New Orleans is a small city with a big reputation. There is no end to the charms The Big Easy, The Big Sleazy, The Crescent City, The City That Care Forgot, has to offer tourists and locals alike. Whether you want to enjoy some nature, live music, art, or world-class people watching, there are tons of free things to do in New Orleans.
I live in New Orleans. I came here from New York City on vacation in 2011 and fell in love. I came back over and over and just couldn’t get the city out of my blood. I was determined to move to New Orleans, and maybe the universe conspired to help make it happen because finally ended up making the move in 2016. I’m not unusual – I’ve talked to dozens of people who have done the same thing.
Moving to New Orleans is, without question, the best thing I have ever done. I love it here, and I love showing it off. I am the world’s best New Orleans tour guide, which makes me the perfect writer for this article!
I did a ton of research before moving here and one of the most surprising things I learned is how small the city is, both in terms of population and size. New Orleans has a population of about 424,000 and is 350 square miles, but 181 square miles of that is water. Square miles doesn’t mean much to me and probably you either so I’ll tell you that you can easily drive from any place in the city to any other place in the city in 15 to 20 minutes. The airport is in the suburb of Kenner and it only takes about 20 minutes to get from there to the city.
But what we lack in population and size, we make up for in history and fun. New Orleans turned 300 years old in 2018, and this small city offers more to do than many places double and triple its size. If you’re looking for free things to do in New Orleans, you will never run out of options!
There are lots of things that New Orleans is famous for, but maybe the festivals are the most well known. The city has 130 festivals per year. That’s about one festival every three days. We have festivals that revolve around food, music, history, art, and – of course – Mardi Gras, the most famous of them all.
Most New Orleans festivals are free to attend and most have food and drink vendors. And it’s not the same old booths you see at festivals in other places, as the vendors at our festivals are locals. The food and drinks aren’t free, but the prices aren’t as outrageous as they tend to be at these types of events. Almost all festivals offer live music, often really good, and well-known local bands.
Jazz Fest is the premier music festival in New Orleans, but the tickets aren’t cheap and get more expensive every year. I prefer French Quarter Fest which is free and takes place in April, one of the nicest times a year to visit the city.
If you’re in New Orleans near Christmas, check out LUNA Fete. It’s a light show, but not the typical Christmas lights (for that check out Celebration in the Oaks. Not free but some of the best Christmas lights you’ll see). Luna Fete is organized by the Arts Council New Orleans and utilizes architecture, contemporary light, sound installation, motion graphics, and video mapping to create outdoor light installations in the Central Business District.
Most people who’ve never been to New Orleans have the wrong idea about Mardi Gras. Let me clear up some misconceptions.
- It’s not one day. Mardi Gras is one day: the Tuesday before Lent. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday. Carnival is a season that lasts a couple of weeks during which there are a couple of dozen parades. There aren’t parades every day of the season, but there are multiple parades some days. Carnival season varies according to when Lent falls, but it usually starts in January and ends in late February or early March.
- It’s not full of drunken debauchery. Carnival is very much a family-friendly event. It’s like a huge block party. And no, you don’t have to flash any naked body parts to get beads.
- Beads aren’t the only “throws.” Throws are the name for the things riders on the floats throw to the crowd. Beads are the most famous throws, but you can catch all kinds of things; snacks, decorated shoes (Muses parade), decorated purses (Nyx parade), decorated coconuts (Zulu), toys, stuffed animals, sunglasses, cups, tutus, hula hoops, fly swatters, and rolls of toilet paper to name a few.
- Parades are free to attend. If you want to attend a ball though, you have to buy tickets.
- Most parades don’t roll in the French Quarter. Mardi Gras floats are huge, so there’s no way they could fit through the streets of the French Quarter. There are some smaller parades in the Quarter and some have small floats, but not the kind you think of when you think of Mardi Gras. Most Mardi Gras parades roll along St Charles Avenue from Uptown, through the Garden District and into the CBD (Central Business District).
- It’s BYOB. There are some vendors selling food and drinks along the parade route as well as plenty of bars and restaurants, but as I only live two blocks off the parade route, I bring food and drinks with me. Think of the same stuff you would bring to a picnic. And yes, you can drink on the parade route and anywhere else any time of the year in New Orleans, so long as your drink is not in a glass container. If you buy a drink from a bar or restaurant, ask for a “go cup” and you’ll be given a plastic cup to pour your drink into. And no, this laissez-faire attitude to public drinking doesn’t result in bad behavior – not from the locals at least.
- If you don’t bring a drink, someone will probably give you one. People in New Orleans are so friendly and welcoming. This is how I met my first friend in the city. She and her husband offered my boyfriend and me beers during a parade, and the rest is history! I’ve also seen a middle-aged couple notice a little girl eyeing their boiled crawfish and offer her some. So, if you look cute and hungry, you might get crawfish too!
- Wear a costume! I didn’t my first year because I didn’t really know you were supposed to, but the friend I met that first Mardi Gras is a dedicated costumer and taught me her ways. My second year, I costumed (I was a can-can girl) and it really does enhance the experience. There is no such thing as “over the top” when it comes to Mardi Gras costumes, so let your freak flag fly! I promise you’ll be in good company.
- It’s not that crowded. I don’t like massive crowds and was nervous about going to my first parade. The parades that roll Uptown along St Charles Avenue are not wall-to-wall crowds. There are thousands of people, surely, but St Charles Avenue is really wide and the parade route is a couple of miles long – so there is plenty of room for everyone to spread out. There are also no barricades along most of the Uptown route, so you won’t be hemmed in.
- Download a parade tracker app. Parades can run late (a float breaks down, gets hung up in a tree, the riders want to stop at a bar to top up their drinks, etc.) but you can use the tracker to see when the parade is getting close to the spot you’ve chosen to watch. That way, you aren’t standing around waiting for the parade to reach you. It takes a couple of hours for the whole parade to roll by you, and you know the parade has ended when you see a fire truck. A fire truck brings up the rear of all Uptown parades.
- There is just something so thrilling about catching something thrown to you from a float. I don’t know what it is, but you will jump up and down shouting “Throw me somethin’ Mista! (or Sista for the all-female parades), acting like a maniac to catch that throw – and you will have the time of your life!
Seriously, if you’ve always been curious about Mardi Gras but never came because you thought it was just a big, gross frat party, I swear it’s not like that. I had my 70-year-old parents come down for their first Mardi Gras two years ago and they loved it.
If you’re very lucky, you’ll get to see some Mardi Gras Indians on Mardi Gras day, but the Indians have their own parade day and it is one of my favorite events on the New Orleans calendar. It’s also something you’ll only experience here.
The Mardi Gras Indians have a fascinating history and unique traditions. They wear elaborate beaded and feathered costumes that they work on all year. The Indians parade on Super Sunday, which is a Sunday near St Joseph’s Day in March in the Central City neighborhood. Much like Mardi Gras, this is a free event and an eye-popping spectacle that includes seeing the Indians parade in their finery, music, food, and drinks. There really is nothing like it in the world, and I think it’s well worth it to plan a trip to New Orleans around Super Sunday.
New Orleans Museum of Art
NOMA was founded in 1910 and displays more than 35,000 objects covering 4,000 years of art history. Over the museum’s 46 galleries are the permanent collection and rotating temporary exhibitions. Previously the museum was free on Wednesdays for Louisiana residents, but that is now extended to all visitors.
If you can’t make it on a Wednesday, check out the New Orleans Groupon page. I have a browser extension that shows me special deals and when I was looking up information on NOMA, it popped up showing that Groupon is offering $10 admission for a single adult and $18 for two adults. Normal admission is $15 per person, so this is a great deal.
Just behind the New Orleans Museum of Art is the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The garden recently more than doubled in size, and now covers more than 12 acres featuring more than 100 outdoor sculptures, lagoons, bridges, walkways, and plants native to the area. The sculpture garden is free every day. This is one of my favorite things to do in the city and the recent expansion is fantastic.
City Park is a stunning place. The park is filled with live oaks dripping in Spanish moss. There are playgrounds, stone bridges, lagoons, bike lanes, and fountains. Admission to the park is free and both NOMA and the sculpture garden are inside the park, so you can make a whole day of it. The New Orleans Botanical Garden is also in the park. It’s free on Wednesdays, but only for Louisiana residents. Tickets are affordable for out-of-state guests at $8 for adults and $4 for kids (ages 3 to 12). Kids under 3 are free.
I am not a Saints fan (which might get me kicked out of the city). I went to college in Michigan and my loyalties are not determined by geography, so I’m still a long-suffering Lions fan. That said, you don’t have to be a Saints fan or even a sports fan to enjoy tailgating.
Just outside the Super Dome (where the Saints play) is a 60,000 square foot outdoor plaza called Champions Square. Before home games, the square hosts free concerts. There are also food and drink vendors and big screens that broadcast the games. Some fans are less than friendly to anyone wearing the opposing team’s jersey, but that isn’t true of Saints fans. You might get some good-natured ribbing, but it will probably be accompanied by the offer to buy you a drink – so if you come to New Orleans to see your team play the Saints, you’ll be most welcome.
There are two really great streets to window shop in New Orleans: Royal Street and Magazine Street. Royal Street is in the French Quarter, and is home to some of the best antique shops in America. Go into M.S. Rau and it’s like going into a museum where you can buy anything on display.
If you really want to see the good stuff though, ask to see “the secret room” – which is actually three floors containing things like a Van Gogh, three Monets, Napoleon’s death mask, and a dinosaur skeleton. I told you it was like a museum!
Magazine Street extends from the CBD to Uptown but for our purposes, I’ll suggest starting at Jackson Avenue and working your way up to Napoleon Avenue. The street is lined with one-of-a-kind shops, bars, and restaurants. If you’re in New Orleans in May, check out the Champagne Stroll on Magazine. Stores offer extended hours and free champagne.
If I had to choose a favorite place on Magazine Street, it would be Zele. It’s a cavernous space filled with little stalls selling local goods including art, jewelry, candles, clothes, purses, and more. If you’re looking for a local souvenir, this is the place to get it.
This actually highlights my favorite thing (in a crowded field) about New Orleans. The city isn’t full of chain stores and restaurants, which you can’t say of pretty much any other city in America. In fact, the French Quarter has some very strict regulations against “chainification,” but you won’t see a ton of chains in most other parts of the city either. Partly due to this, being in New Orleans doesn’t even feel like being in America, as it’s got a much more European and Caribbean flavor. So, if you want to get away but can’t afford to go abroad, New Orleans is the ideal destination.
Develop Real Estate Envy
St Charles Avenue may be the most beautiful street in America. I am lucky enough to live just two blocks away and I run on the neutral ground (where the streetcars run) every day. You see the majestic live oaks, the streetcars rolling by, and some of the most beautiful homes you’ve ever seen.
Walking along St Charles is beautiful and you can gawk at the beautiful mansions. The further up (towards Audobon Park) you go, the bigger they get.
Visit a City of the Dead
New Orleans is famous for its above-ground cemeteries, and they really are something to see. The reason the tombs are above ground is two-fold. New Orleans is only six feet above sea level (stand in Jackson Square a look UP! You’ll see ships on the Mississippi River above your head) and historically Catholic. If we buried our dead below ground, well, you can imagine. And above-ground tombs are a Catholic tradition. You’ll notice the same kind of cemeteries in Paris.
The most famous cemetery in New Orleans is St Louis Cemetery Number 1, because it’s the burial place of New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. The cemetery is on the edge of the Quarter, but you must be a part of a paid guided tour to enter. People were defacing Marie’s grave because legend says that if you make 3 Xs on her tomb, she will answer your prayers.
You can, however, see one of these cities of the dead for free. Lafayette Cemetery Number 1 is in the Garden District across from the renowned restaurant Commanders Palace (which isn’t cheap but offers a reasonable prixe fixe lunch menu and $0.25 martinis), and just a block from Magazine Street. No one famous is buried here, but it is a beautiful cemetery. It’s the mid-point of my run, and I walk through it every day.
Music is everywhere in New Orleans at all hours of the day. If you want to hear free music, the French Quarter offers some of the best buskers in the world, which you can often find on Royal Street in the Quarter. It’s free to stand and listen of course (and dance if the music moves you, but tipping is appreciated. If you take photos of the musicians or any street artist, and you don’t tip, it’s considered poor form.
You’ll also find a lot of musicians playing for free in Jackson Square.
There are tons of bars offering live music on Frenchmen Street. Some charge a cover and some just require you to buy a drink. Some of the best venues are Snug Harbor, The Spotted Cat, and DBA.
People in New Orleans dress. We wear seersucker, we wear hats and fascinators, we wear tutus and boas, and we wear costumes. And we do not always dress for any particular reason, just because we love life and we love our city and sometimes that love expresses itself sartorially.
This makes for some great people-watching. So grab a cocktail, take a stroll, and enjoy our free show!
Lagniappe is New Orleans speak for a little something extra. I wanted to give you some extra tips to make the most of your visit to my fair city.
Don’t rent a car. New Orleans is really walkable and bikeable, partly because it’s small and partly because it’s entirely flat. There are more and more bike lanes and dedicated bike paths (like the Lafitte Greenway, stop at Wrong Iron for a drink) and you can rent a Blue Bike really inexpensively. The streetcars are a wonderful way to see the city and cost just $1.25 each way (exact change required). The St Charles line, which takes you past all the beautiful live oaks and mansions in the Garden District, is particularly special.
We also have Uber and Lyft which are a lot cheaper than they are in bigger cities. If you want to do a swamp tour or visit a plantation (Whitney is my recommendation as it shows plantation life from the perspective of the slaves that toiled there), you can take a bus tour that is cheaper than renting a car. There are several companies that offer transportation to and from, as well as tours.
New Orleans has cheap oysters because we’re so near the Gulf of Mexico. My favorite place for cheap oysters is Superior Seafood, where you can get them for just $0.50 each during Happy Hour – along with great drink specials.
If someone tells you, “I bet I know where you got dem shoes,” the correct answer is “On my feet.” This is the oldest hustle in New Orleans, and if you fall for it, be a good sport and give the hustler $1 – but try not to fall for it in the first place!
Get out of the French Quarter. The Quarter is wonderful and full of delights. But so are other parts of the city, and if you come to New Orleans and don’t leave the Quarter, then you didn’t really see New Orleans. My favorite neighborhood, apart from my own, is Mid City. There are plenty of great bars (Wrong Iron, Bayou Beer Garden, Pal’s, Mid City Yacht Club) and restaurants (Liuzza’s, Toup’s, Addis, Marjie’s Grill to name a few).
Don’t believe everything you read or hear about how dangerous New Orleans is. Like any other city, unless you’re looking for trouble, trouble is a pretty unlikely outcome of your time in New Orleans. Just use common sense and you’ll be fine.
Don’t wear Mardi Gras beads unless it’s Carnival season. Seriously, when in Rome. Locals wouldn’t be caught dead wearing beads out of season. Nothing bad will happen to you if you do and New Orleans is very friendly to tourists, but you’ll look like a huge dork.
We have air conditioning. People often avoid coming to New Orleans in the summer because of the heat, and I won’t lie – it’s hot and humid. I love that kind of sexy Tennessee Williams weather, but if you don’t we have air conditioning! If the heat gets to you, duck into a bar and buy a refreshing, cold beverage. In fact, if you come in August, you’ll get some great restaurant deals. August is Coolinary and dozens of restaurants have lunch and dinner prixe fixe deals.
Pin a dollar to your shirt. As far as I’m aware, this tradition only exists in New Orleans. You know you’re going to spend money on vacation but if you want to make some money, do this! Pinning a dollar to your shirt signals to others that it’s your birthday, and they will pin more money to your shirt! My friend just celebrated her 40th in the Quarter and people were making it rain!
Get it right. The name of the city is pronounced “New Orlins,” not “New Orleens.” The only time it’s acceptable to pronounce it “New Orleens” is if you’re trying to rhyme your song or poem.
So come on down and laissez les bon temps rouler!