Last Updated on July 7, 2023

With its French heritage, Montreal may be as close to visiting Europe as you can get without leaving North America.

Montreal is big on being a green and sustainable destination. It was such a pleasure to experience that in a city the size of Montreal.

Palais des Congrès

Also known as the Palais des Congrès, the Montreal Convention Center located in the international quarter has an interior lit almost completely by natural light. The architecture is ultramodern and probably the most colorful building I’ve ever seen. It is also completely carbon neutral.

Since the Canadian government is committed to sustainability, it is the leading host for sustainability conferences. In addition, they contribute to planting trees at the Montmorency Forest, which is the largest teaching and research forest in the world.

Centre Bell Arena

Montreal Canadiens Sports Arena
©Kathleen Messmer

Next on my walk-about was the Sports Arena or rather, the Centre Bell. Home of the Montreal Canadiens, this is a multi-use arena and was an amazing place to visit. Hockey is Canada’s national pastime and the Canadiens are the National Hockey League’s most successful franchise,. Capacity is 21,302, and when there’s a game happening, there is hardly an empty seat to be found.

Winners of 24 Stanley Cup championships, they’ve had plenty of time to practice…since before the NHL actually began in 1923. They proudly display all the statistics for all the wins and statues and names for various players outside the arena. It’s quite impressive.

Old Montreal

Once I arrived in what’s known as Old Montreal, Place d’Armes specifically, there were so many things to look at and take in that I truly felt like a tourist. Most streets are cobblestone, and you can’t just walk straight through; there’s the obligatory ooo-ing and ahhh-ing and pointing and looking up followed by more ooo-ing and ahhh-ing.

It was pretty embarrassing. I decided to hide in a restaurant and have some lunch to calm down.

Jardin Nelson

Jardin Nelson, Montreal
©Kathleen Messmer

Where better to settle down than Jardin Nelson? From the street, it looked pretty, but walking down the alley to the entrance was like being embraced by nature. There were so many plants everywhere. They continued into the restaurant creating an environment that was so peaceful and green.

I felt like I could breathe deeper and relax here.

The menu offered crêpes, pizza, salad, soup, and sandwiches. I ordered pizza accompanied by some of the best Sangria I’ve ever had.

Dessert was unbelievable. I ordered a “pot d’amour.” Well, who could resist a name like “pot of love?” In reality, it was a small mason jar filled with a cookie crust, crême marscapone, and topped with a half-inch of caramel with nuts on top.

Without question, this was aptly named. I was in love.

Bike Share

Montreal is a walkable city, but in case you don’t want to, there’s always Manuvie, one of the local bike-share services. We have recently instituted similar bike-share services here in the U.S., but it’s not as widely used as in Montreal. 

Manuvie bikes have universal locking mechanisms, can be docked at any docking station, and charged there as well. The rental process is the same for Manuvie as it is for other bike-share service providers, and the best part is, the bikes can go up to 70 km (43 miles!) on a single charge.

Interestingly, Montreal has the largest ridership numbers in the world, despite the short riding season. A testament to the sustainability commitment of the Canadian government.

Street Entertainment

As I wandered around, I noticed several street performers, which isn’t significant as most cities have them. What I found interesting was, in Montreal, the performers must have a permit to perform and must display it prominently for all to see.

I liked it. It seemed to lend a degree of credibility to their chosen profession, so you knew they were out there performing as a means of making a living, rather than just being out there begging for spare change.

Basilique Notre Dame

Basilique Notre Dame, Montreal
©Kathleen Messmer

Since you can tour the Basilica during regular daytime hours, I took advantage of the opportunity. It was the most incredibly beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t go into churches for the religious aspect, but rather for the architecture, which is off-putting to some, but for me, it’s truly amazing that these structures were even possible given the times in which they were built.

The Basilique was built between 1824 and 1829. However, the towers were not completed until 1841. The East Tower is named “Perseverance.” It houses a ten-bell carillon, while the West Tower is named “Temperance” and holds le Gros Bourdon, a bell that weighs in at 11,240 kg; well over 22,000 pounds!

Couples can get married here either in the main basilica or in the Sacré Coeur Chapel, which also has beautiful relief carvings to feast your eyes on. Gorgeous. One of the most famous weddings that took place here was that of Celine Dion.

Upon entering the Basilica, I was stunned, speechless, something that doesn’t happen often. The front altar is a spectacular display of Christ and the 12 disciples. This includes eight niches on the first level that each hold a single disciple. The center tier has three more niches holding two more disciples plus the center niche that holds Christ on a cross. The final top tier has one niche that holds the last two disciples.

The Casavant Organ

As a photographer, I’ve always been told to make sure to turn around and see what’s behind you because that shot may just be the one you missed. I am so grateful I turned around while I was inside the Basilica. The famous Casavant Organ was there for me to behold. 

After only six years in business as an organ maker, Casavant Frère started construction on a new 32-foot pipe organ in 1886. It took five years to complete and was the first organ with adjustable, combination pedals electrically operated. 

Today, that organ still creates beautiful music, and you can even take a grand tour to take a seat at this massive organ. That’s probably one of the coolest parts; that and the sheer size.

The tour takes about two hours, and you have to climb 60 steps to get up there. So worth it even if it did, quite literally, take my breath away.

Aura

Interior Basilique Notre Dame
©Kathleen Messmer

In the evenings at Basilique Notre Dame, for an entry fee between  $19.50 and $29.50, they offer a laser light show called Aura. In a word: spectacular!

I’ve seen laser light shows before, but nothing as unbelievable as this. I’ve never heard so many gasps, ohs, and sharp intakes of breath as I did during this show. As a side note, there is no photography or videography allowed during the show. There is no assigned seating, run time is approximately 50 minutes, and audience capacity is 690 per performance.

Aura is a three-act show presented by Moment Factory who gained instant fame after producing Aura. Over 100 people contributed to the project when development began in 2016, but end-to-end production time still took eight months.

Aura was finally ready in March of 2017 and has been dazzling audiences ever since. What a glorious way to end my first free day in Montreal.

Fairmount Bagel

According to a friend who was from Montreal, I had to visit Fairmount Bagel. He was adamant that they are the best bagel in the world! Since I usually have a bagel for breakfast, I already knew where I’d start my day. I mean, who wouldn’t want to start their day with the “best in the world” anything? 

Let’s just say he was not wrong. Fresh doesn’t even begin to cover it. These bagels very nearly made me cry.

I started asking questions of the folks who worked there. They were friendly and couldn’t say enough about their product. In addition to bagels, they make Matzoh Bread which is flat and crunchy. They swear that the secret to their amazing bagels is that they are rolled by hand and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Fairmont Bagel began in 1919 in a different location and moved to the current location in 1949. They’re open 24 hours a day and have won multiple awards and honors over the years. If you get a chance, go there. You’ll think you died and went to heaven.

Westmount Library

Most people don’t get overly excited over libraries. Still, whenever I visit another city, I try to check out their library. It’s something I like to explore. 

Westmount’s was small, but the building was red brick, and I love brick buildings. The interior had multiple rooms with beveled lead glass in the windows and plants. Lots of plants. Love that!

They had a basement level. I was so there.

The stacks were pretty similar to most libraries. There was a feeling of calm and peace here instead of the feeling that a harsh librarian was waiting to shush you if you breathed too loud. Just to sit and breathe in the smell of books and hearing the quiet sounds that make up a library was glorious.

Westmount Botanical Garden

Westmount Botanical Garden, Montreal
©Kathleen Messmer

This was the feather in the cap of the library. Right next door is the Westmount Botanical Garden.

You can walk through the library to get there. I was in heaven. The building is beautiful.

Even though the day was cloudy and threatening, I was happy as a clam to be in such a beautiful place with plants and flowers everywhere, plus a library and a botanical garden. Whoever thought of that combo is a genius.

Olympic Stadium

The Olympic Stadium, also known as Parc Olympique, was built for the 1976 Summer Olympics. Currently, it’s a sports complex housing rotating exhibits and events throughout the year.

Bike Racing

Montreal has several bike races every year. I was fortunate enough to see one while I was there. It’s always inspiring to me, even though to do it myself scares the living daylights out of me. I saw the North Star Grand Prix Bicycle Race. Wow!

The cyclists were all so close; I was worried they’d crash into each other and cause a massive pile-up of bodies and bicycles. They didn’t, of course, and to see the speed and maneuvering skill of these riders was incredible.

Notre Dame des Neiges Cemetery

I saved the best for last, although in Montreal there are so many “bests” it’s hard to choose a single one.

Holding one million people and covering 343 acres, Notre Dame des Neiges is Canada’s largest cemetery. It was founded in 1854 and was inspired by the Père Lachaise Cemetière in Paris. The goal was to embrace the feeling of nature, which wasn’t terribly hard given its location.

It was designated a national historic site in 1999. They also have a replica of Michelangelo’s Pietà in the main building that is truly a work of art.

If you’re into history and beautiful grounds and want to escape the commotion of the city, this is the place to be. Quiet, serene, and peaceful, as it should be.

Author

  • Kathleen Messmer

    Kathleen Messmer is a freelance writer and photographer based in Murrieta, California. She travels the world making feature films and is also a master photographer. While she wears many hats, her passion is travel and finding unique places that the average traveler might not get to. She believes that if you follow your passion you’ll never go wrong.