If you’re like me you probably don’t visit local tourist hot spots very much. It took me decades to visit Montréal, despite the fact that I have lived a stone’s throw away for most of my life.
- Transit: Trains, planes, cars, the metro, bikes, cabs…
- Cost: Taking a stroll around Vieux-Montréal is free. The rest is up to how high you’re willing to go.
- Crowds: On a week night first thing in May they were sparse. Some of the bars and restaurants were packed, though.
- Attractions: History, architecture, photography, souvenir shopping, food, wine, coffee.
- Accessibility: Easy to get to, but otherwise hit-and-miss.
- Click here for map.
A few years ago I had to go to Montréal for business and had just a couple of nights free. On top of that, one of the reasons I often avoid cities as travel destinations is money – everything costs something – and we’d already blown our (admittedly miniscule) budget. So what were we to do?
I remember passing a building by the quay, the moon to the right of us broken into a million sparkling pieces on the Saint Lawrence’s obsidian waves. At street level in that building were windows to an archaeological dig happening in the basement. Lit by floodlights well after-hours, this was a sight meant to be taken in by passers-by.
Business took us to Old Montréal, right in the heart of the city. By day I’ll admit I was underwhelmed. It was pretty enough: Narrow streets and cobblestone have special places in my heart. But after a while I felt like this really was a place just for the tourists. Apart from the cafés and galleries, it got boring to turn any given corner to find a shop laden with souvenirs.
“Feels a bit Disney…” my better half said.
At the end of the day, with no guide and no idea what to do, we decided to see if the area changed after hours. Boy did it ever.
The architecture, lit up with floodlights, became the star of the show on those narrow streets. Each felt unique and of a piece – of a period you don’t find much left of in this part of the world. People walked slowly, alone and in small groups, this way and that. The babble of music and crowds poured out of bars and cafés that I walked right past during the day, but now, lighted and humming in the night, flooded the streets with their presence.
Small roads opened onto grand city streets and pedestrian malls like Place Jacques-Cartier.
The feel of this part of the city started to sink in. Touristy, yes. And oddly relaxed at the same time. Alive, too, not at all Disney; this was no theme park, open-air museum, or hive of façadism: This was an old, old neighbourhood still alive, still finding purpose in the modern age other than just looking pretty and reminding passers-by of the past (though, sure, that’s part of it). As such, it felt a bit unique compared to the North America that I’m used to.
I remember passing a building by the quay, the moon to the right of us broken into a million sparkling pieces on the Saint Lawrence’s obsidian waves. At street level in that building were windows to an archaeological dig happening in the basement. Lit by floodlights well after-hours, this was a sight meant to be taken in by passers-by. In the floors above were offices for telecom (if memory serves) businesses. The historical and modern above and below.
In fact, by moonlight and streetlight, even the souvenir shops had a certain élan.
I’m glad we had a non-existent fun budget on this trip. Our $0 stroll around Old Montréal reminded me that going to a new neighbourhood and just soaking up the feel of it in an exploratory, open-ended way – one footstep at a time – can feel like a vacation in itself. I’ve remembered to do that again and again in just about every new place I get to. Sure, the practice comes with varying results. And that’s part of the adventure.