Montréal is a cultural hotbed offering activities for any visitor. As a major cosmopolitan city with a distinct joie de vivre, there are many ways to blissfully spend one’s life savings. But this historic town also knows the value of public space and community events, offering a complete calendar of free options. Here’s an insider’s guide to some of the best free things to do in Montréal.
Wander around Old Montréal
Begin with one of the city’s main tourist attractions and loveliest neighborhoods. Old Montréal is one of the oldest city-centers in North America, a quaint time machine with touches of Europe. Walk the cobblestone streets, stroll along the St-Lawrence River waterfront, and enjoy the many free festivities.
Visit the markets
Stroll through colorful stalls of local produce and other tasty displays at Montréal’s many markets. Marché Jean Talon is one of Canada’s biggest, located near lovely Little Italy, while the Marché Atwater is nestled along the shores of the Lachine Canal. The sights, sounds and smells alone are some of the best free things to do in Montréal.
Stroll along the Lachine Canal
This waterway cuts through the island of Montréal, passing just below the downtown core. With portions restored as Canadian national parks, the Lachine Canal borders some great residential neighborhoods and offers picnics, bike paths, and many chilling-out options.
Montréal’s oldest chapel, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, is often overlooked when Notre-Dame and St. Joseph’s Oratory are just around the corner in their imposing glory. The current chapel was constructed in 1771, but it stands on the remains of the previously burned down chapel that was built in 1655. The chapel is free to visit; however, the associated museum has an entry fee.
Visit a free museum
Montréal has some of the country’s best museums and many offer free entry. The Montréal Museum of Fine Arts permanent collection is free for the general public on the first Sunday of every month, as is the McCord Museum, an institution that celebrates Montréal with a focus on its Indigenous history. On Thursday nights the Centre Canadien d'Architecture is free, with the addition of live music events in their outdoor space. The Redpath Museum, one of Canada’s oldest venues, is donation-based but technically free to the public.
Get outdoors at Parc de Mont-Royal
Smack-dab in the middle of the city you’ll find Parc du Mont-Royal. This landmark of rolling green hills is the city’s focal point, offering parks, walking paths, and a taste of nature in the middle of downtown. There are several lookout points, and Lac aux Castors near the summit is an open green space with a lake and various outdoor activities.
Discover the Westmount Suburbs
This glorious suburb in Montréal is your Gilmore Girls fantasy life come true. Especially gorgeous in the autumn with all the mature gardens and trees in full flourish, strolling around the Westmount mansions can occupy an entire day. Not to be overshadowed by La Grande Bibliothèque, the historic Westmount Public Library which opened in 1899 is the perfect place to relax after “house hunting” with bay windows, big arches, and opulent reading rooms, free to the public. Westmount also has many green spaces, Westmount Summit and Westmount park are great for outdoorsy activities like hiking and reading.
Take in a festival
The Montréal International Jazz Festival, the Montréal Just for Laughs Festival, Francofolies, and the Montréal Folk Fest – these are just some of the city’s major festivals. Keep an eye out for these when in town, as they offer many free things to do in Montréal. Visitors from all over the world come to experience these festivals.
Go mural hunting
With an almost endless number of century-old brick buildings, Montréal streets are a veritable canvas of color. The city is littered with street art, so much so there’s an annual MURAL Festival highlighting the city’s best. Stroll through neighborhoods like the Plateau Mont-Royal and keep an eye out, you can even download a free map to guide you across Montréal’s free public art scene.
Party down in the winter
The Montréal en Lumière (Montréal in Lights) festival at the end of February is a celebration of the city in the middle of winter. Despite the frigid weather, the downtown Place des Arts is turned into a carnival-like space; there are food and drink events throughout the city, and a closing Saturday party with more than 200 free activities goes all night, until dawn.
Dance in the street
During the summer months, Montréal offers a wide range of free outdoor dancing options. Downtown has salsa nights at the Jardins Gamelin public space, and in the urban suburb of Verdun there are salsa and tango evenings along the river. Quick internet searches will reveal many other free dance nights from the city’s swing, salsa and tango schools.
Tour the Great Library
La Grande Bibliothèque is the city’s biggest library. This impressive modern building offers hours of free exploring and information. Plus, it’s conveniently located downtown, a short walk from the popular Rue Ste-Catherine.
Find your rhythm at the Sunday TamTam
On Sundays the green space surrounding the Parc du Mont-Royal fills with hundreds of revelers. The main attraction is the TamTam drum jam-session around the impressive main statue. Throughout the park you’ll find hungover sunbathers, jugglers, acro-yoga and even Game of Thrones-style mock battles – a must-see on a lazy Sunday.
Visit Le Village au Pied-du-Courant
Le Village au Pied-du-Courant is a public space along the St-Lawrence river. Located in the more industrial east-end of the city, this waterfront event space is designed with empty shipping containers, sandy areas for kids to play in, and offers food trucks, a bar, and nightly music events on the weekend.
Go ice skating
Enjoy the outdoors with free ice skating options. Parc La Fontaine is a big beautiful space in the Plateau Mont-Royal – there’s Lac aux Castors at the top of the mountain, Parc Jean Drapeau on the city’s main island, and Parc Jarry near Little Italy.
Wander local neighborhoods
Montréal is an old city with plenty of history. Its neighborhoods ooze with character and simply walking the streets is like a stroll through a museum. Le Plateau Mont-Royal is a former working-class area brimming with quaint streets and character, where you’ll find landmarks like Schwartz’s deli. The Mile End is similarly compelling – a mix of hipster cafes and famous old bagel shops like St-Viateur Bagel. Walk around and enjoy the many free things to do in Montréal.
Watch the fireworks
Each summer Montréal plays host to some of the world’s best displays of fireworks. There’s an international competition featuring shows from various nations, with colorful explosions lighting the night sky. A popular tradition with Montréalers is to hang out in Old Montréal or anywhere east along the waterfront. You’ll always find locals pulling up lawn chairs and enjoying the show. Le Village au Pied-du-Courant offers some of the best viewing.
This article was originally published on August 13, 2019.