Montreal ticks all the boxes: history, pleasing architecture, impressive museums, a lively arts scene, walkability, good public transportation, nummy food, and plenty of outdoor spaces. It's a multicultural city known for its laidback attitude and European flair, which is amplified by the fact that French is Montreal's official language.
Sixty percent of the residents are French-English bilingual, and I attempted to use my laughable high school French during my visit. While most Montrealers appreciated my efforts, they quickly steered the conversation to English.
Of course, all these luxuries and experiences come at a cost. Visiting Montreal is expensive. For U.S. citizens, there's a built-in 25 percent discount as the exchange rate holds at $1 USD to $1.25 CAD, tempered by a 9.975 percent sales tax. But in 2019, the cost of public transportation and parking will rise, and food prices are predicted to jump by 3.5 percent.
Luckily, with planning and prioritizing, it is possible to enjoy Montreal on a budget.
Things To Do
1. Visit The Redpath Museum At McGill University
The Redpath is housed in the oldest Canadian building constructed as a museum. Built in 1880, it's a lovely example of Greek Revival architecture. Inside are vast collections of fossils, skeletons (including dinosaurs!), mummified people and animals (including pet cats), and ethnological objects from Africa, Egypt, and elsewhere. Admission is free, donations welcome. The McGill campus is lovely and a pleasure to walk around, too.
2. Grab A Treat And Wander The Garden
Place Jacques-Cartier is the cobbled square at the core of Old Montreal. Here, you can fuel yourself with maple ice cream or coffee before a thorough exploration of Old Montreal and the Old Port. The formal Governor's Garden behind Chateau Ramezay, adjacent to the square, is free and open to the public.
3. Experience Colonial Montreal At The Chateau Ramezay
Admission to Chateau Ramezay is $10 and worth every penny. Exhibits include military memorabilia, ethnological items, art, portraits, furnishings, and objects of everyday life. Altogether, they offer a vivid and intriguing portrait of colonial Montreal.
4. Be Entertained At The Quartier Spectacles
The Quartier has a busy year-round schedule of free and paid indoor and outdoor events and activities. Use their website to search for activities by type (dance, music, circus, et cetera, or just plug in Free and see what comes up). We stumbled upon two free concerts in the Quartier during our week in the city.
5. Be Awed By Art
Intelligent curation and arrangement of art at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts make this an exceptional museum. Works fill five pavilions and tell stories so clearly and with such emotion you can't help but be moved. Admission is half price after 5 p.m. on Wednesdays and free the first Sunday of the month.
6. Enjoy A Stroll Through Mount Royal Park
Designed by Central Park co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, the Mount Royal Park has a plaza and chalet overlooking downtown Montreal, plus a bandstand, interpretive center, miles of hiking trails, sports facilities, and areas for skiing, snowshoeing, and tobogganing. The park is free -- and massive -- so research ahead of time to decide what to do when you get there.
7. Get Cultured, Free, Once A Year
Montreal participates in International Museum Day, an International Council of Museums project. Participating museums worldwide throw their doors open for free one day in mid-May. In 2019, free admission day at Montreal museums was Sunday, May 26; the 2020 date has not yet been published. Can't make it in May? Most museums in the city offer free or reduced admission Wednesday nights and on the first Sunday of the month.
8. Spend A Bit, Save A Lot
If you really want to make the most of Montreal's museums, the $80 Montreal Museums Pass, which includes unlimited public transportation, saves money and time since it allows holders to skip lines at ticket counters. The pass includes admission to one Montreal Museum member museum of your choice, plus discounts at others. Get the most value by using your free admission at the more expensive Museum of Fine Arts ($20) or Pointe-A-Calliere ($20).
9. Neighborhoods, Neighborhoods, Neighborhoods
Swing by any tourist information center for maps and advice on self-guided walking tours. We particularly liked exploring Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, Mile End, Old Montreal, and Old Port. My husband's family once lived and worked in Westmount and some of his ancestors are buried in cemeteries in Cote-des-Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grace and Ahuntsic-Cartierville. We did a family history tour, which pulled us outside the core of the city and gave us a deeper, broader view of Montreal.
I'm not a foodie. While traveling I splurge on admissions, experiences, and quality mementos, so food and lodging are where I'm frugal.
That said, friends in the know insisted we dine at Montreal's classic casual eateries: Beautys Luncheonette, Schwartz's Deli, Wilensky's Light Lunch, La Banquise, Fairmount Bagel and St-Viateur Bagel. We ate at all of them.
All these places are family owned and have held to their original, successful business models for two or more generations. They're revered by locals, and most haven't changed much over the decades. In fact, stepping into Wilensky's is like stepping into the 1930s.
All range in price from cheap to affordable and are in the Plateau neighborhood.
Markets also provide affordable options. On different occasions we bought supplies for a picnic, ate crepes with mushrooms and ham, and -- on a rainy afternoon -- had soup and crusty bread from Marche Jean-Talon, a large indoor-outdoor permanent market similar to Seattle's Pike Place. This was also our go-to spot for getting fruits and veggies for snacking between meals.
Dinner is typically our lightest meal, which is an excellent way to save money. In the evenings, we either grabbed a happy hour drink and snack or ate a simple picnic.
Between the Metro and your feet, you can get nearly everywhere easily. Montreal has one of the easiest subway systems to figure out, and buses will take you where the Metro won't. Save money by purchasing a pass. If you'll be in Montreal longer, monthly passes are also available. There are discounts for children and seniors.
If you're looking for affordable transport from Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport to downtown Montreal, take the 747 Shuttle bus ($10). The fare buys you a 24-hour Transit pass that you can use during your first day in the city.
Hotels and bed and breakfasts are plentiful and typically priced at $75 and up. Note that nightly rates are typically higher downtown and in Old Montreal and Old Port. Look for bargains in the Plateau and the Village.
Looking for more of Montreal? Go inside the Insectarium: Montreal's crazy, creepy, cool attraction or check out five unexpected things -- from biospheres to basilicas -- to see in Montreal.