Ask most people what they think of when you say Montreal and they’ll probably say: construction, winter, construction, snow, construction, cold, construction… you get the point. And while true, those answers miss the mark: Visitors to the city often recall its thriving arts and nightlife scene, incredible food and drink culture, and the intermixing of French and English (sadly now under fire by the current Quebec government).
De plus, Montreal is renowned for its rich history and beautiful architecture. From gigantic spheres like the skeletal remains of the Biosphere to the neo-gothic Notre-Dame Basilica in the heart of Old Montreal, the city is home to a number of famous landmarks that have withstood the test of time. And although AI-generated images are currently all the rage, there's something – dare I say magical – about vintage photos that help transport us back in time and give us a glimpse of what life was like in Montreal decades ago.
In this article, we'll take a look at some archival images of Montreal's most famous landmarks and explore the history behind these iconic structures. Glad to have you along for the ride.
Victoria Bridge, 1897
The Victoria Bridge opened in 1857. As the first to span the St. Lawrence River, the "Jubilee" was a monumental feat of engineering — and remains in use today, not like others built in the 20th century (ahem, Champlain).
Place d'Armes, 1895
This large public square at the heart of Old Montreal is surrounded by historic buildings dating back to 1687. The Notre-Dame Basilica, pictured here, sits at the south end of the square.
Bank of Montreal, 1878
The first bank founded in Canada (1817) is located on what was once known as the Wall Street of Canada — now Rue Saint-Jacques — and sits opposite the Notre-Dame Basilica. The building dates from 1847 and remains the bank's official headquarters.
Monument of de Maisonneuve, 1898
Erected in 1895, this monument dedicated to Montreal co-founder Paul de Chomedey, sieur de Maisonneuve was sculpted by Louis-Philippe Hébert.
Notre-Dame Basilica, 1895
Completed in 1829, Montreal's most iconic Catholic church was designed by James O'Donnell, an Irish Protestant from New York. (O'Donnell converted to Catholicism on his death bed so he could be buried underneath his masterpiece.) At the time it was built, the church was the largest in North America, and remained so for over 50 years.
Notre-Dame Basilica (interior), 1890
Victor Bourgeau completed work on the church's stunning interior from 1872 to 1879. He was largely inspired by the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, with its gold leaf motifs and brightly painted columns.
Marché Bonsecours, 1870 and 1904
Bet you didn't know this market once housed the city's municipal government. Well it's true. Sitting at the eastern end of the old city, Marché Bonsecours used to be mere steps away from the river's edge, a perfect place for goods arriving into the port by ship or train.
Notre-Dame-de-Bonsecours Chapel, 1884
One of the oldest churches in Montreal, it was built in 1771 over the ruins of an earlier chapel. In the 19th century, the chapel came to be a pilgrimage site for the sailors who arrived in Montreal, earning it its nickname as the Sailors' Church.
Fun fact: in Leonard Cohen's song Suzanne, the lyrics: "And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbour" refer to the Virgin as Star of the Sea statue placed atop the church, who extends her hands out to sea in protection of those at sea.
Place Jacques-Cartier, 1894-1900
Before it was filled with street performers, artists, and selfie-stick-carrying-tourists, Place Jacques-Cartier was one of the city's busiest markets. These scenes at the turn of the 20th century shows the goods for sale, with Nelson's Column in the background.
Numerous fires have destroyed the upper levels of Montreal's City Hall, first inaugurated in 1878 in the Second Empire style — one of the finest examples in the country. Much of the building was rebuilt in 1922 as a replica of the one in Tours, France, replacing the roof in a Beaux-Arts style.
In 1967 Charles de Gaulle, then-president of France, famously gave his Vive le Québec libre speech from the building's front balcony.
Port of Montreal, 1863
The Montréal Harbour Commission was created in 1830 to enlarge the port and improve its facilities. Spanning several decades, Montreal's port was the most important in the country, ensuring its place as the economic capital of Canada.
Jacques Cartier Bridge, 1929
Originally named the Montreal Harbour Bridge, it was renamed in 1934 to mark the 400th anniversary of Jacques Cartier’s first voyage to Canada. It was the fifth longest cantilever bridge in the world when it opened in May 1930.
Every time you step foot into the Pointe-à-Callière Museum, you're quite literally standing on history. Built on the exact location of de Maisonneuve's colonial settlement in 1642, the site occupies the very spot where Ville-Marie was born.
Lachine Canal, 1896
Infamously known as "Smoke Alley", the Lachine Canal was arguably the most important man-made waterway in the country for close to two centuries. Once employing thousands of people, the canal met its end in 1970 when it closed permanently – only to be reopened three decades later as the wonderfully green leisure and recreational site we know today.
Built for Expo 67, Habitat remains one of the most iconic residential buildings in the city – whether you hate it or love it. Conceived of as part of then-McGill architecture student Moshe Safdie, the design was meant to rethink the way skyscrapers were being built; this alternative would ensure all occupants would have access to natural light and green space.
On one fine day in May 1976 the structure of the Biosphere went up in flames, tearing through the acrylic surface and leaving behind only the steel frame (we prefer skeleton) in its place. The site remained closed until 1990.
View from Mont Royal, 1911
The number of church steeples and smoke stacks have been mostly replaced by skyscrapers over the last century.
Views of Mont Royal, 1872
Kind of different without all the skyscrapers, isn't it?
Parc du Mont-Royal, 1890 and 1900
Connaisseurs of the park might recognize the building in the background as the Smith House. If you can't picture it, imagine yourself walking on the path between Beaver Lake and the lookout... now you see it?
Second photo shows the Olmsted Trail in winter, facing southeast. Saint-Helen's Island and the St. Lawrence River are clearly visible in the background.
Mount Royal Stairs, 1878
How many of you have climbed to the top of the stairs only to ask yourselves — why the hell am I doing this right now? Well, you're probably not the first, and definitely not the last.
Belvédère Kondiaronk, 1916
Named for the Huron chief who was instrumental in the Great Peace of Montreal negotiations in 1701, this large lookout offers sprawling views of the city – and has been a local hangout for decades.
Place du Canada, 1895
What do you notice about this photo? There's no Sunlife Building. Forget Place Ville Marie or any other modern buildings. Trams still occupy the streets. The original Windsor Hotel sits on the northwest corner. A perfect view to the mountain, without the steel cross atop the summit. How about Sir John A? Yep, here's there, too.
Windsor Station, 1889-1900
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) began to build a railway station in 1887 that would serve as its new headquarters. Entrusted to New York architect Bruce Price, who chose a Romanesque Revival style for the building, it was built at a cost of $300,000. The first trains departed from the station in February 4, 1889.
Windsor Hotel, 1890-1910
Constructed between 1875 and 1878 by a consortium of six Montreal businessmen – including William Notman – the opulent hotel was meant to symbolize the city's growing prominence and wealth. The hotel first opened in 1878 and later expanded with the addition of an annex in 1908 following a fire that destroyed nearly 100 guest rooms.
Museum of Fine Arts, 1913
First institutionalized on Phillips Square, the museum moved to its current location on Sherbrooke Street West in 1912. Architects Edward and William Sutherland Maxwell conceived the plan in neo-classical style, in vogue at the time.
Morgan's (The Bay), 1890
Scottish immigrant Henry Morgan knew a business opportunity when he saw one. With the wealthy elite moving away from the dirty, overcrowded port area and into the vast open spaces of what later became the Golden Square Mile, Morgan opened his new flagship store across Phillips Square in 1891 – and most agreed he was a fool, for all business was still being conducted in the old city. Did he ever prove them wrong. Soon after, Sainte-Catherine Street became the main street for shopping, and others like Henry Birks soon followed.
Holt Renfrew, 1937
In celebration the company's 100th anniversary, Holt Renfrew unveiled a new six-storey headquarters and flagship store in Montreal. Designed by the Canadian architectural firm of Ross and Macdonald, the structure was built in what became known as the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco.
Mount Stephen Club, 1884
Primarily a gentlemen's club, the Mount Stephen was considered a space reserved for the wealthy community of anglo Montrealers. The club, named after the house's owner, Lord George Stephen, closed in 2011 and was renovated to become the hotel it is today.
Maisonneuve Market, 1916
The original market was built in 1912 according to plans by architect Marius Dufresne. The present version of the building (after several structural changes) opened in 1995.
Maisonneuve Public Bath, 1916
This impressive Beaux-Arts style building was built as a public bath house in 1914 and has (thankfully) been well preserved over the years.
This is the first in a series we're calling History Lessons. Each one will focus on a particular building, historical figure, or some unique fact about Montreal that you may or may not have known. Think of us as a tour guide that's taking you on a little trip into the past.