Fun, Free Things to Do in Montreal, Canada with Kids
Montreal, Canada is the largest French speaking city in North America, but the residents know the word for fun in hundreds of languages. The city is an easy drive from the Northeast for a great weekend, and it has air connections around the world for visitors from further away.
The other great thing about the city is the number of fun, free things to do in Montreal throughout the year. While you can get real entertainment value everywhere, here are some tips from a former resident about finding family activities where the name of the game is fun and the price is free.
Exploring the City
Begin by exploring the city for free. Old Montreal is situated between downtown and the river. It has The Seminary, the city’s earliest surviving building that dates from 1684. Cobblestone roads lead to Place Jacques Cartier, a bustling hive of street entertainment in the heart of the quarter, and Place d’Armes, the square in front of the church, the courts and the bank. The Old Montreal website provides an easy, 20-stop walking tour of the buildings, restaurants and shops that occupy this oldest area in Montreal.
If the weather is cool, consider exploring the Underground City. Roughly 20 miles of corridors and walkways link almost all of Montreal’s downtown. You can explore for free but beware of the endless shopping temptations. Montreal is justly known for its fashion sense as you will see on this tour.
Come above ground and walk through several of Montreal’s great parks without paying a penny. For a view of the whole city, spend 20 to 40 minutes walking to the summit (764 feet) of Mont Royal, the central hill that dominates the city.
You have views around all the city from Olympic Park, to St. Joseph’s Oratoire, to the river. On the top of the mountain, Smith House is a free museum that tells the history of Parc Mont Royal. It is near Beaver Lake, a small pond that is great for sailing toy boats. There are trees, grass and playgrounds for children.
You should also experience Tam Tam Sundays on the side of the mountain. This is a free-form, open air drum happening every Sunday in the summer, which draws hundreds of young partiers from two months to 92 years. It is typical of the fun, free things to do in Montreal.
A different experience is available for free at Parc Jean-Drapeau. Floralies Gardens presents roughly 5,000 roses and almost 100,000 annuals in a series of lovely gardens spread over 25 acres. The gardens are lovely from early spring but they are truly spectacular in August.
Montreal’s museums run the gamut from traditional to avant garde, with a focus ranging from European to Egyptian to Native American. They normally are free to children and have specific times per week when they are free to adults.
These museums are a great way to spend a couple of hours browsing with your kids and learning about the world. Kids may not understand a Picasso but they will be intrigued by an Egyptian mummy or a Native American head dress. Be eclectic in what you see to avoid bored little ones.
- Montreal Museum of Fine Arts – One of Montreal’s oldest museums, it features artists such as Renoir, Picasso, Dali, Miro, and Riopelle in its permanent collection. The permanent collection is always free.
- Redpath Museum – A wonderful but smaller natural history museum with mummies. Always free to all.
- McCord Museum – A museum that celebrates the First Nations. Free on Wednesdays from 5 pm to 9 pm. Children are always free.
- Musee d’arts contemporain – Contemporary art with constantly changing exhibits. Always free for children. Half price for adults on Wednesdays from 5 pm to 9 pm.
- Canadian Center for Architecture – A museum dedicated to architecture around the world. Free after 5:30 pm on Thursdays. Children are always free.
See our tips for visiting art museums with kids.
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Is it the aroma of fresh bread, the smell of an exotic cheese, the scent of chocolate, or the fragrance of fresh flowers? Visit Montreal’s markets to see a huge variety of the best in meats, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, breads and flowers. You can visit for free but it takes great willpower not to buy any of the delicious offerings. Most are open from 7 am to 5 pm and longer on Thursday and Friday.
- Marches Atwaters – This market is one of our family’s favorites. Visit the cheese shop and ask for a sample of any of the hundreds of cheeses. Try the chocolate shop for delicious samples that no one can resist.
- Marches Jean-Talon – One of Canada’s largest markets, this gem in the heart of Little Italy has an immense range of choices. The fruits and vegetables are particularly wonderful.
Mark Twain stated of Montreal that, “This is the first time I was ever in a city where you couldn’t throw a brick without breaking a church window.” The city of 1000 spires has churches that welcome everyone for free during services. Visit them for their artistic beauty and decoration or for their music. I have two particular recommendations:
- Notre-Dame Basilica in old Montreal is the original mother parish of Montreal. Built in 1829 in the Gothic Revival style, the church features stained glass and carved wood. Don’t miss the Sacred Heart Chapel in the back where my wife and I were married. Sunday mass at 11 am features a choir and a wonderful organ.
- St. Joseph’s Oratoire is built on the side on Mont Royal by Saint Brother Andre. It is a huge shrine that was built beginning in 1924. The dome rises 319 feet above the city. The church is filled with the evidence of hundreds of miraculous cures. However, if you go to the 11 am service on Sunday, you will literally hear angels sing. The choir is called “Les Petits Chanteurs du Mont Royal” and the beauty of their voices can transport you, regardless of your faith.
Montreal is known for the many festivals that run through the year. Look online for the best activities that are happening when you visit but keep in mind a few highlights.
- The Loto Quebec International Fireworks Festival runs on 10 nights from June 15 to August 15. Ten countries present 30-minute fireworks displays that can be seen from many locations around the city.
- Aires Libres has free entertainment downtown in May.
- Les FrancoFolies runs from June 18-22, 2014 and celebrates the French heritage of Quebec in events in the heart of the city.
- The Montreal International Jazz Festival is held from June 26 to July 6, 2014. The world’s largest jazz festival has over 1,000 performances of which two thirds are free.
- The Just for Laughs Festival follows from July 9-29, 2014, and it will ensure that you and your family smile throughout the month.
While many festival events are paid, there are various outdoor activities that include everyone.
- Read about other family vacations to Montreal.
- Get more ideas on family vacations to Canada.
- See all of our vacation photos from Canada.
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