First, skip the rental car. It's fairly easy to get around the city without doing your own driving, especially if you plan to stay in or near the French Quarter. Take a cab from the airport (as of this writing, $33 for up to two people), and be ready to walk a lot (you'll need to work off the free praline samples you'll find all over the city — trust me on this). Do play it safe, however. Don't wander around alone and after dark if you have more than a few blocks to go (especially blocks that are unfamiliar or not well-populated) -- call a cab.
If you plan to venture outside the French Quarter, invest in a Jazzy Pass, which gives you unlimited rides on all bus and streetcar lines. Single-day passes ($5) can be purchased when boarding, and three-day ($12) and five-day passes ($20) are also available (see www.norta.com for further details). Bus and streetcar fare is $1.25 per trip (plus transfers), exact change required.
New Orleans is foodie heaven. You can indulge in everything from simple red beans and rice to oysters Rockefeller (at Antoine's, the restaurant that invented the dish, no less). You'll definitely want to budget for meals in some of NOLA's extraordinary restaurants. Stretch your dining dollars by eating lunch at your restaurant of choice, when entrée prices are usually cheaper. You might also be able to split meals, as many portions are quite large.
Simply wandering the French Quarter is plenty entertaining without spending a dime. Good people-watching locales include Jackson Square and the French Market, or you can stake out a table at Café du Monde and indulge in coffee and beignets. Get your bearings and a taste of history by taking a free walking tour given by Park Service rangers from the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve's French Quarter Visitor Center.
While you're in the neighborhood of Jackson Square, visit The Cabildo, the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase agreement, which is now a museum of Louisiana history ($6 admission).
If you're into music, step into Preservation Hall, where for $12 you can listen to true New Orleans jazz. You can also club-hop on Frenchman's Street, where many clubs and bars have live music and no cover charge.
Want to see New Orleans from the Mississippi River? Instead of shelling out for one of the river cruises, cross the Mississippi on the Canal St./Algiers Ferry (the terminal is located where Canal St. meets the river). It's free for pedestrians.
Outside the French Quarter, stroll down St. Charles Avenue and drool over the mansions of the Garden District, or visit one of the large and beautiful parks, such as City Park, which is also home to the free Besthoff Sculpture Garden, a large collection of contemporary sculpture.
Once the city has you under its spell, you'll want to bring part of it home with you. Inexpensive souvenirs include Mardi Gras beads, a book from the Faulkner House bookstore, a CD from Louisiana Music Factory, pralines from Aunt Sally's or a box of beignet mix.
For more information, visit www.neworleanscvb.com, where you can order or download a free guidebook; or www.neworleansonline.com, where the "Travel Tools" tab offers coupons, maps and other helpful information. Once you're in New Orleans, look for the free local paper, Gambit, published on Tuesdays, for information on what's happening during your stay.
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