You won't be 'overcrowded by thousands of tourists': What to know about Montreal cruises

On a recent afternoon, I strolled beside patches of purple flowers on a wooden walkway at the Port of Montreal. The Promenade d'Iberville green roof, with western red cedar decking and more than 24,000 aromatic and flowering plants, was built on top of the city’s main cruise terminal.

The effect was less industrial infrastructure – like many ports – and more charming urban parks.

Montreal may be the largest city in Canada’s Quebec province, but it offers a relatively quaint cruise experience. Bridges between Montreal and Quebec City block vessels with air draft – the distance from the waterline to the highest point on a ship – over 49 meters (or about 161 feet) from berthing at its facilities in Old Montreal.

The ships that visit are generally smaller (though the city can accommodate those with a maximum 50-meter (164 feet) air draft east of the Jacques Cartier Bridge).

“We are positioning Montreal as a niche port for luxury ships,” Yves Gilson, associate director of cruises at the Port of Montreal, told USA TODAY during a visit in May. Here’s what to know about sailing into and out of the city.

The Promenade d'Iberville at the Port of Montreal.
The Promenade d'Iberville at the Port of Montreal.

The cruise inventory tends to be upscale

Montreal typically welcomes ships carrying 2,000 passengers or less from several upscale cruise lines, which tend to operate ships with lower capacity. Those include Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn, Viking, Ponant and more. Though not a luxury brand, one of the city’s main clients is Holland America Line, which will send its 1,432-guest Volendam ship there this season.

The port welcomed just over 51,000 cruise guests in 2023. By contrast, its neighbor to the northeast, Quebec City, saw 154,000 passengers. Despite its smaller population, large ships from operators like Norwegian Cruise Line and Cunard Line will visit Quebec City this season (along with smaller vessels).

Jared Feldman, owner of travel agency Jafeldma Travel, added that it’s not just ocean cruise ships that stop in Montreal. “There are river cruises that can get in and out of there as well,” he said.

Gilson noted that the city “could absorb” traffic from bigger ships if not for the bridges. “But on the other hand, the experience for the guest is marvelous because you know they will not be overcrowded by thousands of tourists,” he said.

You can hit the ground walking

The main cruise terminal is close to many of the city’s popular attractions. Old Montreal’s Gothic Revival Notre-Dame Basilica and the Place d’Armes are less than a 10-minute walk away, and numerous restaurants, shops, and museums are also nearby.

I grabbed a prosciutto sandwich at Italian grocery store Dispensa; ate on a bench outside; picked up a coffee at Cafecito and was able to be at the main terminal within 15 minutes or so on foot while taking in views of the water and architectural landmarks like Habitat 67.

There are also multiple close bicycle rental and Metro stations, and waiting taxis (the port works with software platform, Véco Taxi, which gives priority to electric vehicles).

Gilson said more lines are offering overnight stays in Montreal, giving guests more time to explore.

The Viking Star cruise ship in Montreal.
The Viking Star cruise ship in Montreal.

When is the best time for a Montreal cruise?

Montreal’s cruise season begins in May and ends in October, hitting its peak during the last two months of that period. Feldman said fall foliage is a particular draw for passengers.

Montreal often features on Canada and New England itineraries alongside ports such as Boston, Massachusetts and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The port’s cruise calendar can be found by clicking here.

The sailings tend to last around 10 to 14 days. “The distances between the ports in this region can be significant and navigation through areas like the St. Lawrence River and around the Gulf of Maine take time,” he said. Passengers on those sailings are looking for a “more immersive experience.”

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“Longer itineraries allow for more time in each port and often include scenic cruising days,” he added.

Cruise ships have historically avoided the area when cold sets in, but that could soon change: Ponant’s icebreaking Le Commandant Charcot will offer sailings in St. Lawrence in the winter of 2025. While the ship will not visit Montreal due to its size – though it will stop in Quebec City – Gilson hopes it will mark a shift.

“And eventually, we believe that all the cruise lines will get into the St. Lawrence during the winter,” he said. “So, it's gonna be an all-year-round cruise destination.”

The reporter on this story received access to this event from Tourisme Montréal. USA TODAY maintains editorial control of content.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Big city, smaller cruise ships? Consider a Montreal sailing.