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Wellington
Photograph: Caroline Perron

34 best free things to do in Montreal right now

The essential list of events, activities, attractions and more to do in Montreal without breaking (or visiting) the bank.

Written by
JP Karwacki
,
Joanna Fox
,
Isa Tousignant
&
Laura Osborne
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UPDATE, winter 2022: Bring on winter! It’s easy to get into the festive spirit with the best holiday markets and skating rinks to the most stellar displays of Christmas lights and next-level meals. Montreal has so many amazing things to do, especially during December, we suggest you get out your calendar and let the fun begin!

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Best free things to do in Montreal

Smack in the middle of the Island of Montreal is its pride and joy, Mount Royal. This small mountain and Quebec Heritage site offers some of the best views, nature paths, winter sledding, and trails for (winter) biking, hiking, walking or jogging. With three public buildings on site for shelter, information and bathroom breaks, visiting the mountain is the ideal activity on a sunny afternoon—especially on summer Sundays for the Tam Tams, a freeform drum circle that’s been happening at the foot of George-Étienne Cartier Monument weekly for over 40 years. 

After being ranked the world’s coolest street by Time Out, rue Wellington can also add home to the city’s coolest holiday photo op to the list. After a festive drink at one of the local watering holes, or post-brunch at one of the strip’s famous breakfast spots, looking for Promenade Wellington’s enchanted alley just adds to the fun.Keep your eyes peeled for a brick-lined alleyway decorated with twinkling lights, Christmas tree boughs, bubble chairs and an illuminated sign that says: “Pôle Well” (a play on the words “Noël” and “Wellington”). Can rue Wellington get any cooler?

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Best bakeries? Best restaurants? Best bars? Best time? Part of the Plateau-Mont-Royal borough, Mile End—ranked 5th coolest neighbourhood in the world—is a fun-filled pocket north of Mont-Royal Avenue that's home to some of the city’s world-famous institutions.

It’s a walkable nook that’s home to rival bagel shops, a tea room that transforms into a champagne salon after dark, a skate park that hosts ‘digital block parties’ (complete with dazzling projection art) and a watering hole that’s transitioned to crudo and caviar service. Add a couple of the best brunches in town and a heavy pour of expertly crafted cocktails, and you’ve got one heck of a neighbourhood.

Think the Rink at Rockefeller Center, but twice the size. This refrigerated ice rink at the Esplanade Tranquille—located at the intersection of Sainte-Catherine Street West and Clark Street—is 1,500 m2 of winter fun. Expect 70s vibes on Saturday nights thanks to all the musical disco hits (hello, Donna Summer!), and classical vibes (Mozart and more) on Wednesday afternoons. Throw in some sparkling holiday lights, interactive on-ice projections, reception pavilion, equipment rental, a warm indoor lounge, café and Galaxie Brasserie restaurant, and you've got the perfect downtown Montreal destination.

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Montreal is a haven for artisans and craftspeople, and that means some choice holiday shopping at one of Montreal's many Christmas markets. If you’re looking for that perfect, unique gift for family or friends with (or take it up a notch as your office's Secret Santa), you’re in luck: November and December are busy with markets that display the best work from the best artisans in the 514, and from Mile End to Downtown Montreal.

It's no surprise that the city was recently ranked one of the best cities in the world. The second oldest city in Canada, Montreal's combination of history and landscape with 20th century architectural wonders results in a never-ending list of attractions to check out—like Marcus Samuelsson's favourite Montreal spots (hint: Leonard Cohen might have something to do with it).

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MURAL is an annual live-art festival every June that sees buildings all along Boulevard St-Laurent and the surrounding Plateau streets get painted by some of the world’s most famous urban artists. Over the festival’s weekend The Main closes for a street sale, live music shows and more, all for free—and of course, you can walk around and watch the 30-odd artists at work. The murals stay well beyond the festival dates, though, and add to the previous years’ artistic legacy. Make your own walking tour anytime of year and fill your thread with colourful posts.

Indulge your inner history buff
Photograph: Orlando G. Cerocchi

10. Indulge your inner history buff

Soak up some history for free at City Hall, a Second Empire statement building located right between Place Jacques Cartier and Champ de Mars in Old Montreal. Every Friday from early October to late June, Montreal’s City Hall offers free tours in English or French, where you can learn about the architects, Henri-Maurice Perrault and Alexander Cowper Hutchison, about the massive 1922 fire that destroyed half the city’s records, or about this building’s significance in historic moments—like in 1967, when French President General de Gaulle made his famous “Vive le Québec libre!” speech from its balcony.

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Finding the city too hot or too cool? Great, because we built a series of underground tunnels that go for 33km through shopping centers, office buildings, hotels and businesses. If you don’t want to walk outside, you don’t have to. When you reach the Eaton Centre, make sure to visit Time Out Market Montréal where you'll find the best chefs and restaurants in the city under one roof.

This affluent borough’s beautiful library and greenhouse are next to the scenic Westmount Park, and are open to the public with the exception of borrowing privileges.  The library’s huge collection of books, movies, music and activities for adults, teens and kids make it a great place to explore, with the recently renovated, under-the-radar greenhouse next door for a colourful floral fix. 

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The Fondation Phi pour l’art contemporain in Old Montreal has world-class exhibitions for free, full stop. Beyond that, there are tons of free museums to check out like McGill University’s Redpath Museum of Natural History, a hidden gem worth visiting for the building alone. The Canadian Centre for Architecture is free if you’re a student, and free to the public on Thursdays in the evenings and on the first Sunday of every month. Both the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Arts also have no entrance fees on the first Sunday of every month, and May 26th is free museum day across the city.

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This downtown public library is the province’s largest and most visited, a tall and expansive structure of wood and glass designed by Vancouverite and Québécois architects. Whiling away an afternoon here’s easy when sifting through their millions of titles—30% of which are in English—or checking out thousands of albums, films, video games at their dozens of audio and visual stations. Membership for Quebec residents is free, but if you’re just visiting, it’s still worth exploring. Bibliophiles should also check out the library’s book fair at the end of May, when old titles go for cheap.

Soak up some local art in the Belgo Building
Photograph: Jeangagnon

16. Soak up some local art in the Belgo Building

Home to some of Montreal’s best contemporary artists, the Belgo Building located near the Quartier des Spectacles allows visitors to easily make their way from one exhibition to the next. All of its 27 galleries, artist workshops and dance studios are housed within the building’s six floors and are open to the public. Don’t miss Galerie Laroche/Joncas, Project Pangée, CIRCA art actuel, Centre des arts actuels Skol and Galerie Lilian Rodriguez on your next visit.

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View media history at La CinémathÚque québécoise
Photograph: Martine Doyon

17. View media history at La CinĂ©mathĂšque quĂ©bĂ©coise

With an its jaw-droppingly massive audiovisual collection, the Médiathèque Guy-L.-Coté is the Cinémathèque québécoise’s access point to all of its films, scripts, books, photographs and more. With thousands of videos to view, it’s a window onto tons of local and international cinematography. While the rest of the Cinémathèque has admission fees for screenings and performances, this section is open and free to the public.

There’s never a dull moment around Boulevard St-Laurent in the summer. Head to the Parc des Amériques on the corner of St-Laurent and Rachel during the St-Ambroise Montréal Fringe Festival over a couple of weeks in June and you can soak up some free entertainment anytime of day, whether that’s music or excerpts from some of the productions on view. It’s a good way to sample before you buy tickets. That’s also where the beer tent is, if you feel like shelling out a couple of bucks for some bevvies.

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Every August an open-air runway and shopping plaza takes over Place des Festivals thanks to Festival Mode + Design, a fashion-centred celebration of creativity. Browse the pop-up shops where you can snag one of a kind pieces by local designers, or stick around for some of the free live events—from music to full-blown fashion shows, catwalk and all.

Check out the fireworks above the Saint-Lawrence River
Photograph: Stéphan Poulin

20. Check out the fireworks above the Saint-Lawrence River

The International Fireworks Competition runs twice a week throughout the summer, from the end of June to the end of July. While the actual fireworks are set off at local amusement park La Ronde, they can be seen anywhere along the waterfront in the Old Port or—for the best vantage point—on the Jacques Cartier bridge which closes to traffic for this very occasion.

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Circus is supersized in Montreal (which spawned Cirque du Soleil) and this July, that means 3 Giants: three ginormous, 52-foot steel structures shaped like giants that will act as living stages for free circus arts performances in central Montreal. Each site features a completely different show by a different local circus troupe—Cirque Éloize, Machine de cirque and 7 doigts—twice a day for 10 days, at 6 pm and 9:30 pm, all free.

It’s clear that Montreal’s a festival town when seeing how much locals love to eat, drink and party in the streets whenever possible. The best part about the many music festivals that take place throughout the year, like the International Jazz Festival, Les Francofolies, Les Nuits D’Afrique and the indie music festival Pop Montreal is that there are plenty of shows, live entertainment and activities to partake in, and all totally gratuit!

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Every July, the world’s largest international comedy festivals takes over the Quartier des Spectacles in downtown Montreal with live performances, events, parties and shows. Although the Just For Laughs comedy festival has big-ticket galas including some of the top names in comedy (like Kevin Hart, Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogan, Dave Chapelle, Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer), there’s also lots to see and do on site for free. Check their program, as it changes every year.

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Sure, it’s a pilgrimage site for the more devout among us, and the largest church in Canada, but the Oratory is also a beautiful place to go and stroll at no charge. Take a walk through the beautiful garden on the grounds, which abut Mount Royal on the Côte-des-Neiges side, and take pics of the city from the two outdoor viewing levels as you hike the nearly-300 stairs towards the top. After that, Chemin Côte-des-Neiges is a great street for a spot of lunch.

With a network of bike paths that has a collective length of over 500km, it doesn’t cost a cent to jump on your bike and head out on a two-wheeled adventure. Cross paths with some of the best sights of the city, from the Lachine Canal to Old Montreal, through Parc La Fontaine and around the Olympic Village, and then pedal your way off the island to explore both the north and south shores.

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Montrealers are lucky enough to be in a city filled with green spaces, so why not hang out in one of them? Parc La Fontaine has choice sunbathing spots and people-watching benches, Parc Jeanne-Mance is the perfect summer picnic space and Parc Sir-Wilfrid-Laurier has public ping pong tables and courts for boules. Or you can head to Parc Jarry for its wide-open spaces ideal for any kind of sport, or wander through Westmount Park for its scenic maple trees and duck pond. You can't go wrong with any of them.

Take a dip at a public swimming pool
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Jenviev A.

28. Take a dip at a public swimming pool

If there’s one thing you’ll want to do during Montreal’s hot and sticky summer season besides grabbing a drink, it’s taking a dip in one of the city’s many swimming pools. One of the biggest, best (and recently redone) free pools around is located at Parc Jarry and sports a fenced-in grassy area to lay your towel in case searing hot and hard concrete isn’t your poolside jam. If you’re after something in the heart of the Plateau, Parc Sir-Wilfrid-Laurier’s pool is free too, but only on weekends and holidays. And don't forget the city's beaches!

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Wander along the Lachine Canal
Photograph: Michel Legault

29. Wander along the Lachine Canal

The manmade waterway that runs eastward from the borough of Lachine to Montreal’s Old Port offers beautiful views of the city skyline, cool breezes and a paved path on either side. Ideal for strolling, biking, jogging or just sitting on one of its many public benches or Adirondack chairs to relax, the Lachine Canal is the Southwest’s top attraction. Pro-tip: Visit the area around Atwater Market in the summer for a free mist shower or game of chess.

Discover hidden attractions at Parc Jean-Drapeau
Photograph: André Pichette

30. Discover hidden attractions at Parc Jean-Drapeau

Want to take a break from the island without really leaving it? Head to Jean-Drapeau park, a massive green space that lies in the center of a man-made island just south of Old Montreal. Home to the La Ronde amusement park, the famous Grand Prix F1 race track, the Montreal Casino and numerous summer music festivals, this space also has public beaches, pools, walking trails, art and the Floralie Gardens, where you can wander through 25 hectares made up of thousands of rose bushes, annuals and several varieties of perennials, trees and shrubs.

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Catch a parade
Photograph: André Bilodeau

31. Catch a parade

As much as Montrealers love a good party, they also love a good parade. That’s why when Pride Week, Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, or Halloween rolls around, we can’t wait to dust off those floats, get dressed up, put some booze in our coffee and take it to the streets. Whether it’s Santa Claus or a pipe band, dancing drag queens or slow-moving zombies, we’ve got your free holiday parade entertainment covered.

Listen to live opera in Little Italy
Photograph: Sara Barone

32. Listen to live opera in Little Italy

Every August, Little Italy closes off its streets to traffic for a week for businesses to set up stands and hawk their best food. This week-long event’s got its gastronomic delights—pizza, pasta, espressos, cannoli—but hits its zenith with a free opera performance. Grab a seat at the large stage set up outside of the Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense Church, or grab a six-pack and find a comfy spot on the grass in the adjacent Dante Park, and enjoy high art without its typical price tag.

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Grab your copy during Free Comic Book Day
Photograph: Courtesy Yelp/Matthew B.

33. Grab your copy during Free Comic Book Day

Comic book fans rejoice: This international event happens on the first Saturday in May, celebrating comic books and the local shops that provide them. With free comic books and activities on offer, participating stores this year include Drawn & Quarterly, Crossover Comics, Brave Comix, Omnibus Bookstore, Chez Geeks, Komico, and more. Some of these shops hold events for kids in parks as well.

Walk the lengths of a street fair
Photograph: Jean-François LeBlanc

34. Walk the lengths of a street fair

As much as this city loves festivals and parades, it also loves closing down major streets in the summer so folks can wander freely to eat, drink, shop and dine. There’s an overwhelming amount to choose from, but our personal favourites include: The Masson Street and St-Hubert Plaza fairs in Rosemont; the Saint-Laurent street fairs that happen at the beginning and end of the summer; a Mount-Royal Avenue fair in the Plateau; a Monkland fair in NDG; Wellington street fairs in Verdun; a San Marziale street fair on Saint-Viateur in the Mile End; a Greek street fair on Saint-Roch in Park Extension.

Your ultimate guide to Montreal

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