Montreal is the largest city in the Canadian province of Quebec and the second-most populous city in Canada. Despite being such a large city so rich in history and culture, it's not hard to find plenty to do and enjoy without spending a lot of money.
Montreal's public parks are full of activities in the summer, and, in the winter months, the parks are turned into winter playgrounds with trail skiing, tubing, and ice skating.
Most art museums have a day or more when entry is free, especially for permanent exhibitions. And, perusing a public food market and doing a bit of tasting doesn't cost much—initially, anyway!
Mont-Royal (Mount Royal) is a beautiful park where there are tons of things to do year-around. The fairly easy 6- to 7-kilometer walk to the summit of Mont Royal takes about an hour. Alternately you can bike or drive to the summit where you'll have a great panoramic view of Montreal.
Other attractions on Mont-Royal include the Smith House, a heritage house where you can learn about the mountain and Beaver Lake (Lac aux Castors) featuring a playground and ice skating in winter.
Montreal, especially the historic part, is a city best discovered on foot. There are walking tours visitors can download ahead of time, print out, and follow.
Frommer's has Montreal walking tours online that are great to download and easy to follow. They include Vieux-Montréal, Downtown, and Parc du Mont-Royal.
The Old Montréal website features a comprehensive Old Montreal walking tour, complete with a map with descriptions and pictures of 20 points of interest.
Art museums, most of which offer a day or time when entry is free to the public, have exhibits ranging from the historic to contemporary.
- The Museum of Contemporary Art (in French, Musée d’Art Contemporain) is free Wednesday evenings 6 - 9 p.m. A free tour is offered at 6:30 p.m.
- The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts permanent collection is free at all times. Temporary exhibitions are by admission only.
- The Centre of Design at the Université du Québec à Montréal presents works from Québec and international designers. Admission is free. Hours are Wednesday to Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.
- On Thursday nights from 5:30 - 9 p.m., the Centre Canadien d'Architecture is free.
- On the last Sunday of May, some 30 Montreal museums open their doors to the public for free, while six bus routes offer free transportation.
Montreal is famous for its food, and visitors will find local fare fresh and more affordable at one of the city's public markets. Jean Talon Market, Maisonneuve, and Atwater Market are three of the most famous.
The Jean-Talon Market is one of North America's largest farmers' markets and features the most extensive selection of produce and homemade goods in the city. La Fromagerie Atwater, a mainstay at Atwater Market, serves up fresh medium gouda samples.
Go with an appetite and taste exquisite cheeses, meats, breads, and much more. These markets truly offer an authentic experience of a great city.
Montreal is a vibrant city at any time, but the city is really abuzz several times a year with major festivals, all of which offer oodles of free events.
The Montreal High Lights Festival at the end of February features a free ice slide, ice skating, fireworks, and live music. The Montreal All-Nighter, where the city stays up all night to attend galleries, theaters, dance, and skate and then cap it all off with a free breakfast at 4 a.m., takes place in three districts and is linked by a shuttle service, allowing festival-goers to move easily and quickly from one district to another.
Ice Skate for Free
Might as well don your skates and enjoy the cold if you visit Montreal in the winter. There are plenty of opportunities to skate. Parc La Fontaine in the Plateau has a skating pond when weather permits, as does Parc Maisonneuve, which is near Montreal's Biodome, (closed through summer 2019) a fantastic family outing, though not free.
Other free rinks around the city include Lac aux Castors, Beaver Lake, at Parc Mont Royal, the Quays of the Old Port of Montréal, and Parc Jeanne-Mance, closer to the city center.
Enjoy the Music at Notre Dame Cathedral
Delight the senses by visiting Notre-Dame Basilica, built between 1824 and 1829, for the 11 a.m. high Mass on Sunday morning. Mass is accompanied by the Notre-Dame Basilica Choir of 25 voices and the Casavant pipe organ. Other Masses on Saturday and Sunday are accompanied solely by the beautiful organ.
From May through October, the Hôtel de Ville, Montreal's majestic City Hall, built between 1872 and 1878, offers a free 45-minute guided tour.
During the summer tourist season, guided tours are offered on a fixed schedule, without prior reservation. Tours are available in French and English from Monday to Friday. The rest of the year, tours are offered on Fridays.
Learn to Dance
On Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday nights throughout the summer, dance instructors lead free ballroom dancing lessons in Parc Jean Drapeau.
In addition, Tango Libre is a popular dance school that offers free trial classes and introductory lessons throughout the city.
While going to a casino can cost you a pretty penny, you can enjoy the sights and people at Casino Montreal free of charge. Full of lights at night, this casino on the Ile Notre-Dame is one of the largest in the world.
Some slot machines still take coins, and many games of chance have a low buy-in. If you know your limit, you can have some fun on a small amount of money. Better yet, go with friends and pool your money, stick to a budget, and divide the winnings.
Dining options range from fine dining to casual (a buffet and a deli). There's also entertainment to peek in on. If you are at least 18 years of age, you can go in and check out the action.
At the Bois-de-Liesse nature park, there are trails and footbridges that meander through a diverse natural environment which includes an old growth forest of black maples. In the spring, wildflowers abound. In the winter, you can go cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding in the park. While entry is free, there is a charge for parking.
Montreal's public art includes city murals, a large Calder installation, and sculptures throughout the city.
There are a variety of tours highlighting the artworks, some are at night and others are mini-versions of tours showing visitors a few works at a time. An especially fun tour is to see the art of the underground pedestrian walkways which run 32 kilometers, all connecting buildings underground.
Visit the Collections at the Redpath Museum
The Redpath Museum, built in 1882 as a gift to McGill University from the sugar baron Peter Redpath, is the oldest museum in Canada that was built specifically for that purpose. The museum houses natural history collections including biology, paleontology, and geology. Visitors especially like seeing the huge dinosaur skeletons in the Dawson Gallery and the geological garden outside the museum which has large specimens of minerals and fossils from across Canada.
The architecture of the museum building is noteworthy and has been used as a set for movies and TV commercials. Admission to the museum is free but donations are gladly accepted.
Hit the Books at the Grande Bibliothèque
The "Great Library" of Montreal is a national library, national archives, and the public library of Montreal. The Library and National Archives of Quebec (BAnQ) preserve and make available to the public the documentary heritage of Quebec. BAnQ operates in 12 buildings open to all across Quebec.
You can take a self-guided tour of the library and archives, especially since the modern building has won awards for its architecture. Inside, on multiple floors, there are places where you can read, do research, listen to a lecture, or enjoy rotating exhibitions. There is also free programming for the whole family and free Wi-fi for visitors.
Wander the Historic Center
The Centre d’histoire de Montréal (CHM) brings Montreal history to you in a contemporary way via multimedia presentations, artifacts, pictures, and sounds. You'll learn about Montreal's neighborhoods, hidden places, and significant events.
Exhibitions feature historical trivia, such as what year the Jacques-Cartier Bridge was inaugurated and depictions of everyday Montreal through the ages. Annually, the Centre hosts a photography competition, Montréal à l’oeil, with a different theme.
There is an admission fee but you can save with the Montréal Museum Pass, which provides free admission to 38 museums and other discounts and is sold at the CHM.
Discover the Old Port
The Old Port of Montreal, on the shores of the St. Lawrence River, offers insight into the maritime history of the city. You can relax on a reasonably priced (about $20 CDN) small boat ride along the Old Port and Lachine Canal. With the captain narrating the 45-minute cruise, you'll discover the Old Port's marine life and historical heritage.
You can catch the small boat excursion at the Jacques-Cartier Basin.
Enjoy the Drums of Tam Tams
Visit or Ride Along the Lachine Canal
Visit the Lachine Canal National Historic Site for free events and a place to relax in a natural setting. The 13.5 kilometer-long park is the place for a leisurely bike ride, walk, or even an outdoor game of chess.
The Montreal Folk Festival on the Canal is a public event in June with folk and traditional music.
Watch the Christmas Parade
In late November, Santa comes to town. The annual Santa Claus Parade (Le Défilé du Père Noël), held along Sainte-Catherine Street, kicks off the season. The parade starts at 11 a.m. and is free to the public.
The Santa Claus parade thrills children with over 20 floats, bands, and more, proceeding along Sainte-Catherine Street from Fort Street to St. Urbain Street.
Save on High Fashion
Montreal's Marché Bonsecours is the place to go twice a year for low-cost high fashion when they host the Braderie de Mode Québécoise, (the Big Fashion Sale by Quebec Designers). This has been a Montreal shopping tradition since 1994. Tens of thousands of shoppers head for the sale during its four-day biannual run featuring over 140 different designer labels. Prices range from 50 percent to 80 percent off.