Home to incredible musicians, dozens of festivals (including the world’s largest jazz, and comedy festivals), a large food scene, and practically 24 hour nightlife, there is always something to do in Montreal. But Montreal is also a city with a dark and seedy past. It has been over 375 years since Montreal was colonized, and as a centre of European culture in North America, it has a coloured and cultured history. Montreal was also a hotbed for prohibition era booze smuggling, gambling, and prostitution. Our Alternative Guide to Montreal is the best way to experience that history.
If you are planning a trip to Montreal, there are plenty of ways to immerse yourself in its morbid history. Montreal is home to famous garden cemeteries, Catholic relics, the supernatural, and more. Break open your english-to-french dictionary, put on some comfortable shoes, and experience the joie de vivre that is Montreal.
The Alternative Guide to Montreal
Picnic in a Cemetery
Mount Royal Cemetery
For a moody drink, visit Else’s or Dominion Square Tavern. If taxidermy is more your thing, visit Bily Kun. Want to live the history of Montreal’s booze-smuggling past? Check out this new speakeasy.
A walk through Mount Royal will introduce you to over 100 species of trees and flora, historical Chinese burial grounds, potter’s fields, mausoleums (including one belonging to the Molson family), and even a beautiful Jewish section. After visiting the cemetery, you can grab lunch on Parc Avenue, or have a picnic in Jeanne-Mance park.
Located beside Mount Royal cemetery, but on the other side of the mountain (separated by an iron fence), is Cote-des-Neiges cemetery. Founded in 1854, Cote-des-Neiges is the Catholic counterpart to Mount Royal cemetery. Like Mount Royal, it is an architectural mix of garden cemetery and lawn cemetery, and is home to many famous Canadians. Of note is the war veteran section of the cemetery, which is connected to Mount Royal. Cote-des-Neiges is particularly lovely in the winter.
See the Preserved Heart of Brother André
Saint-Joseph’s Oratory is a behemoth of a church and is visible from almost any point in the city. Inside you will find multiple chapels, a cave with miraculous healing powers, and the actual preserved heart of Brother André. Two million people visit the oratory each year, many making a pilgrimage by climbing the outdoor staircase on their knees. Once at the top, you can witness one of the best views of the city. The Church is also famous for its supposed healing powers, so make sure to light a candle!
Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal
Built in the 1870s, this church is a replica of the famous Notre-Dame Basilica in Paris. One of the largest churches in Montreal, there are plenty of events that occur here. Of note are the relics of Saint Marguerite Bourgeois, Saint Marguerite d’Youville, Brother André of Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and others housed within the church. It is also located in the Old Port of Montreal, which is the must see neighbourhood whose cobble stone streets will transport you to Europe.
Most Montréalers are not aware that the bodies over 38,000 human beings were buried under Dorchester Square in the 19th century, when Place du Canada was formerly a part of the Sainte-Antoine Cemetery. The cemetery had its largest influx of burials after the cholera and typhus disease outbreaks in 1832-1854, leaving over 7500 dead. The cemetery was eventually relocated, but thousands of bodies remain buried in the downtown core.
Take a Ghost Tour
Meat eaters will want to check out Joe Beef (named after the temperance era tavern owner).
Mummies, Dinosaurs, & Dead Bodies
Named after the Redpath family and located on McGill's campus, this museum is a throwback to the old days of the human and hard sciences. Inside you will find sections dedicated to rocks and gems, material culture from around the world, dinosaur bones, real mummies, human skulls, and taxidermy. It houses a small but impressive collection, and is worth seeing. Best of all, it's free!
This museum of archeology and history was opened in 1992 and is currently listed as a national historic and archeological site. Pointe-à-Callière presents centuries of history from the settlements of Indigenous People to the present day. The museum lets you literally walk the path that the early settlers walked, and immerse yourself in Indigenous history. This museum doesn't always make the list of 'must-see' destinations in Montreal, but trust us, it is worth the trip.
Alternative Nightlife in Montreal
Experience Mordecai Richler's childhood by walking down St-Urbain St. & Parc Ave in the Mile End district. Leonard Cohen fans can take a break in Parc du Portugal in the Plateau district, where you can see the apartment he lived in most of his life.
Those of you who want to experience Montreal's famous 'alternative' nightlife will want to visit Club Sin, or come for the annual Montreal Fetish Weekend. Pride is also a big deal in Montreal, with a week of events culminating in a huge pride march.