Summary: You don’t have to dash off to Europe to soak in the sights and sounds of a different culture. Montreal is much closer, less expensive and if you’re in a jam, they’ll even break into English for you! Just 45 minutes by plane from New York or Boston, and pretty easy from just about everywhere else in the United States, you’ll have an endless amount of festivals, local attractions and hidden gems just waiting to be discovered.
Don’t let the cold discourage you. Though Montreal is nestled within our northern neighbor’s borders, the temperature in January is a seemingly unreasonable -6 degrees Fahrenheit. Don a coat and hat, though, and it’s manageable. If the empty streets surprise you, step below the surface, and explore the city’s second, underground world à RESO.
As you plan your trip up to Canada, take a close look at what’s going on in Montreal when you plan to head up there. While the basic museums and theaters will always be there, the city has a thriving festival scene that lasts through the winter and rotates quickly all year long. Every time you go, you’re likely to see something different.
Getting in: If you live in the northeast, the flights are easy. Continental has a shuttle to Montreal that can cost below $300. If you’re aiming at Montreal from farther away, Air Canada, Continental, Delta and other airlines fly in regularly. Crossing the Atlantic? You can do so non-stop from London, Paris, Amsterdam and others.
The trip into the city from Pierre Trudeau Airport (it used to be called Dorval) start at around CD$25 and can reach CD$60. Fortunately, you can solve the problem with public transportation. You’ll save plenty of cash to pour into your shot glass when you hit the bars downtown, but it can take close to a half hour to get into the city … and then you still have to get to your hotel.
Once you’re in the city, stick with public transportation. You won’t have to worry about parking, and the subway is clean, fast and efficient. It actually stops where you would want to go. Also, without a car, there’s no need to warm the vehicle up for five minutes before you pull out of your space.
Where to Stay: You have plenty of choices. Skip the newer part of the city, and settle into one of Old Montreal’s stylish boutique hotels. You won’t accumulate any points with the hotel chains you normally call home, but your trip will be unique. If you’re going to Montreal, you have to go native.
There are plenty of hotels within walking distance of just about every attraction in Old Montreal, and downtown is only a subway ride away.
- Step into Les Passants du Sans Soucy, and you’ll see immediately that you are not in a typical hotel. The lobby doubles as an art gallery, where you can see (and purchase) the work of Canadian artist Jacques Clement. The exposed brick throughout the property heightens the charm, and the dining room is far from institutional. This is a home away from home.
- The Hotel St-Paul is Montreal’s design attraction. The guestrooms emphasize the property’s commitment to style, and the interlocking bathrobes demonstrate that no detail is too trivial to the staff. I’ve stayed at the Hotel St-Paul, it will be at the top of my list on my next trip north.
- Tourisme Montreal has plenty of deals at properties across the city right now. Some have rates as low as CD$139 a night and offer a second night at half price. The “Sweet Deal Winter” program makes it clear that the locals know how hard it can be to attract southern neighbors when a warm day is above zero.
- If you prefer the predictability of a major chain, give up Old Montreal and book a room downtown, where you’ll find major presences by Marriott, Hyatt, Sheraton and other dependable brands.
What to See:
- Montreal’s art galleries must not be missed. Skip the museums and walk up and down la rue St Paul Ouest. If you like what you see in the window, step inside. Some of the galleries are operated by the artists themselves, so you’ll have a rare opportunity to talk to the creators.
- When the winter cold is too much for you, step into a subway station. These aren’t mere portals to the city’s public transportation system: they are gateways to a second city that lives beneath the surface when winter strikes with its characteristic ferocity. Enjoy the shops and restaurants that come to life when the world above goes quiet.
- Get a hot dog – the best dinner under CD$5. The misnamed Pool Hall isn’t home to felt-covered tables any more, but they do have the best dogs in the city. Sound like a local: a hot dog with everything on it is “all dressed.” You’ll find this joint on la rue St Denis, but if you aren’t paying attention, you might miss it. When in doubt, ask one of the natives. They’re helpful.
- Through the beginning of March, take advantage of the city’s festivals, such as the All-Nighter, Wine and Dine experience and Celebration of Light. If you don’t make it out to Montreal until later in the year, you’ll still find some festival in progress. July (for those who plan ahead) brings both the Fantasia film festival and the Just for Laughs comedy festival.
Stay warm; that’s your first priority. If you choose your stops wisely, Montreal can be a great city at any time of year. Don’t plan to spend too much time along the city’s harbor, but you can follow the locals to the city’s underground city. Brave the cold and enjoy the empty streets, or follow the masses below. Either way, Montreal is the best winter destination that never would have come to mind.