I was born and raised in South Carolina, but my parents originate from a town in Louisiana right outside New Orleans. Growing up, we always took a week out of our year to come down and visit all the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, everybody. I always looked forward to these visits and each trip I made it my personal mission to go into the Big Easy at least once. So of course over my many years, I've picked up on some of the must do's and some of the over-hyped tourist traps.
Here are my top 8 recommendations of must see things to do in New Orleans especially if you're on a budget.
1. Jackson Square
a must see every time. Yes, it has its hype and yes, it's probably going to be crowded but it's just so beautiful. Jackson Square is located basically in the heart of the French Quarter and surrounded by street performers, artists, paintings for sale, and of course the beautiful architecture that makes New Orleans so different from any other city I've ever been to. And did you really even go to New Orleans if you didn't see visit the French Quarter?
2. St. Louis Cathedral
Located right across from Jackson Square is the Cathedral. You have to see this at least once since it is the oldest cathedral in the United States. It's truly breathtaking and kind of lives up to the hype. Also, you can see the beauty of the inside for free or pay a donation of $1.00 and get a self-guided tour brochure so it's worth stopping by.
3. The French Market
The French Market is one of my favorite places to visit. There are tons of vendors, foods, handmade crafts, jewelry, souvenirs, Mardis Gras masks (a must get, and I promise you aren't gonna find them much cheaper anywhere else) artwork, clothing, accessories, and trinkets. Really they have something for everyone. I spend like 80% of my allotted budget buying gifts for myself and my friends. Don't be afraid to haggle the price. And try some gator on a stick, you may be surprised what you like.
4. The Riverwalk
There's like a million things to see and do at the Riverwalk, but you don't have to spend a cent unless you want to. One of my favorite things to do, as the name suggests, is to walk the river. The Riverwalk is lined up next to the Mississippi River and has not only beautiful views of the River but also the Crescent City bridge and several ferry boats.
You can enjoy the walk while listening to live jazz music and some beautiful sculptures. There are also some really cool interactive pieces that are worth a look. Even if good food, views, and music aren't your thing, there is a large, 3-story outlet mall filled with tons of stores for window shopping or actual shopping.
If you only buy one thing in New Orleans it needs to be beignets. Beignets are like big, fluffy, powdered donuts but ten times better. The most popular place to get Beignets is Cafe Du Monde. Cafe Du Monde is great, but often the line is like a mile long and takes almost an hour to be served. I definitely recommend the visit, but I'm not sure the line is worth it.
If you're taking a trip to up to the Riverwalk, there is a smaller outlet of Cafe Du Monde in the food court and their beignets are just as good and the line is always much shorter. Still want beignets? Give Morning Call a try in City Park. They not only have beignets but also gumbo, jambalaya, and other Louisiana favorites. There wait is much shorter, but they only accept cash.
6. City Park/Sculpture Gardens
Speaking of City Park, City Park is not in the French Quarter but is really nice and worth a visit. They have a playground for younger kids, walking trails and the NOMA Sculpture Garden. The Sculpture Garden is free of charge, but you cannot take outside food or take any pictures. City Park has other attractions such as Botanical Gardens, The NOMA, putt-putt, a carousel, and more.
7. The Trolley
New Orleans has trolleys that can take you all over the city. It cost $1.25 for a ride (you have to have exact change) or you can buy a day pass for $3.00 and ride as much as you need. The RFA Trolley can take you from the French Market to the French Quarter up to the Riverwalk around to City Park and wherever else you need.
New Orleans has trolleys all over the place and can really take you anywhere you need to go. The lines aren't that confusing and you can always ask if you are unsure which trolley car you need to be on. I have found that the employees are very nice and helpful. The trolley is a great experience and a nice rest in between destinations. On the trolleys, you meet other tourists as well as NOLA natives.
8. The Streets
If you really don't know what you want to do in New Orleans, then wander the streets, Stop in a few shops, buy a few drinks (Hurricanes and HandGrenades are my faves), listen to some live jazz bands, admire the architecture, and breathe. New Orleans is beautiful, enjoy it. Some of my favorite streets are Canal Street (separates the historic district from the business district), Bourbon Street (home of bars, jazz, and burlesque), Royal Street (filled with antiques and art), Frenchman Street (the heart and soul of NOLA), and Esplanade Avenue.
While there are tons of things to do in New Orleans, my absolute favorite is to just to walk the Quarter. New Orleans is nicknamed The Big Easy so while you're in The Big Easy, take it easy. Grab a drink, listen to the jazz, look at the art and the architecture, and enjoy New Orleans for everything it has to offer.