Travel

There’s an Enormous Nature Park in Canada With Thousands of Animals Inside

The newly-renovated Montreal marvel was once an Olympic stadium.

You're inside, but you're outside. | Photo by Mélanie Dusseault for Montreal Space For Life
You're inside, but you're outside. | Photo by Mélanie Dusseault for Montreal Space For Life

A three-pronged spaceship sits beside the botanical garden in Montreal, Canada. Or maybe it’s a gargantuan trilobite with cat-eye skylights, digging into the ground. Whatever it looks like, this engineering marvel is lucky to be here at all. 

In a former life it was a velodrome, built for bike races in the 1976 Olympic Games. Unlike so many Olympic buildings that just sit abandoned after their one-time use, the arena was given new life in 1992 as the Montreal Biodome, a massive museum focusing on conservation and the relationships between organisms and their environment. For the visitor, it's a fully-immersive zoo slash indoor nature park slash all the episodes of Planet Earth colliding under one roof.

Now after an intensive three year, $25 million renovation, it’s finally reopened and more must-see than ever. Add this to your list of reasons to go to Canada ASAP.

The biodome houses five distinct ecosystems, with 500 plant species and 4,500 roaming animals. Piranhas, parrots, and capybaras commingle in a warm tropical rainforest, while elsewhere under the same roof, stingrays flutter past salmon in the Gulf of St. Lawrence estuary habitat. For a special treat, head to the Sub-Antarctic zone to see the Rockhopper penguins. (Trust us, hit that link.) 

The “living museum” is part of Space for Life, the largest natural science museum complex in Canada, which also encompasses the Montreal Insectarium, Montreal Botanical Garden, Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, and the cool geodesic dome of the Montreal Biosphere (temporarily closed). Upon opening it became the city’s top paid attraction, tipping 800,000 visitors annually.

So light and airy. | Photo by Mathieu Rivard for Montreal Space For Life

The biodome closed in March 2018 for renovation by local architects KANVA, who were tasked with streamlining the design, making it more user-friendly, and bringing it into the future. The impact is felt as soon as you walk into the entrance—originally cluttered with bleachers, now transformed into an airy, church-like space flooded with natural light from the exquisite skylights above. It serves as a palette cleanser before entering the sensory overload of the ecosystems beyond. 

The natural light plays with translucent white partitions which KANVA calls “biophilia walls,” which stretch along the concrete architecture and envelop the ecosystems. The experience becomes immersive as you walk through: Sounds, smells, and changes in temperature stir the senses in anticipation of what’s coming, before you visually encounter the ecosystems themselves.

Look for monkeys down below. | Photo by Mathieu Rivard for Montreal Space For Life

A new mezzanine lets you peer down into the ecosystems of the tropical rainforest, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the Laurentian Maple Forest, giving new perspective into the daily activities of lynx and golden tamarin lion monkeys (a crowd favorite). A clay cliff wall was added for the macaws—new arrivals to Montreal—to feel at home.

Consider bringing a coat for the Sub-Antarctic Islands, where they’ve installed an ice-tunnel entryway to acclimate visitors to the environment, dropping the temperature down to 17.6 degrees Fahrenheit. You may get chilly, but it’s worth it to hang with those Rockhoppers.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She much prefers this biodome to that other one with Pauly Shore.
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