Discover Montréal’s most famous icons
Montréal is a metropolis filled with architectural icons, from the cross planted atop Mount Royal some seven months after the city was founded in May 1642 by French explorer explorer Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, to the 21st century skyscrapers that reach for the heavens. Here are some of Montréal’s choice architectural jewels and landmarks.
The grand dame of Old Montréal
Two of the world’s greatest singers have walked down the centre aisle of the majestic Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal, global superstar Luciano Pavarotti who performed his legendary 1978 Christmas concert here, and Céline Dion who married René Angélil in the basilica in 1994. With its two soaring towers, Notre Dame is a splendid and dramatic example of the Gothic Revival style, with a grand and colourful interior filled with hundreds of intricate wooden carvings and religious statues, as well as a Casavant Frères pipe organ that dates back to 1891. It was designed by Irish-American architect James O’Donnell (who is also the only person buried in the church’s crypt) and built between 1824 and 1829. O’Donnell would surely be pleased that his masterwork was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1989, remains hugely popular with tourists and locals alike, and hosts classical music concerts year-round.
The Old Port Clock Tower
Ahoy! The Old Port Clock Tower has welcomed sailors and tourists alike in the Old Port for nearly a century. Built on the Victoria Pier between 1919 and 1922 as a memorial to Canadian sailors who died in the First World War, the 45-metre Clock Tower – with it decorative Beaux-Arts elements and commemorative features – features a clock that is a replica of Big Ben in London, made in England by the firm of Gillett and Johnston. Also called the Sailors’ Memorial Clock and (in French) the Tour de l’Horloge, the Clock Tower was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2009. During summertime, visitors can climb the 192 steps to the top of the tower for breathtaking views of Old Montréal and the St. Lawrence River.
Farine Five Roses
In a city where croissants, bagels and baguettes reign supreme, it is no wonder that Montréal’s iconic neon Farine Five Roses sign has been a beloved beacon on the Montréal skyline since 1948. The Old Montréal rooftop sign originally read FARINE OGILVIE FLOUR, then became FARINE FIVE ROSES FLOUR in 1954, until the word ‘FLOUR’ was removed from the sign in 1977. In 1993, the business was bought by Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM) who – despite the fact the Five Roses brand was taken over by the rival J.M. Smucker Company in 2006 – spent a million dollars to restore and maintain the most famous neon sign in Montréal. Each letter is about 15 feet tall and can be seen from both sides, so the sign is easily photographed from many vantage points in the city.
The Geodesic Dome
From afar, the Geodesic Dome on Île Sainte-Hélène looks like the biggest monkey bars ever made! To this day it remains the most recognizable remaining structure from the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, the Category One World’s Fair more commonly known as Expo 67. Originally built as the famed American pavilion designed by Buckminster Fuller, a mini-rail actually ran through the 250-foot diameter dome during Expo 67! The dome’s transparent acrylic bubble burned away during a 1976 fire, but in 1995 the remaining streel structure was converted into the popular interactive Biosphere Environment Museum which today is open year-round.
Casino de Montréal
The Casino de Montréal has been serving up glitz, glamour and world-class gaming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, since 1993, in the architectural jewel that once housed the French Pavilion at Expo 67. For those seeking a leisurely night out, the Casino de Montréal – where you can play everything from baccarat and blackjack to craps and roulette, not to mention the casino’s 3,000 slot machines – boasts several bars, lounge areas and restaurants, including revered French chef Joël Robuchon’s first restaurant in Canada, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Also, the stage at its state-of-the-art Cabaret du Casino has welcomed everybody from Liza Minelli to impressionist André-Philippe Gagnon.
The iconic beacon atop Place Ville Marie
The four beaming rays from the Royal Bank of Canada’s rotating beacon atop Montréal’s landmark Place Ville Marie skyscraper can be seen from the air more than 160 kilometres away. In fact, the RBC once received a letter from a lost pilot who thanked the bank for helping him find his way home! The iconic beacon has bathed the city in a protective light seen by tens of millions of people since it was installed in 1962. As for the 47-storey cruciform PVM skyscraper itself, it was named after the Catholic colony of Ville Marie, which was founded in 1642 at what is now Montréal. Today PVM towers over the downtown Montréal borough of Ville-Marie and its iconic beacon rotates 365 nights each year.
Montréal’s Tallest Building
In a city obsessed with the Canadiens de Montréal NHL hockey team and its hockey gods, you will find aspiring male and female hockey and figure skaters tearing up the unique Atrium Le 1000 ground-floor indoor skating rink. The rink is located in the 1000 De La Gauchetière skyscraper that dominates Montréal’s downtown skyline with its 51-storey postmodern architectural design. Not only is “Le 1000” the tallest building in Montréal, its indoor rink draws thousands of lunchtime skaters on weekdays, and many, many more children and other recreational skaters year-round. Even American Olympian figure skater Johnny Weir has skated here!
Visitors often observe that from a distance Montréal’s Olympic Stadium resembles a massive insect with antennae. Designed by French architect Roger Taillibert and nicknamed “The Big O” for its doughnut-shape frame, the world’s tallest inclined tower – which resembles said insect antennae – rises 175 metres (574 feet) from the north base of the stadium, which some 70 million people have visited since it hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics. Other famous events presented here include the 1980 WBC welterweight championship when Roberto Durán defeated Sugar Ray Leonard, and Pink Floyd’s July 6, 1977, concert which drew 78,322 people, the largest-ever paid crowd at the Big O. In fact, the seed for Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters’ iconic 1979 masterpiece The Wall was planted that night when Rogers infamously spat on a fan because, he says, “I was disaffected about playing to a large number of people who – with all due respect to the population of Montréal – were completely drunk and not paying much attention to what was going on onstage. My response was to write a show that involved building a huge wall between me and the people I was trying to communicate with.” For some of the most spectacular views of the island of Montréal, visit the observation deck atop the stadium’s inclined tower, which is open to visitors year-round.
Miracles on the Mountain
Montréal’s majestic Saint Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is filled with hundreds of pairs of crutches from pilgrims healed by Saint André of Montréal, known locally as Brother André, who began construction of this national shrine in 1924 to honour Saint Joseph, the stepfather of Jesus. Known as the “Miracle Man of Montréal,” Saint André is credited with thousands of miraculous healings. A designated National Historic Site of Canada, more than 2 million people visit the Oratory and its museum each year, including pilgrims who pray as they climb from the street to the crypt church on their knees on a special flight of wooden steps. The exterior of the Catholic basilica was designed following the lines of the Italian Renaissance, its colonnade features Corinthian-style pillars, and its dome is the third-largest in the world (after the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro in Côte d’Ivoire and Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome) as well as the highest point in Montréal. Inside lie the remains of Saint André who was canonized by the Vatican in 2010.
The Cross on Mount Royal
Little did explorer Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, the founder of Montréal, know that the cross he planted atop Mount Royal would become Montréal’s most iconic landmark. Seen for miles around, a wooden cross was first erected at the summit on January 6, 1643, to thank God for sparing the small French colony (then called Ville-Marie) from rising flood waters caused by a winter thaw. The current steel cross was erected in 1924 by the Société St-Jean Baptiste and, in 2009, an LED lighting system was installed, so that the cross can light up in any colour.
Jacques Cartier Bridge
The Jacques Cartier Bridge was named for the French explorer and navigator who discovered Canada in 1534. The bridge is located at the very site where Cartier arrived at the Iroquois village of Hochelaga on October 2, 1535. Since it opened to traffic on May 14, 1930, the Jacques Cartier Bridge has become the third-busiest bridge in Canada, with some 43 million vehicle crossings per year. In fact, a drive across the spectacular steel truss cantilever bridge – built with 33,267 tons of steel – will show you why the Canadian Society for Civil Engineering designated the bridge a national historic civil engineering site. Meanwhile, some folks claim the bridge’s four Eiffel Tower-esque structures that sit atop the bridge’s four high points were a gift from France to mark the inauguration of the bridge, but this is an urban legend. In 2017, to mark the 150th anniversary of Canada and the 375th anniversary of Montréal, the bridge was refitted new decorative lights that change with the seasons thanks to a 365-colour calendar.
Gibeau Orange Julep
Generations of Montrealers remember being served burgers, fries and poutine by roller skating waitresses at Montréal’s world-famous Gibeau Orange Julep diner located on the busy Decarie Expressway. The roller skates were retired in 2005, but the restaurant built by Hermas Gibeau in 1966 to sell his frothy, creamy orange-based beverage (the recipe remains a family top secret) is more popular than ever. In fact, the three-storey Gibeau Orange Julep building has become as iconic as the drink itself. If you have the chance, visit the Gibeau Orange Julep on a Wednesday evening from May to September when the legendary snack bar’s parking lot is home to a weekly classic car meet-up.
The restaurant also appears in the music video for the 1980s New Wave band Men Without Hats song Where Do the Boys Go?
Famed Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie wanted to “reinvent the apartment building,” so he created Habitat 67, which looks like it was built with wooden alphabet blocks! Originally built as a pavilion for Expo 67 where it gained worldwide acclaim as a prime example of avant-garde design, Safdie envisioned Habitat 67 to be a model community and housing complex. It was made from 354 identical, prefabricated concrete forms which – when stacked together – created 158 residences of varying sizes and configurations. Today, Habitat 67 remains a functioning icon of 1960s utopianism that was commemorated with a 50th anniversary Canada Post stamp in 2017.
Guaranteed Pure Milk Bottle
Montrealers cried over spilt milk when the city’s iconic “Giant Milk Bottle” fell into disrepair in the early 21st century. That giant milk bottle was actually a landmark water tower built by the Dominion Bridge Co. on the roof of the Guaranteed Pure Milk dairy plant in 1930, and was used as a water reserve for the dairy until the 1970s. When the water tower fell into disrepair – the giant riveted steel quart of milk stood 10 metres (33 feet) high, weighed 6 tonnes (13,000 pounds) and had a 250,000-litre (66,000 US gallons / 55,000 imperial gallons) capacity – Heritage Montréal mounted a successful campaign to restore it in 2009, and today the “Giant Milk Bottle” sits atop the former Guaranteed Pure Milk Co. pasteurization plant located at 1025 Rue Lucien L’Allier in the heart of downtown for all to see, a daily reminder that drinking milk is for good for your health.
Marché Bonsecours and her Dome
The shiny silver dome of Marché Bonsecours that graces the city skyline is a favourite photo subject for visitors to the city. At first glance, many folks think it’s a church, but it actually began as a farmer’s market in the mid-19th century. Inaugurated in 1847, this monumental masonry building stretches a full city block in Old Montréal and – fun fact – was built atop the ruins of the Théâtre Royal where Charles Dickens and his band of amateur actors staged a production on May 28, 1842. This iconic building also played key roles in the city’s history, housing Montréal City Hall for more than twenty-five years, from 1852 to 1878, as well as the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada in 1849 after Tory rioters burned down the Sainte-Anne Market Parliament Building on April 25, 1849. Today, Marché Bonsecours is home to restaurants, terraces and boutiques selling unique fashion, jewelry and decorative objects made by Montréal artisans and designers
Richard Burnett, blogger
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.