Photograph by Bob Krist, Corbis
The largest French-speaking city in North America, Montreal often is referred to as Canada's New York City. With newly built skyscrapers and centuries-old buildings, Montreal is the perfect combination of modern and historic. This cosmopolitan city has something for everyone—summer festivals, winter activities, world-class shopping, a bustling nightlife—and plenty of free options to keep you on budget.
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., and refreshments are served afterwards.
On Thursday nights after 5:30, the Centre Canadien d'Architecture is free to the public. Exhibits include a photography display and drawings from the 19th century that show how architects design and execute a project from start to finish. Upcoming exhibitions (beginning in October 2008) focus on the evolution of skylights and on the impact that urban residents—by simply walking, recycling, and gardening—have on their city.
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 1800s. Admission to the museum is free on Wednesdays.
The permanent collection at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montreal is always free to the public. This fine arts museum features European artwork dating back 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 though painting, sculptures, and decorative art.
Selected exhibits at the Musée d'art contemporain de Montreal are free on Wednesday nights from 6 to 9 p.m. Through paintings, videos, sculptures, and more, the "Sympathy for the Devil" exhibit chronicles the link between rock'n'roll and avant-garde art since the 1960s. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the exhibit will be on display in Montreal until January 2009. Another upcoming exhibit focuses on the works of modern artist and Montrealer Claude Tousignant. His works are famous for their bold colors and geometric shapes.
The Musée de Lachine's outdoor museum, open daily from sunrise to sunset, features 50 sculptures along walking and biking trails following St.-Louis Lake and Lachine Canal. The museum offers a scavenger-hunt for families in René-Lévesque Park designed to educate people of all ages about sculpture. On weekends in September and October, the museum hosts an introduction to archaeology. With a simulated dig, participants help analyze artifacts and learn about discoveries made at the site.
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. From May through October, the Hôtel de Ville offers a free 45-minute guided tour. 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 is the hand-carved ceiling and stained-glass windows.
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 100-year-old organ with nearly 7,000 pipes. There is a fee 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 mostly has 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 over 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 12 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 Centre Bouddhiste Kankala offers free guided meditations.
Upon entering Parc du Mont Royal, explore the free permanent exhibit at the historic Smith House. The exhibit, "Monte Real, Monreale, Mont Royal, Montreal," 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 may uses from 1958 until the late 1980s—from a family home, to a police and first aid station, to an art center, to 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 Egypt. See a T-rex skull 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.
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 the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 12 noon.
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 from April to December.
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 the 1967 World's Fair, 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 a cultural center in Montreal's Plateau neighborhood for more than a century. It has a mini-soccer field and volleyball courts open to the public. Meander along the trails to the park's waterfall, which joins two ponds. In the winter, one of them is open for skating. When the weather is warm, take a dip in the wading pool, or enjoy one of the free summer evening concerts.
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 LaFontaine.
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. There is also a soccer field for public use.
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 Olmstead, 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. Take a guided tour to learn about famous 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.
Put on your dancing shoes. Summertime lessons at various parks throughout the city are open to the public, regardless of age or experience. On Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday nights throughout the summer, dance instructors lead free ballroom dancing lessons in Parc Jean Drapeau.
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. every Sunday evening in July and August, tango at St. Viateur Park. Take beginner's lessons at the park in the Verdun borough on Wednesday evenings during the summer. Or on Fridays in August, join a free one-hour class starting at 8:15 p.m. at the Old Port. A dance that is open to the public follows.
Aside from Toronto, more Italians live in Montreal than any other Canadian city. It is no wonder, then, that fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheeses can be found at Marché Jean-Talon, a market located between row houses in Little Italy. Local farmers and vendors provide free samples to shoppers.
Drawing in a younger crowd, Bifteck, a bar in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood, serves free popcorn to its customers.
RestoMontreal.ca offers information on restaurants and events in Montreal, along with printable coupons for discounts.
Every year in July, streets are closed in the center of Montreal as it hosts the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, which draws some of the biggest names in jazz and attracts tens of thousands of jazz fans.
Canadians are proud of their French heritage and their music (and not just Celine Dion). For 11 days in the summer, Montreal host FrancoFolies, the largest French-speaking music festival in the world. With over 1,000 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, more than a thousand 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.
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