When I started planning a weekend trip to Montreal set to take place six days before Christmas, everyone I told looked at me like I was bananas. Every response I received reminded me how cold it was going to be (they were right, the temperature did not rise above thirty degrees the whole weekend) and proceeded to ask why I chose Montreal, of all places. Why not New York or Boston? I might not have learned about Notre-Dame Basilica until a few weeks before departure, but my travel instinct – that I’m starting to trust more and more ever since I started this blog – told me Montreal would be a city my sister, Kevin, and I would all enjoy. And as soon as I laid eyes on Notre-Dame Basilica, centrally located in the city’s historic square, the Place d’Armes, I knew I was right.
Somehow, I’d managed to find a small slice of Paris, a city I’d visited eight months earlier and instantly fell in love with, in North America. And just think, I saved myself the cost and time commitment of a flight across the Atlantic Ocean.
Don’t forget, we visited the weekend before Christmas, so Notre-Dame had a handful of seasonal decorations that otherwise wouldn’t be there – including these adorable angel lights! Usually, I find light displays during daytime to be tacky, but I thought these were beautiful and tastefully done.
I’ll never forget the moment I first stepped foot in Notre-Dame Basilica. Of course, since I’ve based my entire career on traveling, I’d done plenty of research ahead of time and had seen ample photos of the church’s celebrated interior. Heck, the church’s alter even graced the cover of my Montreal guidebook, which upon entering, sat safely in my younger sister’s backpack. Even so, my jaw dropped – literally. No photograph can do the splendor of this church justice, and while I admired the church through an aesthetic and artistic lens rather than a religious one (I’m so secular I’ve had people not believe me when I say I was subjected to twelve years of Catholic education), I certainly had no problem understanding how the landmark has become a place of pilgrimage for Catholics around the world.
Unlike some churches in Europe or even Mexico, secular visitors or travelers of other faiths will find Notre-Dame Basilica completely unintimidating, and are allowed to take as many pictures as their heart desires right alongside Catholic visitors kneeling to pray. And trust me, I went a little wild with the number of photos I took. Y’all are lucky I’m not sharing all twenty-two photos I took of the alter, which is arguably the most impressive I’ve seen at any Christian church I’ve ever visited.
The blue lights behind the alter are arguably my favorite part; again, I found them tasteful and atmospheric. Major cathedrals in European metropolises can be on the gaudy side, but in Montreal, I did not find this to be the case.
The French flavor of Notre-Dame Basilica and Montreal more generally is cultural as well as political. Quebec is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (unlike other Canadian provinces, which feature a Protestant majority) and nearly all of its citizens speak French as a first language. In fact, it was only relatively recently that Canada recognized French as an official language, in conjunction with English, ending the cultural discrimination residents of Montreal and the province of Quebec felt acutely for nearly two centuries. Throughout my visit, I sensed a pride among the people of Montreal in their connection to their French heritage (real or adopted, as not all those in Quebec are ethnically French) but all were still perfectly happy to communicate with us fumbling Americans in flawless English.
A polite “Bonjour” didn’t hurt, though.
So, the French overtones of the church definitely reflect the character of the city, and I appreciated how uniquely “Quebecois” Notre-Dame Basilica is; truly, the church is an amalgamation of Canadian and French culture, much like the city it represents and serves.
We also discovered Notre-Dame Basilica is, in fact, heated during the wintertime, and we certainly appreciated this, given the temperature was a balmy twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit on the day of our visit. I know, a heatwave! Otherwise, the church was a hit with the group; we all agreed the massive organ and blue-soaked alter were the highlights. And, like I mentioned above, I appreciated the chance to relive memories of my beloved Paris. So, Francophiles of North America, I’ve found you all your next vacation destination.
Admission to the church is five Canadian dollars per adult (four dollars per child, while any traveler under the age of six is free), and as of winter 2015, the church only accepts cash payments. I did not find this to be indicative of Montreal more generally; every other sight and restaurant we visited accepted cash. To learn more about the basilica, opening hours, additional tours, and seasonal events, please visit the official website of Notre-Dame Basilica.