New Orleans is arguably the most unique city in the United States.
Settled by the French, ceded to the Spanish, turned back over to the French and eventually sold by Napoleon to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, one can get a sense of the city’s diverse background from the change in management alone. Add upon this the culture brought over by the enslaved Africans and the influence of the Native Americans and Caribbeans, and you’ve got Creole, a stew of diverse ingredients not unlike the city’s beloved gumbo.
I’ve been fascinated with New Orleans ever since I was a kid. It is, after all, the birthplace of jazz, a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, a place of remarkable architecture, and a city drenched in both that laissez-faire romance and mournful macabre.
My first trip to New Orleans was in 2007, just two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and much of the Gulf Coast. The city had yet to fully recover, but it was vibrant nonetheless. My most recent visit, over ten years later, revealed a New Orleans long restored. Seeing such a magical place thriving is a beautiful thing.
While New Orleans is a big city with much to offer outside the French Quarter and surrounds, this post will focus primarily upon areas I’m familiar with, where travelers would most likely visit. If you’ve got any notable additions, kindly include them in the comments below.
GETTING AROUND NEW ORLEANS
The areas most travelers visit are easily accessible by foot, which is great for burning off the excessive calories you can’t and won’t want to avoid. For those who’d rather not walk, the historic streetcars offer rides at $1.25 fares (at the time of writing), and you can pay onboard or via the RTA GoMobile app. Additionally, Jazzy Pass 1-, 3- and 21-day unlimited ride passes can be purchased for $2, $9 and $55 respectively. Streetcars run along Canal Street, St. Charles Avenue (the really historic line), the riverfront, Loyola Avenue to the Union Passenger Terminal (for Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, local NORTA buses), and Rampart Street to the St. Claude Arts District, an older neighborhood of independent art galleries and lots of history. For longer distances, Lyft and Uber are available as well.
Most visitors will likely stay in or around the French Quarter (otherwise known as the Vieux Carré; see map above), the district where all that touristy stuff you see on TV happens. Simply familiarize yourself with the major streets and you’ll pretty much never get lost. There’s Bourbon Street, of course, the party street blaring country rock with all the neon Coors Light signs. Parallel to it is Royal Street, the pretty street with all the boutiques where live blues can often be heard at night. Decatur Street runs near the riverfront, cutting between Jackson Square, the heart of the French Quarter, and Congo Square, the former hang-out spot for slaves where they say the music of New Orleans was born. Along the riverfront, one finds the peaceful Woldenberg Riverfront Park and the huge Outlet Collection at Riverwalk mall. River cruises are offered by both the historic Steamboat Natchez and the Paddlewheeler Creole Queen. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is located here as well.
The unmistakable 2 Canal Street (the really tall building formerly known as the “ITM Building”) and Harrah’s Casino sit at the end of Canal Street, a major boulevard that runs along the southwestern border of the French Quarter, separating it from the Central Business District (which some, but not all, people call “downtown”).
South of the Central Business District, across Poydras Street, on which the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is found, are the hip, chilled-out Arts District and Warehouse District, where one finds museums like the popular National World War II Museum, the Louisiana Children’s Museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Chic restaurants like Emeril’s, Emeril Lagasse’s flagship restaurant (BAM!), and Cochon are also located in this area.
Heading south past the Warehouse District leads you to the Lower Garden District and, subsequently, the Garden District, neighborhoods that are “picturesque,” for lack of a less cliché term. With its historic mansions, the famous Commander’s Palace restaurant and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 (one of the city’s oldest cemeteries), a visit to the Garden District would be well worth your while. Stick to Magazine Street on your journey here and you’re sure to see a lot of stuff along the way.
NEW ORLEANS ON A BUDGET
What to see and hear
I suppose it would make the most sense to begin at Jackson Square, where one finds the St. Louis Cathedral. Constructed in 1718, it’s the oldest cathedral in the United States. Admission is free and tours are provided “when available” by volunteer docents. A self-guided tour brochure can be acquired for a donation of $1. Next door is the Louisiana State Museum – The Presbytère, a gallery offering a look into the history and culture of the city ($6 admission for adults). After your visit, take a stroll around the square to admire all the eclectic artwork being sold by local artists.
Near the end of Decatur Street sits the Old U.S. Mint, a historic building hosting free museums where visitors can admire an impressive collection of vintage coins, old maps, local crafts, photography and numerous other exhibitions. It’s in here where you’ll find the New Orleans Jazz Museum, a branch of the Louisiana State Museum featuring collections and exhibits that showcase jazz history. The Performing Arts Center on the third floor hosts live music and theatrical performances, as well as educational panels. Check out the Music at the Mint calendar for upcoming live shows, many of which are free, sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Additionally, you can check out the National Park Service’s calendar for a PDF of events taking place at the Mint and also at the Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-op, an artist’s co-op that I’ll mention later.
The aforementioned jazz park is free as well. Located northwest of the French Quarter next to Louis Armstrong Park, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park is a great place to start a self-guided tour through the history of jazz. Learn more about how to pick up a brochure or download their guide on the park website.
One cannot speak of music and New Orleans without mentioning the Preservation Hall, perhaps the most famous of venues for traditional New Orleans Jazz. Founded in 1961, it’s devoted to preserving the local sound. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band is a renowned group that also tours the country (coincidentally they were in San Francisco last weekend). The Preservation Hall hosts three shows (M-W) or four (Th-Su) per night, all ages welcomed, at $15 (Su-Th) or $20 (F-Sa). Get there at least 30 minutes before the show and bring cash for tickets.
New Orleans is the city of live music, and it really is everywhere. A casual stroll down Royal Street will unveil a world of talented musicians, from mid-size ensembles to solo virtuosos. Additionally, Café Beignet at Musical Legends Park (the coffee chain’s Bourbon Street location) offers live music at the affordable price of a cup of coffee or a plate of beignets, those renowned lightly puffed doughnuts doused with powdered sugar.
Undoubtedly, the riotous bars along Bourbon Street offer a more wild sort of music, though jazz can be found here as well. I’ve always had a soft spot for Maison Bourbon, a great bar for free live jazz and blues with a relaxed crowd.
Getting out of the French Quarter is a great idea for seeing beyond the touristic heart of New Orleans. A walk I particularly enjoyed was following Magazine Street from Canal Street through the Warehouse District to the Garden District, checking out the sights, then going up north to St. Charles Street to return to the Central Business District. The Garden District is especially wonderful because it offers a different vision of New Orleans from the French Quarter. It was here that the wealthy Americans lived during the 19th century, erecting their opulent antebellum mansions in the Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian styles, away from the Europeans and Creoles of the French Quarter. If you make it here, check out this free self-guided walking tour to explore the historic buildings.
What to eat and drink
If you visit New Orleans without a desire to eat, I highly recommend you rethink your life goals. The city is a foodie paradise of diverse culinary delights. There’s gumbo, of course, that okra-thickened southern Louisianan stew; jambalaya, seasoned rice with blackened meats and vegetables; étouffée, a smothered rice entrée with seafood (notably shrimp or crawfish); boudin, a typical sausage; the po’ boy, a Louisianan sandwich of meat on baguette; red beans and rice; and Gulf oysters, just to name a few. You can find most of these in a majority of restaurants in the city.
For no-nonsense Cajun cooking, my favorite spot is Mother’s Restaurant. I first came here in 2007 when it was half its current size, back when customers supposedly had to know exactly what they wanted before approaching the counter lest unhappiness ensue. Now the restaurant has an additional dining area and the patience and customer service of a saint, not to say it was bad before. This restaurant boasts that it cooks up the “world’s best baked ham.” It’s pretty damn good. I recommend coming here not only for a full-plate meal but also for lunch to try their sandwiches. The Ferdi Special po’ boy is divine, with tender ham and roast beef, topped with the “debris” of beef, those pan leftovers that stew in their own juices. The fried chicken is also some of the best I’ve ever had. Prices range from $11-15 for most items (more for seafood), which, for the quality and quantity, ain’t bad.
Coop’s Place is another down-to-earth establishment worth considering for sampling local dishes. Half dive bar and half dining hall, Coop’s Place serves up fried seafood, fried chicken, fried other things, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Try the Coop’s Taste Plate for a sampler of seafood gumbo, shrimp creole, Cajun fried chicken, red beans and rice, and rabbit and sausage jambalaya ($13.95). For libations, well drinks are $5 and, if my memory serves me properly, a Sazerac was only $8.
Central Grocery & Deli is a must-visit for their muffuletta sandwich. The original owner of this Italian deli, Salvatore Lupo, invented the sandwich in 1906 by filling round Sicilian sesame bread (also called muffuletta) with mortadella, salami, ham, mozzarella, provolone and marinated olive salad. Yum.
Another sandwich shop worth checking out is Johnny’s Po-Boys. They served the most delicious fried oyster po’ boys I’ve ever had in 2007 and they serve them still. The fried catfish po’ boy is also really good.
On the quieter end of Royal Street sits a nondescript mini-market with a deli inside called Verti Marte. It’s a popular place for huge po’ boys, namely their All That Jazz sandwich. While it runs well over $10, it’s a monster that’s full of hearty calories (and surprisingly messy, so get some napkins). The more modest sandwiches are cheaper, so opt for those if you’re watching your budget or waistline. With the exception of a small bench outside, there’s no place to sit and eat here, so seek another chair or find a friendly bar.
If you make your way to the Garden District along Magazine Street, stop into District: Donuts Sliders Brew for craft coffee, pastries, “croquenut” doughnut sandwiches and delicious sliders. It’s a comfortable eatery with a friendly staff, the perfect place for a breather.
The French Market hosts numerous food stands. These options would be cheaper than most restaurants as well, plus it’s nice to eat outside on a sunny day. A weekly farmers market held every Wednesday from 1-5 p.m. is also worth checking out, especially since there’s live entertainment too. Check out the French Market events calendar to learn more about their food-related events.
For something sweet, check out the famous Café du Monde, a coffeehouse serving New Orleans-style coffee (with chicory added) and the delicious beignet. It’s really for the latter that people come here. Each order comes with three beignets, so it’s easily shareable. Keep in mind that the café never closes, so if you’re having trouble finding a table, come back during non-coffee-drinking hours. I once got beignets after midnight in a matter of seconds.
A trip to New Orleans isn’t complete without at least a small sampling of the sweet candy known as the praline (pronounced “PRAW-leen,” and no other way, in New Orleans). Southern Candymakers is a good place for this, as they make a wide variety of flavors. Cheap, delicious and portable; the perfect snack for a budget traveler.
If, for whatever reason, you choose to remain in your hotel room, you can nurse that hangover (let’s be honest) with food from Rouses Market, a grocery store with prepared foods and lots of local offerings. Whether you need single bottles of beer or rattlesnake meat, you can find it here. Pick up local spices at a fraction of the cost of the nearby tourist shops. During Mardi Gras, you can find the famous King Cake here.
New Orleans is the birthplace of many great (and some not-so-great *cough* Hurricanes) cocktails, namely the Sazerac, which many believe to be the world’s first mixed drink. Prices and quality range throughout the city. For example, The Sazerac Bar in The Roosevelt invented and still offers the famous drink for a not-modest $17. No doubt drinking it here is an experience, but you can also find it throughout the city for much less. For cheaper drinking in the French Quarter, check out Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest bars (it’s still lit by candlelight!), and the “oldest structure” hosting a bar, in the United States. For a solid dive, check out The Chart Room. If tropical cocktails are your thing, give Port of Call a chance. If you can make it out of the French Quarter to the Mid-City neighborhood, Twelve Mile Limit is a popular joint for their well-made cocktails running $8 and under.
You could also just stick to Bourbon Street takeaway cocktails.
(Unless you’re diabetic.)
If you’d like to avoid the craziness of the French Quarter, check out Frenchmen Street just off the northeast border. d.b.a. is a good bar to check out for beer, wine, spirits and free-to-stupid-cheap live music.
Where to shop
Let’s face it: the French Quarter, as beautiful and historic as it may be, is a tourist trap. Most of the souvenir stores here sell overpriced crap. I can get the same Café du Monde coffee in a can more cheaply at the local Chinese market in San Francisco than it costs at Café du Monde itself. And you really don’t need that “I got Bourbon-faced on shit street” shirt, do you?
But we collectively digress and move on, for there are things worth perusing. Ironically, the tourist market has some affordable finds if you search for them. The French Market houses numerous vendors of all sorts, selling a variety of goods at a synonym-of-variety of prices. And since bargaining is a thing here, you can score prices even lower than what’s listed.
New Orleans is also known for the spooky stuff (hey, Anne Rice). Famous shops such as Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo, Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo Shop and the Boutique du Vampyre sell all things related to voodoo and the occult. Catering mostly to tourists these days, they are still worth checking out if only to find that unique gift. Additionally, the tranquil Hex Old World Witchery provides readings by appointment while offering items for the Wiccan in need.
I mentioned Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-op earlier, and while the crafts sold in this co-op aren’t necessarily cheap, many are beautiful works of art made by local artists. Similarly, James H. Cohen & Sons, one of my favorite shops, on Royal Street sells antique coins and war memorabilia. Opened in 1898, this family-run antiques shop is the real deal. I once purchased a Roman coin from the reign of Constantine here. While Dutch Alley and Cohen & Sons may not be budget friendly as shops, they really are affordable when you think of them as free “museums.” (Because perspective is everything.)
Where to unwind
Eventually everyone needs a break. The French Quarter offers a number of places to get away from the chaos of the city streets. Louis Armstrong Park is a wonderful green plot for a stroll. Populated with statues of great jazz musicians, the peaceful park also features a big lagoon and lots of bridges. (The only thing it doesn’t seem to have is a restroom.)
My favorite area to relax is the riverfront. Woldenberg Riverfront Park runs along the Mississippi River, offering 16 acres of nature. Strolling past the historic boats docked along the river, one arrives at the Spanish Plaza, near the outlet shops. This quiet square, dedicated by Spain in 1976, memorializes the country’s shared past with New Orleans. The seals of the provinces of Spain surround the fountain.
Oddly, one of the nicest places to sit and relax is in the mall, specifically the patio outside the food court in the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk. With a view of the river and drinks available inside, it’s not a bad place to spend a few afternoon hours.
If you’d really like to get away, take the $2 ferry to Algiers. Operated since 1827, the Algiers Ferry takes pedestrians and bicyclists from the end of Canal Street to Algiers Point, located across the Mississippi River. The Jazz Walk of Fame (free audio-guided tour here) and the Algiers Historical Society await visitors on the other side.
I hope this longer-than-anticipated post shared some of the beauty of New Orleans while offering useful budget-friendly tips for visiting the city. If you have any questions or advice of your own, please leave them in the comments below.