I’m going to assume that you’re a savvy traveler, so you already know that travel is expensive. And I bet you probably already know New Orleans is more than just Bourbon Street, or a place to eat and drink. Here are things we think everyone should do when they visit, that might be a bit more underrated, or even off the beaten path. All are free, or nearly free.
Sometimes, the best way to explore a new place is without a plan. You never know what you are going to find. When wondering about this historic district without an itinerary, you find yourself walking in a huge living museum. The French Quarter, home to many attractions, is also a huge, intact historic neighborhood. It is like time-traveling into the past. There are numerous museums worth visiting throughout the Quarter. The historic neighborhood also has many historic homes, and not to mention, there are many famous restaurants and bars to check out. For a more detailed itinerary of things to explore, check out this blog post about the things worth doing in the French Quarter in 2022. While you explore the French Quarter is a living history museum that you can walk in, and if the mood suits you, you can enjoy an alcoholic beverage from one of the many famous bars on Bourbon Street as you walk due to Louisiana’s alcohol laws. You need to make sure to dedicate at least a couple of days to your trip to explore everything that this historic New Orleans neighborhood has to offer.
The New Orleans Historical Collection, 533 Royal Street. This free museum was established 50 years ago, in 1966, by General and Mrs. L. Kemper Williams. It includes several buildings in two parts of the French Quarter, and over one million items, representing over three centuries of Louisiana history.
Why you should care: If you are interested in history, take a break from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter and spend some time checking out their collection of documents, maps, photos, and old newspapers.
Royal Street is found in the heart of the French Quarter. The street itself dates back until the 18th century and is home today to many shops, hotels, and restaurants. The shops found on Royal Street sell a variety of goods and items. Ranging from boutiques to antiques to specialty clothes and jewelry shops, there’s something for everyone. Some noteworthy places to visit include M.S. Rau and Cohen Antiques to see local antiques and maybe take a piece of history home with you. There are also art galleries to browse, allowing visitors to get a glimpse of the art in New Orleans. One stunning example of a New Orleans art gallery is Mortal Machine Galleria. It offers art ranging from folk, surrealism, pop, and contemporary art just to name a few in the heart of the French Quarter. Take an afternoon and peruse the shops of Royal Street to discover shops as unique as the city.
The St Charles Street Car, route 12 or the green line on the RTA maps is the oldest continuously operating street car in the United States. Established in 1833, it connects the present day Central Business District to the River Bend. It’s only $1.25, which might make it one of the cheapest forms of public transit in the United States. Get off by the Latter Library, a mansion built in 1907, that was donated to the City of New Orleans to be opened as a Public Library; It’s like going back in time.
Why you should care: Plenty of cities have amazing public libraries that are worth visiting, but how many cities have public libraries that are opulent mansions?
Visit our Parks. Have an extra day? Skip the expensive swamp tours (we get it, you want to see alligators) and take a drive to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. It’s a 40-minute drive from downtown New Orleans, in nearby Marrero, LA. They have guided tours and self-guided tours, and if it’s warm, you’ll see alligators – all for free. Don’t have access to an automobile? For $1.25, RTA will take you to City Park, located at the end of Esplanade Ave. This 1,300-acre park (almost twice as large as Central Park) features massive live oaks, a free sculpture garden, and yes, alligators. If you are already planning to visit the Latter Library, the beautiful Audubon park is nearby, and worth a visit too.
Why you should care: Plenty of cities have incredible public parks, but few boast as many alligators (well, except for Florida). They provide both visitors and residents a nice opportunity to take a break from the city.
The city of New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and has influenced other genres over the decades including rhythm and blues, rock and roll, hip-hop, and even heavy metal. Music still runs through the veins of New Orleans and seeing live music should be a must do for every visitor. Many of these venues are free, like The Spotted Cat and Banks Street Bar, which has live music every night. Throughout New Orleans, there is live music to be found and enjoyed everywhere. Consider checking out a local jazz band in the evening while you enjoy your dinner. Numerous live concerts and music events are occurring every day, take the time to discover a new local band. One great place is watching buskers play on Royal Street, these impromptu performances usually happen on weekends. It’s free to watch, but don’t forget to tip the performers and support their music! Check out New Orleans’s Music Calendar or WWOZ Livewire for a date or event near you!
The cemeteries of New Orleans have long caught the imaginations of the population. Often set in the backdrop of many Gothic and horror fantasies, movies, and tv shows, New Orleans cemeteries continue to fascinate the crowds that visit every year. New Orleans cemeteries feature above ground burial due to our Spanish and French influence and the high water table. This made burying the dead a difficult task. The result was above-ground tombs that only grew more elaborate throughout the 19th century. Today, these tombs remain a central tourist attraction. Probably the most famous cemetery in the city is St. Louis #1, but unfortunately, this cemetery is closed, and tours are offered exclusively by one tour company.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t explore the cemeteries! Click here for some cemeteries that are open in 2022 and don’t forget your cemetery etiquette. If you want to stay away from the tourists’ groups, we’ve created a St. Louis #3 cemetery self-guided walking tour you can do at your own pace. And of course, you can’t forget the FREE cemetery tour NOLA Tour Guy offers daily where you only pay what the tour is worth. Both options give you access to one of New Orleans’s most fascinating and elaborate cemeteries.
Parades and New Orleans go together, and what probably comes to mind is Mardi Gras parades. While Mardis Gras plays an important part of New Orleans’s identity, there is much more to it. Carnival and Mardi Gras come from the Catholic tradition of Lent. The first Mardi Gras in New Orleans dates to the early 1700s. But the tradition of large elaborate parades date back to Comus in the mid 19th century. There are parades leading up to Mardi Gras throughout the city.
Mardi Gras and Carnival are synonymous with New Orleans, but that is not the only time where there are parades. Much of the year visitors can also experience Second Lines. Second Lines are parades that celebrate life and are traditionally organized by clubs called Social Aid and Pleasure clubs and can be put on for numerous reasons including funerals, weddings, or special events. The first line of the parade consists of members of the band, including the brass players. The second line is made of people who dance and celebrate. Second Lines date back to enslaved Africans performing during various processions, including funerals. Second Lines continued to evolve and have cultural prominence even today. Second Lines are often thrown on Sundays by Social aid and Pleasure clubs. If you’re interested in catching a Second Line parade, check the WWOZ program listing for weekly Second Lines happening throughout the city.
The French Market is a modern-day attraction dating back to the late 18th century. Today, you can find a variety of vendors that offer a variety of foods including fresh seafood, meat, and vegetables to arts, crafts, and jewelry. The French Market spans six blocks in the French Quarter. The French Market was originally a Native American trading post that became established as a market in 1782 when the Spanish built the first building. As time went on, it became an important part of New Orleans growing as a trade hub. In the late 1800s, African American architect Joseph Abelard gave the market its first permanent building which helped it develop into the bazaar that’s known today. Today, the French Market is open Wednesday through Sunday during the week and attracts local vendors from all over. While you can still find foods from across the region, the market also sells various clothes, jewelry, arts and crafts, and local knick-knacks. The modern French Market continues to be as colorful and unique as the city going into the 21st century.
Pralines are a confectionery containing sugar and pecans that are as old as New Orleans. Pralines, originally a French treat, used to contain almonds, but during the 19th century, emancipated black women began to use pecans to make them. Pralines became a way for free black women to earn financial freedom. Another common way to consume pralines is to eat them with ice cream. Originally sold by street vendors, pralines are found almost everywhere and have become a staple of the city. While you’re in New Orleans, make sure to try a praline! Many places offer free samples so make sure to ask. One of the best places to get pralines is Leah’s Pralines, which is found in the French Quarter. The shop was founded in 1944 and has been run by four generations of the same family. The shop is located at 714 St. Louis St. every day from 10 am – 6 pm.
The Lower Ninth Ward made headlines in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction, but the neighborhood has been around since the early 19th century. Explore the history of the area with free admission to the Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum.
The Ninth Ward rests along the upper banks of the Mississippi River. Originally, the area was designated for sugar cane plantations due to the area’s closeness to the river. The army later added a barracks to the area in the 1830s, and by 1852, the area became incorporated into the city of New Orleans. The ward was prone to flooding whenever a coastal storm came through. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy came through and flooded the Ninth Ward. But none of this would compare to the damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina.
Even the city parks in New Orleans have some connection to history! One example is the Louis Armstrong Park is located at 835 N. Rampart Street, a short distance away from the French Quarter.
This park is named after the famous musician of the same name and has its historic significance going back to the 1700s. It contains Congo Square (formerly known as Place des Negres) and is situated in Treme Square, known as the birthplace of jazz. Congo Square is on the National Landmark Registry. The site had a huge influence on African American music, most importantly jazz. Starting in the 1740s during the French colonial rule, enslaved Africans would meet on Sundays to shop and socialize. This continued into the 19th century. According to sources, in the late 1810s, these weekly gatherings could number close to 500 to 600 people and would include dancing and music. The dance styles would include Congo, the Bamboula, and the Calinda would find their origins here. Congo Square was also the site of various Voodoo and religious rituals. Later, this site was identified as the birthplace of jazz, one of America’s true arts. Congo Square became a part of Louis Armstrong Park in 1980 with the park’s dedication. Louis Armstrong Park also hosts celebrations around jazz, Martin Luther King Jr., and Red Dress Run. Check out the park’s website for the latest hours and news.
Aside from the French Quarter, the Garden District is another neighborhood worth exploring. The Garden District is also on the National Historic Landmark list that was developed between 1832-1890. The Garden District was home to the Americans who didn’t want to reside in the French Quarter, another one of New Orleans’s historic neighborhoods, shortly after the Louisiana Purchase. Like the French Quarter, the Garden District is also worth exploring. The Garden District is home to many historic homes and buildings. The Garden District has also appeared in many aspects of pop culture; famed Gothic writer Anne Rice even had a home here. In addition to the famous and well-kept homes, the Garden District is also home to the Lafayette cemeteries and many restaurants to visit.
If you’re looking for what to do or where to explore, check out this self-guided tour about the Garden District. If you are unsure where to start, you can read about some of the mansions in the Garden District that are home to famous people.
Pirates weren’t just found in the Caribbean, but also Louisiana! Jean Laffite is the most famous pirate in the area. There is not a lot known about Jean Laffite, but records show he was residing in New Orleans by 1810. In 1807, the United States banned trading with Great Britain and France. This impacted merchants everywhere, including in New Orleans, and businesses began to run out of supplies to sell. Plantations were also having difficulty finding slaves to work for them. As a result, Laffite stepped in.
The National Park Service points out that Laffite was quick not to associate himself as being a pirate, but a privateer (and even then, the National Park Service emphasizes he considered himself to be more of a businessman). A privateer is commissioned by a government to take ships and supplies at sea on their behalf. Privateers were a common thing throughout the 18th century on all sides. According to the National Park Service, Laffite and his men received their privateer papers from Cartagena (present-day Columbia), but the United States failed to recognize these papers. As a result, Lafitte and his men were seen as pirates. Laffite and his men worked the swamps and lands around Barataria. His men became known as the Barataraians. He established an elaborate operation that included infrastructure and people working for him. During the War of 1812, the British reached out to Lafitte to help wage war against the Americans on their behalf. Instead, Lafitte warned American authorities in exchange for pardons for his men. He helped General Andrew Jackson with his battles in Louisiana and the Battle of New Orleans.
In 1966, Louisiana established the Barataria Reserve, which later became the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Reserve. Today, these areas are open and worth exploring. Because Jean Laffite has many connections to history and Louisiana, there isn’t one specific place to visit. Instead, if you want to explore Laffite’s entire story, there are multiple parks and places to visit. You can look at the National Park Service’s official page of Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Reserve to see what is currently open and the hours of operation.
Taking a swamp tour is another popular option for visitors. Not only can you explore the swamps of Jean Laffite’s Louisiana, but you can get up-close and personal with the diverse ecosystems of the Gulf coast. There is no other place like it in the country. There are plenty of tour guides and companies that offer swamp tours via airboat, kayak, or boat. But if you’re willing to take time to drive out into the swamps, there are also opportunities to do self-tours as well!
Deciding how to tour New Orleans can pose a serious quandary. You might want to pick a bus tour, take a bike, or walk. Wandering by foot throughout New Orleans is one of the best ways to experience the city, but what happens if you want some guidance on where to go and where to visit. A walking tour is the best way to explore the city and go where a bus can’t!
A walking tour is a great way to learn some history and get a feel for a city, but they can be expensive, often $25 up front. Nola Tour Guy offers free “name your price” walking tours, everyday at 10am, of The French Quarter and St. Louis Cemetery #3. The tour takes you through the French Quarter. A visit to cemetery is a must do activity in New Orleans, find out why by reading our article about it. Nola Tour Guy is top rated on Trip Advisor. Learn more or book today.