It's expensive to be a tourist in a town that's hosting two of the biggest events of the new year — Mardi Gras and the NFL Super Bowl — but New Orleans has plenty of free things to do.
The nearly 300-year-old French city has walkable neighborhoods and scenic public parks dotted with centuries-old oak trees draped in Spanish moss, along with a free ferry and historic market.
MARDI GRAS AND BOURBON STREET
New Orleans is perhaps best-known for hosting one of the biggest free parties in the world: Mardi Gras. The Carnival season includes parades with costumed riders, marching bands and decorated floats, but it only lasts a few weeks. But visitors can get a taste of the madness and revelry of Carnival any time of year on Bourbon Street, the city's most famous thoroughfare, where scantily-clad women beckon patrons from strip club doorways and beads are flung from balconies to revelers down below year-round. It's also a hot spot for live music, which spills out onto the street from clubs with doors and windows flung open. Bourbon Street is also the one place where a costume can be flaunted any time of year.
Artists painting on canvas, clowns making balloon animals, street performers and jazz musicians are among the free entertainment to be found in Jackson Square, a one-block section of the French Quarter anchored by a lush green space with benches set amid gardens and grand oak trees. The square is bordered by pedestrian-only walkways with restaurants, storefronts and upper-level balconies boasting decorative ironwork. Benches allow visitors to take in the architecture of the square's historic buildings, including the Cabildo and Pontalba Apartments, believed to be among the oldest apartment buildings in the country.
Visitors are also welcome at St. Louis Cathedral, a place of worship for Catholics since the 1720s. Its towering white facade with three steeples fronts the Mississippi River. Inside are religious mosaics, colorful stained glass and a small gift shop. Masses are held daily and free concerts are held regularly, http://www.jackson-square.com/ and http://stlouiscathedral.org/ .
City Park is the largest green space in New Orleans with more than 1,300 acres of gardens, lagoons and walking trails set amid centuries-old oak trees draped in Spanish moss and filled with birds, http://neworleanscitypark.com/.
The New Orleans Museum of Art is located in the park, and while there's a fee to enter the museum, just beyond the museum are dozens of art objects you can see for free in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The sculptures, valued at more than $25 million, can be viewed in a relaxing setting that includes meandering footpaths, pedestrian bridges and reflecting lagoons. Among the artists represented are Antoine Bourdelle, Gaston Lachaise, Henry Moore, Jacques Lipchitz, Barbara Hepworth and Seymour Lipton.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER FERRY
A boat ride is one of the best ways to get a look at the New Orleans skyline and the Mississippi River's daily parade of river barges, steamships and cruise ships. The Algiers Point ferry, which has been in operation since the early 1800s, is free to pedestrians. It runs every 30 minutes between the landing at the foot of Canal Street near the Aquarium of the Americas and the historic Algiers Point neighborhood directly across the river from the French Quarter.
Algiers Point, established in 1719, boasts a trove of historic Victorian-style homes, magnolia tree-lined streets with several parks, cafes, historic churches and bars with live music. But perhaps its best feature is an unobstructed view of the city skyline and river traffic, from enormous cargo vessels to the city's iconic Natchez paddlewheel boat. Visitors can also enjoy a free self-guided tour of the Algiers Point neighborhood with the help of an online brochure from the Algiers Historical Society, http://www.algiershistoricalsociety.org/walking-tours.html .
The smell of sweet pralines and freshly-brewed coffee wafts through the air of the New Orleans French Market. The centuries-old commercial hub stretches for several city blocks along the banks of the Mississippi River in the French Quarter and includes Cafe du Monde, home of the deep-fried, sugar-coated beignet, a popular New Orleans pastry. The market is a mix of open-air retail spaces dotted with produce stands and enclosed stores carrying specialty clothing and jewelry. It's an ideal destination for window-shopping and people-watching.
Visitors can watch candy-makers mix up batches of pralines, a New Orleans treat made with brown sugar and pecans, or stop by an open-air flea market where eye-catching jewelry, accessories and handmade crafts are sold. Newer vendor spaces have ceiling fans and full kitchens where cooks prepare meals using fresh Louisiana produce and seafood. The French Market dates to 1791 and was originally the site of a Native American trading post. European immigrants traded there, as did African-Americans selling coffee, pralines and calas, a rice fritter popular in 19th century New Orleans. Choctaw Indians from north of Lake Pontchartrain sold herbs, spices and handmade crafts. Many such items are sold in the market today, http://www.frenchmarket.org/ .