In this article:
From the nation’s capital to some of the oldest cities of Canada, there are thousands of reasons to backpack around Ontario and Quebec. Intriguing and scandalous histories, vibrant cultures, and delicious foods; they have it all. The best part is that you don’t need to blow your budget to enjoy them.
Many hostels will offer pub crawls and sometimes a walking tour as well, however, there is so much to see and experience in Quebec and Ontario. Yes, even in winter when the buildings are covered in snow, the sidewalks are icy, figuring out how to get around is not as complicated as you may think.
Here are 22 free or nearly free winter activities to get you started.
Skate the Rideau Canal Skateway
In winter the Rideau Canal freezes over and turns into a 7.8 km skating paradise. Rent a pair of skates and lunge your way down the skateway or glide lazily if you want less exercise (heh!). Skate rentals (near the National Arts Centre) are $25 for 2 hours.
Explore the ByWard Market
This market area is the birthplace of Ottawa. It was established in 1826 by Lt-Col John By – who also built the Rideau Canal. Go in search of sculptures hidden in small courtyards, visit one of the many pubs and bars, visit the first ever Giant Tiger discount store, and pop by Bottega Nicastro to build your own Italian sandwich for less than $10.
Visit Parliament Hill
You’re in the capital of Canada, a visit to Parliament Hill is one of those quirky bucket list items on most travellers lists. The government counts as quirky, right? It doesn’t matter which party you align with politically, the buildings on Parliament Hill are filled with intricate details, and the walking tour is free! You will need to reserve a ticket online here.
Play at Winterlude
For 17 days each February, Winterlude beckons locals and travellers to done their warmest clothing and embrace the chilly winter weather. The National Ice-Carving Championship is the biggest highlight. The bed race in the ByWard Market and Horse race on the Rideau Canal are fun to watch, too.
Free museum days
Ottawa is the unofficial capital of museums – art, nature, science, aviation, war… you could spend a month trying to visit all of them. While museum tickets can be costly, there are some fabulous museums in Ottawa with free days or nights. The National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of History and Canadian War Museum are all free on Thursday from 5:00 pm to 8:00 pm. The Bank of Canada museum is always free.
Wander around Old Montreal
Montreal started here over 375 years ago, known as Ville Marie at the time. There’s a mix of 18th and 19th century architecture to admire, and the neighbourhood is filled with bars, restaurants, and shops. “Le Petit Dep” is always a fun place to shop, grab a coffee or a quick bite. Slice + Soda is super affordable, too.
Admire Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal
It’s one of the most beautiful basilicas in Canada, and worth the $14 admission. You can attend mass for free, but no photos or selfie sticks, so if you want to capture the stunning details of this 19th century basilica, buy a ticket. This way you can spend as much time as you want. Ticket can be purchased online here.
Visit the Montreal Holocaust Museum
This powerful museum tells the stories of the Jewish communities who immigrated to Montreal, before, during and after the Holocaust. Listen to survivor stories, view artefacts, and learn about the rules and challenges faced of coming to Canada – especially Montreal. Admission is $10 and you can reserve your ticket/space online here.
Gorgeous views and winter sports on Mont Royal
In the centre of Montreal is Mont Royal, a stand alone mountain, of sorts, filled with trails, quiet seating areas, and gorgeous city views. In winter, hike the trails in your boots or strap on some snowshoes, make time to fly down snowy slopes in a rubber inner tube, and build a village of snow people or make angels. Rubbing cooking oil on a metal snow saucer is probably not the best idea though… Clark Griswold can attest to that! You can rent equipment from the Beaver Lake Pavilion, it’s just off Hill Park Circle. Cross-country skis and skate rentals are $12.50 for 2 hours.
It’s tucked down a quiet street in Old Montreal, and one of the best FREE art experiences in the city – a perfect place for contemporary art lovers. If you’re coming to Montreal before January 15, 2023, you simply must go to the Yayoi Kusama exhibit!
Wander around Old Quebec
In winter, Old Quebec looks like a Hallmark Christmas movie set, with snow clinging to the roofs of 18th and 19th century buildings. Wander around the streets above Cap Diamant near Château Frontenac, then go to lower town and explore the gorgeous streets of Petit-Champlain and Place-Royale (there is a Christmas tree on display here each year until March).
Go to Carnaval de Quebec
Every February the best winter carnaval in North America takes place in Quebec City. It’s a time to embrace the crispy winter air, dress warmly, and welcome frosty eyelashes (ha!). Bonhomme can be seen walking around (his palace gets busy and you need to buy an effigy to go), and standing along the banks of the Saint-Lawrence River to watch the ice canoe race is always a good time. Be sure to try some Caribou (fortified wine mixed with whiskey and spices) at a local pub.
Go on a FREE walking tour of Old Quebec
Sam Dubois is talented and jovial tour guide who offers one of the best free walking tours in Canada. He tours are year-round, but in winter you’ll need to reserve a space. Sam also loves collecting things from places around the world, so bring a little souvenir from home as a tip. Auberge Internationale de Quebec offers a free walking tour of Old Quebec as well. Their tour runs daily, just pop over to the front desk to sign up – the group max is 10 people.
Postcard view of Quebec City
There are a couple of viewpoints to visit for a postcard view of Quebec City. The first is Terrasse Pierre-Dugua-de-mons in Old Quebec, off avenue Saint-Denis. The second is from the deck of the Québec-Lévis ferry as you cross the Saint-Lawrence river ($7.70, return).
Ride the Dufferin Slide
On Dufferin Terrace, beside Château Frontenac, is the Dufferin Slide, the oldest tourist attraction in Quebec City. Rent a long wooden toboggan with a red seat pad, walk it to the top of the slide, and get ready to reach up to speeds of 70km/hr as you fly down. It’s a lot of fun and the view is spectacular, too. You can buy 4 tickets (rides) for $12.
Go Skiing at Les Sources Joyeuses
Head over to “Les Sources Joyeuses” for skiing, snowshoeing, or winter hiking. The price to get in varies depending on your activity of choice $6 to $16, and equipment rental is available onsite for $15 to $22. Plan to spend the day, and be sure to enjoy the heated chalet, too!
Visit Musée de Charlevoix
Learn about the culture, art, and history of the Charlevoix region in this small museum by the Saint-Lawrence River. It’s close to the charming and colourful old town, where the Charlevoix train makes its stop throughout the summer months. Be sure to spend plenty of time in the Hippie Years in Charlevoix exhibit, it’s a trip. Admission to the museum is $11.
Alpine Hiking at Mont Grand-Fonds
The Lynx side of Mont Grand-Fonds is set aside for alpine hiking. The “La Trappeur” trail is around 3.8 km and ends at Lac Gravel lookout. The cost is $10.66 and if you need to rent poles or any other equipment, you can do so onsite.
Movie night at Auberge de Jeunesse La Malbaie
The hostel in La Malbaie is a cozy place to relax, especially on a cold winter day or night. The hostel has a pub, which is open until 11pm, as well as a small theatre room, perfect for having a movie night with new friends. A great way to save some money as well.
Go to Rivière-du-Loup en fêtes
During the first two weekends of December the Christmas market, “Marché des fêtes Berger” is the place to be. Drink chocolat chaud, shop for a small souvenir made by local artisans, listen to live music, and see Santa. Who doesn’t love a Santa photo op!
Visit Musée du Bas Saint-Laurent
This a great little museum filled with information, images and artefacts that explore the history, people, and culture of the lower Saint-Lawrence River region in the early 20th century. Admission is $7.
Snowshoeing in Parc des Chutes
This large park has roughly 10km of trails, as well as a waterfall. Strap on some snowshoes and explore the trails or try going for a hike – just make sure your boots are warm and that they have good traction!
Ice Skating in Old Rivière-du-Loup
In winter there are a few ice skating rinks operating in Rivière-du-Loup. Parc Blais in downtown (the old part of the city) is a lovely spot. You can also skate at Centre Premier Tech on rue Frontenac. Afterwards, stop by cafés on rue Lafontaine for some chocolat chaud.
Drink up at a local microbrewery: Not too far from Auberge Internationale de Rivière du Loup is a great microbrewery with views of the Saint-Lawrence River. Tête d’Allumette is rustic, and serves up over twenty beers. Pints are around $8.50 CAD and food is under $11 CAD.
These are just a few of the nearly free winter activities you can do in and near Saintlo hostels in Ontario and Quebec, there are quite a few more! Ask hostel staff for ideas when you check in, as well as fellow travellers. Also, be sure to chat up the locals as they will have great ideas as well.