One of Canada's two largest cities, Montreal offers budget travelers the conveniences of a big city and the charms of a smaller tourist destination. Its proximity to U.S. east coast population centers makes Montreal a great weekend getaway city for millions of budget travelers. But visitors from elsewhere also would benefit from a visit to this vibrant cultural gem, where sampling gourmet cuisine and enjoying world-class entertainment can cost less than what's found in other large North American cities.
Welcome to Montreal
Montreal reigned for many years as Canada's largest city. Although the metropolitan population of Toronto now has surpassed the Montreal area, Quebéc's largest city still offers the kind of amenities you would expect from a national leader. Toronto and Montreal are well-connected by rail, and the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport serves about 15 million passengers each year.
When to Visit
Most visitors are drawn to Montreal in the summer, when outdoor cafes and street festivals abound. The city has set aside an area specifically for street festivals, and they run nearly continuously in the warmer weather. Perhaps the best-known is the Montreal Jazz Festival, typically hosted in late June through early July. Spring and fall can be excellent times to visit, but it can be quite chilly at night. Montreal is a wonderful place to observe the fall colors. Leaf season typically runs from late September to the end of October.
Consider skipping a car rental here, as Montreal is a great city for walking when the weather cooperates, and it is blessed with a strong mass transit system. Allow plenty of time at customs upon arrival at the airport. The lines frequently move quite slowly. Be certain you budget for some nice dining, because food is an essential part of the overall Montreal experience.
Where to Eat
Montreal is a great place to save up for a splurge meal. You'll be able to enjoy a light breakfast and perhaps a picnic lunch, then spend the bulk of your daily food budget at dinner. A great splurge restaurant is Chez L'Epicier on Rue Saint-Paul. The chef is internationally acclaimed, and you'll enjoy egg rolls, excellent breads and a delicious beef tenderloin. If you choose to eat your main meal at lunch, you'll find plenty of sandwich shops that deliver basics like grilled cheese with flair. Cafe Parvis on Rue de Mayor is such a place. A fresh, filling tomato salad during my visit was $7 CAD.
Train connections are made easily in an underground station adjacent to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel. An excellent bus and subway system serves the city. Montreal Transit Authority (abbreviated by its French-language initials STM) offers a solid network of options at reasonable prices. A one-day pass is $10 CAD.
Where to Stay
Because Montreal's central core is compact and relatively easy to explore on foot, many visitors prefer the convenience of staying downtown. The larger chain properties cater primarily to business travelers, and their prices reflect that connection to expense accounts. Still, it's possible to snag a good deal if you're willing to shop carefully and be flexible with travel dates. If budgets are tight, it pays to look for three-star lodgings in the neighborhoods. Many have easy access to the subway or bus routes.
Montreal neighborhoods have their own styles and colorful histories. It pays to find walking tours that introduce these fascinating tales. For example, Little Italy attracted tourists and crime during Prohibition, mainly because beer and wine were still available for purchase. Now, it's a far more tame -- a fun place to explore on foot for its shopping and food choices. In the Jean-Talon market, you can get a thorough tour of the local food specialties, and then assemble a delicious budget picnic.
More Montreal Tips
- Poutine is a great snack or budget meal available in most restaurants and bars. Essential ingredients are cheese curd, fries and a smoky-flavored gravy. Other ingredients might be added at the discretion of the chef. It's not exactly health food, but it's an essential Montreal dining experience often copied elsewhere. A Poutine bowl could cost as little as $3 CAD.
- Beer and food tours are a favorite pastime in the city, and with good reason. Much like Paris, cooking is an occasion more than a necessity here, and there are wonderful options for diners of all tastes and budgets. The beer tours actually showcase more than beverages. The history of beer and Montreal are closely entwined, so you'll learn a lot even if you're not interested in partaking. These tours are a splurge for someone on a tight budget ($50-$60/person for an afternoon), but satisfaction rates are high.
- Montreal's Old Town is a relative bargain for budget travelers. This area dates back to the 1600's and can be reached easily by mass transit. Parking and driving are not recommended on these narrow, sometimes crowded cobblestone streets. Beware also of tourist traps that offer high prices for ordinary meals. A self-guided walking tour at no cost is highly recommended.
- After several days of enjoying delicious but sometimes rich food, it might pay to get some exercise. A favorite trek here is a hike to the top of Mont Royal, which rewards you with a spectacular view of the city. It's possible to take a bus to the observation area if you're not up for the hike.
- The Montreal Biosphere was a symbol of Expo '67, a world's fair that transformed the city's image a full nine years prior to the Summer Olympics in 1976. The biosphere has been re-purposed as an environmental museum.
- Day-Trips from Montreal can be exciting, depending upon the time you have to spend in the region. Canada's national capital of Ottawa is a short distance by rail, and the provincial capital of Québec City is less than three hours away by train. Both cities deserve more than a day of exploration, but one day is better than missing them altogether.
- Montreal offers a nice selection of free activities. A nice list of cheap or free activities is likely to be available at the time of your visit.
- Don't shy away from the street concerts. Although events such as the Montreal Jazz Festival involve concerts for which you'll need to buy tickets, some of the performances are free. It's a requirement for any promoter bringing an event to Montreal streets -- some of the activities must be free to the public. During my visit, there was a free street circus complete with tightrope demonstrations.