Downtown, Montreal Travel Guide
Downtown Montreal, The Village, and Latin Quarter Summary
- The heart of Montreal's nightlife, with plenty of pubs, bars, and clubs
- Convenient access to major tourist destinations, like Mont Royal and Old Montreal
- Home to Quartier des Spectacles and Place des Arts -- home of the Montreal Jazz Festival
- Access to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, MAC, and the McCord
- Various brand-name and boutique shops on Rue Sainte-Catherine and Rue Sherbrooke
- The financial, academic, and business heart of the city
- Walkable Underground City -- perfect during winter or on rainy days
- Boho university vibe around the Latin Quarter
- Home to Chinatown, Montreal's largest Asian community
- Center of Montreal's LGBT community -- one of North America's largest
- Restaurants, bars and cafes can be touristy and subpar
- Some traffic congestion, particularly on Ste. Catherine and Sherbrooke Streets
- Certain areas can be seedy at night
What It's Like
Downtown Montreal is the commercial, business, and English-language academic center of the city -- though that doesn't mean that it's without its charms. Even so, this part of the city is home to most of the Montreal’s banks, businesses, and office complexes, as well as two English universities -- and it's generally quite busy. McGill University -- one of the best in Canada -- occupies a huge swath of land along Sherbrooke Street. This stretches into what is called the McGill Ghetto, small streets where students find cheap housing, though at night the area can be a little dodgy (particularly for women). Concordia University runs along de Maisonneuve around the same area. It’s easy to be initially charmed by the cafes and pubs on Crescent or Peel Streets, but don’t be. They're often full of tourists and/or college students who haven't yet learned to hold their liquor, and the food is -- well, we'll just call it okay and leave it at that.
It's not all college kids around here, though, and everything from shopping to culture is on display in Montreal's downtown area. There are tons of international retailers along Sherbrooke Street, and the neighborhood is also linked by Montreal’s Underground City, a series of tunnels that connect various shopping malls, office and university buildings, and the metro (including Guy-Concordia, Peel, McGill, and Place des Arts stations). This was built in 1962 so that during the city’s frigid winters, locals could travel with relative ease without stepping foot outside. It's now used by nearly 500,000 people a day.
If retail pursuits aren't your thing, there's more than enough art to see in this part of town. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is actually two buildings that face one another on Sherbrooke Street, in the Golden Square Mile near McGill. It's one of the most impressive museums in Canada, with a beautiful collection of Quebec and Canadian art, as well as a sculpture garden, a large collection of archaeological relics, and a vibrant international art collection. Wedged between McGill and UQAM is the Latin Quarter, a boisterous, quasi-bohemian neighborhood that's also packed with rowdy bars, brasseries, and plenty of head shops.
For something a bit more contemporary, downtown is the spot for indoor and outdoor cultural entertainment. Place des Arts -- the biggest performing arts venue in Montreal -- is located just east of McGill, and is the centerpiece of the Montreal Jazz Festival. It contains six halls of various sizes, as well as a lovely plaza (complete with a reflecting pool and fountains). During the year, it's home to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Les Ballets Canadiens, and the Opera de Montreal, though other performances and events are always taking place as well. You'll also find MAC here, which is the city's contemporary art museum that hosts funky exhibitions, including an electronic arts biennial.
Heading downhill along St. Laurent leads to Chinatown, which is quite small, but vibrant. The main thoroughfare is Rue de la Gauchetiere, where you'll find everything from hand-pulled noodles to kites and souvenirs. Travel a little farther east, just past Rue Berri in a neighborhood called Ville Marie, and you’ll find Montreal’s Gay Village, also known simply as Le Village -- a name coined after the West Village in New York City. Originally a French working-class neighborhood, the area has been steadily gentrifying in the last decade, and is now the one of the largest gay villages in North America, with mostly gay-owned and operated businesses, and a vibrant cafe and bar scene. From May to September, part of Ste. Catherine Street -- a major thoroughfare -- is pedestrian only, and you can find 200,000 pink balls strung up over the street.
Where To Stay
For better or worse, downtown Montreal is where you'll find the bulk of the city's hotel inventory. This is great for business travelers and tourists who like to be around lots of buzz, but less-than-ideal for those who'd prefer bedding down in a more intimate, under-the-radar neighborhood. Keep in mind that much of the neighborhood is busy. If you're a light sleeper you'll want to avoid hotels along traffic-clogged Sherbrooke, de Maisonneuve, or Ste. Catherine Streets -- or at least opt for a room at the back of your hotel. Additionally, Crescent Street, Peel Street, and the area around McGill can be lively with bars (same goes for Ste. Catherine in The Village). If you like being near the action, this will be your jam, but try staying on a higher floor in your hotel. Many of the city's big-name upscale properties are in this part of town. Keep in mind that the southern parts of downtown -- particularly around St. Laurent and Rene Levesque -- can get quite seedy and should be avoided. The Latin Quarter is your best bet for independent budget hotels -- though some are quite unlovely. Much of the neighborhood is well-served by metro, but it's also relatively walkable -- trips from one end to the other on foot are pleasant and won't take more than 30 minutes.