When we arrived for our Montreal backpacking trip, as part of our two month journey across Canada, we were lucky to be shown around by friends who live close to this Canadian city. I will share their tips with you here. This city ended up being one of the highlights of our trip and in this local’s guide to Montreal for backpackers, I will give you the lowdown on the best budget accommodation, restaurants, top things to do in the city and hikes near Montreal to explore the breathtaking views.
Why Montreal is the place to be
If you are planning a trip through Canada, be sure to make a stop in Montreal in the province of Quebec. There’s a buzz in the city, the economy is booming and tourism is on the rise. Trudeau International Airport welcomed over 11 million international visitors over the first eight months of 2018, up 6.9% on 2017, according to Tourisme Montreal. It’s clear you will be in good company on a trip to this thriving city. Montreal has been voted by Forbes as one of the 38 Cheapest Places to Travel in 2019, thanks to its affordable restaurants, free festivals and cheap accommodation.
With almost two million residents, Montreal in Quebec is Canada’s second-most populous municipality and the world’s second largest French-speaking city after Paris. It is named after Mount Royal in the heart of the city. This 233 m (764 ft) hill is the site of Mount Royal Park, one of Montreal’s largest green spaces, which hosts athletic, tourist and cultural activities (more on this later). In 2017, it was ranked the 12th most liveable city in the world.
The city’s most famous areas
Other than Mount Royal, the city’s other best known area is Old Montreal, Canada’s famous historic area with preserved 18th century French architecture. Here, horse-drawn carriages trot along the cobbled streets to show tourists around. The nearby Old Port, stretching along the enormous Saint Lawrence River, dates back to 1611 and used to be the site of the city’s busy shipping operations. These have now been moved to a new site, which claims to be the world’s largest inland port, while the Old Port now offers attractions including a science centre, a clock tower and an urban beach.
Montreal has four distinct seasons of weather, from balmy summers to icy winters. While the city’s official language is French, almost a two thirds of residents are also able to speak English. You will find most things, such as restaurant menus, are primarily in French but you can usually request an English translation.
How to get to Montreal
Montreal is located in the province of Quebec in Canada. It’s a 2.5 bus ride from Ottawa and a three-hour bus journey from Quebec City. Montreal to Toronto is five hours by bus, so instead you may wish to take one of the cheap flights to Montreal, which take just over an hour. For more information on getting to and from this city on your Canada backpacking trip, including transport companies and prices, click here.
The best hostels in Montreal
There are a number of good hostels in Montreal (auberge de jeunesse in French), where you can save money and meet fellow travellers. M Montreal Hostel is one of the best hostels in Montreal’s Gay Village neighbourhood. This lively place has private rooms and dorms with en suite bathrooms, lockers, flat-screen TVs and bunk beds with personal lights and power sockets. As well as free WiFi, there’s a complimentary cooked breakfast to get your day off to a good start. There’s also a hip retro bar with evening entertainment. Alexandrie Hostel Montreal, also in the Gay Village, is another one of Montreal’s best hostels. This cheap Montreal hostel has basic mixed and single-sex dorms, as well as private rooms. There’s free WiFi and breakfast, as well as laundry facilities.
The Samesun Montreal hostel in the Latin quarter has two terraces and both mixed and female-only dorms which come with personal fans, and free WiFi and breakfast. One of the best cheap hostels in Montreal, their private rooms have TVs, mini-fridges and en suite bathrooms, while some include a sofa or even a whirlpool bath.
HI Hostel Montreal is one of the top choices for backpacker Montreal hostels downtown, with its variety of dorm sizes and towels available on request. It offers free breakfast, a relaxed bistro and pub, bike rentals and organised activities every day, including tours and pub crawls. Join Hostelling International (HI) to save money on this downtown Montreal youth hostel, as well as more across Canada and 4,000 hostels worldwide. If you are looking for cheap hostels in Montreal downtown, you can also check out the YWCA Montreal hostel. This central backpackers Montreal hostel has private rooms with shared bathrooms and showers, plus a communal kitchen and free WiFi. There’s also a café and a boutique, which supports young women in work integration programs.
The Alternative Hostel Montreal is an Old Montreal hostel is a boho-style hostel with delightfully coloured dorms and private rooms. There’s free WiFi and a buffet breakfast at this truly alternative backpackers hostel, which hosts art exhibitions. Set in a 19th-century warehouse, it is full of character, with wooden floors and salvaged furniture, making it one of the best hostels Montreal has to offer for people who love unique places to stay.
Cheap hotels in Montreal
There is also a good selection of cheap hotels in downtown Montreal. Set in a Victorian building, rooms at the 2-star Hotel Viger Montreal have en suite bathrooms, mini-fridges and cable TV. There is also free WiFi and breakfast. As the name suggests, Hotel Quartier Latin Montreal is located in the Latin quarter, close to Old Montreal. This 2-star hotel offers simple rooms with free breakfast and WiFi. The nearby Hotel St Andre Montreal is another budget hotel. Its laid-back rooms come with a cable TV and there’s complimentary breakfast and WiFi. Hotel de Paris Montreal is slightly more pricey, but this stately stone mansion near the Parc la Fontaine has modern rooms with flat-screen TVs and an on-site Thai restaurant.
Of the 3-star Old Montreal hotels, the best option in terms of facilities is Hotel Gouverneur Montreal, a modern high-rise which houses an indoor pool, a gym, a restaurant and a bistro. For something a bit different, try the 3-star boutique Hotel Kutuma Montreal on the lively Rue Saint-Denis, which offers African-themed rooms with kitchenettes, as well as an Ethiopian restaurant. If you’re looking for a well-priced 4-star hotel, try the Cantlie Suites Montreal, close to the McGill University campus. Its rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with incredible views over the city and Mount Royal, plus there’s an exercise room and an outdoor rooftop pool. For the best Montreal hotel deals, click here.
Another great option is Airbnb, which allows you to book super short term rental of rooms in residential apartments and bed & breakfasts. We stayed in a lovely apartment close to St Catherine Street in Montreal’s Gay Village, hosted by a girl who was studying a business degree. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, click here for a discount.
Top tourist attractions in Montreal
Sometimes it’s not a bad idea to do the typical tourist thing and take a tour of a city, so you can see the highlights and get your bearings. This hop-on hop-off Montreal bus tour shows you the best of Montreal while you sit back in a London-Style double-decker bus.
As we are nature lovers, our friends recommended the Botanical Garden as one of the popular local things to do in Montreal, founded in 1931 and considered to be one of the world’s largest and most important of its kind. Centrally located, its 75 hectares (190 acres) offer wonderful places to rest and recharge, as you discover the themed gardens and year-round greenhouses.
The neighbouring Insectarium is an oasis of lively ant farms, colourful jewel beetles and breathtaking butterflies. Displaying insect collections from around the world, it is North America’s largest insect museum. Despite sounding a bit creepy, it is in fact one of the most popular Montreal tourist attractions. Great for kids and adults alike, we genuinely learned a lot about insect life during our visit and we were fascinated by the displays.
Our friends also showed us the Biosphère, another popular attraction. This striking and unique museum is devoted to the environment, with interactive activities and exhibitions explaining issues including climate change and sustainable development.
Festivals and events in the city
Montreal is loved by its citizens for its packed schedule of festivals, sports and events, especially in the summer. In fact, Montreal is the only Canadian city to have held the Summer Olympics. The city also hosts international events including the Canadian Grand Prix of Formula One, the Montreal International Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs festival. Participating in these festivals and events is one of the main things locals do in Montreal.
When we visited, it was the tail-end of the summer season, but our friends were taking part in the annual marathon so they invited us along to soak up the atmosphere. There was music, beer and lots of cheering for the runners at the finish line.
Later on, they suggested we visit Tam-Tams, an unofficial weekly summer festival of drumming and dancing that has been going since the late 1970s. It’s located by the George-Étienne Cartier Monument in Mount Royal Park. The atmosphere was laid back and free-spirited with groups of people jamming with drums, instruments and dancing to the communal beats. It reminded me of the sunset beach parties in Goa. It’s hard to resist the rhythm and everyone’s invited to join in and play, sing or just move to the music.
Watch an ice hockey game
Ice hockey is, of course, Canada’s national winter sport, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to watch the Montreal Canadiens play at the city’s Bell Centre stadium. Sadly the game was low-scoring, so not as exciting as the one we watched a few days later on TV, but it was great to experience it live. The build up to the game, with the player profiles and videos, gave us a good insight into the popularity of this sport and its personalities. And right near the end of the match, there was a fight on the pitch!
We’d been told this is an accepted part of ice hockey. Presumably the players were feeling the frustration of the game and, in the closing minutes, one started laying into one of his opponents. It looked like punches were being thrown, but the referee didn’t intervene. The crowd went wild.
Eat your heart out
Montreal is a great foodie city. A host of charming restaurants in the attractive Old Port area offer traditional French cuisine, while in the downtown district you can find deli diners serving tasty smoked meats. As you’re backpacking Montreal, you will need a hearty but inexpensive meal. Luckily, the regional speciality is poutine, a plate piled full with potato fries topped with cheese curds and meat gravy. Dine in Montreal like a local by heading to the best poutine restaurant in the city: La Banquise. This is an informal venue that is dedicated to the dish. Its menu offers a wide selection, with an array of different meats, cheeses and vegetables customising this classic Quebecois treat.
This was my dish – called La B.O.M – topped with merguez sausage, bacon and onions, which I accompanied with a refreshing apricot beer. I wolfed it down with gusto. Be aware, poutine is a filling dish so even the heartiest of appetites can struggle to finish it.
Our final culinary experience in Montreal was a memorable one. L’Auberge Du Dragon Rouge is a unique theatrical restaurant in a hidden away location, but worth tracking down (find it here). The locals know it for its boisterous medieval-themed atmosphere, with traditionally-dressed entertainers, loud singing and opulent banquets. We were here to celebrate a birthday and we merrily enjoyed ourselves.
We indulged in plenty of beer and tucked into a feast of succulent meats, on a medieval style platter. Afterwards, the men in our group took part in the restaurant’s ritual of sipping ‘dragon’s blood’, to test their hardiness. This involved more drunken singing and stamping on the wooden table. Given the amount of Tabasco in this mysterious red concoction, I was impressed they could down it!
If you are looking for a more contemporary special night out, check out Soubois Montreal, a renowned supperclub which turns into a night club after 11pm, so you can continue your night with drinks and dancing.
Best hiking near Montreal
If the weather is good and you fancy an adventure, why not make the most of it by discovering one of the best hiking trails near Montreal. Around 30km east of the city likes Mont-Saint-Hilaire, a 414-metre high mountain and nature reserve. The easiest way to reach this stunning spot for backpacking near Montreal is by car, as it’s 45 minutes out of downtown Montreal. By public transport from the city centre, you can take the Yellow Line train to Terminus de Longueuil, then catch the number 200 bus the half-hour journey to Boulevard Sir-Wilfrid-Laurier/Rue Lavoie.
Mont Saint-Hilaire lies next to the Richelieu River and is perfect for gentle mountain hiking – a world away from the city life of Montreal. Its rich nature reserve is home to many animals and plants, including lichens, centuries old cedar trees and peregrine falcons, as well as many rare and unique minerals. The mountain has several summits which are accessible for backpackers to climb and they surround a central lake, Lac Hertel.
The winding walking trails up the mountain lead you to astonishing views from the summits. Here, you can lay out a picnic on the rocks and take in the beauty of this natural spot.
The area’s mineral-rich soil makes it ideal for growing apple trees. Mont Saint-Hilaire’s apple orchards draw tens of thousands of visitors every year. After your mountain hike, why not go apple picking at the nearby La Vieille Cave orchard, open early May to mid December. This 200 year-old ancestral home is full of character and set right into the mountainside. Here, you can pluck your dessert straight from the trees or by homemade products from the renowned boutique. A local secret that is well worth the trip.
If you’re looking for places to hike in Montreal, head to Mont Royal. This ancient three-peaked mountain is immediately west of downtown Montreal. Mount Royal Park contains a forest containing extensive hiking and cross-country ski trails, which are particularly beautiful in the autumn. Hike to the summit and see the mountaintop’s 31-metre high (103 ft) illuminated cross, representing one that was placed there by the city founder in 1643. During the winter, visitors can rent equipment to use the area’s snow tube and toboggan run. The area is also home to creatures including squirrels, foxes, marmots and raccoons. We arrived here at night to find these cute raccoons scuttling around, alongside signs warning us not to feed or play with them.
The night-time view over the lights of Montreal from the top of Mont Royal is impressive.
Make some Montreal backpacking memories
We enjoyed our time backpacking in Montreal and making the most of the local tips, so we could experience the real culture, cuisine and character of this vibrant city. So if you get a chance, head to Montreal. Tuck into the poutine, hike a local mountain and dive into the sports and summer festivals. And, if you’re really brave, taste some dragon’s blood.
Thanks to the Montreal Botanical Garden for kindly hosting our visit there.
Next up, find out how to plan a Canada backpacking trip and the best way to cross the country, here.