MONTREAL -- It's a taste of French culture in North America: Montreal. The city on the St. Lawrence River in Quebec offers walks down centuries-old streets lined with elegant architecture and historic sites. Locals chat in French but easily switch to English to accommodate visitors. French treats like croissants, crepes and macaroons are easy to find, while maple syrup, smoked meats and poutine -- brown gravy and cheese curds over french fries -- add Canadian charm to local menus.
Best of all, many of the city's best attractions can be experienced for free, from Old Montreal to Mount Royal Park to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Here are five free things to do on a visit to Montreal.
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You can look up and see the towering trees of Mount Royal from nearly everywhere in Montreal. The nearly 500-acre park tops out at 770 feet and boasts running, hiking and biking trails, an overlook onto downtown Montreal and a large lake. Frederick Law Olmsted, the man behind New York's Central Park, drew the plans for the park, which was dedicated in 1876. There's no charge to explore its monuments, cemeteries, public art and pavilions. Highlights include the tall Mount Royal Cross, which is lit at night. The park also offers opportunities to swim, skate, ski, sled and picnic. More information at lemontroyal.com.
Old Montreal and Old Port
The historic Old Montreal or Vieux Montreal district stretches along the St. Lawrence River in the southern part of Montreal. You could spend hours wandering the twisty, narrow walkways, where French signs dot the shops, cafes and restaurants, advertising poutine and smoked meats among other fare. Along the banks of the river at the Old Port, watch barges, cruise ships and other vessels from a tree-lined park. A walking tour (some free tours are available) could include the Notre Dame Basilica, Montreal City Hall and the historic square, Place Jacques-Cartier. More information at vieux.montreal.qc.ca/ or freemontrealtours.com/.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
The collection at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ranges from the European Renaissance, Rembrandt and Monet to Inuit sculpture, Jean-Michel Basquiat and other modern and contemporary works. Admission to the general collection and outdoor sculpture garden is free, but there is a charge for special exhibits. More information at mbam.qc.ca.
Notre Dame de Bon Secours Chapel
A large statue of the Virgin Mary stands atop this church on the St. Lawrence River, leaning forward to welcome sailors into harbor. The origins of this ornate church date to the 1650s, and the chapel visitors see today dates to the 1770s. Inside frescos, statues and altar artwork rival that of European churches. But the chapel earns its charm from the small replicas of sailing boats that hang from the ceiling like chandeliers, each with vigil candles. Note that this church is different from the larger Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal, which costs $5 for those who aren't pilgrims. More information on Notre Dame de Bon Secours Chapel at marguerite-bourgeoys.com.
Jean Talon Market
Small markets dot the Montreal streets, but one of the larger and more interesting is Jean Talon Market or Marche Jean-Talon. The market has both covered and uncovered stalls filled with seasonal produce, cheeses, pastries and breads and other local specialties, like maple syrups. It all makes for a colorful and lively walk past vendors speaking French and English to customers trying to find the freshest fruits and vegetables, fish and meats. Shoppers are here to spend money, but the colorful photo ops are free: carrots in dark red and yellow, brussels sprouts on the stalk, macaroon cookies in pastel hues, dozens of types of peppers. More information at marchespublics-mtl.com/English/Jean-Talon/.