Ah, how things have changed now that we are grownups. Was a time that a weekend in Montreal meant a pub crawl to at least 3 separate drinking establishments and dancing in heels until the wee hours. Now, pub crawls have been replaced with ‘pub-lic’ art crawls instead, and stilettos have been replaced with sneakers. But I’m totally fine with that (especially the sneakers). Because there’s a wealth of public art in Montreal on display throughout the city, and discovering these installations on your own self-guided tour is one of the best things to do on a weekend in Montreal. Plus there’s no hangover the next morning.
Where to Find Public Art in Montreal
Because this wasn’t our first visit to the city, Henk and I decided to make this particular Montreal weekend all about public art: whether that meant street art, fine art, ephemeral art, or anything else that we considered ‘art’ on our walks around the city. Rather than immerse ourselves in any one museum for hours, we decided to take the open-air approach instead, since you can find public art in Montreal just about everywhere and its a great way to explore the city.
TIP: There is a public art directory and map online, if you want to create your own Montreal public art tour.
Henk and I decided to start on Sherbrooke Street near the Museum of Fine Arts, as we had heard there were a few interesting outdoor installations near there. And since we were staying at the Hotel Bonaventure only a few blocks away, it was only a short walk.
Outside Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts
Right in front of the Museum of Fine Arts entrance we were delighted to find a vibrant Dale Chihuly sculpture, The Sun, installed here in 2013 when the Museum was hosting a Chihuly exhibition. I’ve become quite a fan of Chihuly’s work, since visiting his museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, so I instantly recognized the giant glass piece for its organic structure, brilliant colours and sheer size. Our surprise came from the fact that such a huge piece of fragile glass sculpture would be installed outside, but then again, it is not uncommon for Chihuly works to be displayed outdoors.
I have no doubt that this particular ‘sun’ inspires pedestrians even on dull days, and on sunny days like we had, the glass sparkles even brighter.
Just to one side of the museum entrance there is another huge piece of art, this one in wood: a totem pole by artist Charles Joseph. The totem was erected here in 2016 to pay tribute to the thousands of indigenous children who were torn from their families and suffered the trauma of being placed in government-mandated residential schools. (Joseph was one of them).
Given the recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of so many of these children, our own discovery of this totem pole seemed particularly timely, and it gave Henk and I another reason to stop and ponder the work, beyond just its artistic merit.
Go-with-the-Floe Ephemeral Street Art
Not all public art in Montreal comes with such political significance or emotional weight. Some art is just fun and meant to be playful, and right beside the Museum of Fine Arts we found a great example of this. Semi-permanent and sure to be ploughed or salted away come winter, this particular piece of street art is a here-today-gone-tomorrow example of how sometimes street art can be literally ON the street.
Not since playing hopscotch had I interacted with art on the street, so I took the opportunity to ‘go with the floe’ and have a little fun hopping from one ice chunk to another.
Saint Laurent Street and the Montreal Mural Festival
Since 2012, Montreal has been celebrating street art officially with its summer Mural Festival, a combination of static murals, live demonstrations, public workshops, music events and more. But even before the official Festival was established Montreal had celebrated graffiti and street art, especially in the area in and around Saint Laurent street. This funky neighbourhood has been the city’s street art corridor for over 20 years and is a popular place for students, artists, and of course visitors to discover some of the most current – and colourful – public art in Montreal.
Whether you visit during the actual Mural Festival which takes place in August, or any other time of the year, you’ll definitely want to download the MURAL phone app to help you discover and learn more about the art. The app is easy to navigate and provides interactive maps to help you find the murals, gives information about the artists, and offers an audio tour as well. Or if you prefer a guided tour to go a little more in-depth, those can be booked on the Mural Festival website.
TIP: On the way to Sherbrooke Street on Rue Mansfield, Henk and I passed by one of the buildings participating in the annual Montreal Mural Festival: the Hotel Le Germain, another brutalist-style building built in 1967. This piece, titled Dazzle My Heart was painted by Canadian artist Michelle Hoogveld.
Popup Public Art Around Town
Not all public art in Montreal is displayed formally. There are all kinds of temporary installations that pop up in the city in squares and urban parks. We found a display case in Greektown that was extremely timely and reflected the recent Covid lockdowns with a poignant reminder of who suffered the most from this virus.
But there were other, ‘sunnier’ displays in town that were essentially functional sculpture, and definitely upped the standards on traditional picnic tables.
Sidewalks double as outdoor gallery space, too, just like this particular sculpture near the university that doubled as both art and bench. (and quite possibly qualified as an ‘interactive’ installation, as it seemed people had added stickers to this laptop, too!)
Even some hotels in Montreal regularly display art for free – and not just in their lobbies. L’Hotel had a pair of sculptures right outside their door, including this familiar LOVE work by Robert Indiana, examples of which can be found at museums and galleries around the world. (including one outside the Albright Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY.)
Public Spaces Meet Performing Arts
No discussion of public art in Montreal would be complete without including the street performers who regularly entertain visitors with their varied talents. No city does festivals quite as well as Montreal, and even with Covid cancelling most of the larger organized events, these performers brought their art to the street for the public to enjoy. In this case, a talented troupe of buskers set up in the square in front of the Notre-Dame Basilica and wowed the crowd with their performance.
Arted Out? Visit the Waterfront and La Grand Roue de Montréal
Exploring public art in the city is a great way to discover Montreal’s neigbourhoods. But a weekend in Montreal should also include a visit to one of the city’s most historic neighbourhoods, the Old Port, where visitors can appreciate visual treats of a different kind. Whether it’s catching a fireworks display, watching the interactive lights on the Jacques Cartier bridge, or in our case, admiring the lights of the city itself aboard La Grande roue de Montréal. This giant ferris wheel hadn’t yet opened on our last visit to Montreal, so Henk and I were keen to take a spin on this, the largest observation wheel in Canada. (Well, I was keener than Henk whose fear of heights almost got the better of him!)
We timed our visit for the evening, so we could take in the lights of the city, and were rewarded not just with panoramic views of the city from 60 meters above the ground, but we captured an image of the wheel itself reflected in the surrounding water.
Culture in Every Corner of Montreal
Montreal is well known for its cultural attractions, ranging from international jazz festivals, to art museums, to innovative lighting displays in and around the city’s landmarks (check out Aura at the Basilica of Notre-Dame). But as our weekend walking the streets of Montreal showed us, the arts play a role in the city’s everyday life as well. From murals and street art to popup mini-galleries and functional street sculpture, culture can be found on practically every corner. And I can’t think of a better way to spend a weekend in Montreal than discovering some of it.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION FOR YOUR WEEKEND IN MONTREAL:
Where to eat on a Montreal weekend escape
Terrace Nelligan is a popular summer rooftop patio/bar in the heart of Old Montreal and a great spot to enjoy brunch, lunch, dinner, or just catch the sunset while enjoying a drink. We opted for the latter, while enjoying a charcuterie board (always a no-fail option in Québec), a delicious burrata and some Angus beef tartar.
For authentic Indian food that has been a Montreal institution for 3 decades, visit Restaurant Le Taj. Don’t let the formality of the white tablecloths fool you: the service here is friendly and unpretentious and the food and drinks are delicious. And some of the decorative elements in the restaurant were originally used in the interior design of the India pavillion at Montreal’s Expo 67 World Fair.
For a more intimate ambiance and an upscale, curated menu (including to-die-for piglet risotto), check out Le Club Chasse et Pêche. This restaurant consistently scores 5-star reviews from its guests and once you visit, you’ll see why.
Where to stay on a Montreal weekend escape
Hotel Bonaventure is not only an affordably-priced 4-star rooftop hotel right downtown, it has a few other surprises in store, including a 4-season outdoor pool and acres of lush gardens. The hotel has everything you’d need for your weekend in Montreal, and its location is perfect – especially if you choose to arrive in Montreal by train (it is literally next door to the station).
MONEY-SAVING TIP: Get your Mtl Passeport
If your weekend in Montreal involves visiting several of the city’s museums, galleries, and attractions, you will definitely want to get your hands on the Mtl passeport. This pay-one-price-pass includes free admission and discounts to many of the city’s most popular attractions and activites, and you can choose whichever passport/attractions best suit your particular interests. (The passeport changes seasonally as well, to take advantage of what’s on in the city.)