While New Orleans is probably best known for its rowdy Mardi Gras celebrations and raucous Bourbon Street, it can also be a family-friendly vacation destination. Best of all, you can explore the rich culture of this unique city on the cheap.
If you’re a budget conscious traveler or traveling with kids, it is best to avoid visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras (typically, January 6th to the day before Ash Wednesday) and Jazz Fest (typically for a week in late April/early May). During these times plane and hotel prices skyrocket and the city can get pretty wild. Also, SuperBowl XLVII will be in New Orleans on February 3, 2013—so it might best to avoid traveling to New Orleans that weekend.
Inexpensive Attractions in New Orleans, LA
Here are some of the best free or inexpensive things to do in New Orleans, or as the locals say, “‘Nawlins.”
- Tour Chalmette Battlefield. Take a free walking tour of Chalmette Battlefield, the site of the gruesome Battle of New Orleans in 1815. At Chalmette Battlefield, there are helpful historical markers displayed throughout to help visitors trace the history of the Battle of New Orleans. There is also a free ranger talk most days at about 2:45 pm. Every year in January, Chalmette Battlefield commemorates the anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans by hosting a free reenactment of the Battle complete with reenactors in full battle gear and even canon firings. For more information, check out Chalmette Battlefield's official website.
- Listen to Live Music at New Orleans Jazz National Park. Only in New Orleans would there be a national park for jazz. The New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park hosts free, live educational performances most weekdays at the Old U.S. Mint and on Saturdays in Armstrong Park. For more information, check out the official website.
- Stroll around the French Quarter. If you want to experience the true heart and soul of New Orleans, take a walk around the historic French Quarter district. According to the French Quarter's official website, "French Quarter History consists of over 200 years of characters, chaos, and intrigue.” As you stroll through this diverse neighborhood, take in the distinct architecture, watch some street performers and jazz musicians, and visit the beautiful St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson square.
- Eat Beignets at Cafe Du Monde. No trip to New Orleans is complete without a trip to Cafe Du Monde for a cafe au lait and their famous beignets (a dessert similar to powdered sugar donuts). While this restaurant is open 24 hours a day, it can have long waits. To avoid such waits, I suggest placing a to-go order. Also, since seating at Cafe Du Monde is basically a “seat yourself” or “free for all” environment, all the locals know to just bypass the lines and instead seat themselves in any open seat they can find. Also, rumor has it, that if you take a cab to Cafe Du Monde, some cabbies will let you pay them in beignets. Now that’s what I call a sweet deal!
- Indulge in a Muffuletta at Central Grocery. The muffuletta is a type of sandwich that originated with New Orleans' Italian immigrants and was first served at Central Grocery. A traditional muffuletta consists of a round, Sicilian sesame loaf split horizontally and loaded up with capicola, salami, pepperoni, ham, marinated olive salad, Swiss cheese, and provolone. My mouth is watering just thinking about it! Eat one at New Orleans’ Central Grocery—the original and best place in the world for muffulettas.
- Take a ride on a New Orleans Streetcar. For a great way to see the city, take a ride on a world-famous New Orleans Streetcar. There are three main street car lines: the St. Charles Line, the Canal St. Line, and the Riverfront Line. I recommend hopping aboard the St. Charles line, the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world, for a great way to check out the dozens of historic New Orleans mansions that line St. Charles Avenue. The standard fare for a one-way trip on a streetcar is $1.25; however, you can buy a 1-day Jazzy Pass that lets you ride the streetcar all day for $3.00. For more information, check out the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) website.
- Tour the Sculpture Garden in City Park. Visit the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Set in the scenic environment of meandering footpaths, the Sculpture Garden features over sixty sculptures from artists around the world. Admission to the Sculpture Garden is free. As an added bonus, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) offers a free audio tour of the Sculpture Garden which you can access through your cell phone. For more information about accessing the audio tour on your cell phone, speak with a staff member at the information window at the entrance to the Sculpture Garden.
- Ride on the Canal Street Ferry. Take a ride on the Canal Street Ferry to Historic Algeirs. The ferry ride is free for pedestrians and is the best way to get a sailor's view of the Mississippi River, French Quarter, and Cresent City. For more information and the ferry schedule, click here.
- Explore Canal Street. Canal Street is the retail heart of New Orleans. Walking along this historic thoroughfare, you'll see The Shops at Canal Place, Insectarium, Aquarium of the Americus, riverfront, Canal Street ferry, and Harrah's Casino. Make sure to take in the historic architecture as you meander along this beautiful street. Best of all, Canal Street is easy to get to as it serves as the transportation hub for the New Orleans streetcar system.
- Volunteer for Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts. Seven years ago Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans causing unfathomable damage. On your trip to New Orleans, consider volunteering your time with an organization such as the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity or Rebuilding Together New Orleans.
From beautiful bayous to beignets to the Blues, New Orleans has got it all. So if you’re looking to jazz up your next family vacation with history, culture, and amazing food, travel to New Orleans. The “Big Easy” is waiting for you.
Free tourist sites are available in almost every city across the country. Here are some tips for finding free tourist attractions:
Travel/Tourist Websites: The official tourism site for the city or state you are visiting is a great resource for fun and free things to do. Call or send an email. These cities want you to come visit and will happily provide you with all the information you need.
Local Visitor's Bureau: Make the local visitor's bureau your first stop. Tell them you are interested in free local activities, and see what they come up with.
Ask Locals: Who knows better than residents the best of free things to do. Every town has a few hidden gems, and if you don't ask, you might not find them.
Call Before You Go: Before you head out to a tourist site, pick up the phone and ask a few questions. Many places offer reduced prices or free tickets on certain days and times or have free exhibits available. Don't be afraid to ask for discounts and specials.