Explore Jackson Square
Start your search for free things to do with a visit to Jackson Square, immediately in front of St. Louis Cathedral. It might be the most photographed spot in New Orleans. When large sporting events are hosted here, it's the place network producers pick as a backdrop to show their anchor teams are in the heart of the Crescent City.
Cafe du Monde sits across the street, and it's traditional for visitors to take a break and enjoy beignets (a pastry with powdered sugar) and strong New Orleans coffee. Those items, of course, are not offered for free, and the line you might encounter will cost precious time.
But on the square itself, you can take a free stroll and see an open-air artist colony. You can also see the attraction for which the square is named: a huge bronze statue of Andrew Jackson.
Walk the French Quarter
This might be the most obvious advice about visiting New Orleans, but it certainly can't be omitted from any list of free attractions in the city.
The French Quarter will hold your interest at every turn. Rich period architecture, the aroma of local cuisine and the packed taverns on Bourbon Street are all images you'd associate with this part of the city, which is roughly defined as the area within Canal, Esplanade and Rampart streets, and the Mississippi River.
Two brief cautions: some visitors get so caught up in the French Quarter that they fail to see anything else the city has to offer. Be sure to budget your time properly so you can experience all of New Orleans. Also, take care to stay in well-lighted, high traffic areas, especially at night. It's possible to wander a few blocks from the quarter and wind up in potentially dangerous areas.
Ride the Algiers Ferry
From the Mississippi River and the Aquarium of the Americas at the foot of Canal Street, you can catch the Algiers Ferry, which has been in operation since 1827. Although it's not free, it is cheap – only $2 for passengers.
As it crosses the river, you'll have wonderful views of the New Orleans skyline, the bend in the river that gives New Orleans its "Crescent City" nickname and a look at the original tracts of the city that are now the French Quarter.
Across the river, you can visit Algiers Point. It is a 19th century neighborhood that managed to escape much of Hurricane Katrina's destructive power.
The ferry departs the New Orleans side of the river at 15- and 45-minutes past each hour from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. It departs Algiers Point at half past the hour.
Shop in the French Market
French Market has a fascinating history. Unfortunately, many of the tourists who browse the stalls here have no knowledge of that colorful past.
Native Choctaw merchants first traded on this site. Later, immigrants set up stalls here, selling their wares within a few feet of someone else speaking an entirely different language. Diversity and entrepreneurial spirit ruled the day.
Joseph Abeilard, one of the first African-American architects, designed the original center. It was destroyed in a hurricane. The market was restored during the 1970s. This rather precarious spot is now protected by a nearby flood wall.
You might not want to buy a thing, but it's fun -- and free -- to wander the market and imagine what it once meant to New Orleans.
Visit the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum
Many visitors crowd into New Orleans during Mardi Gras, but you don't have to miss out on the spectacle completely if you're arriving at another time of the year.
Above Arnaud's Restaurant, the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum shows off the elaborate gowns, masks, and other memorabilia that are associated with the city's most famous celebration.
Arnaud's is located at 813 Bienville St. in the French Quarter. The museum is open daily from 4:30 p.m. until 10 p.m.
Walk the Garden District
The Garden District is what some might consider "uptown" New Orleans. The homes are well-established and well-landscaped. The historic significance of each neighborhood comes into focus as you explore.
Although it isn't free, the St. Charles street car line is an inexpensive way to visit this area, and one you are sure to enjoy. But when you hop off and walk the shaded streets, you'll encounter shops, restaurants and even cemeteries that will capture your attention. It is far quieter and more subtle than the French Quarter, and it is an important part of New Orleans that, unfortunately, some visitors never experience.
New Orleans cemeteries are characterized by above-ground vaults because the water table here is so close to the surface. For safety's sake, it is best to tour cemeteries in high-traffic neighborhoods during daylight hours.
With safety in mind, there are walking tours, great for families with older children, that can be arranged for a fee, and if you have an interest in history, the costs involved are a small investment in the overall value of your visit. But it costs nothing to wander the rows and read the inscriptions on your own. Some are humorous, while others bear witness to stark tragedy. Recommended: Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District.
Take a Free Guided Levee Walk
For an informative, hour-long ranger walk about the history of New Orleans, visit the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park visitor center at 419 Decatur St. in the French Quarter. Try to arrive as close to 9 a.m. as possible. That's when they begin distributing 25 free tickets for the walk. It's first-come, first-served, and each visitor must collect his or her ticket in person. The tour departs at 9:30 a.m.
During the presentation, you'll learn a lot about the early history of the area. The walk ends on the levee across from Jackson Square. It's a great way to orient yourself early in the visit.
Visit the Barataria Preserve Visitor Center
If you have access to a car, visit the Barataria Preserve, which is located at 6588 Barataria Boulevard, just outside Marrero. That's about 17 miles south of the central business district.
According to the preserve's website, the 23,000 acres here are home to more than 300 species of birds, alligators, nutrias and a variety of swamps, bayous and forests. There are boardwalk-style trails through these areas -- but there is no admission charge.
Contribute to Free Museum Admissions
The National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St., offers free admission to veterans of that conflict. Other veterans pay a reduced rate for admission. Those well-deserved discounts often are funded through contributions from the rest of us.
Although this is a story about free admissions, please contribute as you are able to the upkeep of local treasures in New Orleans or anywhere else you visit. No one wants to imagine someone turned away from an important attraction because of inability to pay the admission fee.