Montreal on the cheap

The March Bonsecours and the Basilica dome in

The March Bonsecours and the Basilica dome in Montreal is lit up at night. (Credit: Handout)

For a slice of Europe's Old World charm, cafe culture and epicurean delights, minus the long flight and très grande euro costs, head to Montreal. The Canadian city - actually an island in the St. Lawrence River - has maintained the culture and language established here by the first French settlers in 1642, while adding some New World ingredients.

Stroll down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, grab a drink during "cinq à sept" (5-7 p.m., the city's version of happy hour) and tuck into a local specialty called poutine (French fries with gravy and cheese curds).

Here are some tips for saving money while seeing the sights. (The Canadian dollar is about even with the American dollar these days.)


GETTING AROUND

The best way to tour la belle ville, especially Old Montreal, is by foot. The city's website has a comprehensive walking tour guide map (vieux.montreal.qc.ca).

Walking is also a great way to take in Montreal's subterranean city: A 19-mile underground pedestrian network, the world's longest, opened in 1962, linking metro stations, hotels, restaurants and boutique shops, as well as movie theaters and concert halls.

If walking's not your thing, hop on the metro. The city's Société de transport de Montreal (STM) will efficiently move you between sightseeing spots across the island for about $2.50 a ride. A transfer enables you to switch between the metro and bus at no extra cost. An unlimited tourist pass is available for about $7 a day or $13.50 for three days.


ARTS AND CULTURE

If you're a hard-core museum-goer, the Montreal Museums Pass ($48.50) is recommended. For three consecutive days, you can visit any of 34 museums and have unlimited access to the metro and bus (museesmontreal.org).

However, many museums in Montreal are free, and during the last weekend in May, all museums waive admission. Some highlights:


FOR HISTORY

Montreal's history is a long and fascinating one. Take a visit to the 1600s when you descend to the depths of the Musée d'Archéologie et d'Histoire Pointe-à- Callière. This very modern-looking museum was built on top of the city's foundations, which are now a well-interpreted archaeological dig spanning the 17th through the 19th centuries. Look for 350-year-old gravestones in the subterranean gloom. The museum also has visiting exhibitions and a pretty view of the Vieux-Port and the islands from its tower. Admission is about $14.50 for adults or $29 for families (pacmuseum.qc.ca).

From dinosaur bones to fossils to Egyptian mummies, trace the path of evolution at the free Redpath Museum's collection of more than 17,000 anthropological and archaeological artifacts covering Ancient Egypt, South America, Sri Lanka and more. It's a great place for kids, offering an interactive learning experience (mcgill.ca/ redpath).


ART

The permanent collection at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is always free. Exhibitions range from Napoleon and the arts under the First Empire and a growing collection of glass sculptures designed by artists around the world. Temporary exhibits are $14.50, except 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays, when admission is half price.

For modern-art lovers, the city's Musée D'Art Contemporain De Montréal waives its regular $10 admission 5-9 p.m. Wednesdays (macm.org).


PERFORMANCES

You can get same-day half-price tickets to Montreal's opera, symphony, music, dance and theater performances through La Vitrine, a last-minute ticket venue at Place des Arts downtown. Discount tickets (many less than $20) also are available online for shows within a week (vitrine.cyberpresse.ca).


CHURCH TOURS

Montreal is renowned for its churches. Smaller ones are free, frequently offering free guided tours weekdays at 1 and 4 p.m.

Even with the $14.50 admission price, the awe-inspiring Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal should not be missed with 24-karat gold stars that dapple its soaring ceilings. A 20-minute guided tour is included (basiliquenddm.org).

Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, known as the Sailors' church by Montrealers, is another intriguing church with an admission price. The church has votive lamps in the shape of ships left by seamen hanging from its ceiling. There also are wonderful views of the harbor from its steeple and an archaeological dig underneath ($8 adults or $16 families; marguerite-bourgeoys.com).


FESTIVALS

Winter

The Montreal High Lights Festival runs through the second half of February with free ice skating, fireworks, live music and the Montreal All-Nighter, when galleries, theaters and dance venues stay open through the night. The 10-day festival also features a host of internationally renowned chefs who take residence in some of the city's best restaurants (montrealenlumiere.com).


Summer

It seems that all of Europe descends upon Montreal - or at least the Monaco set does - for the annual Grand Prix du Canada, a Formula 1 race that lasts three days in June. Held at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on the Île de Notre-Dame, the course twists and turns almost as precariously as the streets of Monte Carlo. Montreal's major rues overflow with classic cars, bands and block parties thrown by the racing teams. Start planning now for the best hotel rates (circuitgillesvilleneuve.ca).

Or visit in late June-early July when the sounds of the Montreal International Jazz Festival take over. Last year, Stevie Wonder kicked off the fest with a free concert. About 150 artists join in the celebrations annually with many free outdoor shows (montrealjazzfest.com). The jazz event is always followed by the Just For Laughs festival, which attracts some of the funniest comedians touring (hahaha.com).


FOOD

For an authentic eating experience, try one of the city's affordable public markets: Jean Talon, Maisonneuve and Atwater Market are three of the most famous (marchespublics-mtl.com).

Before dinner, join the locals for the nightly "cinq à sept" (a 5-7 p.m. cocktail hour) when popular bars along St. Laurent, St. Denis and around the Plateau and Latin Quarter neighborhoods offer two or three drinks for the price of one.

You'll also want to look out for restaurants with the Apportez-Votre Vin (bring your own wine) signs. Restaurants that serve their own alcohol charge a high mark-up per bottle to cover the cost of the license required. You also can bring beer.

Otherwise, you can stroll up and down "the Main" (St. Laurent), the historic divider between French and English Montreal, and chow down cheaply on smoked meat sandwiches with mustard at each of several excellent delicatessens within a couple of blocks of each other. Eat standing in the store, or outside, weather permitting. Hop from the Spécialité Slovenia Boucherie Charcuterie near Avenue des Pins to the Boucherie Hongroise, La Vieille Europe, and, perhaps the best of them all, Schwartz's (schwartzsdeli.com).

Native New Yorkers can tell that Montreal's bagels are "different" - the dough is boiled in honey-sweetened water before baking - but delicious, so let the smell of freshly baked bagels guide you to Saint-Viateur Bagels on 263 Saint-Viateur Ouest St. (stviateurbagel.com).


THE VIEW

Walk, bike or drive up to the summit of Mount Royal for a great panoramic view of the city, in particular from the terrace in front of the Chalet du Mont-Royal. (The trek is approximately 45 minutes by foot.)

On the way up Mont Royal's northwestern slope, check out the Oratoire St-Joseph and its extensive gardens for free. About 2 million people a year visit the shrine to Joseph with the most devout Catholics climbing the 99 steps to its front door on their knees. At the 11 a.m. Mass on Sundays, the voices of Montreal's best boys choir, Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal, wend their way through the church's nave (saint-joseph.org).


Alison Gregor contributed to this story.

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