Explore Montreal, Canada by water and land with a few tips from Family Travel Forum.
Montréal, a small, vibrant island city on the banks of Canada’s St. Lawrence River, boasts a smattering of Renaissance architecture, towering Gothic cathedrals, chic sidewalk cafes and a quaint Old Town of narrow cobblestone lanes. By carefully cultivating vestiges of its France-dominated history, it has become North America’s most Continental destination. As my family discovered, if you combine the opportunity to speak French with reasonable prices (and easily-refunded VAT), excellent meals, innovative museums and a certain je ne sais quoi, adults can have an unusually satisfying break with children of any age.
Day One in Vieux Montréal
Families should spend their first day absorbing the charms of Vieux Montréal. Tucked back from the St. Lawrence riverfront, Old Montréal provides the pedestrian sightseer with beautiful 17th- and 18th-century European architecture. (Toddler-toters, however, will find the cobblestones tough on strollers.) An example of the city’s renowned architectural innovation is the striking Pointe-à-Callière (514/872-9150), a multimedia museum sheltering an archaeological site at the old Customs House. Holograms, sound effects and slides bring history alive in a show which definitely grabs the attention of all ages. (Families should consider the tremendous value offered by the Carte Musées Montréal (514/845-6873) granting admission and transportation to 34 museums over three days for just CDN$50 and includes public transportation.)
From here, you can stroll over to the very large and impressive Notre-Dame Basilica, begun in 1824, and the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, Montréal’s oldest building (1684), both at the bustling Place-d’Armes. As if to mark the where old meets new, on the western fringe of Vieux Montréal is the unusual World Trade Center. This contemporary glass and steel complex incorporates 11 Victorian-era buildings as well as city walls from 1700 in a venue filled with grand public spaces, shops, restaurants and an Inter-Continental Hotel.
Day Two for Natural History Attractions
We spent the next day on East Island. My son absolutely loved the strange and creepy crawly L’Insectarium de Montréal (514/872-1400.) Don’t miss the huge tarantulas, ravenous roaches and terrific gift shop. (Bugs make cheap and portable souvenirs!) A fine lunch, quiet time or, in our case, a place to expend energy, is within walking distance at the 70-year-old Montréal Botanical Garden (514/872-1400). The sculpted rocky landscape and pagodas in the Chinese garden are especially fun, as is the Jardins-jeunes near the main entrance, for local children.
A sudden driving rain gave us enough stamina to spend another two hours at the unusual Biodôme de Montréal (514/868-3000), just a free shuttle bus away. In this silent white dome under the Expos baseball stadium, you can observe thousands of plants and small animals in four re-created environments: tropical forest, Laurentian mountain forest, St. Lawrence River marine environment, and northern Canada’s polar world. My family’s favorite exhibits housed playful otters in a ‘river’ tank, and some pretty frisky penguins in a snow-clad polar habitat. East Island also houses Montréal’s best shopping centers, an Olympic Park built for the 1976 games and the world’s tallest inclined tower. Although the cable car ride was fun, this is an expensive pastime better saved for a clear day.
Day Three at the Harbor
As summertime visitors, we walked from our Old City inn about 15 minutes along the picturesque waterfront to one of the largest refurbished ports in the world. The Marché Bonsecours (514/872-7730) at 350 Saint-Paul Street East, a 19th-century public market capped by a silver dome and winged angels, has become a gracious food and souvenir court. If you climb the 192 steps up the old Clock Tower, you’ll learn a bit about the city’s maritime history and get quite a view of the Saint Lawrence. From mid-May to mid-October, bilingual guides from AML (800/563-4643) lead a very entertaining float past 20 miles of attractions including the Old Port, Parc des Îles, the landscapes of Boucherville and St. Lawrence marinelife.
A true Francophile (or families seeking shelter from the sun, cold or rain) can relax aboard an imported Bateau-Mouche (514/849-9952), a glassed-in barge which plies the river from mid-May to mid-October. We skipped other pier-side attractions, such as an IMAX theater and the SOS Labyrinthine mystery house, but paused to watch the fair weather mimes and musical street performers. In winter, kids who are dressed to brave the icy winds will enjoy ice skating and ice sculpture displays on the pier.
Day Four at the Parc des Îles
Anyone remember the ground-breaking Montréal Expo? Both my husband and I had gone with our parents, so it was a special pleasure to take our son to the Parc des Îles or Expo Islands. The islands of Notre-Dame and Sainte-Hélène, first developed for the 1967 World’s Fair, now host seasonal festivals, bike paths, a riverside beach, a posh Casino, the Buckminster Fuller-designed Biosphere environmental station and museum, and myriad picnic opportunities. We had a late start, so it was fortunate the old-fashioned La Ronde amusement park, whose Ferris wheel could be seen from the Vieux Quartier, operated well into the evening. You can get there by small navettes or ferries which leave regularly from the Old Port for the 10-minute ride.
Reasons to Return
Among the popular sites we did not get to are Mont Royal Park, an oasis of green between Via Camilien Houde Parkway on the east and Remembrance Road to the west, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, creator of New York’s Central Park. The stunning 51-story 1000 de La Gauchetière Tower, Montreal’s tallest skyscraper with a skylit, year-round skating rink dominating its domed exhibit hall, is one of the city’s most recent architectural achievements. Located near the Bonaventure metro line, it also provides the opportunity to admire the ca. 1960’s ‘underground city’: Montréal’s weather-proof, 30 kms/18 mile-long underground network of public transportation, offices, shops, theaters and restaurants used by half a million people daily.
Film buffs should not miss the ONF Montréal (800/267-7710), the National Film Board of Canada’s headquarters, where you can introduce your child to dozens of wonderful NFB sponsored shorts. Train buffs can spend a day at the Canadian Railway Museum (450/632-2410), a huge collection of railway, tramway and steam locomotive equipment in suburban Densen/Saint-Constant.
Families with older children who are looking for nightlife should definitely check out Montréal’s intense music scene, whose happenings are well chronicled in many local papers. The Complexe Desjardins (514/281-1870) is home to the Montréal Jazz Festival each July and hundreds of free events annually; the Place des Arts (514/842-2112) has five very active performance halls, a contemporary art museum and shops and cafes within its busy complex. Cirque du Soleil, whose creative base is in the St-Michel district, performs often and should not be missed.
As in France, kids of all ages are genuinely welcomed and encouraged to appreciate the fine cuisine served at hundreds of excellent restos. I will never forget my son lapping up a boeuf bourguignon at the fine dining room in our Old Town inn. And speaking of inns, staying at L’Auberge Bonaparte (514/844-1448), with its fresh croissants and lace-trimmed rooms overlooking the red-tiled roofs of Vieux Montréal, was enough to transport us to belle Paris!
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia
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