Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

10 Fun Things to Do in Montreal

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

In May, I took a trip over the border to visit our neighbors up north in Montreal, where the people are bilingual and every Starbucks is "Cafe Starbucks." Here are a few things I did—and you should do them, too, if you ever find yourself there.

1. See Stars at Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal

On the outside, Notre-Dame Basilica, designed by Irish architect James O'Donnell and dedicated in 1829, looks like your standard issue cathedral—but the inside (above) will take your breath away. The interior was designed by Victor Rousselot and Victor Bourgeau, and it's more like a theater than a church; the floor slopes downward, toward the altar. The ceiling is dotted with more than 5000 hand-painted gold stars, which are just one karat shy of being pure gold. The stained glass windows were added in 1929. Fun fact: Quebec native Celine Dion married long-time manager René Angélil, also from Quebec, at the basilica in 1994.

2. See a Saint's Heart in a Jar

On the fourth floor of Saint Joseph's Oratory, behind a locked grate, a thick sheet of glass, and in a jar, is the heart of Brother Andre (his body lies in a tomb beneath the oratory). In 1904, Andre had a small chapel built on Mount Royal; when the congregation grew, a larger space was built in 1917. Construction on the current oratory—the largest church in Canada—began in 1924, but Brother Andre wouldn't live to see its completion in 1967: He died in January 1937. Saint Brother Andre is credited with thousands of miraculous healings and was canonized in 2010. 

If that's not enough to get you to take a trip to the Oratory, consider this: Brother Andre's heart was actually stolen and held for ransom in March 1973. To get to the heart, the thieves had to pick three locks and chisel the urn off its pedestal. Though the church refused to pay, the heart was eventually returned in December 1974.

3. Ascend the World’s Tallest Inclined Tower

Built at a 45 degree angle, this 574-foot structure is the tallest inclined tower in the world. Commissioned as part of the Olympic Park for the 1976 games, the tower and stadium weren't finished until the 1980s, thanks to construction strikes and other delays. After the games, a plan for an observatory was added to the still-incomplete tower; these days, you can ride trams up a funicular (a hydraulic system and curb structure allow the tram to stay horizontal the entire time) to the top for 360 degree views of Montreal. (Sadly, I only got the chance to check out the tower from the ground—there was a long drive back to the States in front of us—but I totally plan on going to the top the next time I'm in town, fears of heights be damned!)

Just how does this incredibly inclined structure stay upright? According to the Olympic Park's website, it's all about the ratio of the tower's mass: "the top of the tower is a mass of 8000 tons which is permanently attached to the infrastructure and to the solid concrete implanted ten meters below ground level that has a mass of 145,000 tons, the equivalent of three aircraft carriers!" 

4. Check out Taxidermy and Fossils at Musee Redpath

Located on the McGill University campus, Musee Redpath is pretty quaint when you consider a place like the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. That doesn't make visiting any less enjoyable, though. On its three floors, you'll see rocks and minerals, dinosaur bones, and taxidermy (including the terrible stuffing of a mountain lion, bagged in Quebec in 1859), plus a section on Ancient Egypt (which includes the facial reconstructions of mummies), an informative/horrifying display describing the Chinese practice of footbinding, and much more. Plus, it's hard not to love a place where most of the signage features dinosaurs (the sign saying that the museum was open was a smiling T. Rex; on the flip side, a crying Triceratops announced the museum was closed!). It's a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. And did I mention it's free? 

5. See Napoleon’s Chapeau at Musee des Beaux-Arts

The Musee des Beaux-Arts Montreal takes up multiple buildings on Sherbrooke Street West. In the main building is an impressive display of stuff that once belonged to Napoleon. This includes everything from art to furniture to the emperor's ink-splattered pen case—and, of course, the famous hat he wore during the Russian campaign in 1812. There's also his shirt, his boots, and a lock of his hair.  Entry is free.

6. Buy a Book—or a Musical Instrument—at Montreal’s Oldest Bookstore

The first Archambault opened in 1896, and its current headquarters, located at 500 Rue Ste Catherine, is seven stories tall. Here you'll find books in both French and English, records, CDs, DVDs, and sheet music, but the real draw is the top floor, where instruments are sold. Guitars, drums, and pianos each have their own rooms; when I was there, a recital was being held in the piano room. 

7. Walk in the Foundations of the City

After paying an entrance fee, visitors to Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal's museum of history and archaeology, are treated to a fun video introduction of the city's history, from before its founding in 1642 to the present day. After that, you head down to the ruins—because the museum itself sits on the site where the city was founded. You'll see Montreal's first cemetery (above), then wander through parts of buildings constructed on the site in the 1700s and 1800s, including the stone structure of Montreal's oldest sewer, the remains of fortifications built in the 18th century, and the foundations of the Royal Insurance Building, which was demolished in 1951. 

Until March 30, 2014, the museum is also home to "The Beatles in Montreal," commemorating the Fab Four's stop at The Forum on September 8, 1964. There's John Lennon's psychedelic Rolls Royce, the controversial cover of Yesterday and Todayan interactive portion where you can karaoke with the band, and a startling array of vintage merchandise, including Beatles hairspray, dresses, scarves, board games, bobbleheads, drum sets, wigs, balloons, and so much more.

8. Go to this Costume Shop

I found Joseph Ponton Costumes Inc. while wandering around Old Montreal. The shop has been in business since 1865—making it the oldest costume store in Quebec—when Ponton began gathering costumes in the back of his barber shop. Inside, you'll find everything from a fuzzy Buzz Lightyear head to a full-body E.T. costume. 

9. Buy lots of Maple Syrup

After exploring Marche Jean-Talon—where a flautist played "My Heart Will Go On"—I stopped at Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, a store that only carries things made in Quebec. Here, a salesperson told me more than I ever wanted to know about maple syrup—after which I bought cans and cans of the stuff to bring home. I mostly chose medium, which the salesperson said has a bolder flavor than the light or amber varieties. Also available for purchase: Maple cookies and candies, Quebec-made jams and beer, and frozen rabbit, among other things. 

10. Eat. A Lot.

The lobster pasta I had at Liverpool House just scratches the surface of the incredible food I ate during my stay in Montreal. At Le Gros Jambon I scarfed down a delicious smoked meat sandwich; at Taverne Square Dominion I raved about the cider-steamed mussels with cheese and bacon (my stomach is growling just thinking about it!). The cromesquis de foie gras (basically, little fried foie gras bon bons) at Au Pied de Cochon were a delightful treat—and don't even get me started on the foie gras poutine. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Gibeau Orange Julep, an 80-year-old restaurant shaped like (you guessed it!) an orange, which provided both an excellent meal (smoked meat sandwich again) and a fun photo opp.

Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
10 Monster Facts About Pacific Rim
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Legendary Pictures took a gamble on Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster/robot slugfest. Since it wasn’t based on a preexisting franchise, it lacked a built-in fanbase. That can be a serious drawback in our current age of blockbuster remakes and reboots. The movie underperformed domestically; in America, it grossed just over $100 million against its $180 million budget. Yet Pacific Rim was a huge hit overseas and acquired enough fans to earn itself a sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which arrives in theaters this week. Here are 10 things you might not have known about the movie that started it all.


Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Warner Bros.

One foggy day in 2007, Beacham—who’d recently moved to California—was walking along Santa Monica Beach. As he looked out at the Ferris wheel on the city’s eponymous pier, he pictured a looming sea monster. Then he imagined an equally large robot gearing up to fight the beast. “They just sort of materialized out of the fog, these vast godlike things,” Beacham said. He decided to pursue the concept further after coming up with the idea of human co-pilots who’d need to operate their robot as a team, which added a new thematic dimension.

“I didn’t know I had something I wanted to write until I realized these robots are driven by two pilots, and what happens when one of those people dies? What happens to the leftovers? Then it became a story about loss, moving on after loss, and dealing with survivor’s guilt," Beacham said. "That made the monsters scarier because now you care about the people who are in these robots.”


Pacific Rim was picked up by Legendary Pictures and handed over to director Guillermo del Toro. A huge fan of monster cinema, del Toro enthusiastically co-wrote the final screenplay with Beacham. Sixteen concept artists were hired to sketch original robot and creature designs for the film. “We would get together every day like kids and draw all day,” del Toro told the New York Daily News. “We designed about a hundred Kaijus and about a hundred Jaegers and every week we would do an American Idol and we would vote [some of] them out.”


In “Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats,” the tenth episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's sixth season, Charlie Day’s character gives us a darkly comedic monologue about rodent extermination. Little did the actor know that the performance would open a big opportunity for him. Impressed by the rat speech, del Toro offered Day the part of Dr. Newton Geizler, Pacific Rim’s socially-inept kaiju expert. “He said to himself, ‘That’s my guy. That guy should be in my next movie because if he killed rats, he can kill the monster,’” Day recalled during an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. On the movie set, del Toro often joked about how much he enjoys It’s Always Sunny. As a way of repaying his director, Day helped get del Toro a minor role in the series.


Most of the film’s special effects were computer-generated, but not everything was digital. For the robot cockpit scenes, del Toro had his team build the interior of a full-scale Jaeger head. The finished product stood four stories tall and weighed 20 tons. And like a Tilt-A-Whirl from hell, it was designed to rock around violently on its platform via a network of hydraulics. Once inside, the actors were forced to don 40-pound suits of armor. Then the crew strapped their feet into an apparatus that Charlie Hunnam has compared to a high-resistance elliptical machine.

Certain shots also required del Toro to dump gallons of water all over his exhausted, physically-strained stars. So yeah, the experience wasn’t much fun. “We saw every one of the actors break down on that set except for the female lead actress Rinko Kikuchi," del Toro said. "She’s the only actor that didn’t snap."


Del Toro wanted Gipsy Danger, his ‘bot, to have the self-confident air of a wild west gunslinger. To that end, he and concept artist Oscar Chichoni developed a swaggering gait that was based on John Wayne’s signature hip movements. The Jaeger’s Art Deco-like design was influenced by the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.


Hailed as the “fortieth greatest guitarist of all time” by Rolling Stone, Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello rocked the MTV generation with hits like “Bulls on Parade” and “Killing in the Name.” Pacific Rim bears his mark as well. The film’s lead composer was Ramin Djawadi, whose other works include the Game of Thrones theme. Wanting to add a “rock element” to the Pacific Rim soundtrack, he and del Toro reached out to Morello. The guitarist didn’t need much persuading.

“When they asked me to put some giant robot riffs and screaming underwater monster licks on the film score, I was all in,” Morello said. Djwadi was pleased with the rocker's contributions to the project. As he told the press: “Tom’s unique style and sounds really defined our robots.”


A definite highlight of this movie is Gipsy Danger’s duel with the winged kaiju Otachi in downtown Hong Kong. Both characters were computer-generated, as were the majority of the streets, cars, and towers in this epic sequence. However, there is one moment which was at least partly realized with practical effects. Gipsy punches through the wall of an office building early in the fight. We see her fist rip through a series of cubicles and gradually decelerate until it lightly taps a chair with just enough force to set off a Newton’s Cradle desktop toy. For that shot, effects artists at 32Ten Studios constructed a miniature office building interior featuring 1/4-scale desks, cubicles, and padded chairs. The level of detail here was amazing: 32Ten’s staff adorned each individual workspace with lamps, computers, wastebaskets, and teeny, tiny Post-it notes.


Rinko Kikuchi in 'Pacific Rim' (2013)
Kerry Hayes, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary Pictures

Audiences reacted strongly to Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori, who inspired an alternative to the famous Bechdel test. Some critics praised the culmination of her relationship with Raleigh Beckett (Hunnam). Although it’s common practice for the male and female leads in an action flick to end their movie with a smooch, Mori and Beckett share a platonic hug as Pacific Rim draws to a close. Del Toro revealed that he shot three different versions of that final scene. “We did one version where they kiss and it almost felt weird. They’re good friends, they’re pals, good colleagues,” del Toro said.


At the end of the credits, there’s a tribute that reads: “This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.” Harryhausen passed away on May 7, 2013—two months before Pacific Rim’s release. A great stop-motion animator, he breathed life into such creatures as the towering Rhedosaurus in 1953’s The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.

Ishiro Honda was another giant of the kaiju genre, having directed Rodan, War of the Gargantuas, and numerous Godzilla films. Del Toro has great respect for both men. When Harryhausen died, the director said, “I lost a member of my family today, a man who was as present in my childhood as any of my relatives.” He also adores the Japanese monster classics and says he’d love to see a Pacific Rim-Godzilla crossover someday. Maybe it’ll happen.


If you’re not familiar with the practice of “Sweding,” let us fill you in: The 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind is about two co-workers at a VHS rental store who accidentally erase every tape in stock. Hoping to save their skins, they create ultra low-budget remakes of all the films they’ve destroyed using cardboard sets and cheap costumes. It’s a process these guys call “Sweding” as a ploy to convince everyone that their (unintentionally hilarious) knockoffs were produced in Sweden. Since Be Kind, Rewind was released, Sweding has become a legitimate art form.

When Pacific Rim’s first trailer debuted in 2013, YouTubers Brian Harley and Brodie Mash created a shot-for-shot, Sweded duplicate of the preview. Instead of state-of-the-art CG effects, their version used toy helicopters, duct-tape monster masks, and an ocean of packing peanuts—and del Toro loved it. At WonderCon 2013, he praised the video, saying that it inspired the editing used in Pacific Rim’s third trailer. Harley and Mash happened to be at the same gathering. When del Toro met the comedic duo, he exclaimed “I loved it! My daughters loved it, we watched it a bunch of times!” Then he invited the Sweding duo to attend Pacific Rim’s premiere in Hollywood.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”


More from mental floss studios