Seductively straddling the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi, this spicy gumbo of French/Spanish/African/Caribbean cultures, world-famous food, music and architecture, and notorious laissez-faire ambience make the Big Easy inimitable among American cities - and a powerful tourist magnet. And while lots of prices in the famed French Quarter (a.k.a. the Vieux Carr, locally pronounced "voo car-EY") can therefore be steep indeed, the exceptionally low local cost of living overall means bargains abound for visitors who know where to look. In the old days, the Creoles even had a word for it: lagniappe ("lan-yap"), meaning a "little extra unexpected something." Check out these 20 examples of voodoo economics:
1. Packages to Pontchartrain
Sometimes you can do yourself a favor by looking into air/hotel combination deals. This spring, for example, Vacation Travel Mart (800/288-1435) will whip y'all up a midweek American Airlines flight and three nights (extra nights also available) at the Bienville House in the Quarter (including breakfast and taxes) for $499 from San Francisco, $519 New York, $419 Dallas, and $519 Denver. Not bad-and from mid-May to mid-September, those prices even drop by $30 to $35. Another package outfit worth calling: Travel New Orleans at 800/535-8747.
2. Cajun coupons, cyber-style
Before you leave home, don't forget to log on to neworleanscoupons.com, where you'll find more discounts than you can shake a stick at, for everything from restaurants and carriage jaunts to swamp tours and steamboat rides. Print 'em out, stuff 'em in your pocket, and away you go.
3. Hoofing the Quarter
There are numerous (often costly) tours of the Quarter specializing in everything from voodoo and vampires to gay history, but you can't beat the freebie offered by the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve (419 Decatur St., 504/589-2636). At 10:30 a.m. daily, friendly and knowledgeable park rangers give one-and-a-half-hour tours covering about a mile of this historic district; after 9 a.m., tickets are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
4. Take the shuttle, cher
Once you hit the runway down here, except for hitchhiking, the $10-a-person Airport Shuttle (504/592-0555) is your rock-bottom option for getting into town. For the same trip, taxis charge $24 for one to two passengers (though it's the same as the shuttle, $10 each, for groups of three to five).
5. Get squared away
The New Orleans visitor information center (529 St. Ann St., 504/566-5031, neworleanscvb.com) at Jackson Square in the heart of the Vieux Carre has all sorts of freebies for tourists, including a brochure for self-guided walking and driving tours. But unless you're in the mood for a hard sell, beware the other official-looking "visitor information centers" you'll come across, promising "free tours" - they're little more than shills for uptown condos.
6. Bayout beds
Cheap sleeps aren't that common in the pricey French Quarter, but there are exceptions, most notably Bourgoyne House (839 Bourbon St., 504/524-3621, doubles from $87.50) and Hotel Le Richelieu (1234 Chartres St., 800/535-9653, fax 504/524-8179, doubles from $95, including free parking). On the uptown cusp of the Quarter is the LaSalle Hotel (1113 Canal St. near Basin St., 800/521-9450, fax 504/525-2531, doubles from $39, with bath from $69). In the Lower Garden District are the HI-New Orleans Marquette House hostel (2249 Carondelet St., 504/523-3014, fax 504/529-5933, dorm beds from $16.90, doubles/singles from $46.95) and the Old World Inn (1330 Prytania St., 504/566-1330, fax 504/566-1074, doubles from $55).
7. A bushel of B&B's
New Orleans has 'em in abundance, something for everyone's wallet - under $100 a night per double included. My top three agency picks: Bed and Breakfast & Beyond (800/896-9977, fax 504/896-2482), Bed & Breakfast Reservation Service (800/729-4640, fax 504/488-4639), and New Orleans B&B Accommodations (888/240-0070, fax 504/838-0140). FYI, some of these properties can be a bit far-flung, so make sure you're at least near a streetcar or bus line.
8. Hello, submarine
If a restaurant's too much of a production, nab a cheap, hearty lunch in the form of a po' boy (the meal-sized local version of the sub sandwich) or its subset, a muffaletta (a massive, uniquely New Orleans product packed with Italian cold cuts and cheeses, and drenched in garlicky olive salad). The latter was born at Central Grocery (923 Decatur St., 504/523-1620), where it costs $9.80 but easily handles two appetites. Take it to the nearby levee and chow down while gazing out at the ferries, tugs, barges, tankers, and passenger liners plying the nation's busiest port.
9. Making groceries
That's what the Creoles used to call food shopping, and you can keep that tradition alive at the world's smallest A&P (701 Royal St.) in the Quarter. This is the place to save on the hot sauces, chicory coffee, spices, and other Creole/Cajun comestibles that can be considerably higher in the tourist shops.
10. All that jazz
The birthplace of jazz is world-famous for its music, and that goes for the quality of the street musicians too; they congregate mostly on Jackson Square and Royal Street (pedestrians-only during the day), and while you can listen for free, it's just good manners to toss a couple of bucks into that open guitar case. Or pick up a beer or soft drink at the A&P, head a block over to Bourbon Street, and hang around outside the club of your choice (walk inside and you'll get hit with a music/cover charge or minimum). For a measly $5 you can bask in the presence of living jazz legends at Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St., 504/522-2841); lines are usually long, but the wait's worthwhile. At Funky Butt (714 N. Rampart St., 504/558-0872), the cover ranges from nuttin' to $12, and at Donna's Bar & Grill (800 N. Rampart St., 504/596-6914), the $10 Monday-night cover includes barbecued chicken, red beans, and rice. Storyville District (125 Bourbon St., 504/410-1000) lets you soak up an entire musical set for the price of a drink (from $7).
11. This old house
For as little as $4 a pop, dip into the past and to see how the Creoles lived. The Louisiana State Museum (751 Chartres St., 800/568-6968) runs five French Quarter properties - the Cabildo, Presbyt`re, 1850s House, U.S. Mint, and Madam John's Legacy - charging $5 each ($4 each for tickets to two or more).
12. A good case of fleas
Souvenir hunters, blow off Bourbon Street's inflated prices and head for the downriver end of the French Market. Here are the best buys for tee shirts, Mardi Gras masks, beads, dolls, fridge magnets, and other tchotchkes, as well as surprisingly fair prices for locally made jewelry and crafts.
13. Jambalaya jambouree
Food's practically a religion in these parts, meaning a good range of eateries abound. For Creole and Cajun bargains in the Quarter, try longtime local faves Quarter Scene (Dumaine and Dauphine Sts.,504/522-6533), Magnolia Cafe (200 Chartres St., 504/524-4478), and Coop's Place (1109 Decatur St., 504/525-9053). Go Italian at Mona Lisa (1212 Royal St., 504/522-6746) and the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen (95 French Market Pl., 504/522-9500). Bivalve aficionados pack the world-famous Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville St., 504/522-5973), where raw rules. Also definitely worth a stop is the "non-costoso" Cuban/Mexican fare at Country Flame (620 Iberville St., 504/522-1138). Finally, for a belly-busting breakfast buffet, try Harrah's Casino from 2 a.m. to 11 a.m. for just $6.99 (512 St. Peter St. near the foot of Canal St., 504/533-6000 or 800/HARRAHS).
14. You gotta have park
New Orleans is blessed with two enormous green spaces, both graced with centuries-old live oaks drenched in Spanish moss. City Park is America's fifth largest (1,500 acres); here, kids will love Storyland (504/483-9381), a playground featuring 26 larger-than-life recreations of fairy-tale characters (weekends 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; admission $2, under 2 years free). The second, Audubon Park, has the fabulous Audubon Zoo (504/581-4629), one of the country's top five and cheaper than most at $9 for adults and $4.75 for ages 2 to 12. A third blooming bargain: Teeming with exotic flora, the ten-acre New Orleans Botanical Garden (504/483-9386) makes a wonderful spot to relax ($3 adults, $1 ages 5 to 12).
15. Get festive
This bons temps state has more festivals than any other in the Union, and plenty of them are right here in the Big Easy. The most famous (apart from Mardi Gras, of course) is late April and early May's Jazz & Heritage Festival (ticket info: 800/854-4714). But for free music and dancing, come a little bit earlier in April (12 to 14 this year, 20 to 22 in 2002) to the French Quarter Festival (504/522-5730), whose centerpiece is the "World's Largest Jazz Brunch" at Jackson Square (the grub's $3 to $4 a plate). For a complete calendar of events, check with visitor information (see #4).
16. A cheap car named desire
You won't need your own wheels here-most everything's reachable on foot or by streetcar. The 166-year-old St. Charles Avenue Streetcar (the oldest of its kind still running) is not just a National Historic Landmark but a cheap ($1.25 a ride), fun way to explore, gently rocking along 13 historic miles, back and forth from Canal and Carondelet Streets to Palmer Park in Carrollton (en route passing the Garden District, Audubon Park, and Tulane and Loyola Universities). For a day of unlimited rides on streetcars and also buses, get a $5 VisiTour Pass ($12 for three days), sold at the French Quarter Postal Emporium (1000 Bourbon St., 504/525-6651) and the kiosk beside Café du Monde at Jackson Square. The Riverfront Streetcar line, nicknamed "the Red Ladies," follows the Mississippi from the French Market to the Convention Center and costs $1.50. Get details from the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) at 504/248-3900.
17. Art for free
Also in City Park, the impressive New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins Diboll Circle, at Esplanade, 504/488-2631) boasts one of the fabbest Fabergé egg collections in the world. Back in the Quarter, the Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St., 504/523-4662) mounts excellent exhibits gratis. Royal Street's antiques shops boast the largest concentration of French furniture and objets d'art outside Paris; prices are admittedly staggering, but it costs nothing to browse, and the same is true of that street's art galleries.
18. Graveyard shift
New Orleans' unique above-ground "cities of the dead" with their grandiose tombs and mausoleums are all free, but for safety's sake you're better off sticking with group tours. One notable exception, in the western suburb of Metairie, is Metairie Cemetery (5100 Pontchartrain Blvd., 504/486-6331), the area's largest and flashiest, where at the front gate you can get free audio cassettes for walking/driving tours. To get there from the Quarter, take Canal Street five miles west to City Park Avenue, turn left, go one block, turn right onto Pontchartrain Boulevard (crossing under I-10, the interstate), then follow signs to Academy Drive, which leads into the cemetery.
19. Rolling on the river
There are beaucoup de riverboat tours (costing $15 or so during the day), but the only passenger freebie ($1 for cars) is the ten-minute ferry ride to Algiers Point, a quaint nineteenth-century town just across the Mississippi with lots of gingerbread-style cottages and spectacular views of the New Orleans skyline. Between 8 a.m. and 11:15 p.m., it leaves every 15 minutes from where Canal Street meets the river; more info at 504/566-5011 or 800/672-6124.
20. Swamp things
Tours of Louisiana's bayous are popular but pricey (typically $20 to $30). But few know they're free at Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge (504/882-3881), which has a full schedule of canoeing and photography excursions - some with nature guides - roughly 20 minutes from Bourbon Street via I-10 East to Chef Menteur Highway (look for signs). Families will get a kick out of the nearby Audubon Louisiana Nature Center (Joe W. Brown Memorial Park, 504/246-5672, auduboninstitute.org), an 86-acre preserve with trails, planetarium, multimedia and laser shows, and hands-on exhibits. Adult admission's $4.75, $2.50 for ages 3 to 12.