Montréal’s downtown lies roughly between rue Sherbrooke and rue St-Antoine to the north and south, towards rue St-Denis in the east and overlapping with an area known as the Golden Square Mile as it stretches west beyond rue Guy. Of the main streets, rue Ste-Catherine offers the most in the way of shopping, dining and entertainment, while boulevard de Maisonneuve is more business-oriented. The Quartier des Spectacles functions as Montréal’s entertainment hub. A number of Métro stations provide easy access to downtown’s attractions – most are linked to the so-called Underground City. The area is also dotted with old churches, museums and public squares filled with activity from buskers, artists and market vendors.
The city’s main commercial thoroughfare since the early 1900s, rue Ste-Catherine stretches for 12km across the island, with the part east of rue Guy serving as the main shopping artery. For all its consumerist gloss the road still has its seedy bits, with the occasional strip club enlivening the streetscape, though most have been phased out. Further along, the street passes through the Quartier Latin, forms the heart of the gay village, and then cuts through the Quartier des Spectacles, the splashy entertainment district.
Dwarfed by its high-rise neighbours, the Basilique-Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde was commissioned by Bishop Ignace Bourget in 1875 as a reminder that Catholicism still dominated the largest city in the new Dominion of Canada. Impressed by St Peter’s while visiting Rome, Bourget created a scaled-down replica of the famous church. While the statues crowning St Peter’s facade are of the Apostles, the thirteen statues atop its smaller cousin represent the patron saints of the parishes that donated them. The inside is not as opulent as you might expect, though the high altar of marble, onyx and ivory is surmounted by a gilded copper reproduction of Bernini’s baldachin over the altar in St Peter’s. To your left on entering, the Chapelle des Souvenirs contains various relics, including the wax-encased remains of St Zoticus, a patron saint of the poor.
The quiet grounds of the 1859 Anglican Christ Church Cathedral provide a welcome break in the commercial strip of rue Ste-Catherine. By 1927, the church’s slender stone spire was threatening to crash through the wooden roof and was replaced with the peculiar aluminium replica. Inside, the soaring Gothic arches are decorated with heads of angels and the Evangelists, but the most poignant feature is the Coventry Cross, made from nails salvaged from England’s Coventry Cathedral, destroyed by bombing during World War II. With the decline in its congregation, the cathedral authorities’ desperation for money led them to lease all the land around and beneath the church. For nearly a year, Christ Church was known as “the floating church” – it was supported on concrete struts while the developers tunnelled out the glitzy Promenades de la Cathédrale, a boutique-lined part of the Underground City. To fully experience the church, stop by on Sundays at 10am for the Sung Eucharist or 4pm for Choral Evensong. The church also features concerts throughout the year.
Occupying the west side of the place des Arts, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal (macm.org) is Canada’s first museum devoted entirely to contemporary art. It showcases Québécois artists, such as Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle, Fernand Leduc, Guido Molinari and Claude Tousignant, and also works by other Canadian and international artists. The daring temporary exhibits are consistently excellent, and have covered everything from digital installations to Canadian Abstract Expressionist art. The sculpture garden holds a Henry Moore sculpture amid the greenery. On the first Friday night of the month (except July and Aug) the museum features “Nocturnes”, with live music, cocktails, tours and gallery talks (regular admission). A $19-million expansion project, due for completion in 2017, will double the exhibition space and add a state-of-the-art auditorium.
The superb Musée des Beaux-Arts (mmfa.qc.ca) is Canada’s oldest museum – and Montréal’s largest – and features the country’s most impressive Canadian art collection. It covers the full spectrum, from the devotional works of New France, through paintings of the local landscape by, among others, James Wilson Morrice, Maurice Cullen and Clarence Gagnon, to the more radical canvases by the Automatistes – Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle – who transformed Montréal’s art scene in the 1940s. The museum also has a breathtaking collection of European art and sculpture, with works by such masters as El Greco, Rembrandt, Rodin, Picasso, Monet and Cézanne. In 2011, the museum opened its Pavilion of Québec and Canadian Art – which houses over 600 pieces – as well as the 450-seat Bourgie Concert Hall. The dazzling marble-and-glass pavilion, built as an extension of the restored Erskine and American Church, is as impressive as the art within, designed by a local architectural firm. The pavilion also displays the church’s 18 Tiffany stained-glass windows, the largest collection of Tiffany’s work outside the US. The museum’s temporary exhibits are consistently superb, and have included everything from Cuban art and history to the music and dance in Andy Warhol’s work. The museum is also expanding its sculpture garden, which will feature one of the largest collections of public art in Montréal, including works by Jim Dine, Jaume Plensa and Dominique Blain.
Montréal’s astoundingly varied theatre, music, dance and art – and its formidable festival season – now have a central hub: the Quartier des Spectacles, a square kilometre spreading out from the central intersection of Ste-Catherine and St-Laurent. Initially proposed in the early 2000s, construction on the Quartier began in earnest in 2008, and has continued since: in autumn 2017, the National Film Board of Canada is due to move in, in a new building next to the main square. Overall, the Quartier’s approach has been two-pronged: to revitalize and renovate already existing venues; and to add new ones, from art galleries to theatres to, most impressively, numerous public spaces, squares, gardens and walkways. Dubbed the “Broadway of Montréal”, it has over eighty cultural venues and hosts more than forty festivals, including the renowned Jazz Festival, Just for Laughs and Francofolie, and is served by three Métro stations: St-Laurent, Place-des-Arts and Place-d’Armes. Its signature symbol is a playful red dot, which you’ll see throughout – and on the website – a reference to the neighbourhood’s former red-light district. For information, see quartierdesspectacles.com.
Place Ville-Marie marks the beginning of Montréal’s famous Underground City (officially called RÉSO – a homophone of “réseau”, the French word for “network” – or La Ville Souterraine, in French), planned as a refuge from the weather – outrageously cold in the winter and humid in the summer. The underground network began with the construction of Place Ville-Marie in the 1960s. Montréalers flooded into the first climate-controlled shopping arcade, and the Underground City duly spread. Today its 33km of passages provide access to the Métro, major hotels, shopping malls, transport termini, thousands of offices, apartments and restaurants and a good smattering of cinemas and theatres. Everything underground is signposted, but you’re still likely to get lost on your first visit – pick up a map of the ever-expanding system from the tourist office. While the pamphlets make the Underground City sound somewhat exotic, it’s a pretty banal place – most Montréalers just use it to get from place to place, or drop in on a number of fairly standard shopping malls. If you’re on a budget, check out the inexpensive food courts on the lowest floor of any of the malls (also handy for public toilets).