As its name suggests, Vieux Montréal is the oldest section of the city, occupying roughly the location of the original 17th-century settlement of Ville-Marie. With many of Montreal’s most historic buildings tightly packed in close proximity to one another, it’s a rewarding place to take a self-guided walking tour.
We started our tour in the southwestern quadrant of Old Montreal, among the towering edifices which line St. Jacques, also known as the Wall Street of Montreal. Most of the buildings on this street date from the nineteenth century, and each is a work of art, with emblems and statues adorning the cornices and Roman columns protecting the entryways. The epicenter of this architectural grandeur is at the corner of St. Jacques and St. James, where five banks were once headquartered.
Turning to the south, we walked down the small Rue de les Récollets. The Récollets were a religious order who had served the French Army. But with the arrival of the British, the order was dispersed and their convent replaced with greystone Victorian residences. At least their name lives on.
Continuing south, we reached the Place d’Youville, named for Marguerite d’Youville, who founded Canada’s famous Grey Nuns in 1738. Some of the sisters still live in the massive old convent, although that might not be the case for long. Concordia University recently bought the building, although the nuns will be allowed to stay until 2022. Nearby the Place d’Youville is one Montreal’s most popular streets, St. Paul, which runs parallel to the old port and transforms into a major tourism thoroughfare on summer weekends.
We walked up to the Place des Armes, found between the Notre-Dame Basilica and the old headquarters of the Bank of Montreal: Canada’s first bank. You can find a small, one-room museum inside. Continuing east, we soon found ourselves at the Champs de Mars, a small park behind the City Hall, where remains of Montreal’s former fortifications can be seen. Our tour then continued down the wide, sloping Boulevard St. Laurent, lined with souvenir shops and cafes spilling out onto the sidewalk.
It would require a heroic undertaking to catalog all the individual shops, sights and highlights of Old Montreal. There are quaint delicatessens, fancy French restaurants such as the gorgeous Les Filles de Roy, parks, plazas, lovely old banks, monumental office buildings, churches and museums galore. Every step seems to reveal some fascinating new historical tidbit. At the corner of Rue Sainte-Hélène and Récollets is the building in which North America’s first YMCA was founded, for example. Just north of Place Jacques Cartier on Saint-Paul is the former Rasco Hotel, where Charles Dickens once stayed. And next to the Notre-Dame is the Old Sulpician Seminary, which dates from 1684 and is the oldest standing building in the city.
The official website of Old Montreal provides an excellent self-guided walking tour, which introduces the highlights of the neighborhood and some of its history. You can either follow the tour exactly, or wander randomly about at your whim. It almost doesn’t matter where your journey in Old Montreal takes you; every street is interesting, and any time spent here is going to be worth your while.