Picture of the Notre-Dame Basilica in the heart of Old Montreal

The interior of Notre-Dame Basilica in the heart of Old Montreal

Photograph by David Coleman, Alamy

With new skyscrapers and centuries-old buildings, Montreal is the perfect combination of modern and historic. This cosmopolitan city has something for everyone—summer festivals, winter sports, world-class shopping, a bustling nightlife—and plenty of free options to keep you on budget.

Art

The Segal Centre for Performing Arts at the Saidye sponsors the Sunday-@-the-Segal lecture series. Join directors, writers, academics, and others for these popular talks. Topics have included jazz, Mozart, and Houdini. The free event begins at 11 a.m.

On Thursday nights after 5:30, the Centre Canadien d'Architecture is free to the public. An exhibition in winter 2015 features a series of photographs by Filippo Romano that explores the links between buildings designed by 16th-century architect Andrea Palladio and President Thomas Jefferson.

Located in the Saint-Laurent neighborhood, the Musée des Maîtres et Artisans du Québec celebrates Quebec's French-Canadian heritage as well as traditional craftsmanship. A permanent exhibit called "From Master's Hands" presents French-Canadians' tools, furniture, metalwork, and sacred objects from the 1600s through the 1800s. The museum opens its door for free four times a year; check the website for dates.

The permanent collection at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal is always free to those age 30 and under. Everyone gets in free the last Sunday of the month. This fine arts museum features European artwork dating to the Middle Ages. Ancient artwork from around the world includes Islamic metalwork, African masks, and Buddhist sculptures. The Canadian art collection captures the country's history through painting, sculptures, and decorative art.

Kids under 12 always get in free at the Musée d'Art Contemporain de Montreal, and adults pay half the normal admission of $14 (CAN) on Wednesdays from 5 to 9 p.m. The collection showcases major works by contemporary Quebec artists such as Paul-Émile Borduas and Alfred Pellan. Past exhibitions included a show on collages featuring Montréal painter David Elliott’s 2007 large-scale, surrealistic canvas "Chutes."

The Musée de Lachine's outdoor museum, open daily from sunrise to sunset, features 50 sculptures along walking and biking trails that follow St.-Louis Lake and the Lachine Canal.

Attractions

From the balcony of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), French President Charles de Gaulle gave his controversial "Vive le Québec libre" speech in 1967. Wander through the opulent Hall of Honour, which contains portraits of Montreal's former mayors. Also in the hall is a bronze and glass chandelier that weighs over 2,000 pounds. Adding to its elegance are the hand-carved ceiling and stained-glass windows. From September through June, the Hôtel de Ville offers a free guided tour to groups of eight or more.

One of Montreal's most visited attractions, the Basilique Notre-Dame is Canada's first Gothic Revival-style church. The church is home to the 11-ton Jean-Baptiste bell and a hundred-year-old organ with nearly 7,000 pipes. There is a fee (adults: $5 CAN) to enter the church as a visitor, but if you attend a service, relish the opportunity to see the ornate wood carvings, statues, vaulted ceilings, and stained-glass windows free of charge.

Across the street from the basilica is the Musée de la Banque de Montreal, housed in the city's oldest bank building. Dating back to 1847, the bank features six Corinthian columns. While the exterior has mostly remained untouched, the interior was revamped in the early 20th century. The interior columns are made of granite from Vermont, the pink marble walls are from Tennessee, and the counter's marble comes from Italy. Check out a gold nugget from the Yukon, and learn how to recognize counterfeit money.

You'd have to travel more than 4,000 miles to see the real deal, but Montreal offers a replica of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Bishop Ignace Bourget oversaw the construction of Basilique-Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, completed in 1894. The dome is a scaled-down version of St. Peter's, but nonetheless stands at an impressive 249 feet. Even the interior is modeled after St. Peter's, with one major difference: Donated by church parishes in Montreal, the 13 statues atop Montreal's basilica represent patron saints of each donor parish, while St. Peter's has the Twelve Apostles.

Located near McGill University in the heart of Montreal's business and shopping district, the 1859 neo-Gothic Christ Church Anglican Cathedral is frozen in time as modern skyscrapers go up around it. While the church choirs host various concerts throughout the year, you can enjoy their music on Sundays at either the 10 a.m. service or the Choral Evensong at 4 p.m.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 12:15 to 12:45 p.m., the Kadampa Meditation Centre Montréal offers free guided meditations in English.

Culture

Upon entering Parc du Mont Royal, explore the free permanent exhibit at the historic Smith House. The exhibit, "Mount Royal, a Territory to Discover," includes a history of the park as well as information about conservation. The house is one of the last remaining examples of rural architecture in Montreal. It served many uses from 1858 until the late 1980s, including as a family home, a police and first aid station, an art center, and a hunting museum. Today, its purpose is to preserve and promote Mont Royal.

See an arms collection dating back to the 16th century at Musée Stewart in the Fort on Île Sainte-Hélène. The fort is an artifact in itself: It served as a military depot for British troops in the 1820s. The museum's permanent exhibition features maps and maritime prints as well as decorative arts and 18th century physics instruments. Although the museum is currently closed for renovations, it will re-open in May 2010.

Housed in Montreal's old prison, the Centre d'exposition La Prison-des-Patriotes presents information about the rebellions of 1837 and 1838. Learn about the history of the building and the politics of the rebellion. Admission is free.

Part of McGill University's campus, the Redpath Museum doubles as a learning center for graduate students. Free to the public, the natural history museum includes an Ethnology Gallery containing mummies and cultural artifacts from ancient Egypt. See a T. rex jaw, as well as extinct marine reptiles that shared the Earth with dinosaurs. Learn about at-risk species in Quebec at the biodiversity exhibit, and take a stroll through the outdoor Geological Garden, which features some of Canada's native minerals. Closed on Saturdays.

Peruse over 800 items—First Nations objects, photographs, clothing, and sporting equipment—that together symbolize the history and culture of the city at the Musée McCord. The museum is free to the public on Wednesdays starting at 5 p.m.

The Musée de Lachine includes the Maison LeBer-LeMoyne, built around 1670 as part of a fur-trading post. The main house and other related buildings are the oldest in Montreal. Hundreds of items, including artifacts from archaeological digs on-site, are part of the museum's permanent exhibit that highlights daily life at the house over the past few centuries. Open April to December.

Outdoors

Parc Jean Drapeau is one of Montreal's most famous parks, spread over Notre-Dame and Sainte-Hélène islands. Public art, including pieces leftover from Expo 67, are located on both islands. Also on the Île Notre-Dame are 62 acres of gardens, originally designed for the 1980 Floralies Internationales horticultural fair. Enjoy the changing colors of the foliage in autumn and the new blooms of spring. Pack a lunch and take a picnic break under the park's famous weeping willow.

Parc La Fontaine has been the heart of Montreal's Plateau neighborhood for more than a century. It has a mini-soccer field, bike paths, and volleyball courts open to the public. In the winter, one of them is open for skating. When the weather is warm, take a dip in the wading pool.

Some of Montreal's most popular attractions—the Botanical Gardens, the Biodôme, Insectarium, and Olympic Stadium—are just a hop, skip, and jump away from Parc Maisonneuve. During the winter, enjoy the park's ice-skating rink for free. If you don't have your own skates, you can rent a pair for a small fee. Other free rinks around the city include Lac aux Castors (Beaver Lake) at Parc Mont Royal and the lakes at Parc Angrignon and Parc La Fontaine.

If you're closer to Montreal's center, head to Parc Jeanne-Mance for free ice-skating in the winter. In warmer months, take advantage of picnic areas and playgrounds.

Mont Royal, at more than 760 feet high, is the hill after which Montreal was named. Parc du Mont-Royal is one of the city's best known and best loved spots. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also co-created New York City's Central Park. The park is known for its diverse flora and fauna and spectacular views of the entire city. The Chalet du Mont Royal is a great lookout spot.

The Mont Royal Cemetery is a popular attraction bursting with nature—from crab apple and chestnut trees to Japanese lilacs. The idyllic scenery makes for a lovely stroll. Stop in at the cemetery office for a map of a hundred species of trees and a self-guided walking tour of the graves of Montrealers buried there.

One of the city's most popular festivals is L'International des Feux Loto-Québec. Every year, leaders in the pyrotechnics field go to Montreal to participate in the competition. This spectacular fireworks show occurs on about ten different nights over the course of the summer. The pyro-musical show, a choreographed display of fireworks set to music, can be viewed for free from the Jacques-Cartier Bridge.

If the weather's warm and the stars are out, you can find a place to tango in Montreal for free almost any night of the week. Tango Libre, a dancing school and studio, offers free trial classes and introductory lessons throughout the city.

Food

Fishmongers, beekeepers, butchers, farmers, and all manner of artisans sell their wares at Marché Jean-Talon, a daily open-air market located between row houses in Little Italy. Vendors often provide free samples to shoppers. Open year-round.

RestoMontreal.ca offers information on restaurants and events in Montreal, along with printable coupons for discounts.

Theater/Music

Canadians are proud of their French heritage and their music (and not just Celine Dion). For 11 days in the summer, Montreal hosts FrancoFolies, the largest French-speaking music festival in the world. With more than a thousand artists from a dozen countries, the event draws nearly a million visitors. Tickets are required for some events, but there are plenty of free outdoor concerts to choose from.

Every summer Montreal hosts the Just for Laughs Festival, the world's largest comedy event. Whether it's theater, stand-up, or street entertainment that you prefer, the festival has something for everybody. While you need tickets for the indoor events, some 1,200 outdoor performances are free.

If you're visiting Montreal between May and September, be sure to check out the Tamtam Jam, a musical treat for locals and tourists alike. Hundreds of percussionists gather at the George-Étienne Cartier monument in Parc Mont Royal every Sunday to play, and hundreds of others come to either dance to the beat or just sit back and take it all in.

During the summer, the Théâtre de Verdure in Parc La Fontaine offers free family-friendly outdoor performances—music, theater, and dance—under the stars.

For More Information

Tourism Montreal

Montreal Visitors Guide

Montreal Metro

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