From the Notre-Dame Basilica to the heights of Mont Royal, back to Old Montreal and the iconic Rue St-Denis, this classic French city in the heart of Canada beckons visitors in their millions each year. A true cultural mecca, Montreal can inspire your desire to travel in so many ways.
One of its most unique destinations is known as the Underground City. There are more than 20 miles of tunnels connecting a number of metro stations, with so many restaurants and shops to choose from. This architectural marvel helps local residents and tourists alike enjoy the city’s eclectic buzz no matter what the weather is doing outside.
When travelling through Canada on holiday, make sure to include some time to explore the Underground City. It is perfect for a restful lunch, a bit of souvenir shopping, or immersing yourself in the local art scene.
What is the Underground City?
Based on the French world réseau, meaning network, the locals call the Underground City “RÉSO”. The network’s first sections were constructed in 1962. Four years later, with the opening of the Montreal metro system, more tunnel connections were built. Today, there are more than 20 miles of tunnels connecting the system together across the downtown region.
To be fair, the moniker of “Underground City” is a bit untrue. RÉSO is in reality an intricately connected series of buildings, tunnels, mezzanine levels, and public spaces. It is a unique architectural and planning take on a modern urban downtown. Thanks in part to its complexity, visitors have always described RÉSO as the “Underground City” and local tourist authorities and shop owners have never really disputed that claim.
The complex was the brainchild of local urban planner Vincent Ponte. In 1962, Ponte helped to design and build Montreal’s first modern skyscraper – the Place Ville Marie. In an effort to prevent high levels of street-level traffic – and to help locals find a respite from colder temperatures – builders conceived of the tunnel system to help people circulate around the new modern downtown.
To make RÉSO unique, designers included a number of public spaces to make it livelier and more open. Like outdoor spaces, there are fountains, public squares and art installations throughout. Although a major shopping destination, many locals tend to use the Underground City as a means to get through Montreal. Planners and designers wanted to ensure a sense of pride in the city – above ground and underground.
Here are some exciting things to discover about RÉSO, the Underground City:
Shop till you drop
One of the main draws of the attraction is the shopping. In fact, the entire network is renowned for its shopping.
There is the Cours Mont-Royal, a former luxury hotel converted into an upscale shopping destination. There was a point in the 1900s when Montreal’s Mount Royal Hotel was considered one of the biggest hotels in all of the British Empire. At its height, it boasted more than 1,100 guest rooms. Today, it boasts some of the world’s biggest retail names, featuring DKNY, Prada, Versace and Dolce & Gabbana.
For another great shopping experience, the Eaton Centre is located at the heart of the downtown core of the Underground City. There are more than 175 shops in Eaton, including GAP, Foot Locker, Guess, and Old Navy.
If that wasn’t enough shopping choice for you, there is also the Complexe Les Ailes, the Place Montreal Trust and the Place Ville Marie. All three are shopping centres located in the underground complex.
A bit of nosh
After all that shopping, there are plenty of places to enjoy a quick bite, a lovely espresso or a delectable French-themed meal.
For a simple but delicious lunch there is the Café Grévin par Europea. This Montreal eatery offers great sandwiches, salads and freshly made pastries for a bit of sweet. They also serve crêpes et gaufres with your choice of fillings.
Another great choice – especially popular with daily commuters through RÉSO – is The Tunnel Espresso Bar. Located between the Eaton Centre and Ville-Marie, this trendy kiosk-style coffee bar serves up some of the best caffeine in the city. Just look for the big, blue neon sign.
Finally, for a bit of a formal sit down Le Montréalais is a two-storey French bistro in the famous Hotel Fairmont. Some of the finest Mediterranean cuisine is served in addition to a popular Sunday Brunch. The restaurant has a seasonal menu and a number of special events throughout the year. Be sure to check their website for more information or to book a table.
An underground museum
In cities all over the world, public spaces are the perfect showcase for innovative and creative local artists to show off their creations. In Montreal, where the arts are celebrated at the highest of levels, the Underground City has supported various artistic movements since its inception.
Popular venues for much of the public art in Montreal are showcased at the various metro stations throughout the network. The tunnels that connect the different parts of RÉSO are also home to beautiful artistic installations. One such, the Stratifications pariétales, is an acrylic and glass display in the tunnel between the Palais des congrès and the Centre CDP Capital building.
Also connected to RÉSO is the Place des Arts. The venue includes a contemporary art museum and six concert halls. When the modern Montreal downtown was conceived of in the early 1960s, the Place des Arts was seen by planners as a vital component. The venue offers more than 8,000 concert seats, rehearsal spaces, a complete costume workshop and an art gallery with a variety of temporary and permanent installations.
In addition to dozens of permanent exhibitions in RÉSO and the Place des Arts, the city also hosts the annual Art Souterrain event. During the artistic celebration, temporary art galleries are constructed throughout the city to celebrate more than 80 world-renowned artists.