If it glitters, it’s Montréal’s Golden Square Mile

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

This article was updated on December 1, 2021..

Explore the shining beacon of central Montréal: the Golden Square Mile, home to glitz and glamour since the 19th century. This fabled Montréal neighbourhood – bordered by Des Pins Street (at the foot of Mount Royal), Guy Street /Côte-des-Neiges Rd., Sainte-Catherine Street and Robert-Bourassa Blvd. / University Street – remains a downtown destination.

First established during the late 18th century as a peaceful homestead within reach of the Port (now the Old Port), then considered “downtown”, the area owes its iconic Victorian mansions and commercial edifices to the 1850s, when it became the seat of Montréal’s impressive wealth. Some say 80% of Canada’s wealth was concentrated in the Golden Square Mile at the turn of the 20th century! To put it into perspective, today these Montréalers would all be multi-billionaires.

The area’s inhabitants were Montréal’s most famous families – captains of industry, mostly of Scottish descent – including the McGills (of McGill University), the Stephens (see Le Mount Stephen Hotel), the Molsons (current owners of the iconic NHL Montréal Canadiens), the Allans (of the Allan Memorial Institute), the Redpaths, Ogilvies and Baggs, and the Baxters whose 24-year-old son Quigg Edmond Baxter – a former McGill University student and hockey player with the pre-NHL Stanley Cup-winning Montréal Shamrocks – was among the many wealthy Montréalers who drowned on the Titanic.

Today, the Golden Square Mile shines with a different set of offerings: it has become central to the excitement of downtown, mixing historic charm with cultural gems and tony tourist attractions. So, get exploring!

Architecture to write home about

Victorian Montréal lives in the Golden Square Mile, home to mountainside mansions and glittering public buildings. The area was mostly developed between the 1850s and the 1930s, in the Victorian age’s eclectic mix of revival styles, including Neo-Classical, Neo-Gothic, Romanesque and a touch of Art Nouveau. To spot some of the remaining gems, walk the side streets up the hill towards the mountain from Sherbrooke Street West, or simply head to the McGill University campusThomson House and the J.H. Birks House are prime examples.

Art to the left, art to the right

The Golden Square Mile is known to many as the Museum Quarter because of its illustrious cultural destinations. It’s home to the McCord Museum, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and the Redpath Museum, drawing more than a million visitors to the area each year – not to mention the dozens of private galleries along Sherbrooke Street. While the Redpath Museum will fill your history needs, the McCord Museum will do that and more with its exciting temporary exhibitions featuring contemporary and historical art works. And the MMFA is THE spot for blockbuster exhibitions featuring European greats and more.

Where business meets beauty

The name Golden Square Mile comes from the area’s commercial prosperity, a trait that remains to this day. Today the area remains true to its namesake thanks to the top firms that have established themselves along Sherbrooke Street, as well as luxury hotels and fine dining establishments with beautiful meeting rooms visiting tycoons can rent. Centre Mont-Royal is also a great option: it’s a business meeting and conference space rental centre awash in natural light, featuring top-notch tech and an in-house catering service.

Higher (literally) education

On the gentle slope of Mount Royal, the Golden Square Mile boasts McGill University – and Concordia University a few blocks westward. With two of the city’s most renowned higher learning houses within its bounds, you could say the area has been shaping minds for generations! The McGill campus dates back nearly two centuries and boasts some of the original McGill family homes, architectural gems. Concordia is the new kid on the block, with 40-odd years under its belt, and though it’s partially out of bounds, its heart – the Hall building – gets a Golden-Mile star – as does its top-ranked John Molson School of Business!

Fashion from street to shop

People watching takes on a new meaning in the Golden Square Mile, where the well-heeled are literally well-heeled. Fashion rules everywhere in this neighbourhood, from the passersby to the store windows of luxury boutiques ranging from the Holt Renfrew Ogilvy merger to Tiffany & Co. to Swarovski and Escada, passing by the accessories at the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts’ Boutique and Bookstore and the numerous private designers’ studios on second floors all along Sherbrooke Street West. The famed Underground Pedestrian Network, of course, also runs beneath the Golden Square Mile streets.

Hospitality of the best kind

The Golden Square Mile might as well be called the Hotel Square Mile, there are so many spots to rest your head. And did we mention eat? Whether you’re looking for a stay or a feast, hospitality is at the heart of this stretch of downtown. Among the hotels there’s the Delta Hotels by Marriott MontrealOmni Mont-Royal HotelLe Mount Stephen HotelVogue Hotel Montreal DowntownMcGill University’s Student Housing and Hospitality ServicesRitz-Carlton MontréalSofitel Montreal Golden Mile and the new Four Seasons Hôtel Montréal. And for restaurants, the list is too long to type! Want a quick lunch? Café Bistro at the McCord Museum is lovely. A celebratory feast? Head to Maison Boulud

History on every corner

The history of the Golden Square Mile is truly what shapes its identity – even more than the architecture. This was established as an upper-class Anglo-Saxon neighbourhood, which makes it distinct from the French and European heritage of other parts of the city. That’s why you’ll find English street names like Sherbrooke, Peel and Mackay, and why the architecture is more reminiscent of England and Scotland of the time than the Parisian atmosphere of Old Montréal. For an immersive sense of the past, head to the McCord Museum, an amazing social history museum, to explore its collections of archeological Montréal objects, photography and artifacts from the 18th century and beyond.

Natural splendour at your fingertip

One of the Golden Square Mile’s most precious riches isn’t the gold in its coffers, but rather the green at its feet: Mount Royal. After you’ve wined, dined, gotten cultured and shopped, head north: the neighbourhood’s northern border leads into the lush, green Mount Royal, a pedestrian park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, of Central Park fame. It’s a wonderland in every season, for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. Only got a few minutes? Head to Parc des Pins-Redpath Crescent, nestled just at the base of the mountain, for a quick fresh-air pause – one of the area’s many small parks and squares. 

Golden Square Mile podcast and walking tours

Put on your headphones and explore the Golden Square Mile while listening to “The Golden Square Mile – A Gem to Explore” podcast. Check out Golden Montréal’s two self-guided tours of the neighborhood, as well as the McCord Museum’s award-winning Mtl Urban Museum iPhone application that you can download for free. The app uses augmented reality and superimposes historic 2D images onto present-day 3D views of 150 locations in the city, including on the app’s Golden Square Mile circuit. 

Golden Square Mile Greatness Escapades Contest

Until December 26, 2021, enter the Golden Square Mile Greatness Escapades contest to win one of three discovery getaways exploring culture, innovation and the art of living in the Golden Square Mile, for a total value of nearly $4,000 in prizes. Click here to enter the contest.

Richard Burnett

Richard “Bugs” Burnett is a Canadian freelance writer, editor, journalist, blogger and columnist for alt-weeklies, mainstream and LGBTQ publications. Bugs also knows Montréal like a drag queen knows a cosmetics counter.

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