If you’re looking for something free to do in Montreal, consider seeking out the street art scattered throughout the city. With over 3,500 murals dotting the cityscape, you can find art on the sides of buildings everywhere. Add in sculptures and temporary installations, and you have an open-air museum to explore.
Urban art defines this city. The city’s beautification project, MU, has contributed hugely to the effort. In particular, the MURAL Festival, much like the one I detailed in La Jolla, celebrates the transformation of otherwise drab places in June of each year. Afterward, the murals remain until –– or if –– they are painted over. A parking lot becomes an art gallery, and a narrow alley beckons you to explore.
Because Montreal doesn’t have a lot of tourist sites — although those, too, are worth seeking out — visitors should have plenty of time to explore the city’s street art. Yes, you can go to more formal visual arts venues such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Contemporary Art. But murals and outdoor sculptures remind us that art can surprise us, even in mundane surroundings.
A Mural Walking Tour
Although the street art in Montreal as part of the MURAL Festival can be found throughout the city, much of it is concentrated on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. Not surprisingly, the street takes you through a multi-cultural, somewhat gritty, and, at night, hopping neighborhood that embraces the eye-popping, colorful artwork.
You can book a walking tour of the murals, but you can also discover them on your own. I recommend downloading the Mural Festival’s app or studying its dynamic map to guide you. The app does require data usage since it tracks your location, and, along with your camera app, it can eat up the battery charge on your phone. You can always follow a simple route as outlined below. Just remember to turn around often and look up.
I started at Mansfield Street and Avenue de Président-Kennedy, one block from Sherbrooke and near the edge of the McGill campus. Look up to view the façade of Hotel Le German for your first mural, a rainbow framing around stories of individual windows, by Michelle Hoogveld (2021). Continue down Av. du Président-Kennedy to City Councilman St. for a few more murals before turning left toward Sherbrooke. Turn right on Sherbrooke and continue toward Saint-Laurent. Search for murals on both sides of the street.
You can take a brief detour from Sherbrooke up Park Ave. for a couple of blocks. After you see the murals, retrace your steps back to Sherbrooke and continue toward Blvd. Saint-Laurent. When you see a building on the right with what looks like a blue squiggly line of Silly String — this is one of the murals –– turn left onto Saint-Laurent.
As you proceed up the street, remember to peek down alleys and walk into parking lots. Walk as far up Saint-Laurent as you’re comfortable with or have time for, then retrace your steps on the other side of the street. This way, you can get closer to some murals and perhaps even discover something that you missed.
Murals Elsewhere in the City
Although the above walking tour takes you through the highest concentration of street art in Montreal, you can find more in sometimes surprising places. For example, while I was in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Musée des Beaux-Arts Montréal), I looked out a window to see two artworks on buildings several blocks away.
I encountered more street art on the edge of Chinatown and in the central business district. In the second image below, artist Sottolichio creates a trompe-l’oeil building as a nod to the project. Note: some murals have been defaced by tags by other graffiti artists, making it sometimes impossible to tell the intended from the unintended.
Sculptures Throughout the City
Street art in Montreal goes beyond murals and includes temporary art installations, sculptures in public spaces, storefront designs, and pieces placed in front of corporate offices. Whether you like the satirical, whimsical, abstract, or realistic, you should find something you like. Look outside art galleries and in front of office buildings. In parks. Outside landmarks.
Once you start searching for images, your eyes will be trained to see them everywhere, even if they occur naturally. For example, the above photo is not a mural but rather a photo of window-washers cleaning the glass of an office building. The colorful reflection of the buildings across the street transforms the façade.
After spending a week in Montreal, I’ve come to appreciate it as a city of art and food. While you can visit the few usual tourist sites, you cannot take in the city without embracing its arts culture.