We are so lucky to live very close to another country, and one that is rich with culture and history as well! Recently my husband and I took a weekend trip to Montreal to celebrate my birthday, and I quickly fell in love with the city. We wanted to splurge a little for the occasion, but of course still stay on a budget, so here are my tips for the beautiful and historic city.
There are two common beliefs about Canada: that Canadians are some of the nicest people on earth, and that French-speaking Canadians are rude to English speakers. Here’s what I have to say: ignore the latter, and focus on the fact that Canadians are super nice. Because they are. Don’t worry if your French is not ‘parfait’, or if it’s even non-existent. Most French Canadians are bilingual, and are happy to help you in English! Menus and signs are mostly in both languages as well. In nearly three days in Montreal, we came across only one person (a security guard in a business building whom we asked for directions) who did not know English. So no need to worry!
The best advice I have for Montreal is to read all the parking signs very carefully. If you check only the sign or meter that is closest to you, you might be in trouble. I learned (the hard way) that several of downtown Montreal’s streets are off-limits for parking during morning rush hours. And the police like to give tickets for people blocking the rush hour lane. If you’re confused, ask your hotel about valet parking services; if they are downtown, they probably offer it!
One of my favorite things about Montreal was by far Old Montreal. Walking through the historic parts of the city makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The narrow cobblestone streets and old buildings are just magical. I had the best time just wandering down the streets exploring what there was around!
Of course, a trip to Montreal is incomplete without a visit to the Notre Dame Basilica. Religious or not, the church is not to be missed due to it’s amazing architecture and history. If you’re lucky, you may be able to catch a orchestral concert there, but be sure to buy your tickets early! Otherwise, get yourself a ticket to go inside for only $6 CAD. The ticket is good for the entire day, so you can come and go, and it also gives you access to the guided tours (in both French and English).
Food & Drink
Other highlights of Old Montreal include Stash Café, a quaint and authentic Polish restaurant, and Pub BreWskey, a craft brewery with an outside patio on an open concourse. Grab a flight and enjoy a relaxing evening there. (Note: the inside is downstairs and pretty tiny; you can order whatever you want with the waitstaff outside!)
Another important tip for Montreal: make reservations. There were so many amazing restaurants that I wanted to try, but was later disappointed because they were full and only accepted patrons with reservations. So before you head up to Montreal, do your research and make plans for the restaurants you want to visit! This city is a foodie’s dream and the cafe culture is perfect. On the northern side of the city were two places I was pretty excited about: Le Doggy Café and l’Artisan. The café is DOG-FRIENDLY! Awesome. Have a cup of coffee while hanging out with your pooch – my kind of place. Just down the street is the pastry shop l’Artisan, home to delicious traditional pastries in a very Parisian-esque setting. Stop in and get yourself a croissant for a dollar or two.
One of the places I was most excited to visit was the Biodome. I’d heard great things about it and the other nearby attractions, and you probably know by now how much I love animals! First of all, park in the nearby neighborhood to save yourself the money for parking – you can get pretty close with street parking. Then when we got to the Biodome, the line to get tickets was insane. After some quick research online (thanks, Trip Advisor), I found out that you can purchase your tickets on your phone and have them scan it at the entrance. Boom! Done. Skipped the line and saved at least twenty minutes of our day.
The Biodome is divided up into the five eco-systems of the Americas, and really embraces the differences between the environments. I wish we’d had time to visit the botanical gardens and planetarium too – if you do, make sure you buy a combo ticket to save money! No matter how many you visit, the attractions are located at the Montreal Olympic Park, so make sure you walk around and get the obligatory photo of you standing on the medal platform! Always a fun (and free!) thing to do in an Olympic city.
Remember the post on international travel tips? I mentioned that you should always plan to have some local currency on you. We came across a few local businesses in Montreal that did not accept American debit or credit cards because their systems could not handle them. Some offered to accept American cash, but at par ($1 USD = $1 CAD), which means about a 30% mark-up right now. Not good.
Luckily, the Montreal Casino (the largest in Canada) made for a fun stop AND let us exchange our money. Here’s a scavenger hunt for you – find all of the ‘playing card royalty’ statues and cards scattered throughout the casino and take your picture with them all. The staff was even super friendly in helping us to do just that! And to get to the casino, you have to pass by the Biosphere, an awesome looking structure with exhibits tailored to current environmental issues. It’s nice to look at even if you don’t venture inside!
Where to stay in Montreal
I can’t do this post justice without giving a shout-out to our hotel, Hotel Zero 1. Not only are they in a great location (and a VIP+ hotel on Expedia), the staff was phenomenal, the room was stylish, and the FREE breakfast was perfect. We were quite pleased with our choice and would most definitely stay there again. The hotel is in walking distance to Old Montreal and sits on the edge of the modern part of the city. If you’re looking for a place to stay, I highly recommend it!
On our drive back to the states, we discovered Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company, and we are so happy we did. Beau’s is located in the countryside, about halfway between Montreal and Ottawa. Not only do they offer free tours and are dog-friendly, they also offer FREE SAMPLES – of as many beers on tap as you’d like. My favorite was Buenos Dias, a perfect summer beer with orange and lime flavors. Yum!
Hopefully now you’re inspired to plan your next visit to our neighbors to the north.