Photo: St. Lous Catherdral dusk horse drawn carriages motion

St. Louis Cathedral presides over bustling Jackson Square.

Photograph by Driendl Group, Getty Images

By Jeannette Kimmel

Perhaps best known for its annual (and often rowdy) Mardi Gras celebrations, New Orleans offers a unique blend of American, Spanish, and French culture that make the city enticing to visit year-round. But exploring the city's diverse architecture, music, and culinary scenes doesn't have to burn a hole in your pocket. There are plenty of events, attractions, and museums that are free any time of the year.

Art/Music

The Arts District—formerly an industrial area established in the 19th century—has been called the "SoHo of the South," ever since the Contemporary Arts Center ($5 admission) opened there in 1976. Today, over 25 art galleries line the historic district, most located on Julia Street. Visit the neighborhood on the first Saturday of each month, when Julia Street is host to an evening gallery hop and many of the galleries are open for free.

Located on the fourth floor of the J. Edgar and Louise S. Monroe Library, the Collins C. Diboll Art Gallery at Loyola University hosts a range of student, local, national, and international exhibits throughout the year. On a nice day, meander through the outdoor sculpture garden, which opened in 2008. Both the art gallery and garden are free to the public.

Learn all about Crescent City's roots at the Historic New Orleans Collection. Open since 1966, the museum is comprised of several galleries in the French Quarter. Visitors can take a self-guided tour of the Williams Gallery for free. Check online for free lectures about the exhibits.

While the National World War II Museum is not free to visitors, every summer Sunday it hosts free swing dancing lessons. Check the museum's events calendar for more on Sunday Swing and other events.

The Jazz and Heritage Foundation and French Quarter Festivals, Inc. host many free festivals throughout the year. Check out Satchmo SummerFest, which celebrates the life of New Orleans-born trumpeter Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Fest, the Congo Square Rhythms Festival, the French Quarter Festival, the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival, and many others.

On Wednesdays from April to June, stop by Lafayette Square for free concerts from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Bring your own lawn chair and listen to one of the many bands that performs during the 12-week festival, from The Boogie Men to Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers.

Snap your picture with statues of jazz legends Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, and Fats Domino in Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street. The park frequently invites musicians to play, and all concerts are free to the public.

Snug Harbor Jazz Club on Frenchmen Street frequently offers free shows on weekends. Acts include the Sweet Home New Orleans Trio at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, and other free gigs on Friday and Saturday at midnight. Check the monthly calendar before you go.

Local radio station WWOZ (90.7 FM) is a great resource for all things jazz. Check out their Livewire Music Event Calendar for a list of music events (many often free) happening in the city.

Attractions

Tucked away in the Arts/Warehouse District, the American Italian Renaissance Foundation's Museum and Research Library details the history of Italian Americans in the Southeast. Check out the Giovanni Schiavo Collection, one of the world's most significant collections of Italian-American history, and marvel at the gown worn by opera singer Marguerite Piazza at the Italian Mardi Gras ball. Next door, the Piazza d'Italia (which got 15 minutes of fame in The Big Easy), serves as a monument to the Italian-American community.

The French Quarter's two most notable streets—Bourbon and Royal—offer visitors a unique look into 18th-century New Orleans. Dating to 1718, Bourbon Street extends 13 blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue. The infamous street—known mainly for its party atmosphere, burlesque clubs, and Mardi Gras parade—is home to the Royal Sonesta Hotel, located in a 1721 building and flaunting a unique architectural style designed to look like 19th-century row houses. On Royal Street, iron-lace balconies and outdoor patios decorate the more refined of the two promenades.

The Cathedral-Basilica of St. Louis King of France (the St. Louis Cathedral) is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the country. The original structure, built in the early 18th century, was destroyed in a fire in 1788. Rebuilt in 1794 (and again in the 19th century after mistakes were made during a renovation), the church is now one of the most recognizable landmarks in New Orleans. Attend a Mass, explore the church, or enjoy a free classical concert hosted by the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center.

The French Quarter—or Vieux Carré, the oldest and most famous neighborhood in New Orleans—is home to a plethora of shops and restaurants, and is the city's cultural hub. Wander through the mix of American, Spanish, French, and Creole-style architecture, or go on a free guided tour offered by the National Park Service (419 Decatur Street). There are also a number of free walking tour maps available.

Night-owls should check out Frenchmen Street, a two-block entertainment district near the French Quarter that's frequented by locals. Food joints are open late, and most clubs (like Spotted Cat, Alley Katz, and Café Negril) don't have a cover charge, making a night out on the town a pocket-friendly affair.

Grab a cup of coffee and a beignet (French doughnut) at Café du Monde and stroll through New Orleans's French Quarter for a glimpse of one of the city's most famous landmarks. Jackson Square—called Place d'Armes until the early 19th century, when it was renamed for Battle of New Orleans hero Andrew Jackson—is surrounded by historic buildings like the St. Louis Cathedral, the Louisiana State Museums, and the Upper Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in the United States. Have your picture taken in front of the bronze statue of Jackson and his horse, or have your portrait painted by one of the artists in the open-air artist colony, a Jackson Square staple for over 50 years. Tip: to get a great picture of the entire square, head to Washington Artillery Park, which overlooks the Square.

The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve has six sites scattered throughout southern Louisiana, three of which are located in the metropolitan area. Walk among the graves of Civil War veterans in the Chalmette Battlefield and National Cemetery, which dates to 1815. In the French Quarter, the Visitor Center features life-size murals, exhibits, and interactive displays that detail the history and culture of New Orleans. If you need some fresh air, visit the Barataria Preserve, a 20,000 acre park with canoe trails, picnic areas, and hiking trails amidst bayous, swamps, marshes, and forests.

You don't have to empty your wallet to enjoy the atmosphere of historic Magazine Street. The six-mile thoroughfare, named for an 18th-century warehouse (or "magazin"), features diverse architecture, from Victorian cottages to Greek Revival, and is decorated with antique shops, art galleries, and outdoor cafés.

Considered one of New Orleans's most ornate churches, the baroque-style St. Mary's Assumption Church is home to the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, known as the "Cheerful Ascetic" and one of the most beloved pastors in the state's history. Listen to the 1861 German organ, marvel at the 19th-century hand-carved wooden statues, or enjoy the quiet of the magnolia-filled courtyard. The Shrine is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. St. Mary's, as well as St. Alphonsus—located across the street—are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are both free to visitors.

Originally called the Eads Plaza, the Spanish Plaza was dedicated to New Orleans by Spain in 1976 in remembrance of their common historical past. The fountain, located just next to the Riverwalk Marketplace (on the site of the 1984 World's Fair), is surrounded by the seals of the provinces of Spain, and serves as a popular meeting place for folks downtown.

Culture

Mardi Gras is undoubtedly one of the most famous attractions in New Orleans, and attending the city-wide party is completely free. Mardi Gras season technically begins on Epiphany (January 6) and lasts through the day before Ash Wednesday ("Fat Tuesday"), though most of the celebrations take place during the last week, when the city of New Orleans hosts parades, parties, and other festivities. Check out Intelligent Travel's tips on how to celebrate Mardi Gras like a local in our Mardi Gras Moments series, and don't miss our Interactive Mardi Gras map and photo gallery.

Ghost hunters shouldn't miss one of New Orleans's many above-ground tombs, or "cities of the dead." Due to the area's high water table, settlers were unable to bury their loved-one's caskets, so most of the tombs in the city are located above ground. Explore one of the 40 cemeteries in the city. Some of the most famous New Orleanians reside in St. Louis Cemetery #1, including sugar-industry pioneer Etienne Boré, Homer Plessy (of Civil Rights case Plessy v. Ferguson), and Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial (the first African-American mayor of New Orleans). Many visitors leave tokens and practice rituals for Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, believed to be interred there.

The Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge, located along the "under the bridge" Mardi Gras parade route, serves as a memorial and shrine to the late R&B legend Ernie K-Doe, who passed away in 2001. His wife, Miss Antionette, ran the small bar until 2009, when she passed away on Mardi Gras morning. Stop by to pay homage to the New Orleans couple, and enjoy a show when there is no cover charge.

Get an intimate look at Mardi Gras at the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum, located above Armaud's classic Creole restaurant. The museum opened in 1983 and is named after Mrs. Wells, who was the queen of twenty-two Mardi Gras balls between 1937 and 1968. On display are some two dozen gowns, including Mrs. Wells's mother's 1939 Empress gown, as well as other Mardi Gras costumes, memorabilia, photographs, jewelry, and krewe invitations.

New Orleans Jazz Historical Park (temporary visitors center located at 916 N. Peters Street) gives visitors a chance to learn about the rich music history of New Orleans. Pick up a jazz walking tour map of the city (including the Jazz Walk of Fame, also available as an audio file), or attend one of the many free concerts and children's music workshops offered throughout the year. Check the schedule for a full list of events.

Food/Drink

Established in 1862, Café du Monde is New Orleans's signature French café. Stop by the original location at 800 Decatur Street and watch as fresh beignets—French doughnuts—are made.

Browse the Crescent City Farmers Market on Tuesdays in uptown and Saturdays downtown. The Saturday market's visiting chef station offers cooking demonstrations and tips from local chefs. Every other Saturday the market also showcases local musicians. Both markets are open and free year-round.

Stop by New Orleans staple Le Bon Temps Roule Bar & Sandwich for free oysters (Fridays only at 7 p.m.) and live music. The pub also has pool tables and offers $1 beer during Saints games.

Many metropolitan-area restaurants offer families special deals, like kids eat free or for a discount on certain days of the week. Check out this list and remember to call the restaurant before you go, as deals can change weekly.

Outdoors

Take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar (fee) to Audubon Park, located between Loyola and Tulane Universities. The 300-acre park is filled with lagoons, extensive green space, and has plenty of space for visitors to escape the city. Picnic under the oak trees or go for a jog along the 1.8-mile trail. Audubon Park is part of the Audubon Institute and has free admission.

Take a break from the bustle of the city and hop on the free Canal Street Ferry to Algiers Point. Wander Old Algiers Main Street, lined with old churches, historic homes (including those of famous jazz musicians like drummer Bill Matthews), and Mardi Gras World, where floats for the annual festival are made and stored. Kids will enjoy playing in Confetti or Delcazal Park. The Canal Street Ferry is free for walk-on passengers or $1 per vehicle.

Located in the heart of New Orleans, City Park offers 1,300 acres of outdoor space, free to all visitors. Picnic in the shade of 600-year-old oak trees (some of the largest in the world), feed the ducks in one of the many lagoons, or wander about works of art in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Some attractions—like the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, Botanical Garden, and Storyland—cost a small fee.

Stroll along the redbrick promenade that stretched across the 16-acre Woldenberg Park, which extends from Jackson Square to the Audubon Aquarium. Stop for a break at a park bench underneath the shade of magnolia and crepe myrtle trees. Woldenberg is part of the Audubon Institute and is open to the public for free.

More Information

Since Hurrican Katrina hit in 2005, volunteer groups have flocked to New Orleans to help rebuild the city. Check out Volunteer New Orleans for a comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities and organizations.

Best of New Orleans Blog

Official Tourism Site

City of New Orleans

Events Calendar

Free Activities for Kids

Interactive Mardi Gras Map

New Orleans City Maps

Offbeat: Online Music Resource

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