Seeing tourists, visitors and Montrealers strolling through the streets of Old Montreal in any season isn’t surprising. This historic district exudes European charm with its old greystone buildings and other attractions. A walk through its narrow streets can teach us so much about the city’s history and culture that it never fails to inspire a sense of wonder. Remember that, in the 18th century, Montreal, like Quebec City, was surrounded by stone fortifications. Between 1801 and 1817, they were demolished at the behest of merchants, who saw them as obstacles to the city’s development. But the layout of the old streets, constrained by close to 100 years of confinement, remained. Today, Old Montreal corresponds more or less to the area within the old fortified city.
For modern-day Montrealers, however, Old Montreal isn’t simply a place that evokes the European continent. Over the last few years, this neighbourhood has undergone a rapid transformation and, while it has preserved its historic cachet, the area is now a highly sought after sector. With its trendy restaurants and bars, renowned museums and art galleries, Old Montreal is chock full of activities and go-to spots that can also be enjoyed in the winter months.
Shining light on history
Since the early 2000s, a “lighting plan” for Old Montreal has helped shine light on its historic buildings and monuments, to let passers-by better appreciate their beauty by night. With ingenious lighting systems in place, facades and statues now emerge from the shadows, making often-unnoticed architectural or sculptural features discernible from afar. Because nightfall in Montreal arrives early from November to February, winter is an ideal time to get out and admire the area’s heritage gems.
Recently, Quebec directors Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon, in collaboration with scriptwriter Michel Marc Bouchard, went one better and created a multimedia circuit they called Cité Mémoire. This activity is a must for both long-time residents and visitors. Projected onto a variety of outdoor locations, the outstanding videos that make up this creation invite the viewer to discover the city. As lyrical and moving as entertaining and fun, the 20 video tableaux are shone onto a multitude of surfaces, from walls to trees, streets and other public places in Old Montreal. To take full advantage of the texts and music that accompany the images, download the free mobile app Montréal en Histoires. From November to March, Wednesday to Saturday, from nightfall until 11 p.m.
And on those really frosty winter days, a visit to the Pointe-à-Callière, Montréal Archaeological and History Complex is an excellent idea! Located on the very spot where Montreal was founded in 1642, the Museum allows the public to amble through some of the city’s remarkable architectural ruins. It also presents a multimedia show that traces the history of the city and features first-rate activities run by the staff.
Maybe you’re an art lover? The DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art National presents exhibitions devoted to young international artists, for whom this is often the first time their works are presented in Canada. The Phi Centre is another first-rate arts centre. More precisely, it’s a multidisciplinary meeting place that presents contemporary exhibitions and other cultural events (concerts, shows) along with a program of out-of-the-ordinary fictional and documentary films screenings in a sophisticated, state-of-the-art theatre.
Gastronomes, epicureans and night owls
It’s a truism to say that Old Montreal isn’t lacking for good eateries! In the neighbourhood for lunch? Check out Olive et Gourmando and their delicious sandwiches, soups and salads... just make sure you leave room for one of their famous coffee flavoured brownies. The Italian café Luna d’Oro, a well-kept secret of the local business crowd, is as welcoming as its dishes are delectable. The menu features soups, paninis, salads and pasta.
Come evening, you’ll want to head over to Le Club Chasse et Pêche, notwithstanding its somewhat unusual name. The place is a surprising combination of rustic and elegant, which is reflected in its astonishingly creative menu, from the foie gras risotto to the fish and seafood dishes. Another fine establishment is Graziella. Enthusiasts of Italian cuisine will appreciate its harmonious and chic decor as well as the menu that stands out for the freshness of its dishes and pairings of classic and unexpected flavours.
For a night of glam, head over to Le Confessionnal. This intimate lounge is a favourite hang out for young Montreal professionals. Happy hour, or 5 à 7 as it’s known here, is popular, which means there are the occasional lineups, but the wait is worth it. It’s a cool spot to enjoy a drink with friends or to shimmy around on the dance floor among the cocktail dresses and suits.
Electronic music fans can cut loose on the Jacques-Cartier Quay, in the Old Port, at the Igloofest, which will be held during four weekends this winter. This unique musical event features top international DJs. Dressed up in all manner of outlandish retro ski outfits, festivalgoers thumb their noses at winter as they groove to the beats all night long.
If your idea of a good time is dancing to pop tunes performed by live singers and bands, then the 2 Pierrots is the spot for you. A Montreal institution, this show bar promises fun and laugh galore.
Shopping and relaxing
Old Montreal is the perfect place to find high quality artisanal products from Quebec. L’Empreinte coopérative, a fine crafts cooperative representing 85 Quebec artisans that sells accessories, clothing and art objects, is definitely worth a visit. The Delano Design and Espace Pepin boutiques on Saint-Paul Street embody the very essence of Montreal’s creativity: collections of clothing, accessories (handbags, belts, jewellery), furniture and decorative objects. A few doors down, still on Saint-Paul Street, you’ll find famous designer Denis Gagnon’s boutique, which specializes in custom-made and ready-to-wear fashions for women. A destination for all things beautiful!
And what about a day of relaxation? Get pampered at Bota Bota, a luxurious floating spa housed in an old ferryboat anchored in the Old Port. Enjoy breathtaking views of the port and the city from the decks while indulging in a unique spa experience. If you prefer a more contemporary ambience, head over to the Scandinave Spa Vieux-Montréal. In keeping with the thermotherapy experience it offers, the spa’s design includes hot (wood) and cold (stone and marble) elements to create an atmosphere of calmness and refinement.
To experience Old Montreal in winter is to shun the darkness and embrace its restorative and revitalizing offerings of art and light. It’s also the perfect time of year to (re)discover Montreal’s history, as seen through the eyes of our talented multimedia artists. And its multitude of superb restaurants and places to go and relax offer countless ways to fill many days with pure pleasure. Old Montreal is a guaranteed winter blues buster.