There are few places across North America than display the same level of cultural vibrancy that the inviting, bilingual city of Montreal does. It may not boast skyscrapers like the Empire State Building or offer infamous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge, and its postcards might not be as immediately recognizable as its western neighbor, Toronto. However, Montreal truly is a city unlike any other than will suck you in Venus flytrap-style and make you never want to leave (until it gets bitterly cold, that is).
Who says that experiencing this heavily underrated city has to cost an arm and a leg? Some of the best things are free, you just need to know where to look. Here are 10 free things that every visitor should do in Montreal.
No visit to Quebec’s largest city would be complete without a quick walk up to the top of Mount Royal, after which the city is named. Calling it a mountain is a bit of a stretch, however, as it’s not much more than a big hill, taking just about 30 minutes to ascend and reach the famous viewing point.
In the warmer months, there are plenty of squirrels and local critters sneakily running around and causing mischief. On the contrary, during winter the mountain becomes blanketed with a thick layer of snow, becoming a playground for cross-country skiers, ice-skaters, and anyone willing to tumble down some hills on a sled.
Part of the fascination of the city of Montreal comes from its unique, eclectic blend of North American culture with a European flair. Vieux Montreal (or Old Montreal, in English) is the epicenter of this cultural melting pot, welcoming tourists from near and far who want a glimpse into the quaint, cobblestoned aura of small-city Europe without having to fork out bucketloads of cash for a plane ticket.
There are loads of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and rotating activities to keep visitors intrigued, and it’s only steps away from the Vieux Port (Old Port) which offers a Ferris wheel with views over the St Lawrence River.
Known as the Quartier des spectacles, which roughly translates into entertainment quarter, the area around Place des Arts transforms time and time again into the hub of all kinds of different festivals. No matter which time of the year you’re visiting, you can guarantee that there’ll be entertainment aplenty.
There are the annual staples like the internationally-renowned Just For Laughs which brings in world-class comics from near and far, plus JazzFest, offering up regular free concerts from musical A-graders. There’s plenty to do during the colder months as well, with a quaint Christmas market pushing classic festive treats and Insta-worthy decorative backdrops.
Due to the long, drawn-out and bitterly cold winters, summer in Montreal is as vibrant as any city in the world. As soon as the last inch of snow melts and the sun begins to shine, the locals emerge from their hibernation and make the most of the nicer weather, putting on all kinds of engaging outdoor activities.
One of these activities is the ultra-hipster, progressive TamTams. Essentially, people gather at the foot of Mount Royal each Sunday afternoon and whisk away the hours with drum circles, slacklines, LARPing, frisbee, or a couple of drinks on the hill - whatever tickles your fancy.
We’re heading back to the Old Montreal area in search of what is considered one of the most beautiful cathedral interiors on the planet: the historic, centuries-old Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal.
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As one of the central points in an already revered tourist area, Notre Dame does get its fair share of viewers. When taking a stroll through the area it doesn’t cost a penny to snap a couple of cliche photos if front of its facade, however, to actually enter the building it will set you back a couple of bucks.
In what is almost an inverse representation of the Notre-Dame Basilica, the exterior of Saint Joseph's Oratory is mind-blowing while the interior lacks a touch of pizzazz. Nevertheless, it’s worthy of a (totally free) visit just to appreciate the incredible facade alone.
There are stellar views to take in once you’ve made it up the stairs as well, looking over the western side of the city and the more residential areas. The Oratory isn’t too far from the base of Mount Royal, so the pair of activities that easily be ticked off in the space of half a day or so.
No matter where you find yourself in the city of Montreal, there always seems to be a rather laid-back vibe floating in the air. When the weekend rolls around, the locals are more than content enough to let a couple of hours fly by while relaxing at one of the city's many inviting parks.
Parc La Fontaine (Fontaine means fountain in French, so you see where this is going, right?) is one of the more popular, easily accessible from the iconic Le Plateau neighborhood. Just around the corner is one of the city’s most beloved poutine joints as well - La Banquise.
You could visit the same spot in Parc La Fontaine, six months apart, and have two completely different experiences. As we’ve just touched on, a picnic and a couple of hours laying on the grass is a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon, however, when it’s covered in snow and ice, it’s an entirely different - yet equally beautiful - ordeal.
The lake completely freezes over, and since it’s a public park, anyone with a pair of skates can hit the ice whenever their heart desires. For those without their own skates (most visitors), there’s affordable skate rental adjacent to the ice.
Over in the Little Italy neighborhood of Montreal, which is easily accessible by the underground metro system, the massive Jean-Talon market has been offering Montrealers and tourists alike an abundance of locally-produced fruits and veggies, and a handful of specialties from various corners of the globe as well.
Entry to the market is totally free, and if you’re lucky then you’ll be able to sneak in a few free samples here and there. Of course, if you want to take home some ripe mangoes or smash down an ice cream, have a few bucks on hand.
Offering some of the most impressive works of art across the nation, Montreal’s Musee des Beaux-Arts (Museum of Fine Arts) holds the title as the oldest museum in all of Canada. It’s the largest one in the city, boasting regular and rotating exhibitions, and it’s smack-bang right in the middle of Downtown, so a visit can be worked into any itinerary with ease.
Here’s the catch, though: it’s not always free - only on the first Sunday of each month. During the rest of the calendar, it’s free for people under 20, otherwise, it’ll set you back between $12 and $24.