The Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the most striking sights in Old Montreal. (Photo: Getty Images)
With a history that dates back to the 1600s, Old Montreal is a history buff’s haven, with fascinating architecture and culture. Situated by the Saint Lawrence River, the area — formally enclosed by stone walls for protection from invasion — has plenty of sights to explore.
If you head to the walkable, mile-long district, here are five places you must visit in Old Montreal.
Within Old Montreal, Notre-Dame Basilica’s towering presence can’t be missed. Even an architecture novice can appreciate the amazing Gothic design. It features stained-glass windows that tell the story of the area’s original Ville-Marie settlement’s rich religious and social history.
The church’s interior columns are adorned with multiple layers of additional smaller columns and multicolored blue and yellow-gold patterns. Flanked by sculptures, winding staircases lead to the basilica’s second level and are themselves pieces of art featuring intricate designs.
Indeed, Notre-Dame was the first Gothic Revival church erected in Canada. The current structure, built between 1824 and 1829, is a testament to living, breathing history. And in the summer season, it also features prominent orchestras. (Fun-fact: Canadian singer Céline Dion married hubby René Angélil at the church on December 18, 1994.)
Sure, it’s got tourist shops, quaint restaurants and art galleries, but the narrow winding street itself — with its cobblestone roads and old-fashioned buildings — is like a trip back in time.
Paved in 1672, the street is Montreal’s oldest, and some buildings reportedly date back to the 1700s and the 19th-century Victorian era. And the scene is bustling, so you may even be treated to a live street band alongside French-speaking Canadians and crowds of tourists.
Montréal Town Hall
Reportedly modeled after the Tours Town Hall near Paris and built in the French Second Empire style, the 19th-century Montreal Town Hall is a stunning feat of architecture and a historic gem.
Outside you will find a decorated balcony and columns and a clock. Marble and bronze beautify its interior alongside political portraits of Montreal’s majors over the years. A massive French bronze and glass chandelier — weighing 2,200 pounds — hangs in the main hall.
Ceilings are hand-carved, and there are stained-glass windows along with art deco lamps imported from Paris. In fact, it took six years to construct the building, which the French call Hôtel de Ville.
Today it serves as the administrative headquarters for the city of Montréal and houses the mayor’s office. Visits and tours are available Monday through Friday during work hours (except for holidays).
Restaurant da Emma
This traditional Italian restaurant is known for its unusual location in the basement of the building that once housed Montreal’s first women’s prison. Its award-winning design includes white stone column walls and a low wooden ceiling that really imparts a prison-like vibe.
Even getting to the restaurant’s entrance further sets the mood; you’ll head down concrete stairs toward an imposing steel door. If you’re not feeling the 130-seat basement’s vibe, you also have the option to dine on its outdoor terrace.
The restaurant’s menu is a far cry from prison food; you’ll be able to gorge on the likes of agnolotti and rigatoni al pomodoro.
Located on St. Paul Street East in Old Montreal, La Champagnerie is Montreal’s first champagne bar. Its list of bottles of bubbly is, well, worthy of bottle-popping.
Featured cocktails fluctuate monthly, like the colorful Velvet Roots cocktail, a mix of gin, lemon juice, beetroot syrup, bitters and coconut cream.
If you’re hungry, the space serves up delicious and Instagram-worthy cuisine, too, such as a braised wild boar shank served with creamy polenta, Brussels chips, gremolata and roasted tomato.