was intimidating. If we hoped to one day be able to take a place here, we were going to need some lessons.

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Luckily, we knew where to go. Jonathan Duhamel, a world poker champion, was on-hand at the casino to give free lessons. He’s a native of Quebec and often makes appearances. The game we learned with him was three-card poker, a variation which I’d never heard of before. We played a few hands and, within fifteen minutes, went from total newbies to totally overconfident. Time to hit the tables!

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We wandered over to the a room called “The Zone”, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a casino. This was more like a dance club, with a set of four DJs on the stage. Except, instead of dancing, we were sitting at terminals playing blackjack, and instead of spinning records, the DJs were flipping cards over. Everyone in The Zone was playing the same hands, and it was all live-projected on the screens behind DJ Croupier… so if he busted, everyone won.

After playing there and at a couple more traditional tables, we gathered up our winnings and went to the casino’s restaurant on the top floor. Even though it was late at night, this place was packed, and for good reason: the food is excellent and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Plus, from so high up, you get a great view over the city.

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We had an awesome night out at the Montreal Casino, although I’m not sure that’s good news. Our last casino experiences had been so miserable, that we had started to lose our love of gambling. But now it’s been rekindled! Even as we were leaving the casino, I was plotting how to justify a return trip.

(Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I discovered twenty dollars worth of chips still in my pocket. “Oh my, I forgot to cash these in. We’ll have to go back at some point.” Jürgen regarded me suspiciously… I’m not sure I fooled him. And I’m not sure I care!)

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Montreal Casino – Website

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May 30, 2016 at 8:11 pm Comment (1)

The Parc des Rapides

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As the St. Lawrence River winds its way from Lake Ontario to the Atlantic Ocean, most of its journey is smooth sailing. However, just before it reaches Montreal, the river hits a rough patch. Jürgen and I hiked to the neighborhood of LaSalle to check out the Lachine Rapids.

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We started our day at the Parc Arthur-Therrien, across from the Île des Souers (or, Nuns’ Island), so-named because of the Sisters of Notre-Dame who owned it for 250 years. From this park, it would be a five-kilometer trek south to the Parc des Rapides. There’s a popular bike path running along the the St. Lawrence, but we stayed on a smaller dirt trail closer to the water, and enjoyed the riverside walk.

The path stretches along the base of a tall embankment, behind which Montreal’s buildings were hidden from view, and we found it hard to believe that we were still in the city. The weather was beautiful, and our only companions during the journey were birds, reeds, trees, and the occasional jogger. The five kilometers went by in a flash, and soon enough we could hear the rumbling of the rapids.

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These white water rapids have long been a source of adventure for Montrealers. As far back as the nineteenth century, thrill-seekers would pack onto steamboats to navigate them. Even the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, wasn’t able to resist a ride during his visit to Canada in 1860. While in the park, we saw a few rafts full of modern-day adrenaline junkies trying their luck. These rapids aren’t the world’s most treacherous, but they look like a lot of fun.

Less adventuresome are the hoards of people who visit the Parc des Rapides for birdwatching. This is a sanctuary for migratory birds, most importantly the great blue heron. There were dozens of birders in the park, equipped with cameras and gigantic zoom lenses. While they were watching and identifying new species, Jürgen was watching them, jealously identifying their expensive photography equipment. If they’re “birders”, I guess that makes Jürgen a birderer (a word which, incidentally, seems to be impossible for Germans to pronounce).

The Parc des Rapides isn’t large; it’s about 800 meters in length, on a narrow strip of land which lays between the rapids and a tranquil inlet. You can walk up and down the entire thing in about twenty minutes, and we recommend you do so. The further south you go, the less crowded the park becomes, since not many of the birders bother to carry their heavy camera bags all the way to the park’s end.

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May 26, 2016 at 8:46 pm Comments (2)

The Biodôme at the Olympic Park

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Not to be confused with the Biosphere on the Île Sainte-Hélène, the Biodôme is a small zoo housed in the former Olympic velodrome. The zoo is organized into five distinctive ecosystems found in North America, introducing some of the plant and animal life found in each.

Biodome Montreal

Dwarfed by the Olympic Stadium to which it’s adjacent, the Biodôme doesn’t look like much from the outside. But inside, an illusion of immense space has been created, and each of the five ecosystems are surprisingly spacious. After leaving the Biodôme, I looked back on the building in confusion. How did they manage to fit everything into that little cycling dome?

Walking through the Biodôme is surreal. It feels like you’re in one of those films where life on earth has ended for whatever reason (global warming, nuclear apocalypse, the whims of Herr Trump), and the remnants of our planet’s various ecosystems have been preserved in a bubble. “Look, monkeys! Remember those? Oh, the Earth used to be so wonderful.”

You start in “Tropical Rainforests” ecosystem, where you can see animals like alligators, monkeys, parrots, snakes, bats, and if you’re lucky, a family of sloths. (We weren’t lucky.) From the rainforests, you move into a zone a little closer to home: the “Laurentian Maple Forests” of Canada. It’s not as exotic, but this was actually my favorite zone inside the Biodôme. Monkeys and alligators are standard zoo fare, but you don’t often get to see a beaver swimming around.

Did you know that when beavers poop, they dive underwater and do a little flip? Well, actually, I’m not sure if all beavers do that, or just this particular one. He was a bit of a scatological show-off. Talented, though, I’ll give him that.

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Next up is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where a 2.5-million-liter basin holds fish like the massive Atlantic sturgeon, dogfish and salmon, as well as starfish and mollusks. You can watch the action in this tank from both above and below. On the side of the basin, the Labrador Cliffs have been recreated, with guillemots and puffins diving into the water. The final zone in the Biodôme is dedicated to the Antarctic; you’ll get zero points for guessing that penguins are the stars of this show.

We enjoyed the Biodôme more than we had expected to. Somehow, the concept of a “zoo inside a former cycling hall” doesn’t ring with promise, but they’ve done a wonderful job with it. The Biodôme can be visited on its own, or in combination with any other of the Olympic Park’s sights (the Planetarium, the Insectarium/Botanic Garden and the Olympic Tower).

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Montréal Biodôme – Website

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May 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm Comments (0)

The Château Ramezay

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Constructed in 1705 as a private residence for the Governor of Montreal, the Château de Ramezay has withstood the previous three centuries in an excellent state of preservation. Today, it’s the oldest private museum in Quebec, offering visitors a glimpse into Montreal’s earliest days.

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Born in Burgundy, Claude de Ramezay came to Canada as an army lieutenant when he was 26 years old. An ambitious man, he rose quickly through the ranks, and was named Governor of Montreal in 1704. A year later, he ordered the construction of a grand residence for himself and his family. The fledgling city didn’t have funds for such enterprises, so Ramezay paid for the construction himself… and wound up bankrupt, as a result.

The Château has changed hands a number of times in its long history. Ramezay’s family eventually sold it to a fur-trading company, and it also served as the Faculty of Medicine for the University of Montreal. At the end of the 19th century, the building was slated to be demolished, but it was saved by the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal, who converted it into a museum in 1894.

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Perhaps the most curious occupants of the Château Ramezay were a contingent of American diplomats, who included Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold. In 1775, Montreal was captured by the United States’ Continental Army, during a short-lived invasion of Canada. Before their assault on Quebec City, the US diplomats based themselves in this chateau, from where they organized efforts aimed at persuading the city’s French population to join their rebellion against the British.

Because Claude de Ramezay had the foresight to build his house in stone, it survived the fires which claimed almost all of Montreal’s earliest buildings. It’s a straight-forward home, a two-story structure divided neatly into about a dozen rooms. The museum which today occupies the house is nicely arranged, leading visitors on a tour through the history of the city, its relations with the First Nations, the fur trade, and strife between Montreal’s British and French residents.

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Audio clips in each room introduce a “character” from the history of the chateau, including the stonemason who built the house, Ramezay himself, the servant who brushed his wigs, and Benjamin Franklin. On the bottom floor is the kitchen. Here, next to the fireplace, was a contraption I’d never seen before: an elevated running-wheel for a dog, which would turn the roasting spit for the pig.

A visit to the Château Ramezay can be rather quick; it’s neither as large nor as time-consuming as the nearby Pointe-à-Calliére Museum. Once you’re done inside the chateau, don’t forget to check out the restored French-style garden around the back.

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Château Ramezay – Website

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May 22, 2016 at 2:56 pm Comments (0)

The Views from the Olympic Tower

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Built in 1976 for the Summer Games and attached to the Olympic Stadium, Montreal Tower’s height of 165 meters (541 feet) makes it the tallest inclined tower in the world. We took the funicular up to the top, where there’s an observatory that provides views of the Olympic Park, Mont Royal and downtown Montreal.

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With its 45-degree incline, it would be an understatement to call the Montreal Tower “slightly tilted.” For comparison, the Tower of Pisa only leans at five degrees. However, Montreal Tower doesn’t exactly seem in danger of falling over. It’s solid, with a massive underground concrete base that’s the weight of three aircraft carriers.

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The funicular climbs the tower every ten minutes, whisking you to the top for one of the Montreal’s best views. The Olympic Park is in the eastern neighborhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; from here, you can see the entire downtown district in one incredible panorama. And you get a great sense for the true size of Mont Royal — it takes up nearly the same area as the downtown and is the same height than the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

Although you can’t step outside, the observatory has windows in every direction, with views of the St. Lawrence to the south, the industrial neighborhoods to the east, and the Botanic Garden to the north. And of course, right underneath, there’s the Olympic Stadium. Formerly home to the Expos, the stadium is now mostly unoccupied and is known as the “Big O” for the doughnut-shaped hole in its roof. Many Montrealers, however, think of it as the “Big Owe.” Its astronomical construction cost of $260 million was finally paid off in 2006, thirty years after the games themselves.

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May 20, 2016 at 2:39 pm Comments (0)

The Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium

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One of the buildings which makes up Montreal’s “Space for Life” is the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium. It opened in 2013, and features two full-dome theaters which allow visitors to tour the universe.

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The “Space for Life” is said to be the world’s first park dedicated to both nature and humanity. It’s based in the Olympic Park, and includes the Insectarium, the Botanic Garden and the Biodome, along with the Olympic Tower. You can buy joint tickets which will get you into any combination of the sights… but I’d recommend against seeing the Planetarium at the end of a busy day. The Powell Exhaustion Equation states: tired bodies + bean bags + total dark = expensive nap.

We settled onto our beanbags inside the Chaos Theater and got cozy, while the lights dimmed to envelope us in complete blackness. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “I’m never going to make it!” Luckily, the show was so fascinating, that staying conscious didn’t involve much of a struggle. “Dark Universe,” presented by Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, was an excellent presentation which took us on a journey through the least-known aspects of the cosmos.

Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium

Dark Universe was the shorter of the two shows, and upon its completion, we had some time to check out the Planetarium’s exhibit on meteors and down a few shots of espresso, before heading into the Milky Way Theater for a show called “Aurorae.”

This was a more typical planetarium-type room, with seats inclined upward, and a central globe that was able to reproduce the night sky across the dome. First, we saw how the sky over Montreal would look tonight. An emcee pointed out some of the major constellations, such as the Big Dipper, Ursa Major and Leo, and taught us how to find Jupiter. And then, we embarked on a tour of the Northern Lights, during which we saw time-lapsed footage of the dancing lights and learned the scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

The Rio Tinto Planetarium offers shows in English, although less frequently than French-language shows, so make sure to check the schedule before heading over. The programs might change, but they always being with a more scientific show, such as “Dark Universe”, followed by one with a lighter touch, such as “Aurora.” It’s a good mix, and a trip here makes for a perfect rainy day excursion.

Location on our Map
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium – Website

Get Your Very Own Telescope to Watch The Stars

Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium
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May 16, 2016 at 2:19 pm Comments (2)

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The Montreal Botanical Garden 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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