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Explore Montreal through Her Historical Sites and Neighborhoods



Most of Montreal's historical sites can be found in her cathedrals and museums dedicated to religious artifacts. Religious institutions figure prominently in Montreal's history as so they are well represented in this list. There are a few traces of early French settlements including the Order of Saint-Sulpice Seminary built in 1685, and the residence of the Governor of Montréal Claude de Ramezay, Château Ramezay, built in 1705. Most of the remaining historical sites still in existence date from the 19th century, as the area's wealthy residents have made way for stores, warehouses and office buildings. For a long time downtown Montréal was confined to the area around Notre-Dame and St-Jacques streets. Cobblestones can still be found in Old Montreal streets and newer buildings have kept some of the old facades all add to the charm of the neighborhood. Historic grain elevators and other light industrial buildings along with the clock tower can be found in the Old Port area - best explored by bike or on foot along the Lachine Canal. Sightseeing by boat is a popular option here too as all of the guides will offer commentary about Montreal's historical waterfront and architecture as well as make recommendations for further explorations.


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Montréal's signature university, McGill received its charter in 1821 after being endowed and founded by James McGill, a wealthy Scottish immigrant, in 1813. The gift was intended to give English-speaking residents an educational opportunity. Since that time, the university has grown to encompass both the original downtown campus and Macdonald Campus, about 25 miles west of the city. The school now accommodates graduate and undergraduate students and includes six teaching hospitals and 17 libraries. Tours of the downtown campus are available by reservation and last about an hour. They're led by students and feature the university's prominent buildings and facilities.

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This historic church is the seat of the city's Anglican Church. Built between 1857 and 1859, the neo-Gothic structure was designed by Frank Mills (who produced a similar structure in Fredericton,New Brunswick) to emulate a 14th-century English cathedral. The church sits atop Les Promenades de la Cathedrale, a popular city mall and adds a much needed historical presence amidst the big box stores. It has been designated as a National Historic site of Canada. The original steeple was too heavy which caused the building to shift and was the subject of famous lawsuits before it was replaced by a much lighter aluminium one.

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This small chapel, Montréal's oldest church, dates back to 1657. Margaret Bourgeoys, who founded the Notre Dame congregation of nuns, initiated construction, originally to provide sailors a refuge of peace and comfort. Legend has it that Montréal's founder, Paul Chomedey, personally cut timbers for the small chapel. A statue, "Our Lady of Good Hope" (hence "de Bon Secours"), was donated by the French. The statue reaches out her arms to protect sailors from the treacherous seas. No less enthralling is the Marguerite-Bourgeoys Museum where you can cover more than 2,000 years of religious and colonial history. The tomb of Saint Marguerite Bourgeoys, the tower lookout, and the archaeological site are especially interesting attractions.

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The Vieux-Port is Old Montréal's gateway to the Saint-Lawrence River. The port was once the hub of shipping and gave Montréal its powerful economic presence in Canada. In 1992, the city renovated the port as part of Montréal's 350th anniversary celebrations. Visitors of all ages will enjoy biking, walking, ice-skating or shopping at the seasonal flea market. Athletic equipment rentals available. The Old Port area is the perfect place from which to explore historic Montreal by boat. Spa fans will also find a floating spa in this area not far from the clock tower. On summer evenings, it's the site of outdoor concerts.

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Le Musée du Château Dufresne
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Musee du Chateau Dufresne

Built between 1915 and 1918, the Chateau Dufresne is a beaux arts-style private mansion which was owned by the Dufresne brothers, two important members of the Montreal French Bourgeoisie. Today, it houses the museum, dedicated to Montreal's East End history, which is today a predominantly French neighborhood. The studio features cardboard mock-ups of finished artworks as well as an ancient stove and explanations of stained glass production techniques. The studio highlights the inspiration of Italian - Canadian artist Nincheri whose murals, painted in the 1920s are found in Catholic churches across North America. Stained-glass windows, marble floors and Italian Renaissance ceilings and beautiful furnishings are on display year-round.

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The McCord Museum houses historic artifacts and visual art from the 18th and 19th centuries. Fun exhibitions like the toy collection allow older visitors to revisit their favorites from childhood while younger visitors can enjoy special school holiday camps. Evening art and cultural based activities add to the appeal of this original teaching museum that offers an impressive online collection. The museum provides much information dealing with the art, culture and history of Native Canadians. Visitors can view native furs, carvings, embroidery, beadwork and 10,000 costumes. Also on display are the Notman Archives, a photography collection containing over 700,000 prints.

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L'Oratoire Saint-Joseph du Mont-Royal
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission. Photo by Pierre St-Jacques

Built in 1904, this is one of the world's most popular Catholic shrines. The Renaissance-style dome was the world's largest when completed in 1955. The shrine now holds a museum, a tomb, monuments, a 56-bell carillon and Stations of the Cross in a sculpture garden. Features summer organ recitals on Wednesday evenings.Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal is one of the world's most visited centres of pilgrimage and underlines the significance that religion has played in the establishment of Montréal. Its founder, Saint Brother André, started its construction in 1904. The massive complex includes a stately building whose dome reaches 97 metres (second only in height to Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome), a small original chapel, a votive chapel, a crypt church, a basilica that can accommodate over 2,200 people, and well-tended, colourful, diverse gardens.

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Vieux Montréal
Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Tourisme Montreal. Photo by Lorraine Deslauriers

The starting point of everything that Montréal has become, this area's cobblestoned streets and historic buildings practically beg walking tours. Though some may find it too touristy, the highlights of Basilique Notre Dame, the Old Port, the Archaeology and History Museum and Place Jacques-Cartier are not to be missed. Quaint dining sites and people-watching opportunities abound. Bounded by the Saint Lawrence River to the east and rue McGill to the west, the area is not only historically significant to the city it is also very scenic. The new bars and restaurants appeal to locals as well as tourists and are to be found on the quieter secondary streets.

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Basilique Notre-Dame
Photo courtesy of Paul Shio

Built in 1829, the neo-Gothic Basilique Notre-Dame is built in the scale and manner of Europe's great churches. It's said that the protestant architect James O'Donnell, who designed the basilica, was so taken with the project that he converted to Catholicism. Fine woodwork, rose ceiling windows, blue vaulted ceilings and a massive church bell make this a great place to visit. A small, on-site museum displays various religious artifacts, paintings and vestments.The paintings, sculptures, and stained-glass windows that adorn the structure illustrate biblical passages as well as 350 years of parish history. Catch the Notre-Dame Basilica in the evening, when a sound and light show presents the founding of the city and its basilica.

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The Château Ramezay, dating back to 1705, is one of the oldest buildings in North America. AMerican visitors will be interested to learn it was the site of Benjamin Franklin's attempt to persuade Montréal to become the 14th state of the United States. The permanent exhibition allows visitors to take a tour through time from prehistory through the early 20th century. At the garden level (the basement), re-enactors show how life was led during the 1700s. Outside, the garden proper is laid out in traditional 18th-century style with many species close to those that existed in Ramezay's day, so that even the plants are historical.

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Meet Sherel Purcell

Sherel Purcell is a travel writer who specializes in golf, Montreal and Quebec, contemporary art, cycling and food and wine. Her articles appear on USA Today's 10Best, About.com, Aol, Matador,...  More About Sherel

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