Who doesn’t love the word free, right? Let’s face it, traveling can become ridiculously expensive and extended travel can really do a number on the old bank account. When we set out on our extended Canadian road trip, seeking out free and low-cost activities was the key to stretching our trip out as long as possible. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good splurge as much as anyone else. However, when it comes to traveling, being selective and strategic with those splurges can often make the difference between being able to take one trip or ten trips during the year. My vote will always be for ten! Luckily, Canada has no shortage of free sights and activities. Montreal proved to be one of the least expensive but most activity filled cities we visited. After four days in Montreal, these are my top picks for exploring the city for free.
1. Marche Jean-Talon
I absolutely LOVE outdoor markets! When deciding on a place to stay in Montreal, I zeroed in on Little Italy mainly because of Marche Jean Talon, or, the Jean Talon Market. While there are a variety of other reasons Little Italy is a great base for exploring Montreal, being able to walk to the market in 10 minutes or less sealed the deal. Operating since 1933, Jean Talon is one of Montreal’s oldest markets and counts itself as one of the largest outdoor markets in North America. No matter what you are looking for, you can probably find it at Jean Talon.
From produce vendors, fishmongers, florists, butchers, and artists, to restaurateurs, shopkeepers, and maple specialists, Jean Talon encompasses everything under the sun. This is what kept us coming back to the market every single day of our stay in Montreal. Although you could probably get lost among the many stalls of the market and end up spending half your vacation budget by the time you find your way out, you can also enjoy the market without spending any money at all. Making your way around the market sampling wares from eager vendors while people watching and taking in local culture is a great, and free, way to spend an entire morning or afternoon in Montreal.
We did end up leaving the market with our weight in maple syrup to bring back home. However, since Jean Talon is the absolute best place to buy pure, Canadian maple syrup at a local’s price, I really had no choice but to buy enough to last at least a year…or two.
2. Notre-Dame Basilica
Notre-Dame Basilica, with its Gothic Revival architectural style, stands out as one of the most beautiful and historical sights in Montreal. The Basilica has gone through many iterations since the small, original chapel was founded and operated by the Jesuits in 1642, with the most recent reconstruction taking place in 1978 after a fire seriously damaged the chapel. For the pop culture fans, this is also where Celine Dion married Rene Angelil in 1994.
Guided 20-minute tours are offered throughout the day for a price of $6 for adults and $4 for kids. However, in my opinion, this isn’t the best way to experience Notre-Dame. The tours are very crowded and you may have to spend a long time waiting in line. A much better option is to attend mass. Tours are not offered during mass, so only attendees are allowed in, resulting in a much less crowded sanctuary that is filled mostly with local residents. Sunday mass at 11:00 am, which we attended, is also accompanied by the organ and the Notre-Dame Basilica Choir, two things not afforded during general admission tours. Following mass, you can stay and make your way around the Basilica on your own. Cost of attending mass and getting a beautifully immersive cultural experience: Free.
3. Plateau Mont-Royal Street Art
The eclectic neighborhood of Plateau Mont-Royal offers an artsy mix of coffee shops, bars, restaurants, vintage shops, and beautiful streets lined with colorful old homes. Le Plateau holds a cool, hipster vibe, lending to edgy fashion, indie music, and alternative culture. While the neighborhood is likely most notable as the jumping point for the hike to the top of Mont-Royal, what we found most enjoyable was a self-guided walking tour of the street art that fills the neighborhood. Combine hiking up to Mont-Royal with perusing street art down below and you have a completely fun, and free, day of exploring Montreal.
4. Old Town Entertainment
As the name implies, Vieux-Montreal, or, Old Montreal, is the oldest area in the city of Montreal, with all the charm, and some of the relics, of New France. Cobbled streets, French cafes, and street artists fill the district. Sitting around the fountain in Place Vauquelin beside City Hall is an activity unto itself. A gathering place for tourists, locals, and performers, the fountain is the perfect rest stop for people watching. Guided tours around Old Town are not a necessity. Just set off on your own two feet to explore the quaint little streets one by one, finding something new around every corner.
Old Town also happens to be the best place to find Cabanes a Sucre, or, Sugar Shacks. At these sugar shacks, you can partake in the tradition of d’erable glacee, or, maple syrup on ice, a fun way of making maple taffy. Typically the most popular during sugaring off season in winter, making maple taffy consists of pouring pure maple syrup over ice, letting it harden a bit, then rolling it up to enjoy as taffy. Even though sugar shacks are more abundant during the winter, d’erable glacee can be found in Old Town year round.
5. Montreal After Dark
Montreal is an amazing city for free, night-time activities and entertainment. While we found most of this entertainment in Old Town, events can be found all over the city. As luck would have it, we not only visited Montreal during the 375th Anniversary festivities, but also during the annual International Fireworks Competition, the largest pyrotechnics competition in the world. Held for almost a month, the competition provides a fireworks show hosted by a different country every night. Each team competes to creates the most stunning fireworks show set to music of their choosing. Aside from the nightly fireworks shows, we also saw several street parades, theatre performances, orchestra musicians literally lifted through the sky while playing their instruments, and a variety of acrobatics shows. Did I mention we saw all of this for free?
As you can tell, Montreal is a great place to fully experience all that a city has to offer while also sticking to a budget. In fact, there are so many things offered for free you may be able to enjoy your entire time in Montreal without even putting a dent in your travel budget. What are your favorite Montreal free finds??
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