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7 Affordable Ways to Explore New Orleans

02/06/2015 12:39 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT

The annual Mardi Gras festival is a perfect time to party big in the Big Easy. But America's brassiest city offers a plethora of attractions all year long. On my most recent visit, I was overwhelmed by the art and music. (Don't get me started about the cuisine!) Most of the art and music was available at extremely reasonable prices -- when it wasn't altogether free.

Whether you're visiting for February's Mardi Gras, November's Gumbo Festival or a last-minute weekend getaway in August, here are seven year-round ideas for the thrifty traveler in New Orleans.

1) Scope out the erupting contemporary art scene

Something magical is happening in New Orleans -- the city has become America's unofficial contemporary art capital. "I've lived here for 21 years," says Bradley Sumrall, chief curator at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, "and I've never seen the art world more alive than it is right now." To sample the scene, head to St. Claude Avenue. Fueled by art collectives and led by creative community organizers, galleries and events are mushrooming up along the avenue. On the second Saturday of each month, these galleries open their doors for free so that visitors can wander from venue to venue, sipping wine and chatting with local artists. Plan your visit accordingly.

2) Cruise on a bicycle (and stop to stuff your face with beignets)

With wide esplanades, minimal inclines and allocated bike lanes, New Orleans is most definitely a bike-friendly city. For the independent-minded traveler, rent a bike and plan your own adventure. Or, if you'd prefer a bit of guidance, take a tour with locally-owned and family-run Free Wheelin' Bike Tours. The "Creole Crescent Tour" led by Ryan illuminates the history of less-touristy neighborhoods (such as Bywater and Treme) and stops for powder-drenched beignets at Morning Call Cafe in the heart of City Park.

3) Plant a tree

Environmental degradation (caused by humans) was one of the main reasons that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans back in 2015. Ten years later, now that many rebuilding efforts have come to fruition, local organizations are turning their attention to long-term ecological commitments. Located in the Lower Ninth Ward, Common Ground Relief is committed to creating a sustainable Gulf Coast. Consider spending a week helping in their nursery. More information (and applications) can be found on the Common Ground Relief website.

4) Dance on Frenchman street

A visit to New Orleans when it's not Mardi Gras or the Jazz Festival won't limit your opportunities to hear stellar big band and jazz. These days, brass enthusiasts bypass the French Quarter and head to the bars along Frenchman Street, where some of the city's best bands compete for the most coveted time slots. Start with a bottle of Abita beer and sophisticated jazz at the Spotted Cat Music Club, where shows generally start at 4pm, 6 pm & 10 pm. When you're ready to increase the intensity, head down the street to Maison to order a Satchmo Tea (Makers Mar whiskey, Triple Sec, simple syrup and fresh lemon) and a sweaty, everybody-on-the-dance-floor brass set.

5) Learn first hand how to make gumbo

After Chef Amy Sins won the Beat the Chefs reality competition, she did what any wise culinary entrepreneur would do: she started her own cooking school. Located in the Marigny neighborhood, Langlois Culinary Crossroads is where those with creole curiosities go to sharpen their skills for future dinner parties. How does one make a roux? What is the "holy trinity" of southern cooking? What type of sausage should you use in a gumbo? Expect to leave with these answers -- and a full belly.

6) Pay your respects to Marie Laveau

The quaint but laudable New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum (run by actual voodoo practitioners) is the perfect place to learn about the lyrical Afro-American spirituality. Explore the mysteries, legends and traditions of voodoo, and its influence on the city's history. Leave a tube of lipstick on the altar for Marie Laveau, and then grab a love potion on your way out. It might just come in handy some day.

7) Go for a walk

Free Tours By Foot offers the opportunity for guided services to visitors who otherwise might not be able to afford premium excursions. For a basic overview of the Spanish, Caribbean, French and American influences in the city, first timers should start with the French Quarter Tour. Those ready for a deeper (and spookier) immersion can check out the Ghost Tour -- a real life version of American Horror Story.