Who said budgeting has to pinch? In a city packed with parks and festivals for every season and reason, Montreal is swelling with free events, attractions, and happenings.
I love the Floralies Gardens so much, I went on the 6 o'clock news declaring it one of my favorite places in all of Montreal. Filled with 5,000 or so rose bushes, over 100,000 annuals as well as perennials and my personal favorite, that weeping willow tree equipped with picnic table beside the canal, the Floralies Gardens are 25 acres of horticultural history and one of two major gardens in Montreal. Originally created by some of the world's best landscape artists who participated in the 1980 International Floralies fair, the gardens became a permanent city fixture and are now maintained by Parc Jean-Drapeau management. While especially breathtaking in August, there's plenty to behold across seasons, from the gardens' first buds in spring to the vibrant colors of surrounding trees come fall.
I've been here my most of my life yet I only found out in my early twenties that the world's largest underground city is in Montreal. My excuse is 15 years in Laval. What's yours? Either way, it might have something to do with the fact that locals don't see its 33 km of underground passageways as more than a glorified mall. A huge one at that. But if you ask me, the underground does have it charm. Parts of the network are stunning, a joy to walk through. If you can find them.
From Socrates' bust to a painting signed Renoir, save your money and spend a couple of hours getting lost in the time warps and cultural aesthetics of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Founded in 1860 and the first institution of its kind in Canada, the museum features artifacts from across the globe and covers a wide array of visual art, from sculpture and print to industrial design and textiles. Including periods from antiquity to contemporary, access to the permanent collection -- over 33,000 items -- is always free and donations are, also always, welcomed.
Some people like coffee shops. I prefer the Westmount Greenhouses.
5. Summit Park
Just spent some time at the Westmount Greenhouses and in the mood for a bit of a trek? If so, you're roughly a 20-minute uphill walk away from Summit Park and its 57 acres of protected wildlife, an all-time favorite urban getaway of mine. It's the highest point of Westmount, a wealthy independent municipality located west of downtown Montreal, and it's one of Mount Royal's three peaks. Gorgeous year-round and particularly revered in the spring --birdwatchers gather early mornings to spot woodpeckers, owls, and many other bird species attracted to the summit-- you forget you're even in a city. The designer houses encircling the urban forest --try to guess which one I dubbed "the Claw"-- offer a sharp and surreal contrast to the designated bird and wild flower sanctuary, disappearing from view within seconds of entering the park. Remember to keep the noise level down and bring a plastic bag for litter as public garbage bins are scarce in the area.
Even when temperatures dip below the 20 degrees Celsius mark, there is a festival happening somewhere somehow in Montreal. And where there's a festival, there's often free activities in tow, from weekly fireworks June through August to freebie activities in the dead of winter.
From dinosaur bones to fossils to Egyptian mummies in the flesh, the Redpath doesn't charge a dime to the public and is one of the oldest free museums in Canada. Located at McGill University's downtown campus and doubling as an academic unit for McGill graduate students in biology, anthropology, and earth sciences, The Redpath Museum showcases permanent exhibits in geology, zoology and paleontology. The Redpath also houses a collection of over 17,000 anthropological and archaeological artifacts covering Ancient Egypt, South America, Sri Lanka and more.
Both sharing the northern slope of Mount Royal and covering a collective 500 acres, the Mount Royal and Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemeteries are anything but macabre. With an arboretum of rare tree species as well as Japanese lilacs, crab apple and chestnut trees growing on the grounds, you might even spot a hawk or one of the other 145 migrating birds that populate the area. And I didn't even get to the tombs yet! See if you can find where author Mordecai Richler and Anna from Anna and the King are buried. Locate them and others using touch screen kiosks on-site.
If the sweet golden sound of silence is what you seek, then visit the Centre Bouddhiste Kankala, an urban oasis of compassion and contemplation. You don't need to be a practicing Buddhist to join in. The Kankala Centre welcomes people from any religious path to join them in lunch time meditations. Offered to the public free of charge three times a week, a warm welcome and enlightening experience are on the agenda. Remember to turn off your cell phones before entering the meditation room and most importantly, thank the Center and its volunteers for their generosity. Donations welcomed. March 25, 2011 UPDATE: The Centre now charges a small fee for their guided meditations. Click here for a list of free meditation classes in Montreal.
10. Cycling the City
Bicycling Magazine didn't dub Montreal the "best cycling city in North America" twice since 1999 for nothing. We're spoiled green with close to 500km of bike trails across the city, though some complain that Montreal has a ways to go before it can really call itself a bicycle-friendly city. From biking the Gilles-Villeneuve Circuit to exploring Mount Royal Park, all you need is a bicycle and some free time to explore Montreal's bike path network.