Every travel guidebook covering Montreal mentions the Underground City (a must see, they say). Due to its evocative name, visitors often get here expecting to discover an actual fully-formed city developed under Montreal’s street level. Known to locals as RÉSO (for réseau, french word for network), the Underground City’s first interconnected sections were built in 1962. When the Montreal subway started operating in 1966, additional connections were made. Today, more than 20 miles of tunnels span the system.
But let’s start by dissipating all myths and misunderstandings: the Underground City is not a city and most of it is not actually underground. It is a multi-level network of tunnels and stairs connecting shopping malls, metro stations, offices, schools, hotels, concert halls and pretty much anything that can be found in any big city’s downtown area. Some say it should be called Indoor city or Indoor pedestrian complex but for marketing purposes, tourism agencies have decided to keep the moniker despite it being a misnomer.
Plans for the network were envisioned by urban planner Vincent Ponte. He was working alongside architects I.M. Pei and Henry N. Cobb as they designed Place Ville-Marie, the city’s first modern skyscraper, built in 1962. Ponte was inspired by futurist architecture and his mission was to ease traffic downtown and to provide a good way to circulate indoors without ever having to step outside, especially during the harsh winter season.
The Underground city is a giant maze. At first glance, most people see it as one huge shopping mall but there’s much more to be seen and discovered. One can walk for hours without setting foot outdoors. Here are a few interesting things to discover throughout the network:
The Cours Mont-Royal is an upscale shopping mall that used to be a luxury hotel. In the early 20th century, the Mount Royal Hotel was the biggest hotel throughout the British Empire, with more than 1,100 rooms.
This tunnel was built where a bank once stood. You can see the edges where the door of the vault used to be.