Montreal winter can be brutal. You have two choices when it comes to l’hiver: resist and suffer, or embrace the cold and make it as cozy as possible. The Dutch call this way of wintering hygge, and Montreal offers limitless ways to survive the harsh winter. But I was yearning for an adventure away from the cold, and I found it below the foundations of downtown Montreal, just a 10 minute walk from the Saintlo Montreal hostel.
Montreal’s Underground City
Travelers sometimes think the Montreal underground is a wildly futuristic place. It is not! But thousands of Montrealers use these tunnels and passageways everyday, so there must be hidden secrets, right? As a newcomer to the city, I’d barely scratched the surface (pun intended) of what the underground has to offer, so I dedicated a day to immersing myself with the innocent wonder of a kid. If you go underground with a curious mind, this subterranean metropolis is full of wonders.
Designed in the 1960’s as protection from the cold, the RESO (le réseau souterrain de Montréal) is a captivating blend of brutalist architecture, interactive art installations, festivals and undiscovered local cuisine. Accessible by 32 points above ground, a person can travel 12 square km of Montreal on foot or metro without coming up for air. The closest entrance from Saintlo hostel is Les Cours Montreal, a time capsule of 90’s shopping mall splendor, and only a ten minute walk. Once you enter, use the underground map to choose your route, and follow the RESO signs to navigate your path throughout the subterranean wonders.
Japote – Located beneath the lobby at 1000 Sherbrooke (across from the McGill University entrance), follow the sign that reads “Restaurant” down the tiny escalator and you’ll arrive at this tiny kiosk serving traditional Japanese food. Select from a minimalist array of teriyaki, tempura and egg dishes, all priced between $5 and 7$ a dish! Arrive with a hefty appetite so you can try as many options as possible. Hours are as limited (11 am to 2 pm, daily) and arrive early as there is often a line-up. And don’t forget: CASH ONLY!
Time Out Market – Located technically above ground at the Eaton Centre downtown–this is not your regular mall food court. There’s sushi, American BBQ, Portuguese Chicken, Vietnamese, Brazilian and a smorgasbord of culinary options that won’t overdraft your bank account. As I am a coffee fiend, I recommend Tunnel Coffee, both for their clever name and devastatingly smooth latte.
Simon’s – A Quebecois staple! Accessible from Saint-Catherine and the underground passage below, Simon’s is a department store with an emphasis on regionally-made goods, as evidenced by their extensive Local Trades & Treasures offering everything from hand-made jewelry to ceramics and even After Sun Cannabis Cream. Get yourself that missing item for your current stop on your travels. I got a Cherry Red tuque for a cool on sale for $20 and the dopamine is still pulsing through me.
Art at Every Turn
Palais de Congrès – This is where you can really slow down and take a look around. Bask in the stained-glass paneled windows refracting the afternoon sun, or speak into the spheres of “Spectrum Par Mirari”– spherical LED panels that illuminate in response to your voice.
Hidden Artworks – There are art pieces embedded into every turn of the Underground City, from Place des Arts to non-descript hallways between metro stations. A swirling brick hallway inside Square Victoria gives a psychedelic feel to your metro walk, a stained-glass wall next to metro turnstiles, and a stunning view of Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral from the World Trade Center are all hidden gems if you take the time to move slowly. Treat your walk like a giant museum.
The McCord Museum and Contemporary Art Museum – Technically above ground, but worth every price of admission. With a commitment to decolonization and sustainable development, the McCord Museum’s diverse exhibits focus on photos, textiles, documentaries and other mediums in the Quebec region will keep even the harshest art critic riveted. Meanwhile, the Contemporary Art Museum is an emblem of creative celebration, exposing the public to today’s most daring artists.
Festival Art Souterrain – Every year since 2009, Montreal’s souterrain is taken over by this festival of public art. The aim of the organization is to expose locals to a wide variety of artistic mediums–films, music, painting, mixed media–and present it all FREE for viewing. Can’t make it March 16 through April 7th this year? TOO BAD! They’ve got other exhibits across the above ground city year round. That’s because Montreal is just genuinely, wholesomely invested in public art, and quite honestly, that makes me tear up (no jokes here).
The Echo Dome – We heard about this location based upon a recommendation from our Saintlo Montreal receptionist. It can’t be googled, and technically does not have an official name. Located in the Square Victoria station, this concrete rotunda is a marvel of science and sound acoustics. Sounds travel differently inside dome structures than in any other architectural spaces. Don’t rush through here! Play! Bring a friend or partner and experiment how your voices travel depending upon where you stand (and speak) in the room. We can assure you that surprises and giggles will ensue.
Exit The City
So you’ve made it through your first trip underground! I can assure you that I’ve only given you a peek into what lies beneath the city. I ran out of time and space to tell you about the indoor ice skating rink, the piece of the Berlin wall inside the Centre de Commerce Mondial that is also next to a granite reflecting pool below a statue of the Greek Goddess Amphrite. But that is part of the fun of discovery. There’s truly endless nooks and crannies and corners of this fantastically funky underground city. Now, get out there and make it your own.
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