MONTREAL — For a slice of Europe's old world charm, cafe culture and epicurean delights, minus the long flight and tres 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 a sept" (5-7 p.m., the city's version of happy hour) and tuck into a local specialty called poutine.
GETTING AROUND: The best way to tour la belle ville, especially Old Montreal, is by foot. Check out the city's Web site for a comprehensive walking tour guide map: http://www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca/tour/eng/0cartea.htm.
If walking's not your thing, hop on the metro. The city's Societe de transport de Montreal (STM) will efficiently move you between sightseeing spots across the island for $2.50 (Canadian $2.75) a ride. A transfer slip enables you to switch between the metro and bus at no extra cost. An unlimited tourist pass is available for $8 (CA$9) a day or $15.30 (CA$17) for three days. A number of lines are linked to the Underground City, one of the world's longest underground pedestrian networks of shops and walkways.
ACCOMMODATIONS: Montreal has some fabulous city-based B&Bs. Check out Azur at $68-131 (CA$75-$145) a night, http://www.bbazur.com/. Angelica Blue B&B is very close to Old Montreal and Chinatown; $68-140 (CA$75-155), including breakfast, http://www.angelicablue.com/index.html.
If you're up for hosteling and sharing a room of three, four or six people, you can stay in downtown Montreal for $28 (CA$31) night; http://www.hostellingmontreal.com.
An annual summer hotel promotion called "Montreal Sweet Deals" offers a third night at half-price if you book two nights in various hotels. This year because of the economy, some hotels are offering the third night free. Details at http://www.tourisme-montreal.org/Offers/Summer. (In winter, the promotion typically offers a second night at half-price.)
FESTIVAL FUN: Plan ahead to next summer and visit in early July when the sounds of jazz take over the city during the Montreal International Jazz Festival. This year, Stevie Wonder kicked off the fest with a free concert. About 150 artists join in the celebrations annually with many free outdoor shows; http://www.montrealjazzfest.com. The jazz event is always followed by the Just For Laughs festival, http://www.hahaha.com.
Or consider visiting in the winter. The Montreal High Lights Festival at the end of February features 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; http://www.montrealenlumiere.com/.
ARTS AND CULTURE: Trace the path of evolution at the free Redpath Museum, from dinosaur bones to fossils to Egyptian mummies. Check out its collection of over 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; http://www.mcgill.ca/redpath/. The permanent collection at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is free at all times. Temporary exhibits are by admission only, which is half-price on Wednesdays; http://tinyurl.com/ncoz5v.
Musee D'Art Contemporain De Montreal (Museum of Contemporary Art) is free Wednesday evenings from 6-9 p.m., http://www.macm.org/fr/index.html.
The Centre of Design at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal presents works from Canada and international designers. Admission is free, Wednesday-Sunday, noon to 6 p.m., http://www.uqam.ca/nouvelles/2007/07-437.htm
The Centre Canadien d'Architecture is free on Thursday nights 5:30-9 p.m.; http://www.cca.qc.ca/.
Many museums in Montreal are free, but for those that aren't, think about the Montreal Museums Pass, $41 (CA$45). For three consecutive days, you can visit 34 various museums and have unlimited access to the metro and bus; http://tinyurl.com/n2l99h.
Get same-day half-price tickets to the opera, symphony, theater etc., through La Vitrine, a last-minute ticket venue at Place des Arts in downtown; http://vitrine.cyberpresse.ca
Always wanted to learn to cha-cha or waltz? Do it for free at Parc Jean-Drapeau. From June to August, on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sunday evenings, dance instructors hold free lessons for those "So You Think You Can Dance" hopefuls.
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; http://www.marchespublics-mtl.com/
Before dinner, join the locals for the nightly "cinq a sept" (a 5-7 p.m. cocktail) when popular bars along St. Laurent, St. Denis and around the Plateau and Latin Quarter neighborhoods offer specials, two or three drinks for the price of one.
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 can also bring beer.
You can't leave the city without trying poutine, a messy melange of fries, gravy and cheese curds. Sounds odd, but it is a must-try. Hit the chain La Belle Province and fork over a toonie (the colloquial Canadian term for a $2 dollar coin) for the delectable dish.
Try Schwartz's, 3895 Saint-Laurent Blvd., for belly-pleasing meats, and let the smell of freshly baked bagels guide you to Saint-Viateur Bagels on 263 Saint-Viateur Ouest street; http://www.schwartzsdeli.com/index2.html or http://www.stviateurbagel.com/main/.
THE VIEW: Walk, bike or drive up to the summit of Mount Royal for a great panoramic view of the city. (The trek is approximately 45 minutes by foot.) From May to October, enjoy the Tams Tams, an outdoor hippie-fest drum jam session on Sunday mornings (located around the monument to Sir George-Etienne Cartier); http://tamtamsmontreal.net/english.html.
You can also check out the Piknic Electronik, an open-air electronic music event, also hosted every Sunday. There's a $9 (CA$10) entrance fee, but it's worth it if you're looking for a unique, family-friendly Sunday in the lovely city; http://piknicelectronik.com/organisation/.