There is a unique kind of anxiety that comes along with travel.
The traveler is in new place for a short time, and is excited, even a bit manic. They want to experience everything! They want to see all the places! But they know that this is impossible. How to prioritize?
There are an endless number of guidebooks, “24 hours in” travel articles, and websites which attempt to provide a list of the best things to see. At Atlas Obscura, we too have our favorite things, our recommendations, but in the end, trying to “do it all” is an exercise in futility. So we have a few rules of thumb we try to follow when we travel to help us stay sane.
One: Walk everywhere. It is without a doubt the best way to see a new place. Get lost on purpose.
Two: Investigate things that intrigue you. Walk into a building with interesting architecture. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to look foolish.
Three: You are going to miss seeing things, probably “major” things. That’s fine. Going to the far edge of town to search for a small museum in Paris can be more rewarding than climbing the Eiffel Tower. If it feels like travel blasphemy, then you are on the right track.
Four: Context gives meaning to experience. If you can, read about the history of the place you are going to. You will experience it with a much deeper appreciation and understanding.
Five: Don’t forget to eat. Travel is exhausting business, so put food in your mouth often. Hunger is the enemy of good travel.
Six: If you are tired, crabby, and don’t care about seeing stuff anymore, stop. Drink a beer. People watch. Sometimes the best way to experience a place is to just experience it. It’s not a race.
Follow those rules and even five hours in a place can become a deeply immersive experience. Here are a few of the places Atlas Obscura saw and enjoyed on a recent expedition to Montreal.
We started our day off with traditional Québécois baked beans, with a healthy (unhealthy?) pour of maple syrup, and a housemade spruce beer (delicious! and not actually beer) at La Binerie Mont-Royal, a Montreal lunch counter staple since 1937. Of all of the places we ate at in Montreal, this restaurant earned our highest recommendation. Sit at the counter and chat with the owner. He is a delight.
We then made our way to McGill University. The nearly 200-year-old campus is full of beautiful old buildings and hip young students, and if you’re a science nerd, a wonderful hidden secret.
The Rutherford and McPherson collections are by appointment only, so be sure to contact the curator ahead of time to arrange a visit. Its two adjoining rooms feature science instruments — the Rutherford collection is home to utilitarian implements made by the famous physicist for experiments — and they are deceptively simple, almost crude, to the untrained eye. Luckily the curator of the two collections acted as our personal tour guide and explained the historical significance of Rutherford’s early experiments in radioactivity.
The McPherson collection, on the other hand, is home to a huge array of beautiful objects, which were created less for utility and more for display and education.
A few buildings down from the Rutherford Physics building is the stunning Redpath Museum. Open to the public, with a suggested $5 donation, this museum maintains an antique style of display in a beautiful, old two story building. Natural history specimens can be found on the first floor, and ethnographic objects (including a fantastic Egyptian mummy) are on the second. Some of the items on display are in ill repair, but no matter; the real star of the collection is the building itself.
We are huge natural history enthusiasts, and after seeing so many old collections Atlas Obscura has cultivated a particular fondness for run-down taxidermy, which tends to have an oddly charming anthropomorphic feel to it, and there are some wonderful examples at the Redpath. A sign told us that this handsome fellow is a wolverine:
From the Redpath Museum, we headed down to Old Montreal, stopping-off in Chinatown for some excellent Vietnamese food. Old Montreal has plenty of “ye olde European charm,” but it is also extremely touristy. However, there is one popular tourist attraction that is unquestionably worth a stop: the Notre Dame Basilica.
It is absolutely breathtaking, all lit in purples and blues. Photos do not give the grandeur of this place the justice it commands in person. Sometimes typical tourist spots are popular for good reason.
For something a bit more obscure, we ambled over to the nearby Notre Dame de Bon Secours Chapel, aka the Sailors’ Church. What it lacks in scale, it more than makes up for in charm. Model ship votives hang from the ceiling of this small port-side chapel. These are gifts from sailors and passengers of long and dangerous voyages in the 19th century, grateful to have reached dry land in once piece.
The adjoining museum is a bit on the dull side, until you reach a small room near the back, full of doll dioramas. These charming tableaux were created in the 1940s by nuns. In 57 scenes they tell the life of the church’s founder, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys. Through these enchantingly folksy dioramas, one can get a glimpse into their loving devotion for this 17th century French nun.
Be sure to climb up the tower for a view of the city, and a peak at your next stop — the Biosphere:
We opted for the very long, but very lovely, walk to the island home of the Biosphere. Along the way, we investigated the abandoned factories on Canal Lachine. On Avenue Pierre-Dupuy, we gawked (but not too much, people are living there!) at Habitat 67, a relic from the 67 Expo. It is worth noting that on this long walk, there is no place for a bathroom break, so take care of your business ahead of time!
The view of the city across the Avenue Pierre-Dupuy is lovely at sunset:
Once you’ve crossed the Concorde Bridge, you’ll find yourself on St. Helene’s Island, home to another leftover from Montreal’s 67 Expo. Designed by Buckminster Fuller himself, this huge geodesic dome has survived both major fire and an intense ice storm.
Today the Biosphere envelops an Environmental Museum — which was unfortunately closed by the time the we got there, so we cannot speak on that… but for us, it was really all about the dome itself.
By the time we got to the dome, it was late, and cold. The best thing to do at this point is to get yourself some poutine. Thankfully there’s no need to walk back the way you came; there is a Metro stop conveniently located right on St. Helene’s Island. We recommend Poutine La Banquise. It’s affordable and delicious if you love cheese curds, gravy, and french fries. We know we do.
A DAY IN MONTREAL:
- McPherson and Rutherford Physics Collections
- Redpath Museum
- Notre-Dame Basilica
- Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours — The Sailor’s Church
- The Biosphere
- Habitat 67
All photos are by the author