The sight I was most excited to visit in Montreal was Notre-Dame Basilica. I had seen numerous pictures of it and its interior looked spectacular. Seeing it in person did not disappoint.
The basilica faces the Place d’Armes, which seemed a popular hang out place for both tourists and locals. While there is an admission fee ($5 Canadian) I didn’t mind it as it goes towards the upkeep of the basilica. When you think $5 to visit such a spectacular venue versus $10 to visit a mediocre attraction (i.e. the Chateau Ramezay-a post on this will be coming soon), I’m more than happy to pay such an amount.
Although a church has operated on the site of the basilica since the late 17th century, the present day basilica was not finished until 1888. It was designed by an Irish-American Protestant from New York, James O’Donnell, who had been commissioned to design it after the congregation of Notre-Dame had outgrown its former space. He was a proponent of the Gothic Revival movement and designed the church as such. O’Donnell converted to Catholicism on his deathbed and remains to this day the only person buried in the church’s crypt.
While the outside of the basilica is somewhat understated when compared with its Parisian name equivalent, its interior will literally shock you with its grandness. But back to the outside-the basilica features a Gothic Revival design and is considered to be one of the most dramatic in the world. Three statues adorn the facade of the church: the Virgin Mary represents the city of Montreal, the statue of John the Baptist represents the province of Quebec, and the statue of St. Joseph represents the nation of Canada.
I have visited numerous “cathedral/basilica greats” during my travels but no interior has ever impressed me as much as the one in Montreal. Its ceiling is a deep blue and embellished with gold stars. The rest of the sanctuary features a multicolored array of blues, azures, reds, purples, silver, and gold. It’s also adorned with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings which greatly reminded me of the Moorish influences I’ve seen in the Iberian Peninsula. I learned from the information brochure that its stained glass windows do not depict biblical scenes, as is often the case, but rather scenes from the religious history of Montreal. These I found particularly interesting since it was like nothing I had ever seen before.
Although with the unique interior, from a visual stance, one can’t possibly ignore the grandiose “elephant” int the room, the 32-foot pipe organ which was completed in 1891. It was also the first organ with adjustable combination pedals to be operated by electricity. Sadly there was no organ music during my visit but I can only imagine how marvelous it must be to hear it in such an expansive space.
When we were there we actually saw a cascade of limousines parked on the side street adjacent to the church. It was only when we got to the front on Rue Notre Dame that we saw a Rolls Royce parked and a bride to be sitting in the car. As we were touring the church she and her father walked to an area in the back and she looked gorgeous. While it was a sweltering day and obviously no air-conditioning inside the church, I didn’t envy her that but her ceremony venue I sure did.
My favorite part of the church were the bells. High above the statues that I mentioned are two towers. The western tower, nicknamed “Perseverance,” contains one of the largest church bells in North America. The “Jean Baptiste” (John the Baptist) bell weighs in at 11 tons and is only rung on special occasions. The eastern tower, called “Temperance,” houses a carillon of 10 bells which are loud enough to be heard throughout the Old Town. On two instances we heard the bells beautifully playing and honestly, it was one of my favorite travel moments in a long time. Even though I was in a modern city, it sounded straight out of a European village.
Some may make the claim that after a while, a church is just a church. But truly, the interior at Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the most interesting and stunning spaces I have ever seen.
Things to Remember
-If you’re attending Mass no admission fee is required
-Tours are offered in both English and French throughout the day
-A sound and light show called “Let There Be Light” is offered nightly at the church
More in this series!
Montreal, Canada-a sneak peek
Montreal’s Atwater Market
Vieux Montreal-a photoessay
Montreal’s Mount Royal Park
Hotel Review-Hotel Nelligan
Osteria Venti-restaurant review
Quebec-not your typical Canadian experience
Montreal trip tips
Julie is a librarian by day, die-hard travel fanatic and writer by night. When she’s not traveling, she’s either testing out a new recipe or being a foodie in Pittsburgh. If you're interested in seeing where she travels to or what she makes next, follow along via the links below!
Montreal has always been one of those cities that I’ve wanted to visit but just never made it happen. “What, you’ve never been to Montreal?!”, people would say to me totally a gasp. “It’s an amazing city, I love it, you have to go!”, they’d follow it up with. Yes, I’ll admit it; I’m one of those Canadians who has seen more of the world than my own country. So since returning to Canadian soil, I’ve made a promise to start exploring and discovering what Canada has to offer for travelers.
It’s funny how some of my travels come about because I find a great deal on transportation (case in point, my trip to New York City last September). Back in the spring, Via Rail was having a wicked sale; $25 one-way from Toronto. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that and after a quick discussion with Tristan, a weekend trip to Montreal was finally in the works.
We really didn’t have too much planned for our short time in the city, but knew that we wanted to eat great food, walk the streets of Old Montreal, and generally try to soak in the vibe of the city.
Throughout the course of the weekend, we meandered our way around Montreal checking out the Jean Talon Market and Notre Dame Basilica, hiked Mont Royal and enjoyed the view of the city from the Chalet, and took in a free walking tour of Old Montreal.
My impressions were that of a youthful, energetic city with a strong emphasis on nurturing and showcasing art (in all its forms). It seemed like everyone was outdoors enjoying the weather with joggers and cyclists routinely passing us by. Young families strolled along the waterfront, couples enjoyed picnics in the parks, and friends were grabbing drinks on outdoor patios. The city felt alive.
Known as the festival city, Montreal puts on more than 100 festivals throughout the course of a year. And on the particular weekend we were visiting, there were 3 festivals happening simultaneously including the Mural Festival where artists were given the side of a building to showcase their work. It was amazing to watch these artists work their magic over the course of 4 days, transforming drab looking brick walls into an outdoor art gallery.
The city has a strong culinary scene and we made sure to taste it at every chance we had. When I asked about food we should try in the city, the overwhelming response was Shwartz’s, the place in the city to get smoked meat sandwiches. Luckily for us, we timed our visit between the lunch and dinner rushes and didn’t have to wait in their notorious long line-ups. Woo! Our food was served within 10 minutes and before you could say “pass the mustard”, I was left sitting there completely satisfied and impressed that it lived up to the hype.
Montreal is also one of the best spots in Canada to grab a plate of poutine, a combination of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. It may not sound all that appetizing but let me tell you, it is and soaks up a night of drinking beautifully. We stopped in at La Banquise located on rue Rachel Est. Their menu boasts 30 varieties of poutine including ones called La Kamikaze, La T-Rex and La Three Amigos. The fries were crispy, portions were generous, and even tasted great cold the next morning.
We had really wanted to check out Olive + Gourmando in Old Montreal, but on our very last day, trudging through the pouring rain, we arrived for lunch only to find out it was closed for a commercial shoot. Sigh. I guess it’ll have to wait for the next visit then!
What I loved most about Montreal was how much it felt like I was far away in some other country, but really I was just a 5-hour train ride away from home. With French being the official language spoken (Tristan had a great time brushing up on his French speaking skills), and the old Gothic architecture throughout the city, it was easy to forget I was still in Canada. I was slightly thrown off whenever I would reach into my wallet to pay for something only to pull out my own Canadian currency. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were in a city in France.
We found the people to be very hospitable and friendly, the public transportation was easy to navigate, and English was widely spoken. So getting around and interacting with Montrealers was easy-peasy, as I like to say.
Montreal is a popular destination with many options for every type of traveler. It’s easily accessible by train, bus, car, and plane.
A short weekend in Montreal definitely doesn’t do the city justice. I want to explore more of the diverse neighbourhoods, check out the craft beer scene, and learn more about the city’s history. Knowing now what a short and easy jaunt from Toronto is it, I’ll be keeping my eye out for more seat sales so I can plan my return visit.
Have you been to Montreal before? What other places do you recommend we should check out?
Filed Under: CanadaTagged With: Art, Cuture, Food, Montreal, Quebec