New Orleans is a city known for our unwavering devotion to food, music, and having a good time. In movies and TV, we’re often depicted as either gentile southern belles and gentlemen sipping tea on the porch… or rambunctious Mardi Gras partygoers. There’s basically no in-between.
While most of us are definitely guilty of both of these vices, there is still a lot about New Orleans that gets lost in the headlines.
New Orleans is a magical place where complete strangers affectionately call you baby, sweetie, or honey, and our desserts taste as sweet on the tongue as these words do to the ears. Yes, we’re passionate about local food, beer, and culture, but we’re also very interested in yours. We’re resilient, passionate, gifted with southern hospitality, and relentlessly proud of our city.
After roux and jazz, “free” is a New Orleanians’ favorite four letter word.
New Orleans residents spend a lot of money on food, music, and sports. Fortunately, in return, the city returns the love with a culture of providing a variety of free things to do all year round, making it the perfect destination for budget travellers as well. So here are the best free things to do in New Orleans.
There’s a ton of free stuff to do
The best way to find activities happening during your visit is to check out this Facebook page or the official New Orleans website. Among the variety of free activities happening year round, New Orleans boasts a whopping 130 festivals (that’s one every three days). Lots of these festivals, like French Quarter Festival and Bayou Boogaloo, benefit local causes and encourage donations but are otherwise completely free!
There are loads of other free or cheap ways to soak in some local culture. You can check out a free glass blowing demonstration at Studio Inferno or Rosetree Glass Studio or tour one of our many brewing facilities free of charge. You might consider using our inexpensive public transit to take a streetcar through the city or a ride on the ferry across the river to Algiers’ Point for a different perspective on the Big Easy.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to stay on your feet, you can take a lazy stroll on beautiful Royal street, through the art district, or even down Magazine, where you’ll find loads of galleries and opportunities to window shop.
French Quarter Festival
To Us, Food is an Art and Religion
It takes actually visiting New Orleans to understand our mantra, “let’s eat lunch and talk about dinner”. New Orleans food scene is a melting pot of cultures, fusions, and interpretations, which means there’s basically no limits to what you can fill your belly with.
And, in a place where fresh seafood is a sacrament, we refer to onion, celery, and bell pepper as “the holy trinity”, and crawfish boils are a religious ritual, it’s no wonder you can’t understand how seriously we take it until you’ve experienced it first hand.
Historic restaurants like Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, and Antoine’s will empty your wallet but fill your belly and soul with pleasure. While not right for everyone, restaurants like these offer a more traditional New Orleans fare for a fancy night out and they’re definitely worth the visit if you can spare the time and expense.
If you’re looking for something a little more affordable, there are local options like Acme Oyster house, Mother’s, or Jacques-Imo’s Cafe where you can get a taste for some New Orleans cuisine. Alternatively, if you want to try out something a little more international, Sukho Thai or Cafe Abyssinia might be more your swing.
There are also a variety of deliciously inexpensive meals throughout the city at places like Juan’s Flying Burrito (my favorite), Shawarma On The Go, Kabob’s, or Verti Marte.
Acme Oyster House
📷: Ken Lund
Drums and Dance are our Heartbeat
The only thing we might take more seriously than our food is our music. And it’s no wonder! New Orleans has produced some of the greatest musicians of all time including Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, and Kermit Ruffins.
New Orleans is unique because it provides bar-goers with year-round, all-night, live music entertainment in a variety of venues throughout the city. From rock clubs to jazz halls, New Orleans has a venue for just about any taste.
“I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive that all music came from New Orleans”
Free street music
As you walk around downtown you’ll likely find yourself bewitched by the live music dancing invitingly out of patios, windows, and open doorways of local bars, restaurants, and street corners. Stop by Jackson Square and nearby Royal street for the best places to find an impromptu street jam session.
Bourbon Street is one of the most notorious places to find a good time. On any given night it will likely be packed with people flooding in and out of clubs blasting top hits. It might be the one place in New Orleans where Mardi Gras basically happens year round.
If you’re looking for something with a little more local flair, venture further down the Quarter to Frenchmen Street. Here you’ll find jazzy clubs like The Spotted Cat, Vaso, and The Maison, as well as late-night street vendors selling pizza and barbeque.
If you want to take a step further into partying like a local, check out St. Claude. Here you’ll enjoy apocalyptic-looking buildings adorned with colorful murals and low-key bars like Kajun’s and Saturn bar offering a variety of activities and events. There are also a number of great restaurants nearby. The majority of bars in New Orleans are totally free to enter!
Mardi Gras is the greatest free party on Earth
It’s a common misconception that Mardi Gras is a year-round extravaganza (thank God it isn’t). The truth is, Mardi Gras is “only” about a month long, which is probably for the best, because our livers already can’t take much more.
But it’s really difficult to appreciate what’s great about New Orleans Mardi Gras until you’ve experienced it yourself. It provides a rich canvas for artists to create glittering costumes, larger-than-life floats, and delicately feathered headdresses. It’s an opportunity for musicians and dancers to connect with their communities, and communities to create bonds with each other.
For a deeper look into the artistry and culture of the holiday, you should check out Mardi Gras World, where the majority of the most intricate floats are made, or the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture, both of which are open year-round.
Even if you aren’t in town for “the greatest free party on Earth”, you can always catch a bit of the Carnival experience on our infamous Bourbon Street. On this rambunctious esplanade, you’ll find people celebrating like it’s Mardi Gras year round with enormous drinks, Mardi Gras beads, and all-night parties.
Mardi Gras Float
The great outdoors won’t cost you a penny
When you think of New Orleans, it’s likely beautiful scenic landscapes aren’t what come immediately to mind. In fact, this is probably the most underrated attraction in New Orleans, and really only something you can experience it to believe it.
Yes, we are technically below sea level, but perhaps contrary to popular belief, there are absolutely no alligator-infested swamps here. There are, however, a variety of ancient oak-lined (alligator free) parks that locals have come to enjoy for picnics, pick-up sports, and other activities.
After enjoying some Roman Candy at the zoo, you should walk across the street to Audubon Park. Nestled in one of the most expensive and beautiful districts of New Orleans, you can enjoy the lagoon, playgrounds, and meditation retreats all along a shaded bike and jogging path.
City Park, which sprawls over 1,300 acres, also offers an array for free and affordable outdoor activities like the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, wildflower fields, botanical gardens, The New Orleans Museum of Art, and even a mini amusement park! You can also rent a tandem bike, paddle boat, or even book a ride in an authentic gondola.
If you’re looking for a nice outdoor spot to enjoy one of our many fireworks shows or just to get an outside look on downtown at sunset, I highly recommend Crescent Park. Named after both the shape of the city and the park itself, this is a great place to enjoy a slice of Pizza Delicious while watching the sun set over the Big Easy.
Or, you can get out of the city entirely. Nab a Groupon deal for a swamp tour where you can check out our favorite big-toothed reptile, or visit the Jean Lafitte Historic Park and Preserve, which is totally free of charge!
Besthoff Sculpture Garden
Need more reasons to visit New Orleans? Check out our best of New Orleans guide.
About the author:
Arianna Thayer is a Louisiana native, passionate about travel and cheeky storytelling. When liberated from adult responsibilities, she enjoys climbing, cooking, dodgeball, and testing local craft beer for quality assurance. Take a look at her website and Instagram.