For more than 175 years, “The Crescent City” has been a popular tourist destination for Mardi Gras. However, there are plenty of great reasons to visit any time of year. One of the oldest cities in America, New Orleans boasts a rich and unique culture and a lengthy history, and offers countless forms of entertainment – and countless ways to spend money.
But you don’t have to drain your bank account to have fun in New Orleans. In fact, there are numerous free attractions to help you save money on vacation while still having a memorable time.
Free Attractions in New Orleans
1. See a Parade
New Orleans hosts several parades throughout the year, culminating in the largest free party on Earth: Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras season in New Orleans starts every year on January 6th, and ends when Easter falls. Every parade in the city is free to attend.
Parades nearly every night are a feature of Carnival season in the Uptown areas of the city and along Canal Street downtown. Larger parades last for two or more hours, with an assortment of floats, marching bands, and other attractions.
The different parade hosts (known as krewes) each choose a unique theme every year, and many have special “throws” they hand out to revelers. The Krewe of Muses is an all female krewe famous for throwing shoes. Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club (one of the oldest krewes in the city) is known for throwing their famous hand-painted coconuts.
2. Visit the New Orleans Museum of Art
The 100-year-old New Orleans Museum of Art sits inside the 1,300-acre City Park in the Mid-City area of town. The museum has a collection of fine paintings, sculptures, and historical objects ranging from the pre-Christian era to modern. It also receives frequent traveling exhibitions. An outdoor sculpture garden displays dozens of installations.
NOMA offers free admission to both the main museum and the sculpture garden every Wednesday – regular admission fees are $10 for adults and $6 for children. The museum is open on Wednesday from 11am to 6pm, and the sculpture garden is open from 10am to 4:45pm. From the French Quarter or the downtown area of New Orleans, you can pay $1.25 for the “City Park” streetcar that leaves from Canal Street which drops you off right in front of the museum’s entrance.
3. Listen to a Concert at Lafayette Square
Just a 10-minute walk from the French Quarter, Lafayette Square in downtown New Orleans is home to a 12-week concert series every year. Each concert features a host of different bands, including many of the wonderful local brass and blues bands that call New Orleans home.
The concerts are held outside in a lovely park setting where you can bring your own blankets and folding chairs to sit comfortably. Outside food and drinks are not permitted, but plenty of vendors are there setting up shop around the square, so you won’t go hungry.
Known as Wednesday at the Square, these concerts take place every Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm, generally starting in early March and ending in late May. All are free to attend.
4. Ride the Algiers Ferry
The Algiers Ferry gives you three of the best things you can find in New Orleans as you travel from the banks of the French Quarter to the neighborhood of Algiers. First, you get an up-close view of the Mississippi River, one of the most impressive natural landmarks in the city. Second, photography enthusiasts love the opportunities to see both the oldest parts of the city and a view of the downtown skyline from the ferry. Three, the ride is completely free for pedestrians and lasts about five minutes each way.
Once you reach the other side, stroll around Algiers Point, one of the oldest areas on the Westbank of New Orleans. You can tour historic New Orleans homes, visit grocery stores stocked with local goodies, or stop into English-themed pubs for a drink.
The Algiers Ferry leaves the Eastbank from Canal Street. The first ride of the day departs at 6am, and the last leaves shortly before 12:15am.
5. Check Out a Cooking Demonstration
New Orleans cuisine is one of a kind, blending French, Spanish, African, Cajun, and Creole traditions into a unique taste you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re a foodie or love farmers’ markets, you should not miss Saturdays at the Crescent City Farmers’ Market in downtown New Orleans where you can browse seemingly endless rows of local produce, meat, seafood, and homemade goods. Most weekends, local bands perform for free inside the market, while local chefs give free cooking demonstrations.
The Crescent City Farmer’s Market is held year round every Saturday from 8am to 12pm on the corner of Magazine Street and Girod Street. If it rains, the market is moved inside an adjacent building.
6. Take a Self-Guided Tour of the Garden District
Founded in 1806, the Garden District is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in New Orleans. St. Charles Street is lined with huge oak trees and large mansions that boast rich history and exemplify southern grandeur.
Other highlights in the neighborhood include Prytania Street, where Greek Revival homes are abundant, and Camp Street, where you can stroll through the park and view a host of beautiful statues. Free tour maps are available in the French Quarter Visitor Center, inside any streetcar, or in the Riverwalk Mall.
If “star gazing” is your pastime of choice, check out the corner of Camp Street and First Street to see the former home of writer Anne Rice. On Prytania Street you can spot the former home of Nicholas Cage, and the nearby former home of Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. John Goodman, Sandra Bullock, and Matthew McConaughey have also at one point called the Garden District their home.
New Orleans is also a hotspot for film production, and the Garden District plays host to film crews all year long. If you’re lucky you may see a movie in production.
The Garden District is walkable from many downtown hotels. If you’d prefer public transportation, you can hop a ride on the St. Charles streetcar.
7. Spend the Day in City Park
1,300-acre City Park includes the largest collection of live oak trees in the world, some dating back 600 years, according to the City Park Improvement Association. You can spend an entire day getting lost among the oaks, but there are also lagoons, water fountains, walking and jogging trails, and small lakes to take in as well. If you’re bringing kids, there are playgrounds and plenty of green space for running around.
City Park is open year-round, and while some attractions (such as boat rentals and gondola rides) cost a small fee, entrance to the park and the majority of the activities inside are free. The park is open during the day year round, seven days a week. To get there, take the Canal streetcar marked “City Park” (not the one marked “Cemeteries”).
8. Catch the Street Performers at Jackson Square
The French Quarter’s Jackson Square is a year-round hangout for street performers and artists. The perimeter of the park is lined with painters and sketch artists creating and selling original work. On the square’s two side streets, street performers do everything from tap dancing to creating living sculptures. Behind the square you can catch solo musicians and bands, or get your fortune from a tarot reader.
The square sits in front of Saint Louis Cathedral and across from the world famous Cafe Du Monde. The square is open every day, and is free for pedestrians to explore.
9. Tour Saint Louis Cathedral
Dating back to the 1700s, Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France is an impressive blend of Old World architecture and Catholic treasures. The church features ornate woodwork, stained glass windows, and beautiful sculptures. While mass is still held inside the church, you can tour both the grounds and worshiping areas Wednesday through Saturday from 1pm to 4pm.
The cathedral is located directly behind Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
10. Window Shop on Magazine Street
Magazine Street stretches from the Lower Garden District all the way to Audubon Park. You can pass several hours window shopping along a row of galleries, shops, bars, and restaurants – many of which are located in historic buildings – that stretches for several miles. Since most of these businesses are local, you can find designer clothing, locally made art, antique shops, and funky home decor shops that you won’t find anywhere else.
Magazine Street is open night and day all year long, and is within walking distance of downtown hotels. If you don’t feel like taking a long walk, you can hop the Magazine Street bus for a $1.25 fare. The bus stops at the corner of Magazine and Canal streets.
11. Tour the Cities of the Dead
Large above-ground cemeteries scattered around New Orleans known as the Cities of the Dead are must-see for any visitor. You can pay for a guided tour of many of them, but they’re also open to the public free of charge.
The Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 in the French Quarter is open Monday through Saturday from 9am to 3pm, and from 9am to 12pm on Sundays. Here, you can see what many believe is the grave of Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, where people still leave ritual offerings. In the Garden District you can visit Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 between 9am and 3pm daily to see the final resting place of Judge Warren J. Ferguson, of “Plessy v. Ferguson” fame.
New Orleans is a busy city full of great restaurants, fun bars, and excellent shopping. While it’s tempting to blow your entire savings account while you’re visiting, you can easily cut down on expenses if you plan ahead and select a few of the many free attractions the city has on offer. Most are just as good as anything you must purchase a ticket for, and you can save that extra cash for your next trip.
Have you visited New Orleans before? What were your favorite free sights?
(photo credit: Spirit of America, Chuck Wagner)