Located in the borough of Ville-Marie, Old Montreal is a historic district in downtown Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The district is the city’s oldest area, with some surviving artifacts from the area’s New France colonization. Formerly a walled district, the area was declared a historic district in 1964 and is now Montreal’s leading tourist destination, especially notable for visitors with an interest in the city’s unique history and architecture.
The Old Montreal area was inhabited by Europeans as early as 1605, when Samuel de Champlain established a fur trading post at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence River and the now-vanished Little Saint Pierre River. Though the post was abandoned after conflict with the area’s Iroquois tribes, the area was populated again by European settlers in 1642, when Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve established the Société Notre-Dame de Montréal fort for the purposes of converting indigenous peoples to Christianity. The island of Montreal remained under French sovereignty until 1763, when the Treaty of Paris ceded Canada to British control.
The British influence of the 18th and 19th centuries shaped much of the look and feel of Old Montreal as it exists today. Major fires in the 17th and 18th centuries destroyed large portions of the city, which prompted a radical transformation of the area, starting with the dismantling of the city’s wall fortifications in 1804. Anglophone trade, finance, and manufacturing became the dominant force in the city’s commerce in the 19th century with the arrival of Scottish merchants, and with them an increase in traffic to the city’s Old Port. The dominance of English architecture followed suit, with elaborate Victorian-style financial, religious, and government buildings lining Saint Jacques Street and other major thoroughfares by the turn of the century.
The area fell into decline following the Great Depression, as the relocation of port facilities and redesignation of the city’s downtown area emptied the district of residents and businesses. Difficulty adapting the district’s streets to the automobile caused heavy traffic during the day, while a lack of nightlife and entertainment venues garnered the area a reputation of being unsafe at night. Proposed renovations to the area in the mid-20th century, including an elevated expressway that would have destroyed much of the neighborhood, were met with major resistance from residents looking to preserve the history and character of the old city. As a result, Old Montreal was declared a historic district in 1964, and business revitalizations since the 1980s have transformed the area into a vibrant, family-friendly tourist destination.
In addition to its historic buildings dating back to the 17th century, Old Montreal retains its original character thanks to maintained and restored cobbled streets featuring horse-drawn calèches. Saint Paul Street, the oldest street in Montreal, is lined with art galleries, boutiques, and cafes, giving it a distinctly European vibe. In the west corridor of the area, visitors can see the birthplace of the city at Pointe-à-Callière, which is host to an archaeological museum. Nearby, the Place d'Armes square is flanked by notable historic buildings, including the Notre-Dame Basilica, showcasing Gothic Revival architecture, and the Saint-Sulpice Seminary, the oldest extant building in the city.
In the eastern part of the city, lively public square Place Jacques-Cartier bustles with artists and street performers. Nearby, the Montreal City Hall building is one of the prime examples of Second Empire architecture in Canada. The Champ de Mars public park, which offers views of downtown Montreal, is one of the few remaining sites with remains of the original fortified settlement of the city’s colonial days. Other notable attractions include Bonsecours Market, home to Montreal’s public market for more than a century, which now contains outdoor cafes, restaurants, and upscale boutiques, and the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, one of Montreal’s oldest churches, built in 1771. Visitors can also see a number of preserved colonial-era mansions, including the Château Ramezay and the Sir George-Étienne Cartier National Historic Site of Canada.
Central to the district is the city’s riverbank and Old Port, which is surrounded by restaurants and museums, including the Montreal Science Centre. Many cultural attractions populate the area, including the Phi Centre, the Centaur Theatre, and the Centre d’histoire de Montreal.
A new permanent lighting plan highlights Old Montreal’s historic architecture and illuminates its notable buildings, creating an inviting atmosphere and unique photo opportunities.
The Old Montreal area is accessible from downtown via RÉSO, Montreal’s Underground City tunnel system. The Champ-de-Mars, Place-d'Armes, and Square-Victoria-OACI Metro stations serve the district, as do several Société de transport de Montréal bus stops. Montreal has been ranked as a highly walkable city, and as such, many of the district’s attractions are easily accessible from each other by foot.
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