20 free things to do in New Orleans: experience the city on a budget

New Orleans is a good value-for-money city, and not just because the drinks are cheap.

The city that gave the USA carnival season is itself a sort of perpetual carnival, a place where spectacle and performances are constantly on offer to even the casual visitor – all at little to no cost. These are the top free experiences in New Orleans to help you save your dollars.

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1. Mardi Gras is a free party, and it’s fantastic

Few cities are as defined by an event the way Mardi Gras defines New Orleans. The holiday, which hits in February or March depending on the year, has been called the greatest free show on Earth, and it’s an explosion of color, costumes and revelry. Despite the cliches, the annual celebration is actually largely aimed at families.

Planning tip: The two-and-a-half weeks preceding Mardi Gras are known as Carnival and are similarly packed with parades and street performances, so if you can’t make the main event, there’s still a party in town.

2. Meander through the woods at City Park

Visitors to New Orleans’ City Park can expect to find ancient live oak trees with Spanish moss beards, slow waterways, Greek-style pavilions and walking trails that meander through woods and wetlands.

A horse-drawn carriage passes a corner building with an intricate wrought-iron wrap-around balcony
Royal St is home to Caribbean-style architecture © CaronB / Getty Images

3. Marvel at the architecture at Royal St 

A stroll down Royal St is a stroll through the heart of the French Quarter, minus the booze-soaked bacchanalia of adjacent Bourbon St. Various blocks expose visitors to some of the city’s finest Caribbean-style architecture.

Planning Tip: The sectioned-off area that’s chockablock with street performers becomes pedestrian-only in the middle of the day.

4. Groove to the music at Louis Armstrong Park

Usually just called “Armstrong Park” by locals, this park, adjacent to the Tremé and French Quarter, was once the site of Congo Square, the place where enslaved African were allowed to perform their old-world music.

Those performances laid the foundation for the development of all the sonic genres New Orleans helped give the world. Today the park is home to sculptures and walkways and often hosts free festivals and concerts throughout the year.

5. Get artsy at Sydney and Wanda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

Some 90 sculptures by world-renowned artists pepper a series of shady walking trails, which web over two lagoons and through a living forest of magnolia trees and live oaks. The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is a beloved gem and fixture of the local arts scene, representing one of the city’s best marriages of public art and outdoors activity. It’s free to visit and open every day.

A streetcar or tram runs down a street with large overhanging trees creating a canopy of green
It’s worth paying a few bucks to ride the streetcar down St Charles Ave © AevanStock / Shutterstock

6. Be mesmerized by stunning St Charles Ave

Few people can cross the length of St Charles Ave without having to pick their jaws up off of the floor. This is classic overgrown, lush, fecund New Orleans: a wide avenue, cut through by a charming streetcar and flanked on either side by enormous live oaks and some of the South’s most stately mansions.

Planning tip: OK, it’s not free. But at just $3 for an all-day pass, riding the streetcar is very good value.

7. Soak up the atmosphere in Jackson Square

The beating heart of the French Quarter, Jackson Square fronts the gorgeous St Louis Cathedral, perhaps the most iconic building in New Orleans, plus the historic Pontalba apartment buildings, the Cabildo, a state history museum, and the Presbytère – a museum dedicated to Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina.

Planning tip: This pedestrian-only area is constantly (like, 24/7) filled with street performers, tarot-card readers, artists and general nonstop pageantry, so it will be buzzing whenever you stop by.

8. Browse the creations at Palace Market

On Frenchmen Street – itself a notable gratis attraction – you’ll find this art market, a sort of bizarre bazaar starring some of the city’s funkiest creatives. “Art market” is a broad brush, and in this case includes weird T-shirts, idiosyncratic crafts, handmade jewelry and the occasional jacket detailing/bedazzling.

Planning tip: If you can’t find what you’re looking for at Palace Market, head next door to the similar, just-a-skooch-smaller Art Garden.

A man wearing a black suit, hat and sunglasses holds a red, black and white umbrella as he leads a group of man playing brass instruments down a New Orleans street; free things New Orleans
Second lines are a major part of New Orleans’ legacy © Suzanne C. Grim / Shutterstock

9. Join a second line

A second line is a New Orleans street parade, led by a local brass band and followed by hundreds of citizens carrying on because life is short, so why not listen to some good music?

While weddings and even conventions throw small second lines, the real-deal parades that occur in Tremé and Central City – both largely Black neighborhoods – have deep community significance.

Planning tip: Second lines generally occur on Sundays outside of summer; local radio station WWOZ has online schedules.

10. Tour St Augustine Church

St Augustine is the oldest Black Catholic church in the country and occupies a lovely tree-lined corner of the Treme neighborhood – and a vitally important position in Black American history. It’s the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a moving sculpture, and the congregation explicitly preaches for civil rights and social justice.

11. Enjoy views of the Mississippi River at Crescent Park

Many visitors to New Orleans are surprised at how tough it can be to spot the Mississippi River, given that said river is so integral to the city’s identity. But you’ll have no such trouble at Crescent Park, which runs alongside the banks of the famed river adjacent to the candy-colored charm of neighborhoods like Faubourg Marigny and Bywater.

12. Stroll New Orleans’ (in)famous Bourbon St

Bourbon St is a multi-block procession of neon, bars, strip clubs, bachelor/ette parties, drinks the color of a Lisa Frank binder and bad decisions. At least, that’s Bourbon closer to Canal St. The other side of Bourbon is a little more low-key, aimed at LGBTQIA+ travelers around St Philip St and turning residential as it approaches Esplanade Ave.

13. Pop in to the live music clubs on Frenchmen Street

While Frenchmen can feel as busy as Bourbon on the weekends, it’s still well worth a visit; this is the best concentration of live music clubs in the city. Stroll around after 6pm on any given evening and you’ll hear music somewhere that will inevitably pull you in, even during the week.

14. Check out free concerts

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation puts on several free festivals and concerts throughout the year. The music department at the University of New Orleans also has a lineup of shows that are free and open to the public.

Planning tip: Be aware that musical acts on the street and in the bars aren’t really free. Locals pride themselves on being good tippers, and if a tip hat or jar gets passed around, you should always kick in some money.

15. Relax by the Bayou St John

Once an actual bayou (a body of very slow-moving water), Bayou St John used to form a natural watery highway throughout the marshy membrane of historic New Orleans. Now it’s a pretty body of water plunked directly in the middle of the city and surrounded by small grassy walkways – a pleasant natural cooling agent on hot days, of which there are many….

16. Check out the Arts Market of New Orleans

The Arts Council of New Orleans puts on this excellent juried arts market twice monthly: at City Park on the second Saturday of the month and at Marsalis Harmony Park (formerly Palmer Park), located just off of Carrollton Ave, on the fourth. It showcases some of the city’s local creative talent, as well as kid-friendly music and activities.

17. Explore the French-Creole mansions on Esplanade Ave

Most visitors to New Orleans have heard of Bourbon St, and St Charles Ave is at least world-famous in photos, but it’s the rare tourist who mentions Esplanade Ave. That’s telling, because this is an absolutely stunning street, lined with French-Creole style mansions and cut through by a bicycle lane that extends all the way from the French Quarter to the fields of City Park.

Rows of tombs, some covered in green brush, at the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1; free things New Orleans
Time your visit carefully as Lafayette No. 1 is currently closed for improvement works © Tiago Fernandez / Getty Images

18. Embrace your Southern Gothic side at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

New Orleans is famed for its necropolis-style cemeteries, filled with raised mausoleums that keep the corpses from washing away during the city’s fabled rainstorms. Lafayette, located in the Garden District and packed with creeping vines, gnarled tree roots and faded statuary, is one of the most pathos-drenched examples of the local Gothic-cemetery genre.

Planning tip: The cemetery is currently closed to the public while repairs and improvements are being made. Call or visit the website to check for details.

19. Window-shop and people-watch on Magazine St

If you like shopping, historic buildings or both, take a walk down Magazine St. The roughly 6 miles of city blocks offer up the best shops, galleries, restaurants and bars in New Orleans. It’s popular with all ages; some blocks seem to cater more towards students, while others are aimed at families.

20. Go green at Audubon Park

Although Audubon is smaller than City Park, it’s also filled with live oaks and Spanish moss and flanked by some of the city’s most impressive mansions and handsome neighborhoods.

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Why kids will love New Orleans as much as you do

One of the more popular unofficial taglines for New Orleans is “a theme park for adults.” As branding goes, this is pretty accurate when it comes to the neon lights of Bourbon Street, the hipster crowds in the Marigny and Bywater, and the foodies prowling Uptown for the next James Beard-nominated hot spot.

But can this town, so well known for its adult diversions, also cater to kids? The answer is, as so many New Orleanians are wont to say, “Yeah you right!” From street performers, live music, parks, museums, and yes, even some Mardis Gras parades, New Orleans has a lot to offer everyone in the family.

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While we’re wary of engaging regional cliches too deeply, there is more than a grain of truth to the Big Easy’s penchant for, well, taking it easy. A stuffed-shirt approach does not yield much in New Orleans beyond head-shaking disapproval. Even the highest-end restaurants are cool with kids, who are generally looked after with an indulgent smile.

Getting around New Orleans with children in tow 

One thing to consider if you’re exploring by foot is that New Orleans’ ill-maintained sidewalks are horrible for strollers – you’ll want to bring one that is maneuverable and durable. Another option is bicycling through the city. It’s easy to cycle, and you can cross the entirety of the town in 45 minutes. If you’re looking to access outer neighborhoods such as Mid-City, a car is the easiest way to travel.

Best things to do in the French Quarter with kids

A popular place for families is the French Quarter. Although many visitors treat it as a sort of adult playground, with Bourbon Street serving as a neon heart of bad behavior, skip this side and you’ll find a compact neighborhood where historical preservation, incredible dining and great nightlife intersect like nowhere else in the USA.

Explore the area with a morning walking tour run by Friends of the Cabildo. It’s an excellent introduction to both the architecture and history of the area. After the tour, take a walk along the river and consider catching a concert sponsored by the National Park Service at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Or, walk up and down Royal Street and lounge alongside the river. If you feel inclined, rent a bicycle; you can cover lots more ground that way. There’s plenty of shopping and galleries to peruse here. 

The hub of activity in Jackson Square is sure to be loved by kids. Any time of day you may encounter street artists, fortune-tellers, buskers, brass bands and similar folks all engaged in producing the sensory overload New Orleans is famous for (and kids go crazy over). The square is framed by a fairytale cathedral and two excellent museums, and nearby are steps leading up to the Mississippi River. Drop by Café du Monde for some powdered-sugar treats.

Looking to stay close by? The Olivier House is a French Quarter standby that’s good with kids. And Dauphine Orleans is a boutique-style hotel with family-friendly amenities. 

 People in costume celebrate Mardi Gras on the streets of New Orleans.
Music, colorful costumes and joy in abundance at Mardi Gras © Suzanne C. Grim / Shutterstock

Where to find the family-friendly Mardis Gras spots

Colorful spectacle is core to New Orleanian identity, and this sort of pageantry gets put on parade (literally) every winter, spring and fall weekend during a celebration known as second lining – local parades that march through primarily African American neighborhoods. They are open to the public, and many local families march with their children in tow, but loud music and alcohol consumption is the norm. Kids who are into live music will love it but it can be a sensory overload for those who prefer a quieter outing.

Of course, it’s not like this city lacks parades. Processions affiliated with festivals and holidays like Decadence, Gay Easter, Halloween and, of course, Mardi Gras always include folks in fantastic costumes tossing “throws” (beads, toys, etc) to kids. Indeed, many locals would argue that, contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras and the preceding two weeks of Carnival are fundamentally family-oriented holidays (accessible parades for children include the sci-fi-ganza of Chewbacchus and the parading dogs of Barkus).

You may see public inebriation anywhere in the city during Carnival, but the main parade route on St Charles Avenue, which passes through Uptown, the Garden District, the Lower Garden District and the CBD, is always filled with families.

The enormous Endymion parade, which rolls through Mid-City, is held up as a family-friendly event, but we find it too crowded for our tastes. Other parades like Barkus roll through the French Quarter, while Chewbacchus runs through Faubourg Marigny.

In general, truly drunken adult behavior tends to concentrate around Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street during Carnival, but head a few blocks in either direction from these places and you are likely to find families enjoying themselves.

Local tip: a taste for pageantry easily translates into a love of theater, and many theater programs in New Orleans market themselves to families. Be on the lookout for family-oriented shows at the NOLA Project and Cafe Istanbul in the Healing Center.

Barataria Preserve
Barataria Preserve is a great place to check out Louisiana’s swamps © Donald Atkinson / Getty Images

Take them on a swamp tour

The swampy, buggy wetlands of South Louisiana are their own kind of playground, but it’s not one that is easily accessible to the uninitiated. You can take a swamp tour, of course – the kids will probably get to watch alligators prowl the Bayou – or, if you’d rather not spend the money, you can walk the boardwalk at the Barataria Preserve, just south of the city. Gators can sometimes be spotted there, and even if you don’t spy those grinning reptiles, the local cypress swamp has an otherworldly beauty.

A similar landscape awaits visitors to the boardwalk trails that skirt through the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, located in New Orleans East. Fair warning – South Louisiana gets hot and humid. Bring lots of cold water for any nature outing no matter the season.

The carousel in City Park in New Orleans
Take a turn on the vintage ferris wheel in Carousel Gardens Amusement Park © jaimie tuchman / Shutterstock

Choose your own adventure in City Park

City Park is larger than Central Park and it has alligators – what are you waiting for? If alligators aren’t your thing, it is also home to long lines of live oaks and weeping willows; a botanical garden that contains New Orleans in miniature; ice cream; Greek columns; a sculpture garden that surrounds the New Orleans Museum of Art; and a singing tree, festooned with wind chimes and romance – the sort of space where love and music slowly infuse the air with giddiness.

A walk through the hardwood trees of the Couturie Forest will make you feel like the city is far far away. The paths lead to the highest point in the city, Laborde Mountain, which affords you stunning views as you catch your breath.

Check out the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, especially the 1906 carousel that’s a gem of vintage nostalgia. Other thrills include a Ferris wheel, bumper cars and a tilt-a-whirl.

The Louisiana Children’s Museum recently built new digs in City Park. It’s kind of a theme park for kids (albeit more educational). There are giant bubble-blowing exhibits, fun-size loading cranes, a book forest, a play shopping area, and plenty of other stuff that should appeal to any kid under 10. 

Spend a day at Audubon Park

Audubon Park is more groomed than City Park and sits on a stretch of Magazine Street and St Charles Avenue rife with good food options. This is the location of the Fly, a popular riverfront pedestrian walkway, and of course, the Audubon Zoo.

The Audubon Zoo, Aquarium and Insectarium are a trifecta of family-friendly sites that are popular with tourists and locals. The zoo is a genuinely excellent example of the genre – it’s large, the animals have spacious enclosures and the setting in Audubon Park is wonderful. It’s closing temporarily for a renovation in late November 2022 and will reopen for its adoring fans in the summer of 2023.

During summer, be on the lookout for the onsite waterpark, “Cool Zoo.” Also, note that there is a waterfall and grotto (of sorts) in the shadow of Monkey Hill, a small man-made slope located near the African wild dogs.

The Aquarium of the Americas has playful otters, cute penguins, a Mayan sunken temple exhibit and a questionable display of an oil rig and sea life living in perfect harmony. Last but not least, the Insectarium has giant beetles, a wonderfully disgusting cockroach display, a cool indoor swamp and – oh boy! – a cafe that sells all kinds of insect-derived food.

To visit the aquarium, insectarium and zoo, buy the Audubon Experience package and see all three within 30 days, as well as an IMAX movie, at a reduced overall price.

Two-story 19th-century building in New Orleans with wrought-iron railings is illuminated at night
Dat Dog is one of many kid-friendly restaurants in New Orleans © Katie Sikora

Dining out with children in New Orleans

New Orleans has some of the best food in the USA, and the good news is, you don’t have to miss out just because you’re traveling with kids. While there are few non-chain places with dedicated children’s menus, most New Orleans restaurants are more than willing to adjust the menu to a child’s tastes.

Foodie magnets like Rosedale, Domenica, MoPho and Carmo are all buzzy spots where kids are indulged and families are welcome. Other restaurants, like Satsuma, Pizza Delicious, Dat Dog and Katie’s, are explicitly family friendly.

Many of the city’s local breweries, including Urban South, Second Line Brewing and Parleaux Beer Lab, have dedicated child-friendly areas, with space for little ones to play and roam. On the flip side, some food mainstays that derive a large portion of their income from alcohol sales, like Bacchanal and Coop’s, do not allow minors on site – when in doubt, call ahead.

Outdoor performances and live music

Live music is a big draw for many visitors to New Orleans but most music clubs tend to serve booze and have 21-and-up entrance requirements. But you can catch outdoor performances on Frenchmen Street, for example, by hanging out on the kid-friendly second-floor balcony of the Frenchman Street location of Dat Dog.

At Jazz Fest, there’s a dedicated children’s tent which usually features good music: put it this way, parents won’t mind hanging out here even though bigger acts are playing elsewhere. Some parents swear by French Quarter Fest as a good, kid-friendly festival, by dint of its free admission and multiple venues scattered throughout the French Quarter.

All of the above are great, but if you or your children have a tough time pushing through big crowds, you may want to skip this option (Jazz Fest also draws large crowds, but its open location at the race-course grounds makes them much easier to navigate).

When it comes to music for kids, we find that more locally focused, less prominent festivals, like the Bayou Boogaloo or the Congo Square Rhythms Festival, are a way of seeing music in a setting that is easy on families. They have plentiful food vendors, adult libations for those who need them, and an easy-going crowd that is neither too sedate nor too aggressive.


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Austin’s top 6 neighborhoods for staying close to the action

For a little tiny frontier town that cropped up the year after Texas separated from Mexico, Austin sure has grown up.

First the railroad came in 1871, then the University of Texas in 1883. Then Austin City Limits, featuring local icon Willie Nelson, was filmed here in 1974. Shortly after, in 1987, the South by Southwest Festival was first celebrated.

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But giving shape to those ebbs and flows are the city’s neighborhoods, each of which showcases a different aspect of Austin’s character – the political, the historical, the academic, the techy and the rock ‘n’ roll funky. If you’re wondering where to explore on your next visit, these are the best neighborhoods in Austin.

In the Rainey St entertainment district, Augustine cocktail lounge is typical of the neighborhood, full of converted bungalows © Kelly Jobe / Shutterstock

1. Downtown 

Downtown is the hardworking hub of the city. Here you’ll find the sprawling state-capitol complex and a cluster of museums and hotels catering to politicians, business travelers and convention-goers.

But downtown plays hard too. The neighborhood is chock-full of entertainment options, including the wild shot bars of 6th Street, the more low-key bars (only slightly) of Rainey St and music venues in Red River and the upscale Warehouse District.

For the center of the action, head downtown. Start your exploring at the famous sunset-red granite state capitol, built in 1888. This state capitol is the largest in the US, backing up the ubiquitous claim that everything is bigger in Texas. If nothing else, take a peek at the lovely rotunda – be sure to look up at the dome – and try out the whispering gallery created by its curved ceiling.

Next, walk to the museums and restaurants along Congress Ave and 6th St. The Bullock Texas State History Museum is no dusty vault. Big and glitzy, it shows off the Lone Star State’s history, from when it used to be part of Mexico up to the present, with high-tech interactive exhibits and fun theatrics. 

Before you turn to the nightlife of 6th St, head to the Congress Ave Bridge to witness one of Austin’s best-beloved sites – a funnel cloud of up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats that swarms nightly from late March to early November, looking very much like a special effect from a B movie.

Turns out, Austin isn’t just the live-music capital of the world; it’s also home to the largest urban bat population in North America. There’s lots of standing room around parking lots and on the bridge itself, but if you want a more leisurely bat-watching experience, try Lone Star Riverboat and Capital Cruises for bat-watching tours.

After, raise a glass on Dirty 6th – the wild, bar-lined section of one of Austin’s major thoroughfares, stretching from Congress Ave east to I-35. You’ll also find comedy troupes, cinemas, live, performance halls and a range of music clubs dotting Congress Ave and its offshoots. Popular live-music venues cluster in the Red River District too.

Cinephiles flock to Alamo Drafthouse for food, beer and a great moviegoing experience. Think comfy seats and absolutely no tolerance for talking or cell phone use. An Austin original, Alamo Drafthouses are now scattered across the state and venturing into non-Texas territory. Check the online calendar for movie parties, brunch screenings and Terror Tuesday flicks.

Food trucks are one of the best ways to experience Austin’s lively culinary scene © stock_photo_world / Shutterstock

2. East Austin

East Austin is on the rise – just look at the construction cranes and new buildings along East 6th St, which is rapidly gentrifying. This is where the cool kids hang, although the neighborhood retains a down-to-earth feel. Head to East 6th and its offshoots for dinner and dive-bar hopping, plus two-stepping at the neighborhood honky-tonk. The nighttime food truck scene is excellent.

With fantastic craft cocktails, skilled service and flattering lighting, it would be easy to call it a night – a good night – after spending an hour at the bar in Whisler’s or checking out a band on the adjacent and festive patio.

Coronavirus measures in Texas
Ciscos on historic East 6th St is Austin’s oldest Tex-Mex restaurant, founded in the 1950s © Dave Crea Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The bartenders shine at tiny Licha’s Cantina, a Mexican restaurant spilling out of an old bungalow. It’s an upbeat place to fuel up on margaritas, chips and guacamole before heading out. It’s also a favorite hole-in-the-wall for locals, so don’t tell anyone we told ya about it. Margaritas are $5 from 4pm to 6pm Tuesday to Friday.

An easy-going bar and mini-dance hall just off 6th St, the White Horse is a honky-tonk next to a glossy apartment complex. And since this is Austin, it just seems to work. This dive is a good place to learn to two-step – it offers lessons before the band starts. There are craft beers aplenty plus whiskey on tap. Patio and food truck too.

For live music, see who’s playing at Hotel Vegas or step into the dark confines of the Liberty Bar if you want to hide out while sipping your well-crafted Texas mule.

American Express At Austin City Limits Music Festival 2019 In Austin, TX
The popular Waterloo Records store hosts in-store performances © Rick Kern / Getty Images for American Express

3. Market District, Clarksville and North Austin

Just west of the downtown core, the Market District is busy with pedestrians and cars headed to the large natural-foods market here and several iconic stores. An eye-catching graffiti wall shares the colorful visions of spray paint artists.

Further west, but east of MoPac Expressway, is Clarksville, a compact historic district and one of the city’s older neighborhoods. North Austin is largely residential, but a few fantastic restaurants and watering holes add some dazzle. Hyde Park, sitting just north of the University of Texas at Austin campus, was Austin’s first suburb.

Formerly a food truck found on the patio at Whisler’s, Thai-Kun recently opened a brick-and-mortar location in Domain Northside, an outdoor shopping plaza, and you’ll find some of the best Thai food in the city there – delicious and spicy noodles and curries, fried chicken and other favorites.

Stylish Uchiko is lauded by locals for its fresh and exquisitely flavored sushi and seafood dishes. But prices are steep, reflecting the high quality of the fare. On a budget? Don’t despair, just eat early. To sample the food at wallet- and purse-friendly prices, visit during happy hour, held nightly (4pm to 6:30pm). Several rolls are $8, while a half-dozen small bites $10 and under offer a broad sampling of the menu. Sake, beer and wine selections range from $5.50 to $10.

Across West 6th St is beloved Waterloo Records, which opened in 1982. The store is spacious and well-stocked. Come here to buy or sell new and used vinyl, CDs and DVDs. Texas artists are well represented in the inventory. Look for in-store performances. The best part may be the helpful and welcoming service – no old-school record-store snobs here.

If you’re into books, BookPeople feels like an old friend. As you wander the stacks, you’ll notice detailed staff recommendations beneath the packed-tight shelves. There’s a strong travel section in back. The store holds tons of book signings per year, so there’s likely somebody of interest in-house on any given week. Take a break at the cafe, which serves coffee, sandwiches and desserts.

If you’re sweating the Texas heat, jump into the icy-cold Barton Springs © stock_photo_world / Shutterstock

4. South Austin

South Austin is an offbeat and oh-so-Austin neighborhood that was pretty marginal just 25 or so years ago. Today this quirky but festive area – especially along South Congress Ave – is the city’s soul. Tourism types nicknamed it SoCo, which has somewhat stuck, but the locals mostly still call it South Congress. The road is the main thoroughfare through the neighborhood and the epicenter of the action; most of the rest is residential.

If you tire of the crowds, take a walk or drive to nearby South 1st St. This burgeoning strip is filling up quickly with coffee shops and indie-owned eateries that rival their better-known neighbors in quality and style. For coffee, give scrappy Bouldin Creek Cafe a try. Elizabeth Street Cafe is a great stop for croissants and tasty banh mi.

If you’re sweating the Texas heat, never fear. Even when the temperature hits 100°F, you’ll be shivering in a jiff after you jump into the icy-cold Barton Springs. The pool is fed by the Edwards Aquifer, which flows to the springs through limestone channels. The Moderne-style bathhouse was built in 1947. Draped with century-old pecan trees, the area around the pool is a social scene in itself, and the place gets packed on hot summer days. You’ll even see folks swimming laps – with a lifeguard on duty – in February!

Conversely, if the weather’s just too perfect to be inside a climate-controlled building, stroll the open-air UMLAUF Sculpture Garden + Museum, located catty-corner to Zilker Park. Within the sculpture garden and the indoor museum’s collection, there are thousands of pieces by 20th-century American sculptor and former UT art professor Charles Umlauf, nearly 60 of which are on view in the sculpture garden.

Anyone with an interest in Texas flora and fauna should make the 20-minute drive to the wonderful gardens of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, southwest of downtown Austin. The center, founded in 1982 with the assistance of Texas’ beloved former first lady, has display gardens featuring nearly 900 species of plants native to Texas and more than 70 species of native Texas trees.

The University of Texas campus cuts a huge swath across the city © f11photo / Shutterstock

5. UT and Central Austin

Just north of downtown, the University of Texas cuts a huge swath across the city; look for the main tower and you’ll know you’ve arrived. Home to several fantastic museums begging for in-depth visits, this youthful neighborhood is a pleasant place to stroll, though you’ll need a plan of attack if you want to maximize your time.

History and art fans should head to the south end of campus, where several museums are clustered close together. US President Lyndon B Johnson and natural history are the focus in two separate museums on the northeast fringe of campus. And even if you’re not a Longhorn or a museum-goer, the campus is a nice place for wandering.

The LBJ Presidential Library and Museum touches on plenty of fascinating history. The November 22, 1963 exhibition covers the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and Johnson’s subsequent takeover; there’s also a replica of the Oval Office during his term, rendered at 7/8th scale.

Meanwhile, the Blanton Museum of Art  boasts one of the best university art collections in the USA. The Blanton showcases a variety of styles, and while it doesn’t go into any of them very deeply, you’re bound to find something of interest. Especially striking is the permanent installation of MissĂŁo/Missões (How to Build Cathedrals) – which involves 600,000 pennies, 800 communion wafers and 2000 cattle bones.

Mount Bonnell Iconic Landmark View Central Texas Austin
For a pretty sunset view, it’s hard to beat Mt Bonnell © RoschetzkyIstockPhoto / Getty Images

6. West Austin

For outdoor recreation beyond Lady Bird Lake, plus a few great places to relax and waste away the afternoon, head west. Parks along Lake Austin draw hikers and nature lovers, while Hamilton Springs Pool is a gorgeous place to take a refreshing dip. Dripping Springs is the gateway to the Hill Country and keeps Austin day-trippers happy with new microbreweries and distilleries, wineries and great restaurants.

For a pretty sunset view, it’s hard to beat Mt Bonnell – just know you probably won’t have it to yourself. The city’s highest point, it overlooks Lake Austin, a pleasant respite from the urban hustle and bustle. 

One particularly scenic spot in West Austin is Hamilton Pool Preserve, a creek-fed swimming hole surrounded by limestone cliffs and loads of greenery. The pool is in a protected preserve, however, and to guard this special spot from destruction by the masses, reservations are required; it’s $12 per vehicle, plus $8 for each adult (children 12 and under get in free). You can make the reservation for your vehicle online in advance, but the per-person entrance fees are cash only at the gate. Summer weekends book up a few months in advance, so try for a weekday or visit in the off-season.

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How I travel… with explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes

The best travel advice comes from the people who have done it all before. In this series, we ask well-traveled experts for their tips and advice. 

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, age 78, might be the world’s greatest living explorer. He holds the world record as the first person to reach both the North and South Poles by land, plus as the first person to cross both the Arctic and Antarctic Seas unsupported. At the age of 65, he climbed Mt Everest. He counts King Charles as a friend, who has said of him, “I’m somebody who greatly admires the kind of intrepid explorer activity undertaken by Ran.”

I live in Exmoor in the Southwest of England and traveled to Oxford yesterday to deliver a lecture to 900 people on competitive expeditions. I’m always moving around, and I love giving lectures. I am on tour into next year with my own show, Living Dangerously – I have 90 towns to visit! One day it might be on the south coast, the next day up in Scotland; sadly, it is not organized geographically. When it’s not too far, I prefer to come home afterward. The last time I was overseas was to Málaga in Spain, to deliver a lecture to top performers in a company, who had been flown out for a team-building motivational retreat.  

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I have never taken a traditional holiday to a beach or a city. For my last big trip, I traveled 2500km down the Nile with my cousin the actor Joseph Fiennes for a National Geographic series pre–COVID-19. It marked the 50th anniversary of my 1968 expedition on a hovercraft down the same river. I plan in summer of 2023 to return to British Columbia in Canada to retrace an expedition I did in 1971 by rubber boat from the remote forests of the Yukon to the USA border.

My longest trip started in 1979 and ended in 1982 – and took seven years to plan. I circumnavigated the world without flying. There was no GPS, no satnav. My wife plotted the entire trip on a globe using a crayon and we communicated via Morse code.

Filming with cousin Joseph Fiennes in Egypt © National Geographic

When traveling I listen to the radio in the car or the music of Enya. I read The Economist and The Week for a good summary of what’s happening.

I have lost fingers due to frostbite on expeditions. So I would tell anyone going into extreme weather to always take six-hour hand warmers. On expeditions I always carry a tube of Anthisan Cream in case of any bites, as it deals with the sting and itch straight away. 

My earliest vacation memory is Kruger National Park with the family. I first traveled to South Africa when I was one year old, as my grandmother was South African. One of her sons was killed in WWI and my dad was killed in WWII four months before I was born. I was raised there until I was 12 years old, until I went to boarding school. I haven’t been back for about 20 years now.  

Sir Ranulph Fiennes Expedition To The North Pole
Sir Ranulph Fiennes expedition to the North Pole in February 2020  © Alvaro Canovas / Getty

The Isle of Man is somewhere I consider an underrated destination.  It is close to the UK but not part of it. It is a wonderful place with history, and remains individual like Guernsey and Jersey.

If I could be anywhere right now, it would be somewhere hot and without rain. I have never been to China or India so either of those would be great to visit.  

Climb Your Mountain: Everyday Lessons from an Extraordinary Life by Sir Ranulph Fiennes is out now.

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The 8 best beaches in Malawi

Safe, affordable and thoroughly enjoyable, Malawi – dubbed the Warm Heart of Africa – has long been a favorite chillout destination for travelers crossing between eastern and southern Africa.

It is technically a landlocked country, but its most popular attraction and dominant geographic feature is Lake Malawi, which runs for an incredible 560km (350miles) through the Rift Valley floor, along the border with Mozambique.

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Also known as the Lake of Stars, this vast inland ocean is renowned for its picturesque palm- and baobab-lined beaches and welcoming waterside villages, where travelers can swim, kayak, canoe, snorkel, dive or just enjoy the lush tropical African scenery and relaxed company over a chilled Carlsberg “Green.” Here are eight of the best beaches and resort villages in Malawi.

1. Nkhata Bay

It’s hard to imagine a more likable town than Nkhata Bay. The setting alone is magnificent, comprising a pair of sandy bays and a narrow woody peninsula hemmed in by the forested slopes of the Rift Valley.

But this laid-back resort village also stands out for its integrated backpacker-friendly beach scene, where the local Tonga people and a cosmopolitan array of globetrotters party, play beach volleyball and generally hang out. Nkhata Bay also has plenty of appeal to active travelers as a base for walking, kayaking and diving courses. 

 2. Chembe (Cape Maclear)

Nkhata Bay’s southern counterpart, the smaller village of Chembe is most often referred to as Cape Maclear, the name of the hilly peninsula on whose northwestern tip it stands. A low-rise urban enclave within Lake Malawi National Park, the village has a beautiful location, strung along a palm-lined beach that’s lapped by translucent green-blue water and faces an archipelago of impressive boulder-strewn islands. 

As with Nkhata Bay, Chembe is an easy place to fritter away time, whether you’re into hanging out on the beach and in the bars or participating in more active pursuits, such as kayaking and snorkeling. Its western orientation also means Chembe is one of the few beach resorts in Malawi where you can watch the sunset over the lake silhouette those evocatively shaped offshore boulders.  

Detour: Chembe is surrounded by Lake Malawi National Park, which is inscribed as a Unesco World Heritage Site on account of its diversity of endemic cichlids. Snorkeling off Otter Point, a 2km (1.2-mile) walk southwest of Chembe, you can expect to see a variety of these colorful fish, and possibly also spotted-necked otters. Terrestrial wildlife you might encounter on the walk to Otter Point includes baboons, rock hyraxes and klipspringers.

A scenic drive along Kande Beach in Malawi
Kande Beach has been seducing backpackers and overlanders since it opened in 1993 © Shutterstock / Trish McC

3. Kande Beach

Every bit as delicious as its name sounds, Kande Beach has been seducing backpackers and overlanders into staying on for another day, or week, or month, since it opened in 1993.

Owner-managed by the same relaxed former overland truck driver for all those years, Kande is quite simply a great place to hang out, whether it’s for the sun-bleached beach, the sociable bar, the on-site scuba shop or a smorgasbord of other activities that includes canoeing, windsurfing and village tours. 

4. Likoma Island

Set within Mozambican waters, Likoma is territorially part of Malawi, thanks in large part to the historical quirk of having been chosen as the site of an anti-slaving Anglican mission in the 1860s.

The island boasts a marvelous setting below the mountainous Mozambican shore, while a handful of idyllic resorts is headed up by Kaya Mawa (literally “Maybe Tomorrow”), an exclusive fly-in retreat whose imperiously chilled vibe offers the last word in “barefoot luxury.”

Likoma’s beaches are lovely indeed, but a large part of this baobab-studded backwater’s appeal lies in a sleepy time-warped atmosphere amplified by the remoteness from the rest of Malawi. The island’s most important historical landmark is the immense Anglican Cathedral of St Peter, which was built in 1911. 

Planning Tip: Unless you fly to Likoma, the only way to get there from elsewhere in Malawi is on the MV Ilala, a weekly ferry service that stops at the island on both its northbound and southbound legs.

5. Chizumulu Island

If Likoma sounds a bit too hustle-bustle for your tastes, there’s always Chizumulu, a smaller and even more unaffected island situated 10km (6 miles) to the west.

Here, a solitary backpacker-friendly lodge combines an idyllic beach location and soporific time-stood-still feel with a great selection of activities, including paddling, snorkeling and village walks.

6. Mumbo Island

This small rocky island in Lake Malawi National Park is occupied by an eponymous lodge that combines eco-friendly rusticity (it’s built and decorated entirely with natural or recyclable materials) with a classy boutique sensibility.

Kayaking, swimming and snorkeling in the crystal clear waters of Mumbo’s boulder-strewn shores is an utter delight, or you can just chill out in a hammock, keeping an eye open for the island’s resident otters as they scamper along the rocks or bob in the water.

Planning Tip: For energetic travelers, a popular way to reach Mumbo Island is to kayak 10km (6 miles) northwest across Lake Malawi from Cape Maclear.

7. Chitimba  

One of Lake Malawi’s most northerly beaches, Chitimba stands in a narrow stretch of the Rift Valley, flanked by imposing escarpments that rise 1km (0.6 miles) above the lakeshore.

Unlike established backpacker haunts such as Cape Maclear and Nkhata Bay, there’s no travel scene at Chitimba, just a couple of laid-back resorts set on a blissful white beach that runs south from the Manchewe River mouth. Perfect for those who want to enjoy a few days of peace and quiet, Chitimba is also a useful springboard for travel elsewhere in the relatively undeveloped far north of Malawi.  

Detour: Perched on the precipitous escarpment above Chitimba, Livingstonia was founded in 1894 as a Scottish mission that Hastings Banda, the first president of independent Malawi, would later describe as the “seedbed” of his liberation party.

The road to Livingstonia, traversing 20 tight hairpin bends as it gains 700m (2296ft) in altitude, is one of the most spectacular in this part of Africa, whether you opt to hike there from Chitimba or wait for erratic public transport. En route, you can divert to the forest-fringed Manchewe Falls, which plummet over the escarpment in a single 125m (410ft) drop.

Beach in Senga Bay, Malawi
Senga Bay’s long, sandy beach seldom disappoints © Getty Images/iStockphoto

8. Senga Bay 

As the closest beach resort to the capital Lilongwe, Senga Bay has emerged as a popular weekend retreat and conference venue. Accommodation here tends to be relatively upmarket and formal, and it’s too scattered to have coalesced into the kind of travel community associated with Nkhata Bay or Cape Maclear.

Despite this, Senga Bay’s long, sandy beach seldom disappoints, and there’s always plenty of activity going on around the local fishing villages. A great place to start or end a fly-in trip to Malawi, or for business travelers seeking an overnight break from Lilongwe. 

Detour: If you want to see wildlife in the vicinity of Senga Bay, there are two options. Giraffes, zebras and various antelope inhabit the well-organized Kuti Wildlife Reserve, a rehabilitated ranch that can be explored along a network of drivable tracks and bikeable footpaths. Thuma Forest Reserve is less developed, but guided walks are available and resident wildlife includes leopards, elephants and buffalo.

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