The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Montreal in Winter

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Notre Dame Cathedral at Christmas

This winter, I had the good fortune of joining my family and my boyfriend on a trip to Montreal, Canada for a couple days. It was great to take time off from work and visit a country I’d never been to before, especially one so close by. We spent most of our time walking and eating (my two favorite activities while traveling).

Before we went to Montreal, I had visions of a picturesque, old European city settled on the waterfront, but when I arrived, I found a much different scene. Sure there were a few cobble-stone roads and antique buildings, but the city was also very much a modern landscape with skyscrapers, hotels, plenty of chain stores and a fair amount of car traffic. I had expected to return with praise for old-fashioned urban design, but instead I found that Montreal had its fair share of pros and cons, just like anywhere else. Here are some of the positives, as well as negatives, I discovered in this French city.

Montreal at Christmas

  1. Pro: The holiday decorations. Montreal had some of the most tasteful, delightful holiday décor I have ever seen. We’re talking glowing angels and festive pine wreaths straight out of a fairy tale. These decorations made everything sparkly and warm—an essential feature to an otherwise dark and chilly weekend. By and large, they weren’t religiously-focused either, making the accessible for people of all faiths.

Walking in Montreal

  1. Pro/Con: Walking in the street is sometimes ok. The traffic lights confused me because there would be many points at which the light was green in one direction, but the walk signs were red in both directions. I was probably missing something. Anyway, on the other hand, the cars were usually driving slow enough, or were comfortable enough with pedestrians, to stop when they encountered them. Not always, but most of the time.

Montreal alleys

  1. Pro: The narrow streets and alleys that crisscrossed Old Montreal. What’s not to like? They’re charming, intriguing and safe for pedestrians. You can invent your own shortcut to wherever you need to go. Alleyways have significantly diminished in many modern cities–either filling up with buildings or being closed off to pedestrians–so this was an interesting facet to witness still present in part of Montreal.

Montreal metro

  1. Pro/Con: The metro system. It was stellar! Easy to understand (even with everything being in French), fast and clean. Now, I only used it a couple times, so please, if you’re from the area, tell me how it is on a daily basis. From a tourist perspective though, it was ideal. On the other hand, it seemed fairly expensive to me, so that’s definitely a strike against it.


  1. Pro: Grand, old buildings. You can never go wrong with a grand, old building, provided it’s in use. While many cities have done away with their historic architecture, clearing the land for new condos or parking ramps, Montreal has kept a few of these buildings around. As Jane Jacobs argued, its best to have buildings from a variety of eras, both so that the aesthetic is diverse and also so that they don’t all break down at the same time. Making use of an existing structure is also much more environmentally friendly and usually more cost-effective in the long-term.

Montreal waterfront winter

  1. Pro/Con: The waterfront. I have no doubt that the walk along the St. Lawrence Seaway is quite dazzling during the summertime, what with boats docking there and Cirque du Soleil’s tent just across the water. However, zero effort had been made to preserve any of this magic during the winter. We waded through feet of icy snow and muddy puddles to reach the walkway along the water. You’ll see a handful of people in the background of this photo, but we were mostly alone with the empty docks and harbor buildings.

So, those were bits and pieces from our weekend in Montreal. Not pictured: art museums, quality family time, and the best croissant I’ve ever tasted from a tiny French-speaking bakery that truly made me feel like I was in France.


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