The city that is synonymous with Mardi Gras is an alluring destination year-round. In fact, more than 9.5 million people visited the Big Easy in 2014 spending a record $6.8 billion, according to the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau.
This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. A decade after the storm, NOLA has proven its resilience and is experiencing a renaissance. An increasing number of travelers have taken note.
While there is never a shortage of entertainment options in the Big Easy, savvy travelers heading to New Orleans this summer can benefit from a number of cheap and free things to do throughout this beautiful and culturally rich city.
No trip to NOLA is complete without a stop for warm beignets and a café au lait at Café Du Monde. Since 1862, Café Du Monde has served dark roasted coffee and chicory with steamed milk and beignets – fried, square French-style doughnuts covered in white powdered sugar. Not much has changed at the French Market coffee shop that is open 24/7 except for a few modern updates to the short menu, mainly iced coffee and soft drinks.
Celebrate Louis Armstrong’s birthday
The annual Satchmo SummerFest celebrates the 115th Birthday of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong July 31 to Aug. 2 with jazz performances by Ellis Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins and the Preservation Hall Brass Band. $5/Adult, Free/Child.
Cross the Mississippi
Ride on the river and enjoy views of the NOLA skyline on the way to historic Algiers. The New Orleans Ferry whisks travelers along the Mississippi River throughout the day. Fare: $2/Adult, Free/Child.
Go on a literary walking tour
Walk in the footsteps of famous literary luminaries by visiting their homes, including Tennessee Williams (722 Toulouse), William Faulkner (624 Pirate’s Alley), Truman Capote (711 Royal), Thornton Wilder (623 Bourbon), Walker Percy (1820 Milan) and Anne Rice (1239 First).
Take a spin on the Carousel Bar
Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar features the only carousel you need to be 21-years-old to ride. The revolving 25-seat bar is a joy to ride as you sip classic cocktails like the Vieux Carré (Bénédictine, Cognac, American rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Peychaud’s bitters and Angostura bitters), which was created at the legendary hotel in 1939 by head bartender at the time, Walter Bergeron.
Play at City Park
Stroll through the 1,300-acre City Park. Built in 1854, the picturesque park is dotted with majestic oak trees and moss canopies. The palatial park is home to a golf course, mini golf course, amusement park, playgrounds, a botanical garden, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the adjacent Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, sports fields and trails. Free.
Indulge in cheap eats during COOLinary
COOLinary New Orleans Restaurant Month is an ideal time to visit some of NOLA’s best restaurants to dine on multi-course meals inexpensively. The annual restaurant month runs Aug. 1-31. Participating restaurants offer two- or three-course lunches for $20 or less and three course dinners for $39 or less. This year, some restaurants are also serving three-course weekend brunches for $39 or less.
Visit NOLA’s oldest art institution, the New Orleans Museum of Art. When it opened in 1911, there were only nine pieces of art. Today, there are more than 40,000 objects with a focus on French and American art, photography, glass and African and Japanese works. $10/adult, $6/child. Be sure to check out the five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which has more than 60 sculptures that punctuate manicured lawns, glistening lagoons and charming pedestrian bridges. Free.
Sip a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House Bar & Cafe
For 200 years, the Colonial-era Napoleon House Bar & Café has attracted artists and writers who pulled up stools to drink the signature Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s No. 1 and lemonade topped off with 7-Up and garnished with a cucumber). The building’s first occupant was the mayor of New Orleans, who offered his residence to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1821 as a refuge during his exile. Napoleon didn’t make it, but the name stuck.
Stroll the French Quarter
The iconic French Quarter (the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans) and its wrought iron balconies make the perfect backdrop for selfies in the Crescent City.
Make a wish at the tomb of Marie Laveau
More than 200 years after her death, folks still flock to voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s tomb. The self-proclaimed voodoo queen. She is believed to be buried at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Per local legend, visitors often knock three times on the crypt and make a wish.
Listen to jazz at Preservation Hall
Established in 1961, Preservation Hall features performances 350 nights a year. The music hall and touring band play traditional New Orleans jazz. Showtimes are 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tickets: $15-$20.
Eat a snoball
The quintessential summertime treat in The Big Easy is the snoball. At first glance, the snoball looks like a snow cone, but it is not. The difference is in the ice. Here it is finely shaved into a fine, snow-like consistency and topped with fruity syrups. Try the original Snoball ($2) at SnoWizard Snoball Shoppe at the corner of Magazine Street and Constantinople Street. There are a staggering 150 flavors.
Window shop on Magazine Street
Magazine Street is lined with funky fashion boutiques, charming antiques shops and cozy cafes that are fun to explore. There are art galleries, a glassworks and printmaking studio and The National World War II Museum, which are worth visiting too.
Add your business card to the walls of the Old Absinthe House
Many stories have been told at the 50-seat copper-topped wood bar at the Old Absinthe House, a mainstay in the French Quarter for 200 years. It’s rumored that pirate Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson planned the victory of the battle of New Orleans on the second floor (now the newly-renovated Jean Lafitte’s Bistro). And the bartenders are always eager to share their Lafitte ghost stories with you. Luminaries like Oscar Wilde, P.T. Barnum, Mark Twain, and Frank Sinatra all sipped cocktails here like the signature Absinthe House Frappe (Herbsaint and anisette topped with a splash of soda water), created in 1860 by Cayetano Ferrer. Trying classic New Orleans fare, like chicken and sausage jambalaya, is a must. Don’t leave without adding your business card to the millions of cards on the walls, a testimony to the bar’s motto: “Everyone you have known or ever will know eventually ends up at the Old Absinthe House.”
Listen to live music
New Orleans is famous for music, particularly jazz. Tipitina’s is a legendary live music venue, which has hosted New Orleans’ most famous local musicians, including the late Professor Longhair. Each summer, Tipitina’s hosts free concerts on Friday nights.
Remember Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans is commemorating Hurricane Katrina with a series of events, including wreath laying ceremonies, a conference, prayer services and more this summer.
Ride a streetcar
NOLA’s vintage streetcars are a ride through yesteryear. Traversing the city, there are several routes including one along the riverfront that stops at the French Market and Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino. Fare $1.25
Eat a po’ boy
No trip to NOLA is complete without eating a poor boy sandwich at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, a century-old family-run eatery at the corner of Hagan and Toulouse. There are 25 of the signature submarine sandwiches to try, including fried oyster, hot roast beef with gravy and fried shrimp.
Shop the French Market
For more than three centuries, the French Market has been a lively gathering spot in NOLA. The French Market is six blocks of shops, including a European-style open-air farmers market and open-air flea market in the French Quarter that are open daily.
Eat Creole cuisine
There are plenty of places to sample Creole cuisine but there are two places that reign supreme. Arnaud Cazenave’s eponymous French Quarter restaurant Arnaud’s has been serving exceptional Creole food since 1918. Start off with the French 75 cocktail (Courvoisier VS, sugar, lemon juice and Moët and Chandon Champagne) at the restaurant’s bar of the same name before tucking in to an exceptional Creole dinner with signature dishes like shrimp Arnaud, Gulf shrimp marinated in Creole remoulade sauce ($10.95); oyster Bienville, shrimp, mushrooms, green onions, herbs and seasonings in a white wine sauce ($13.95); and seafood gumbo ($8.75). Galatoire’s carries on the tradition of founder Jean Galatoire who opened the restaurant on Bourbon Street in 1905. Try specialties like soufflé potatoes ($7), shrimp remoulade ($11), turtle soup au Sherry ($7) and duck and Andouille gumbo ($7).
Eat Lucky Dogs
For a quicker meal, look for the hot dog-shaped carts of Lucky Dogs, which first rolled into the French Quarter in 1947. Since then, Lucky Dogs has sold more than 21 million hot dogs. Try the jumbo hot dog, a steamed hot dog nestled in a traditional bun topped with chili, onion, mustard and ketchup ($5.75). The ubiquitous carts can be found in the French Quarter, Concourses A and B at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and on the main gaming floor at Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino.
Get a crash course in history
Take a 45-minute docent tour at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Learn about New Orleans’ history that spans nearly 300 years. Admission and tour: $5.
Test your luck with the slot machines at Harrah’s New Orleans Hotel and Casino or at the table games like Blackjack, Baccarat and Craps.
Eat at Commander’s Palace
Commander’s Palace is an institution in New Orleans. Opened in 1880, the culinary landmark has had noted staff like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse. Chef Tory McPhail sources ingredients from within 100 miles of the restaurant, crafting creative haute Creole dishes.
(Main Image: Cosmo Codina / NewOrleansOnline.com)