FREE! Who doesn’t love that word? If you’re visiting New Orleans your “to do” wish list probably includes a lot of pricey items. And let’s face it, if you’re visiting from far away, it’s not like you can just take a swamp cruise or eat at Commander’s Palace any day, so it’s probably wise to spend your money on those things. But if you’re here for more than a few days, you might want to give your wallet a rest. Fortunately, there are plenty of interesting, fun, and inexpensive things to do in New Orleans. I’ve compiled a list of seven ways to enjoy New Orleans for FREE!
1. Take a free, guided tour of the New Orleans riverfront.
There are a lot of tours you can take around the city but here’s one that won’t cost you a cent. National Park Service Rangers lead a historical tour along the city’s Riverfront every Tuesday-Sunday at 9:30 a.m. The tour starts at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve French Quarter Visitor Center. The tickets are free but are limited to the first 25 people who show up. It’s best to be there at 9 a.m. to ensure that you’ll get your ticket. I’ve always found park rangers to be very knowledgeable and they love answering questions!
2. Listen to live music on Frenchmen Street
You can hear live music all around town – but this street in the Faubourg Marigny stands out for its diversity. For years, Frenchmen St. was a secret that locals kept to themselves. Now, everyone knows about this three-block stretch. You’ll find restaurants, bars, art and great music! Most nights you can hear live blues, soul, latin, jazz, reggae, and rock without a cover charge.
Just pop into a club, and you’ll know right away if there’s a cover. If there is, just keep walking down the street and you’ll likely find a club with great live music at no cost or drink minimum. If you can’t find a free venue, no worries, the atmosphere and the music pours out into the street so you’ll be able to feel the beat just walking around.
3. Royal Street has live music too
Unlike Frenchmen St. the music on Royal St. doesn’t emanate from a club – it’s found in the street. That’s because a huge part of the street is closed off to traffic and the pedestrian mall becomes an asphalt stage for performers, mimes, and magicians. As you walk down Royal Street it’s a safe bet you’ll run into at least one performer or group. You’ll never know what type of music you’ll hear on Royal. It may be a woman and her washboard or a jazz quartet. The crowd from the sidewalk sometimes spills into the street, but you won’t have to worry about traffic because cars are barred on most of Royal Street Monday-Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on weekends from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
4. Stroll the New Orleans Museum of Art Sculpture Garden in City Park
I’ve always wanted to visit Chicago (stay with me here, yes this post is about free things to do in New Orleans!) and last year my husband and I finally made the trip to the Windy City. One of the things on our agenda was, of course, a visit to Millennium Park to see the amazing sculpture called “Cloud Gate” AKA “The Bean” by Sculptor Anish Kapoor. I loved it! I left Chicago wishing that we had a sculpture like that in New Orleans. Silly me, we have an ENTIRE garden of sculptures here in New Orleans and it’s free!
The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden ( the official name) in City Park is adjacent to NOMA and has more than sixty works of art, with pieces from August Renoir, Robert Indiana, and Jaume Plensa.
My favorite sculpture is “Karma” by Korean artist Do-Ho Suh. It’s hard to miss this stainless steel sculpture rising 23 feet into the air! It’s mesmerizing. There are also several kinetic sculptures which really come to life in the breeze.
The sculptures are displayed in a natural backdrop of sweeping oak trees, lagoons, and walking paths–all for you to enjoy at your leisure. There are several benches scattered about so you can relax and take in all of the beauty.
The garden is open seven days a week Monday-Friday 10 a.m. – 6 pm and 10 am 5pm on Saturday and Sunday. Be sure to bring your camera. There are some areas where you’re surrounded by art 360 degrees!
5. Visit the oldest Catholic Cathedral in the United States
Locals call it St. Louis Cathedral but the official name is Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis King of France. I’m sure you’ve seen the iconic cathedral in dozens of photos of Jackson Square. Now it’s time to take a peek inside.
You’ll find beautiful stained-glass windows depicting the life of St. Louis plus ornate gold ceilings, frescos, paintings, and statues. Colorful flags line both sides of the cathedral, among them, are the flags of the countries that have ruled New Orleans through the years. There are no scheduled tours but you’re free to explore on your own.
6. Grab an awesome view of the Mississippi River at “The Fly”
“The Fly” is a grassy stretch of land behind Audubon Zoo on the river. The real name is Riverview Park but locals call it “The Fly” because of a now-demolished river viewing shelter that was butterfly-shaped. I love visiting because you can get close to the river bank.
College students love this place and on the weekend you’ll see them tossing frisbees, playing volleyball, and soaking up the sun’s rays. “The Fly” has an energy all its own. Families come to celebrate birthdays and enjoy barbecues and crawfish boils. It’s pet-friendly too! There’s plenty of free parking and several shelters.
7. Drive along Lake Pontchartrain
I’m fortunate enough to live near Lake Pontchartain and I take advantage of that fact as often as I can by driving along West End Blvd. You can start your drive near the New Basin Lighthouse. The view is gorgeous and on a sunny day you can’t help but feel happy driving or biking as the road snakes around the lakefront!
If you visit on a Wednesday from March to November you can see dozens of sailboats taking part in Wednesday night racing on the lake. The boats set sail around 6ish and return about 8:30 depending on the wind.
More free things to come
I hope you get the chance to visit several of the places while you’re visiting New Orleans or, if you’re a local, on a staycation! Of course, there are many other things you can do for free in New Orleans and I’ll be writing about them soon.