One of North America’s most dynamic cities, Montréal has treasure-filled museums, a vibrant music scene and grand churches full of secret histories.
Best of all, some of the city’s finest attractions won’t cost you a dime. Here’s our guide to the best free sights and activities in Montréal.
1. Let curiosity be your guide at the Redpath Museum
Tucked down a lane on the campus of McGill University, the Redpath Museum has an air of 19th-century discovery. Dating back to 1882, the historic building houses the collections of Sir William Dawson, with display cases of billion-year-old fossils, neanderthal skulls, Ptolemaic mummies and taxidermy animals that no longer walk the earth. Curiosities lurk in every corner – don’t miss the handwritten letter from Charles Darwin.
Planning tip: You can pick up a scavenger hunt sheet and challenge yourself to track down some of the Redpath’s wonders.
2. Join percussionists at Les Tams-Tams du Mont-Royal
On Sundays during the summer, the grassy expanse at the foot of Mont Royal gathers drummers, dancers and picnickers out to enjoy a free-spirited jam session. The action kicks off around noon (and lasts nearly until sunset) on the edge of the Plateau neighborhood near the statue of Sir George-Étienne Cartier. All are welcome.
3. Hit the trail on Mont-Royal
Before or after (or instead of) going to the tam-tam jam fest, you can lace up your hiking boots or sneakers and take a walk along the wooded paths of Parc du Mont-Royal. Known to locals as simply la montagne (the mountain), the 200-hectare (494 acres) park is a verdant oasis in the city.
It’s also a year-round destination. The well-marked walking trails host hikers in the summer and cross-country skiers in the winter, and there’s no bad time to step up to the Belvédère Kondiaronk and enjoy mesmerizing views over the city.
4. Go ice skating on Parc La Fontaine
When cold weather arrives, Montréalers don’t hibernate. Instead, they embrace the wintery season and head out for skating, snowshoeing and skiing. Many neighborhood parks have a free skating rink in winter, including the lovely Parc La Fontaine.
After gliding around on a frozen pond, you can warm up over steaming drinks at Robin des Bois overlooking the action. If you don’t have skates, you can rent them.
Planning tip: Why not turn your need for skates into a shopping trip? Hunt for a secondhand pair at a thrift shop, like three-story Eva B on St-Laurent Blvd.
5. Delve into the past through cinematic projections around town
On various evenings throughout the year, the walls and streets of Montréal become the backdrop to vibrant projections that bring the past to life. Known as Montréal en Histoires, these tableaux happen at dozens of different locations and touch on history, culture and mythology, from Algonquin creation stories to the groundbreaking 67 Expo.
Projections also pay homage to some of Montréal’s iconic figures: nun and social advocate Marguerite d’Youville, Irish philanthropist Joe Beef, songwriter Leonard Cohen and hockey legend Maurice Richard among others.
Planning tip: Download the free Montréal en Histoires app to follow the circuit and listen to audio (in French, English or Spanish).
6. Take a free walking tour of Old Montréal
For insight into the city’s many layers of history, sign up for a walking tour that takes you to historic spots in Old Montréal. Guides keep things lively as you learn about what life was like for the sailors, nuns, soldiers, aristocrats and other assorted characters who shaped civic life over the centuries. Though entirely free, it’s important to reserve a spot in advance – and don’t forget to leave a tip at the end.
7. See contemporary art at the Belgo
Set in a 1912 building that housed one of Montréal’s first department stores, the Édifice Belgo has gone through many incarnations over the past century. These days it’s best known for the handful of galleries spread over four floors.
They’re all free to visit and generally open Wednesday to Saturday from about noon to 5pm — apart from during vernissages (gallery openings) on certain nights when art lovers flock in to gaze at the new works (and sip free wine). Check here for a list of galleries and the latest events.
8. Light a candle in the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours
Built in 1741, this beautifully designed chapel makes a peaceful refuge from the hustle and bustle of Old Montréal. History lurks in surprising places in Montréal’s oldest chapel, which in fact lies atop an even older house of worship built in the 1650s.
Note the statue of the Mother of God on the left, which survived unscathed when the original chapel burned to the ground in 1754. Look up to see tiny sailing ships hanging overhead. These votives were dedicated in thanksgiving for safe voyages, and have earned the chapel its other name: the Sailors’ Church. You can learn more when you’re there on a free self-guided tour by smartphone.
9. Take in views over the city from atop the Oratoire St-Joseph
The largest shrine ever built to Jesus’s earthly father has long been a draw for devoted Catholics, some of whom ascend those 99 steps on their knees. Whether you come by foot, knee or escalator, it’s well worth the effort to reach this magnificent structure tucked away in the western neighborhood of Côte-des-Neiges.
Head to level three for sweeping views over a vast expanse of northwest Montréal, then head down into the crypt with hundreds of candles flickering over the tomb of Saint André. A monk of humble origins, Brother André was the vision behind the oratory back in 1904 and some attribute miracles to the man. His heart, incidentally, is not buried in the tomb but lies up on the fourth floor in a reliquary.