Things to do in Downtown Montreal
Somehow Montreal has managed to squeeze in half-dozen museums downtown and there’s something for everyone. The Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal holds shows boasting some of the biggest names in art history including recent expositions on Otto Dix, Toulouse Lautrec, Calder, and Chagall. Conversely, the Musée d'art contemporain focuses on the art and artists of our present day while the Canadian Center for Architecture holds talks and mounts expositions on the history of architecture and its star architects. The McCord Museum celebrates and explores Montreal history, and if you’re looking for something a little lighter, there’s the Grévin Wax Museum or the Barbie Expo which holds the world’s largest permanent exhibit of barbie dolls.
Montreal’s Gay Village is lively and welcoming, and no matter what flag you fly, you’re invited. Home to cabarets, clubs, karaoke bars, eateries and an antique furniture shop row on Rue Amherst, there’s always something going on. In the summer months, Sainte-Catherine Street is closed to car traffic and endless streams of rainbowed decorations are strung across the street, but there’s plenty of eye candy besides.
In Montreal’s central business district, Sainte-Catherine Street is host to some legendary shopping, but if you haven’t ventured to Underground City, you’ve literally only scratched the surface. Just under the sidewalks are connected segments of the downtown core that have been strung together by an almost unending warren of passages. You’ll find these are lined with shops, boutiques, outlets, restaurants, jewelers, salons, bakeries and more. It’s especially helpful in the winter when going outside can get downright unpleasant.
The cruciform international style skyscraper of Place Ville Marie—built in 1962 by star architect I.M. Pei—has become a renowned architectural landmark of Montreal, acting as the de facto center of the city and nexus for the Underground City below. The upper decks of the tower host observation decks and a restaurant offering unparalleled views of the city. The building is crowned with a rotating spotlight that lights up the night and can be seen all over town.
Montreal’s religious history is undeniably part of its very fabric and there are a handful of prominent churches in the downtown core that shouldn’t be overlooked. Of the most notable are the Christ Church Cathedral, a gothic revival Anglican church that incredibly hasn’t renovated its interior since 1859; Mary Queen of the World Cathedral which is seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese (and scale model of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome); and the St. James United Church. These and other downtown churches regularly hold masses and host performances of both religious and secular music including hymns and organ recitals.
There are three venerable institutions of higher learning downtown: McGill University, Concordia University and Université du Québec à Montréal. All three of these universities regularly hold events that are open to the public at large including lectures, seminars, workshops, discussions, job fairs, conferences, book fairs, open-house tours, art gallery exhibitions, musical and theater performances, and even astronomy nights!
You might not think a city’s downtown core would be home to a lot of greenery, but Montreal’s made space for quite a few lovely parks and urban squares, each bringing something interesting to the table. For history lovers, be sure to check out Square Dorchester, full of monuments and statues documenting Montreal’s past. Place de la Paix is dedicated to the victims of nuclear weapons, has become internationally popular among skateboarders for its unique layout, and is occasionally the site of public movie screenings by Société des arts technologiques. Lastly, Place Jean-Paul Riopelle’s highlight is undoubtedly a sculpture called La Joute which features alternating water jets and a circle of fire on summer nights.
Recently ranked among the busiest arenas in the world, a major part of the Bell Center’s fame is it being home to the Montreal Canadians. Don’t forget however that the Bell Center also puts on basketball games, MMA matches and pro wrestling exhibitions alongside huge international musical acts with the likes of Celine Dion, Coldplay, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, The Rolling Stones, Bon Jovi, Barbara Streisand and countless more.
Percival Molson Memorial Stadium is an outdoor football stadium that sits right on the foot of Mont Royal on the northern edge of downtown, named in memory of star athlete and soldier Percival Molson. Today, the stadium is home to the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League as well as American Ultimate Disc League, the Canadian Corporate Soccer League and McGill University’s various student sports teams.
The Quartier des Spectacles is Montreal’s top arts and entertainment district with a total area of almost a square kilometer. Featuring a combination of 30 performance halls, concert spaces, cultural complexes, broadcasting facilities, museums and art galleries, the district is the nerve center for Montreal’s cultural output. The area is also the main site of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Francofolies and the Just for Laughs comedy festival, all resulting in an almost nonstop stream of festivals during the summer. Year round, you can catch shows by world-class Montreal Symphony Orchestra which is pushing, innovating and exploring the likes of Berlioz, Mahler, Verdi and Shostakovich at the 2100-seat Montreal Symphony Orchestra House.
L’Opéra de Montréal is based in the Salle Wilfred Pelletier on the Place-des-Arts Esplanade in Quartier des Spectacles and has mounted 1000+ performances of over a hundred separate operas since its beginnings in the 1980s. That includes four completely novel homegrown productions, the most recent of which being Another Brick in the Wall, an operatic adaptation of the eponymous Pink Floyd album composed in conjunction with Roger Waters.
Les Grandes Ballets Canadiens is a Canadian ballet company based in the newly constructed Wilder building on the Place des Arts esplanade alongside neighbors L’Opéra de Montréal and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. The company is both a creative and repertoire company, performing beloved standards such as the holiday seasonal classic The Nutcracker as well as avant-garde productions at the boundaries of contemporary ballet.
The Belgo Building, an otherwise unassuming six-storey brick and limestone building on Sainte-Catherine Street began its life as a department store for the garment industry and today happens to house 27 art galleries, a handful of artist workshops and number of dance studios. It is the largest concentration of contemporary art galleries in Canada and there is no better place in town to put your finger on the pulse of the contemporary art world. Consider paying a visit during the hubbub of Nuit Blanche as well when galleries throw open their doors for visits late into the night.
Montreal can barely contain its artworks indoors and you’re likely stumble across art spilling out onto the streets. Certain works are seasonal, including Urban Forest in a space adjacent to the McCord Museum with public pianos and yoga classes to accompany colourful arboreal sculptures. There’s also the local favorite 21 Balançoires which features a long set of musical swings. Other works include sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore near the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal as well as hundreds of public murals, light installations and more.
Montreal will soon be home to the Time Out Market Montreal in the beating heart of the downtown core, situated in the Eaton Centre shopping mall. Opening seven days a week with a top roster of Montreal chefs under one roof to experiment, mesmerize and nourish, the Market will hold workshops, demonstrations and events and will be a hub for creation and innovation in the culinary world. Stay tuned for more news.
A relative newcomer to the Montreal family of cultural institutions, La Société des arts technologiques (SAT) is an organization dedicated to the promotion and conservation of digital and technological art. The building is home to numerous event and research spaces in addition to a restaurant, rooftop terrace and most notably the Satosphere, an immense futuristic dome visible from the exterior that hosts unique immersive 360-degree projections for up to 400 people.
Montreal has a reputation for being a sin city and Montreal’s numerous strip clubs have played a large part in building that reputation. Venerable clubs include Wanda’s, Chez Parée, Club Downtown and Le Cabaret Kingdom. Each establishment has its own style and code of conduct, but the guaranteed recipe for a good time is always the following: Be respectful, always tip both bouncers and dancers and, of course, have a good time.
Since the 19th century, Montreal’s Golden Square Mile neighborhood has been synonymous with wealth and opulence. The area is easily toured on foot and is brimming with palatial mountainside residences, high-end department stores, university pavilions and luxury hotels. Notable examples include Ravenscrag Manor, the James Ross House, the J.H. Birks house, and the monumental Ritz-Carlton hotel. If you’d rather a more curated experience, Montreal’s McCord Museum offers guided tours from April to November.
Montreal is full of excellent restaurants, and although it might be a tight squeeze amongst all of the office buildings and commerical strips, some of Montreal’s best are right downtown. The offerings range from the elevated traditional steakhouse fare of Queue de Cheval to the cutting edge creations of Bouillon Bilk or the playful Japanese dishes of Kazu. It’s not all fancy, as the authentic Montreal hot dogs at the Montreal Pool Room and just as good for a nosh. For whatever you’re craving, there’s a spot to satisfy downtown.
Montreal has a staggering number of bars and the downtown core has an excellent cross section of the myriad options for whatever imbibing mood you might be in. For classy cocktails there are hotel bars in the Golden Square Mile. When you’ve got to let loose, there’s Crescent Street, Montreal’s renowned nightlife strip. Otherwise there are craft cocktail spots, seedy taverns, sports bars, college pubs and more to wet your whistle.
Downtown can wear you down and even the most jet-set need to unwind. Montrealers flock in droves to the Grande Bibliotheque, an impressive library complex with loads of natural light, helpful staff, a massive collection of books in multiple languages, audio and visual stations, comic books, microfiche, public computer terminals, electronic music facilities and more. Additionally, the library hosts regular events in its language laboratory, exhibition spaces, theater, conference rooms and auditoriums.