Travel Destinations

Monday, August 24, 2015

Top 20 Things to Do in New Orleans

St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans is a popular weekend getaway destination, but there are so many things to do in New Orleans you can easily spend a week or more in the city.  New Orleans is the city of music, food, and cocktails, but there are also museums, churches, cemeteries, swamps, and plantations.  Here are 20 of the top things to do in New Orleans for planning your next trip to NOLA.

Listen to Live Music

Live Music Frenchmen Street Things to Do in New Orleans

Sometimes it’s hard to remember New Orleans is a real city with real people with real lives rather than a theme park where you can throw your cares away.  A big reason for this is the city is filled with music at all hours of the day.  Not only can you find music in the bars, restaurants, and music venues, you can also hear music all along the streets of the French Quarter.  There are so many places to find music in New Orleans, so be sure to either stop and listen to someone playing on Royal Street or step into one of the many music venues or bars offering live music for their customers.  When you leave New Orleans, you will miss the music.

For more about New Orleans’ music culture and where to listen, read Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans Music.

Eat Traditional New Orleans Food

Parkway Bakery Po'Boy Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans may be the city that has the best food in the United States.  I’m not talking about the fanciest restaurants or the most Michelin stars.  I’m talking about good old-fashioned food that has been around forever and is still done the best in the Crescent City.  You just can’t leave the city until you’ve had a po’boy, gumbo, Oysters Rockefeller, and the world famous beignets.  The hard part is having enough time to try all the fabulous foods New Orleans has to offer without gaining 50 pounds.

For more about New Orleans’ traditional foods and where to eat them, read 15 Traditional New Orleans Foods and 10 Top Restaurants in New Orleans.

Drink a New Orleans Cocktail

21st Amendment La Louisiane Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans is the capital of cocktails.  So many cocktails were invented right in New Orleans like the Hurricane, Sazerac, Bourbon Milk Punch, Ramos Gin Fizz, Grasshopper, and many, many more.  New Orleans not only has great cocktails, it also has great places to enjoy those cocktails, like The Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone, where guests can sit at the revolving bar, or The 21st Amendment La Louisiane, which is like an old-timey speakeasy and a place you can kill two birds with one stone, drink a New Orleans cocktail and listen to New Orleans music.

If you want to learn more about what goes into a New Orleans cocktail, you can take a behind the scenes tour of Old New Orleans Rum, a local distillery.

To know what cocktails to order and where to drink them, read 15 Drinks to Try in New Orleans and 6 of New Orleans’ Best Hotel Bars.

Explore the French Quarter

French Quarter Things to Do in New Orleans

When you see pictures of New Orleans, those pictures are usually of the French Quarter.  When New Orleans was founded in the early 1700s the entirety of the city was contained within the French Quarter and stayed that way for nearly a century.  The French Quarter’s architecture is unlike any other with its bright colors and balconies and galleries.  The area is so special all 78 blocks of buildings of the French Quarter are on the National Register of Historic Places.  To learn more about the history of the French Quarter, join a French Quarter walking tour lead by Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc.

Royal Street Things to Do in New Orleans

The most popular streets of the French Quarter are Bourbon Street, filled with bars, and Royal Street, filled with shopping.  Spend some time wandering the streets and popping into shops, restaurants, bars, and museums.  Royal Street was my favorite street in the French Quarter as it is filled with shops selling antiques, art, and even Christmas ornaments.  Royal Street is also where many of New Orleans’ street musicians play.

For more information about New Orleans walking tours, including the French Quarter walking tour, read The Walking Tours of New Orleans.

Ride the Streetcar

Streetcar Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans is a very walkable city, but some places are a bit too far for walking, which is where the New Orleans’ streetcar system comes in.  The St. Charles streetcar is the oldest line in New Orleans.  In fact, it is also the oldest continuously running streetcar line in the world.  The railway tracks were laid in 1835 to connect New Orleans proper to Carrollton, an uptown neighborhood that wasn’t always part of New Orleans.  The St. Charles line is also one of only two moving National Historic Landmarks.  The St. Charles streetcar line can be used to get to the Garden District and Audubon Park, zoo, and golf course.  The streetcars date back to the 1920s and have wood plank bench seats that flip to face the opposite way with the touch of a finger.  For fares, schedules, and maps, visit the RTA’s website.

Hop On and Off the City Sightseeing Bus

Hop On Hop Off Bus Things to Do in New Orleans

The City Sightseeing New Orleans hop-on hop-off bus is a great way to get acquainted with the layout of New Orleans and learn about the city.  The complete route takes two hours and visits the French Quarter (though it can’t drive inside the Quarter), the Central Business District, and the Garden District.   Your ticket provides unlimited trips for three days along with the option of taking three walking tours, a self-guided cemetery tour and guided walking tours of the French Quarter and Garden District.  We used our tickets to not only learn about and see New Orleans, but also as transportation to get to places that couldn’t be reached by streetcar. There are a few points of interest that can’t be reached on the streetcar, like Mardi Gras World and the World War II Museum.  The hop-on hop-off bus will take you right to their front doors. 

Go to Church at the St. Louis Cathedral

St. Louis Cathedral Jesus Statue Things to Do in New Orleans

No tour of the French Quarter would be complete without a visit to Jackson Square and the cathedral that towers over it, the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis King of France.   The St. Louis Cathedral was originally built in 1727 and has been the city’s center of worship for over 280 years.  It is the oldest active cathedral in the United States.  The currently standing cathedral was completed in 1851.  In front of the cathedral is green Jackson Square with a bronze statue of General Andrew Jackson on his horse.  Be sure to walk by the back of the cathedral at night when the lights shining on the statue of Jesus with its arms upraised casts a striking shadow onto the cathedral wall.

Remember Katrina at the Presbytère Museum

Presbytere Museum Hurricane Katrina Exhibit Things to Do in New Orleans

The building that houses the Presbytère Museum, next door to the St. Louis Cathedral, was built in 1791 to compliment the cathedral and match the Cabildo on the other side.  It was built on the site of the residence of the Capuchin monks and used for commercial purposes until it became a courthouse in 1834 and then part of the Louisiana State Museum in 1911. 

Presbytere Museum Katrina Things to Do in New Orleans

The most riveting part of the Presbytère Museum is the downstairs exhibit on Hurricane Katrina.  We all remember witnessing the aftermath of the devastation on television.  The Katrina exhibit relives the catastrophe with timelines, first person accounts, videos, installations, and reconstructions.  Imagine living in a city that just received its first ever mandatory evacuation and hearing the national weather service announce, “Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks . . . perhaps longer.  At least one half of well-constructed homes will have roof and wall failure . . . airborne debris will be widespread.  Persons . . . pets . . . and livestock exposed to the winds will face certain death if struck. . . . Water shortages will make human suffering incredible by modern standards.” 

The upstairs exhibit covers a subject just as important to the identity of New Orleans, but far more joyful.  Upstairs is about all things Mardi Gras, with exhibits detailing every part of the Mardi Gras celebration including the floats, the parades, the costumes, and the private balls.

Celebrate Mardi Gras Year-Round at Mardi Gras World

Mardi Gras World Things to Do in New Orleans

Even if you’re not visiting New Orleans during the Mardi Gras season, you can still experience some of the pomp and pageantry of Mardi Gras.  There are a number of places where you can learn more about Mardi Gras and see some of the elaborate costumes, like the Presbytère Museum and Arnaud’s Mardi Gras Museum, but the best place to visit if you’re interested in Mardi Gras is Mardi Gras World.  Here is where the spectacular floats are created for 16 Mardi Gras krewes.  You can see floats from previous years and witness firsthand floats for next year’s parades being created.

For more information about Mardi Gras in New Orleans all year-round, read An Outsider’s Guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

Fill a Prescription for Knowledge at the Pharmacy Museum

Pharmacy Museum Things to Do in New Orleans

The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum used to be an actual working pharmacy.  The first resident was Louis Dufilho Jr., America’s first licensed pharmacist.  The building was constructed in 1823 and served as Dufiho’s apothecary and residence.  The building was sold in 1855 to Dr. J. Dupas who used the upstairs for his medical practice and kept the downstairs as a pharmacy.  The museum opened in 1950 with donated collections, but there are some items that were original to the Dufilho family, both healthcare and household items, which were found when the privy was excavated in 1988.  The museum displays a number of interesting exhibits covering everything from voodoo potions to opium to scary looking surgical instruments.  There is even an old soda fountain from the 1800s, on display because soda fountains were invented by American pharmacies to make the taking of unpleasant tasting medicines easier.

Do that Voodoo that You Do So Well at the Voodoo Museum

Voodoo Museum Things to Do in New Orleans

Voodoo is a mysterious practice which is shrouded in a lot of misinformation.  While many think of black magic and voodoo dolls with pins stuck in them, voodoo isn’t evil.  Voodoo is a socio-political-religious practice from West Africa that came to the United States with the slaves.  Voodoo is rarely used for evil but is rather used for four different categories, called gris-gris: love and sex, power and domination, fortune and luck, and uncrossing a gris-gris.  Visitors to New Orleans can learn more about voodoo at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum which was founded in 1972.

Honor Those that Served at the World War II Museum

World War II Museum Things to Do in New Orleans

The National World War II Museum opened on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day.  The museum was created to honor those who served in World War II to protect our country and our freedoms.  There is a lot to see in this museum.  The most popular feature is Beyond All Boundaries, a 4D film produced and narrated by Tom Hanks.  When you first arrive pick up your interactive dog tag for the Dog Tag Experience and follow the story of a soldier throughout the museum.  The museum tells the story from beginning to end of World War II with immersive galleries, and The Boeing Center features aircraft from the era.  World War II veterans are sometimes available at the museum to share their stories with visitors.  A word of warning, the museum isn’t usually crowded, but if you arrive and it seems crowded with lines out the door, come back another day.

Get a Culinary Education at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum

Southern Food and Beverage Museum Things to Do in New Orleans

One of New Orleans’ newest museums is the Southern Food and Beverage Museum.  Here visitors to New Orleans can learn more about the food, drink and culture of the South.  Exhibits explain what barbecue means in each state of the South and provides information about foods unique to the southern states.  There are some eclectic exhibits like a bar salvaged from the third oldest restaurant in America that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a cocktail exhibit chronicling the cocktail from 1806 forward, and the largest collection of absinthe artifacts.  The museum is located a few blocks up from the St. Charles streetcar line.  The neighborhood feels a little sketchy, but does appear to be going through the process of gentrification.

Peek Into the Lives of the Rich and Famous in the Garden District

Garden District Things to Do in New Orleans

The French Quarter isn’t the only neighborhood to visit in New Orleans.  Jump on the St. Charles streetcar and head down the line to the Garden District.  While the French lived in the French Quarter, the Americans lived in the Garden District, which is why the architecture is so different.  Stroll through the Garden District and keep your eyes open for famous houses like the Benjamin Button house, the homes of famous residents like Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Ann Rice, and Nicolas Cage, and the childhood home of Peyton and Eli Manning.  Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc. offers walking tours through the Garden District, including the Lafayette Cemetery.

Haunt One of New Orleans’ Cemeteries

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans’ cemeteries are destinations unto themselves.  Two of New Orleans’ cemeteries are easy to visit.  The first, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, is just outside of the French Quarter.  The St. Louis Cemetery opened in 1789 and has a very famous resident, Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen of New Orleans.  Some other famous sites in the cemetery are the Easy Rider tomb and Nicolas Cage’s pyramid tomb.  A newer but prettier cemetery is Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, opened in 1833 and located in the Garden District.  The above ground tombs with cracks in the stone and overgrown greenery make the Lafayette Cemetery very picturesque.

Scour the Swamps for Alligators

Alligator Swamp Tour Things to Do in New Orleans

Louisiana is known for its swamps and alligators, both of which can be seen by taking a short drive out of the city.  The best time to see alligators is when it’s warm and they’re swimming around, but you can even see alligators when it’s cold and they’re partly buried in the muddy banks.  Alligators aren’t the only wildlife to be seen in the swamps.  There are also armadillo, deer, turtles, and lots of birds.  There are a few swamp tours from which to choose, but Jean Lafitte Swamp & Airboat Tours is the only company that can guide tours through the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve.  We booked our tour through Gray Line Tours New Orleans, which provided transportation from the French Quarter to the swamp.

Time Travel Back to the Old South with a Plantation Tour

Laura, A Creole Plantation Things to Do in New Orleans

Louisiana’s history isn’t all rosy and its plantation homes are a reminder of that fact.  The stories of Louisiana’s plantation life and slavery can be learned by visiting one or more of the plantations along the old Mississippi River Road.  We first visited Laura, A Creole Plantation.  While you probably think of palatial homes like the one in Gone with the Wind when you think of a plantation home, the Laura plantation is not like that.  The Laura plantation was a place the family visited to conduct business while they resided in New Orleans.  The plantation is painted in bright colors like it was when the area was inhabited by French immigrants.  There are a few remaining slave cabins which can be viewed.  At one time these cabins covered three miles of land and housed eight people per cabin.  Even after the slaves were freed they and their descendants continued to live in these cabins until the 1970s.

Oak Alley Plantation Things to Do in New Orleans

Oak Alley Plantation is more like the plantations you imagine with columns, a wraparound porch, and a quarter-mile tunnel of oak trees leading up to the plantation.  The outside is painted in the American style, white with black shutters.  While the Laura tour focuses more on the business side of a plantation and slavery, a tour of Oak Alley is more about what it was like for the family living on the plantation.

Many companies offer tours from the French Quarter to a plantation home, but most of them only offer a visit to one.  I think it is important to visit two to see the differences.  Cajun Encounters Tour Co. offers a combined tour of both Oak Alley and Laura Plantation.

Golf One of the Oldest Courses in the United States

Audubon Park Golf Course Things to Do in New Orleans

If you’re a golfer, a visit to New Orleans also provides the chance to play one of the oldest golf courses in the United States.  The first golf was played at the Audubon Park Golf Course in 1898.  The golf course is located within Audubon Park, named after the famous American ornithologist.  The course is surrounded by oak trees that are over 100 years old.  Not only is the golf course historic, it was also rated 4.5 stars by Golf Digest.  Within Audubon Park is also a zoo, aquarium, and butterfly garden.

To learn more about golfing this historic course, read Shooting for Birdies at New Orleans’ Audubon Park Golf Course.

Join One of New Orleans’ Many Celebrations

New Year's Eve JAX Brewery Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans’ most famous celebration is Mardi Gras, but the people of New Orleans find a reason to celebrate all year-round.  Mardi Gras season lasts for one to two months, starting January 6 and continuing through Fat Tuesday.  April is music season with the French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  The heat of summer brings Tales of the Cocktail.  The Christmas season starts December 1st and continues all the way through the first week of January, and New Year’s Eve in New Orleans is one of the most spectacular New Year’s Eve celebrations in the United States.  To learn more about New Orleans’ many celebrations, visit the tourism board’s calendar of events.

To learn more about the holidays in New Orleans, read 5 Reasons to Celebrate the Holidays in New Orleans.

Sleep in the French Quarter

Hotel Le Marais Lobby Things to Do in New Orleans

For a trip to New Orleans the best places to stay are right in the thick of things in the French Quarter or in the quieter Garden District.  While the Garden District does have a number of New Orleans’ great restaurants, our preference was to stay in the French Quarter to be within easy walking distance of most of the sites and restaurants we would be visiting during our trip.

Hotel Le Marais Pool Things to Do in New Orleans

If you like sleek and modern, Hotel Le Marais is the hotel for you.  Hotel Le Marais is chic and trendy with blue lights illuminating the hotel interior and the outdoor pool.  Breakfast is served every morning in the dining area that turns into VIVE! Bar at night.  Our room was a quiet interior room with a view of the pool.

Hotel Mazarin Courtyard Things to Do in New Orleans

For old world elegance and luxury, stay at Hotel Mazarin.  The hotel wraps around an open courtyard where one of New Orleans’ best hotel breakfasts can be enjoyed in the morning.  Rooms have marble floors, crystal chandeliers, oriental rugs, wood trimmed with gold furnishings, and doors and windows that open to the courtyard.  The hotel is very quiet, though at night we could faintly hear some of the sounds from Bourbon Street since our room was on the top floor.  Attached to Hotel Mazarin are two great bars.  21st Amendment is a speakeasy style bar with craft cocktails and live music.  Patrick’s Bar Vin is a laid-back wine bar run by the darling of New Orleans, Patrick Van Hoorebeek, king of the Krewe of Cork.

Thank you to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the New Orleans Hotel Collection for hosting our trip to New Orleans and making this post possible.  As always, all opinions are my own.  For updates on what is going on in New Orleans, follow the New Orleans CVB on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Need more help planning your New Orleans adventure?  Here are some guidebooks we suggest.

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Travel the World: Top 20 things to do in New Orleans for a weekend getaway or a week-long vacation to NOLA.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.