“Yes, it’s possible,” our guide said as he rattled off a chain of directions I had no chance of remembering. He looked confused when we asked whether or not it was possible to get back to our hotel without going above ground, but the more he described the process the more excited he got too. That’s one of my favorite features of Montreal, its elaborate underground city system that connects to places many locals don’t even know about and that’s also why I was so glad Quebec tourism invited me to spend a weekend in this great city.
Montreal’s Underground City or RÉSO includes tunnels that span 20 miles spread out over almost 5 miles in Montreal’s downtown. The collection of underground complexes connect everything from malls to metro stations and even hotels and I love it. The system started in the 1960s and the building of the metro system quickly aided in its expansion. Over time as new buildings were constructed above ground, work was completed below ground as well which has resulted in one of the largest underground cities in the world.
Our goal was simple that afternoon. We were in downtown Montreal near the Eaton Centre and we wanted to get as close to our hotel as possible, in our case our goal was the World Trade Centre. Our guide was excellent and a Montreal native but even he corrected himself a couple of times as he tried to give us directions. That’s because the system can be confusing, especially when you try to understand how everything connects and where the tunnels and hallways lead. The system isn’t an organized series of tunnels per se, but includes basements of buildings and even a walk through the convention center. I was determined; I wanted to see if two tourists who had little knowledge of the system could navigate it on their own.
We weren’t in a race though, so my partner and I decided to make an afternoon of it. We started at the large shopping mall at Eaton Centre and began looking for our first marker, a sign leading to Place Ville-Marie. It was a Saturday afternoon during the Christmas season, and people were everywhere. As we looked for the sign we window shopped, stopped for some coffee and a donut and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of the mall. Finally we located our sign and left for the next stop on the underground journey.
For the next half an hour or so we wondered through busy corridors lined with shops and almost empty tunnels, forgotten by the public. At one point we stopped to look at a map of the RÉSO that was thoughtfully posted when someone asked if we needed help. I explained where we needed to go and received a very confused look. “You can’t get there from here,” she said. I led her over to the map and pointed out that yes, indeed one could. She left embarrassed and befuddled but it proved a point to me. At its busiest, more than 500,000 people use the underground city network every day and yet I bet most of them don’t fully appreciate just how vast it is. It really is possible to get almost anywhere downtown using it. Now, I’m not saying that it’s always convenient or the best way to reach your destination, but I am honestly mesmerized by this possibility.
I felt some self doubt as we found ourselves walking through the large empty halls of a vast convention centre, but breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the familiar RÉSO signs. Our day had become an urban scavenger hunt, a reenactment of an Amazing Race style challenge and I loved the opportunity to combine tourism with intellectual curiosity.
Finally, almost out of the blue we reached our target the Centre de Commerce Mondial or World Trade Centre. I was ecstatic and beamed a huge smile as we walked through the doors into the office building. Our hotel was only two blocks away, we had done it. We had used the underground city as it was meant to be used and found our way through a labyrinth of tunnels, shops and office buildings. It may not seem like much, but in the dead of winter when temperatures plummet, minimizing time outside is key which is the true value of the underground city.
Is the RÉSO the best way to get around town? Maybe not always, but I can tell you one thing. I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun finding my way around a new city as I did that afternoon.