New Orleans, nicknamed “The Big Easy,” is probably best known for its Mardi Gras celebrations in late winter. But what many people don’t realize is how rich in history and culture it is – as well as how lively it can be regardless of what time of year. Whether you’re a foodie looking for some delicious cuisine, a history buff that’s interested in learning about the past, or a partier who can’t stay away from the nightlife, there is someone for everyone in NOLA!
1. Explore the French Quarter
Known as the heart of New Orleans, the French Quarter is rich in history and is where you want to be if you’re looking for food, shopping, and entertainment. It’s also where you will find some of the most unique buildings and architecture. There is no shortage of things to see, eat, and do as you wander the streets of this famous neighborhood. It also offers a lot of options of hotel accommodations for you to stay during your trip.
2. Bourbon Street
One of the most famous streets in all of the United States, Bourbon Street is where you can find all of the action no matter what time of day or night. You’ll find that it’s alive with music, street performers, art, and other forms of entertainment. It’s also where you’ll find plenty of food and some of NOLA’s signature alcoholic beverages, such as hurricanes and hand grenades. Be ready for partying, fun, and stimulation overload on Bourbon Street!
3. Wander The Garden District
The Garden District, just a short streetcar ride away from the French Quarter, is a neighborhood that is full of rich history. You can leisurely stroll through the neighborhood and admire all the grand mansions and colorful cottages. Don’t miss Buckner Mansion, made famous for its appearance in the 3rd season of American Horror Story. And be sure to be on the lookout for some A-list celebs who own homes there, including Sandra Bullock and John Goodman.
4. Eat Beignets
This deep-fried, French pastry is a staple in the French Quarter. When paired with a café au lait, you cannot go wrong. Two of the best spots to get them from are Café Beignet and Café Du Monde. Beignet, done that! ;)
5. Ride on the Streetcar
I have always believed that taking public transportation in a new city is one of the best ways to get to know it. In New Orleans, one of the public transportation options is the streetcars. Dating back to the 19th century, these trolleys are some of the longest operating in all of the United States, making it one of the most historic ways to get around the city (and the cheapest!). Each ride will cost you about $1.25 and you can purchase tickets through an app on your phone
6. Kayak through a Swamp
If you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, look no further than a swamp tour. Swamps get a terrible rap, but they are such an important ecosystem – and not just to the alligators that live in them! There are no shortage of fan boat tours and other companies that promise to give you an up-close encounter with alligators, wild boars, etc., but unfortunately, it’s at the expense of baiting them with things wild animals should not be eating, like hotdogs and marshmallows. Instead, opt for a relaxing kayaking tour with Wild Louisiana Tours. They offer transportation from the French Quarter and will provide you with a memorable and ethical experience. It was incredible to see the cypress trees emerging from the water and the wildlife, including alligators and turtles basking on floating logs. When you can, please also opt for the more ethical animal encounter. Please always remember to “leave no trace” and respect the wildlife.
7. Carousel Bar
This bar might be an obvious tourist trap, but it’s also pretty neat. Located in the Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street, you will find the Carousel Bar. True to its name, the bar is a carousel that actually spins (not fast, thankfully!). If you can snag one of the coveted seats right at the bar, I recommend trying their Vieux Carre Cocktail!
8. Try Absinthe
A true forbidden drink, Absinthe (otherwise known as “The Green Fairy”), was once illegal to consume in the United States because it was believed to be hallucinogenic and dangerous. Thanks to New Orleans, this alcohol is now 100% legal again and is a must-try if you are a drinker who doesn’t mind the taste of anise and fennel (similar to the taste of black licorice). And if you’re like me and leery of drinking straight absinthe, opt for the Absinthe Frappe, which you can find at the historic Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street.
9. Learn about Voodoo
There is much more to Voodoo (and Marie Laveau) than what you have probably read in books or seen on television. There is no better place than New Orleans to learn about the accurate history of Voodooism and a great place to do so is at the Voodoo Museum. The museum is small (just two rooms and a hallway), but offers an abundance of information and artifacts to observe.
10. Cemetery Tour
There’s no doubt that a “cemetery tour” is one of the stranger recommendations someone could make but there is a lot of culture and facts about the city’s infrastructure that can be learned by visiting one of NOLA’s cemeteries. And they will probably be some of the most unique cemeteries you’ve ever seen – tombs in New Orleans are built above ground! St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is one of the few that offers public access with a licensed tour group and is where you can see the resting place of notable people like Marie Laveau and Homer Plessy. It is also where you can observe the massive pyramid that Nicholas Cage had built for when his final day comes. While visiting, however, it’s important to remember to be respectful, leave nothing behind, and do not to touch any of the tombs.
11. Go Shopping at the French Market
The Shops of the Colonnade, otherwise referred to as the French Market, is a lively open-air market located in the French Quarter. You can find plenty of delicious local cuisine, as well as souvenirs as you stroll through. Grab a praline from Loretta’s and browse away!
12. Stroll Along the Mississippi River
Grab yourself some beignets from Café Du Monde and wander up the hill to the banks of the Mississippi River. A stroll along the riverwalk will offer you great views of the water and passing steamboats, including the popular attraction: Steamboat Natchez.
13. Listen to Jazz Music
New Orleans is known as the birthplace of jazz music. No trip to NOLA is complete without listening to some. Preservation Hall and Frenchman Street are two locations you can look to for some of the best jazz entertainment.
14. St. Louis Cathedral / Jackson Square
Another must-see in the French Quarter is Jackson Square. This park provides an excellent view of the St. Louis Cathedral. It’s another location where you’ll find numerous entertainers and artists with their creations for sale.
15. Observe the Architecture
For me, one of the most mesmerizing things about New Orleans is its architecture. You will see many buildings, including the famous LaBranche House on Royal Street, built with the traditional “Creole style” balconies and overhangs. This design, which is a combination of French, Spanish and Caribbean influence, was developed in New Orleans.
16. Catch a Parade
While NOLA is best known for its Mardi Gras parades, locals find plenty of other reasons to hit the streets and celebrate. We happened to be there in late October and were lucky enough to catch a Halloween parade, but I’ve been told that parades through the streets are a regular occurrence in The Big Easy! And if you’re disappointed you won’t be visiting during Mardi Gras, you can check out the parade floats and other décor at Mardi Gras World year-round!
17. Try the Local Cuisine
There is no shortage of delicious food in New Orleans, so be sure you arrive hungry and ready to try a wide array of flavors. Local dishes are a meld of French, Spanish, African, Italian, German, and Native American influences. From pralines to po’boys, you won’t go hungry during your visit! (Coming soon: My food guide for New Orleans!)