History has been a lifelong interest of mine, so it didn’t take me long to discover Montreal’s annual free Museums Day when I moved here. While enjoying the 2016 edition the other day, I was reminded what a great gift to the city it is, and also thought about the many other free things on offer. From guided walks to park life, festivals to fireworks, there is so much to do and see in Montreal that doesn’t cost a bean, whether you’re a local or a visitor. Step this way to discover some of the best.
I’m happy to pay to see cultural artefacts, but May’s Museums Day is a great way to save money and also get motivated to check out places I haven’t yet made a beeline for. It couldn’t be easier as there are regular, free shuttle buses to all the venues, where there are often special things to experience on this already wonderful day.
For example, this year I went to the Maison St Gabriel historic site, where numerous costumed artisans demonstrated traditional crafts such as weaving, spinning, wood-turning, making clay pots, glass objects and traditional snowshoes. It was interesting and also really charming, as the backdrop was this site’s mid-17th century stone buildings, which are typical of New France, and lots of lush spring vegetation.
Costumed guides also showed visitors through the main building of this former farm and preparatory school run for 300+ years by the Congrégation de Notre-Dame. Massive wooden ceiling beams, big stone fireplaces and tiny beds (people slept sitting up back then!) were some of the highlights in this beautifully preserved building complete with period furniture and religious artworks.
I wrote about a few more Museums Day participants here. Others include Montreal’s premier art gallery, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which has a good collection of international art, but which I’ve particularly enjoyed as a gateway to Canadian art – sinuous Inuit carvings, the Group of Seven’s bold, modernist landscapes, and 19th century Québec scenes. It’s also free on the last Sunday of the month, while the McCord Museum, an excellent window on social history, is free on Wednesday evenings.
Probably the pinnacle of Montreal’s free stuff is the International Jazz Festival (which is not just for jazzheads, as almost any style of music that’s got rhythm is on offer!). Yes, there are paid shows, but there are also hundreds of free outdoor performances every year. During summer’s long, balmy evenings, half the world seems to gather for them, whether it’s a big concert by the likes of Diana Krall or Rufus Wainwright, consistently good journeymen, or classy up-and-comers that are a joy to discover.
If it wasn’t for the International Fireworks Festival, the jazz fest would easily win my free-yet-awesome award. I’ve seen a lot of fireworks in my time, but this is the best of the best from around the world, competing for the most prestigious prize in the business, so competitors throw everything at their 30-minute displays. There are several entries each summer, so that’s several opportunities to be blown away by the beauty, innovation and sheer magnitude of these fireworks – for zero dollars if you head for excellent vantage points such as on or beside the Jacques Cartier Bridge, or a little further east in the beachy pop-up park, Village au Pied-du-Courant.
I also love Montreal’s annual winter festival, Fête des neiges, where free stuff includes ice slides, ice-carving demonstrations and snow yoga. Treat yourself to a cup of mulled wine or sweet beaver tail pastry if you can spare a few dollars, or splash out on the (modestly priced!) paid activities I mentioned in this earlier post.
Mural is also a winner, enticing the city out onto the street just before summer officially begins with the creation of large-scale murals and other urban cool including a block party and guided tours. Just for Laughs apparently has hundreds of free performances, but this comedy fan has consistently missed them. Duh!
Although it’s not a festival as such, the St Patrick’s Day parade packs a lot of colour and energy into a few hours. I found it hard to believe it’s one of the biggest in the world until I finally checked it out this year – it easily trumps Montreal’s lame Canada Day parade!
Except for the rather bleak periods of early spring and late autumn, the city’s parks are consistently good destinations for thrifty types. At my local, Parc Laurier, for example, there’s fitness equipment, ping pong tables, pétanque terrain, winter’s skating trail and hockey rinks, and the chance to enjoy plenty of greenery.
Bigger parks offer even more freebies, from a wooden skittles alley at Jarry to Lafontaine’s performances and films, Île de la Visitation’s cross-country ski trails and Mont-Royal’s lookout directly onto the city, Kondiaronk Belvedere.
If I had to recommend one it would be Parc Mont-Royal. That view is quintessentially Montreal, you can walk there from anywhere central, and there are heaps of free activities, from summer’s guided walks to winter’s skating and trails for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. Beyond the park’s borders, the two enormous cemeteries on this wee mountain’s slopes are beautiful, atmospheric places to stroll during autumn’s peak colour.
Downtown’s Jardins Gamelin isn’t exactly a park, so I’ll throw it in as a bonus top recommendation. Open from May to October, this mix of concrete and grass underwent an amazing urban transformation last year: plants, lights, projections, food, drinks, and a big program of free entertainment, including dance classes, DJs and circus. Janet Echelman’s glowing, mesmerising net sculpture suspended above it all may be the coolest public art ever.
Montreal excels at public art, particularly around Quartier des Spectacles (which has nothing to do with glasses!). Spring’s musical swings are a favourite, as is winter’s Luminothérapie installation – which changes each year but always brings light and interactive enjoyment to the long, cold nights.
With so much free stuff on offer – and there’s much more than I’ve mentioned – it’s no wonder I’ve not tried it all. High on my wish list is the Quartier des Spectacles guided walking tour, and the app-based, self-guided Montréal en histoires walking tour, which takes you to notable points around Old Montreal and reveals how it looked in the past on your mobile device. As of this summer, this experience is augmented by the Cité Mémoire projections. So, more history for me to enjoy!