Severed from downtown by the Autoroute Ville-Marie, the gracious district of Vieux-Montréal was left to decay until the early 1960s, when developers started to step in with generally tasteful renovations that brought colour and vitality back to the area. North America’s greatest concentration of seventeenth-, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century buildings has its fair share of tourists, but it’s popular with Montréalers, too – formerly as a symbolic place to air francophone grievances; more recently as a spot to check out the buskers on Place Jacques-Cartier, take in the historic monuments and roam the port’s waterfront.
The focal point of Vieux-Montréal is Place d’Armes, its centre occupied by a century-old statue of Maisonneuve, whose missionary zeal raised the wrath of the displaced Iroquois. The mutt that you see represents the animal who warned the French of an impending attack in 1644; legend says the ensuing battle ended when the supposedly unarmed Maisonneuve killed the Iroquois chief on this very spot. Place d’Armes is the most central Métro station, although Square-Victoria or Champ-de-Mars are handier for the western and eastern ends of the district.
The twin-towered, neo-Gothic Basilique Notre-Dame, the cathedral of the Catholic faithful since 1829, looms over Place d’Armes. Its architect, the Protestant Irish-American James O’Donnell, was so inspired by his creation that he converted to Catholicism in order to be buried under the church. The western tower, named Temperance, holds the ten-tonne Jean-Baptiste bell, whose booming could once be heard 25km away. The breathtaking gilt and sky-blue interior, flooded with light from three rose windows unusually set in the ceiling, and flickering with multicoloured votive candles, was designed by Montréal architect Victor Bourgeau. Most notable of the detailed furnishings are Louis-Philippe Hébert’s fine wooden carvings of the prophets on the pulpit and the awe-inspiring main altar by French sculptor Bouriché. Imported from Limoges in France, the stained-glass windows depict the founding of Ville-Marie. Behind the main altar is the Chapelle Sacré-Coeur, destroyed by a serious fire in 1978 but rebuilt with an impressive modern bronze reredos by Charles Daudelin. Time your visit for the 35-minute “And then there was light” son et lumière (sound and light) show, offering the chance to see the architectural details artfully lit up.