Montreal Surprises With a Mix of Old and New

Parks, waterways, and stunning views charm a photographer on his first visit.Monday, 8 April 2019

One of the most visited metropolises in Canada, Montreal makes a first impression like no other. The city is the largest in Quebec, and it charms with its rues and parks, then surprises with an industrial edge. It’s quintessentially Canadian, yet unmistakably European.

That juxtaposition—the first of many he found—recently drew U.K.-based photographer Simon Roberts to Montreal for the first time. Over eight packed days he prowled the Old Port waterfront, explored the city’s many green spaces, chased amazing views, and fell in love with the destination’s diversity. His takeaway? “I’ve traveled to quite a lot of places in my life,” he says, “and I’d definitely put Montreal in the top five.”

Follow his journey and see why Roberts says this is a city not to be missed.

An unexpected sight rises from Parc Jean-Drapeau on the Île Sainte-Hélène: a massive geodesic dome. This architectural marvel, designed by architect Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World’s Fair, has a diameter of more than 260 feet and rises 200 feet high. A marvel just for its structure, the Biosphere also now houses a museum of the environment.

The Biosphere is an amazing building, both from outside and inside,” Roberts says, recommending that visitors arrive early or stay late to see it during dawn or dusk. “Outside, the light plays off the steelwork in an extraordinary way. And inside you get a very interesting view of the city through the latticework.”

Montreal, which got its start as a fur trading hub, sits at the confluence of the St. Lawrence River and one of its major tributaries, the Ottawa River. The Lachine Canal in the southwestern part of the city—named after China (La Chine) because early explorers thought the waterway might take them and their goods there—is now a national historic site of Canada, with a dedicated bike path that follows all nine miles of the canal.

“It’s a nice way to see elements of the city in a different way, especially if you’re into running or cycling,” Roberts says. “It really comes alive in the morning and evening.”

Industry once dominated the Montreal waterfront. At the mouth of the Lachine Canal sits a derelict beauty: massive Silo No. 5, an abandoned grain elevator complex. Constructed beginning in 1903 on Pointe-du-Moulin in the Old Port, the operation closed in 1996. There are plans to redevelop the buildings, but for now they add a gritty edge.

For Roberts, the juxtaposition of disused disrepair with fresh green spaces perfectly illustrates what he finds so alluring about the city. “It’s interesting how cities are using old industrial areas and reinvigorating them through urban development and park spaces,” he says. “In Montreal in particular, there is quite a bit of small parkland with this industrial backdrop.”

That parkland—much of it not so small—dots the city and draws Montrealers out in spades. There are 21 large parks, the city says, and just as many smaller neighborhood green spaces, like La Fontaine and Sir Wilfrid Laurier Parks, which Roberts explored. Then there is the jewel of Montreal’s parks system: Mount Royal, a nearly 500-acre swath designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park. “Once you get into Mount Royal Park, you’d never know you’re in a city,” Roberts says.

In Maisonneuve Park, near the stadium constructed for the 1976 Summer Olympics, is the Montreal Botanical Garden, a 190-acre showcase of gardens and greenhouses. “It’s a nice place to go for a bit of rest and reflection. It’s certainly one of the quietest spots in the city,” Roberts says. “The Chinese and Japanese gardens are the highlights. They are incredibly beautiful.”

Nearby, a lift takes visitors to the top of Olympic Stadium, constructed for the 1976 Summer Games. “From there you have lovely panoramic views of the city and down over the parks,” he says.

When it comes to views of the city, however, nothing compares with the Kondiaronk Belvedere at the Chalet du Mont Royal in Mount Royal Park. Named after the chief of the Hurons at Michilimackinac, the outlook rewards visitors with unparalleled vistas of Montreal.

“That is an extraordinary place,” Roberts says. “It’s quite unique to be that close to downtown and to see it from a heightened position. Right beneath you is parkland and then you have the whole city rising before you.”

For a taste of Montreal’s street life, Roberts strolled Saint Laurent Boulevard, a trendy shopping stretch better known as the Main, and explored the Old Port, a historic stretch along the St. Lawrence River. “In the Old Port, the vibe is thriving,” Roberts says. “There are a lot of vibrant bars and cafés along the waterfront.

“It’s also where you really see the diversity of the city in terms of age. In the foreground you’ve got the redevelopment of the port; in the mid-ground you’ve got the old town with Nelson’s Column, and in the distance you’ve got all these new buildings. It’s like different layers,” he says. “It’s a good way to see the transition of the city over time.”

On the Quai de l’Horloge in Old Port is the Clock Tower, built in 1922 and dedicated to those lost in World War I. Roberts climbed to the top (192 steps) and found a unique panorama. “The Clock Tower has some really nice views back toward the city,” he says. “It’s unusual to be on the waterfront and be looking back toward the city. Often you only get the view the other way round.”

Nearby is Clock Tower Beach, a stretch of white sand dotted with blue beach umbrellas. This urban beach was created in 2012 and lures sun seekers with Adirondack chairs, misting stations, and a bar.

For Roberts, the attraction of this city is clear. “There’s a real sense of cultural vibrancy here. The architecture is interesting, both old and new. In some ways it feels like a city that hasn’t changed much in 30 years, but at the same time you can see that it’s changing at its own pace. I’ll be back.”

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