Louis Armstrong Park (Photo: Jonathan Goody/Prime500)
Think it’s hard to have fun on a budget in New Orleans? Quite the opposite. In fact, it’s tough to go far in the city without bumping into a parade or a free outdoor concert. And, of course, there’s always Mardi Gras, the biggest free party in the world.
Your Free Music Ticket: Festivals
Hardly a week goes by in New Orleans without a festival of some kind, and most of them are free. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation (whose flagship springtime Jazz and Heritage Festival brings headliners like Bruce Springsteen, and does cost money) puts on small, free festivals throughout the year that focus on styles like the blues, the city’s African and Caribbean roots, and the culture of the music-heavy Tremé neighborhood. In April, the French Quarter Festival fills New Orleans’ neighborhood with more than 20 stages that present brass, R&B, funk and zydeco.
Seasonal series like Wednesdays on the Point (a short ferry ride across the river, in Algiers), Jazz in The Park and Wednesday at the Square offer multiweek runs of free music, usually with kids’ activities and local food, drink and arts vendors. Pro tip: Some free music events present only one or two bands in the evening; others are all-day, multi-stage affairs. To avoid crowds at the latter, head over early. The first bands to hit the stage are usually less well-known local acts, so you’ll get more funky Louisiana flavor with less of a crush.
Soak in the Arts: Open-Gallery Nights
Julia Street in the Warehouse District has long been New Orleans’ arts district. Sip wine and schmooze on the first Saturday of each month, when galleries stay open until 9 p.m. Down on St. Claude Avenue in the hip Bywater neighborhood, where an edgier strip of art galleries (plus performance spaces, bars and restaurants) has sprung up, the second Saturday of the month brings exhibition openings and open-gallery hours from 6-9 p.m.
Hit the Streets: Audio Walking Tours
The Historic New Orleans Collection, the National Parks Service’s Jazz National Historical Park and the city’s official tourism site, GoNOLA, all offer free, narrated audio tours via their apps for iOS and Android. Listen to celebrities like John Goodman walk you through the stately Garden District, tour the HNOC’s extensive collections with a virtual historian guide, or learn about musical landmarks as you stroll through the French Quarter.
Take Your Party Local: Mardi Gras
There’s a reason Mardi Gras is known as the biggest free party in the world. Though it’s technically just one day (literally, the phrase translates to Fat Tuesday), Carnival time is really a season: a solid couple of weeks of nightly parades that roll down St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street, full of marching bands, dance teams, flashing lights and costumed revelers tossing “throws” – beads, toys, doubloons, commemorative cups and more.
The revelry peaks on Mardi Gras Day, when thousands hit the streets in costume. The best plan is no plan: Do like the locals do and grab a drink in a go-cup, wander the French Quarter and prepare to be dazzled.Pro tip: Stay away from touristy Bourbon Street and make your way to the Faubourg Marigny early in the morning, where elaborate, arty costumes are on display at the R Bar (1431 Royal St.) or Mimi’s (2601 Royal St.) or make your way to Claiborne Ave. at Orleans, where Mardi Gras Indians, Skull and Bones maskers, Baby Dolls and brass bands reign raucous and colorful under the I-10 highway overpass.
Discover a Hidden Gem: The Mardi Gras Museum
Ensconced away in rooms above Arnaud’s French 75, the cozy French Quarter bar and institution, is a tribute to the most celebrated Carnival queen in New Orleans’ history. The perfectly preserved ball gowns of Count Arnaud himself are the belles of The Mardi Gras Museum, along with costumes, vintage photographs, elaborately-engraved invitations and other Mardi Gras memorabilia from her family’s collection.
A trip through this strange, glamorous window into the elegant and eccentric world of Carnival society is free, though once you’re there it’ll be hard to resist ordering one of the bar’s acclaimed craft cocktails from a bow-tied barman.