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The totally awesome guide to New Orleans

There is no other city like New Orleans in the United States and consequently it is one of the best places in the country to visit if you’re looking for an amazing vacation. Trust me, I’ve visited seven times!

The Big Easy is unique in so many ways. It boasts a vibrant nightlife scene, there are celebrations almost every week, the incredible food, fabulous live music in venues all over town – most of it free, eye catching architecture and historic southern charm.

I’ve put together this totally awesome list of the best things in New Orleans you won’t want to miss, wonderful restaurants to try for po boys to fine dining, tips for shopping and fun things to do on your trip to NOLA. There is so much to do here, even when it is not Mardi Gras season. 

Doreen on clarinet in New Orleans
This is Doreen. She’s one of the legends of New Orleans on the clarinet. Photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash

Best things to see in New Orleans 

New Orleans is a great place to experience with your friends or the family regardless of age. Check out this list below for some must-visit attractions when visiting the Crescent City. 

Bourbon Street

This lively street is an essential stop on your next trip to Nawlins. In fact you won’t be able to miss it. During the day you can explore the souvenir shops and pick up beads, masks and T-shirts and pop into the bars where you’ll find live music all day.

At night, on the other hand, Bourbon Street is the epicenter of partying. It gets very crowded, but there are so many bars to hop in and out of as the night goes on for music and a drink.

Nightlife on Bourbon Street
Nightlife on Bourbon Street!

Note: if you are here with kids, be aware that there are a few girly bars along Bourbon Street, which kinda ruins the vibe in my opinion. If you want to avoid walking past windows with pictures of naked ladies, stroll along one of the parallel streets down to Jackson Square.

What to drink in New Orleans: I recommend trying a few New Orleans staple cocktails such as the Hurricane (named long before Hurricane Katrina), Sazerac (where I was given the original Sazerac recipe), Hand Grenade and Shark Attack. 

There are also various jazz bars, such as Preservation Hall which offers two sessions of acoustic jazz with a brass band every night. You’ll also find rock music, piano bars and plenty of places to enjoy cocktails and toe-tapping live music.

Preservation Hall
THIS is how close you are to the band at Preservation Hall

I also love all the free shows by street performers and musicians too along the pedestrianised streets. Be sure to bring some singles to drop in the tip buckets of these incredible local artists.  

Jackson Square

Jackson Square is a beautiful city park in the heart of the French Quarter. It boasts lovely statues and a water fountain. Many street musicians, tarot card readers, and local art vendors are stationed right around the park edges for some added vibe.

I love this photo (below) that I took in Jackson Square. Notice the jazz band on the balcony while all the vendors and artists sit below and groups of visitors stand drinking it all in. Classic New Orleans!

The buzz of Jackson Square

It is also located directly in front of the historic Saint Louis Cathedral and legendary Café Du Monde is on one corner. Jackson Square is a great spot to rest after a day of walking around the French Quarter and enjoy some freshly made beignets. It is also close to some top-notch bars and even breweries, like the Crescent City Brew House

New Orleans Museum of Art

The NOMA is the city’s oldest art museum. It has an excellent collection of contemporary and modern art pieces from around the globe.

Exhibitions change frequently, so you are sure to have a different experience with every visit. Ticket prices begin at $15 for adults and discounted tickets for students and seniors. The museum is also free for children, teens, and military families. Closed Mondays, although the Sculpture Garden is open 7 days.

Visitors can also access the museum’s Besthoff Sculpture Garden utterly free of charge from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. It is a unique and budget-friendly experience that allows for some great photo opportunities. 

French Market

This historic flea market has been around since 1791, offering a one-stop shop for all of your souvenir needs.

From novelty apparel to art and home goods, there is so much to find at the French Market. You’ll find unique shops like a custom jewelry store in which you select a crystal to turn into a necklace, earrings or ring. It is such a fun experience and highly recommended for crystal fans!  

Walk down Decatur St to the French Market

The French Market is also home to various local eateries, even featuring a live oyster shucking stand and if you dare, try fried alligator. You can also find several candy shops, like Evan’s Creole Candy Factory, that serve delicious local pralines.

All the souvenirs at the French Market

Saint Louis Cathedral

This national historical landmark is located right at the entrance of Jackson Square Park.

It was built in 1727 and has since been a place of worship for locals and travelers. The interior is beautiful, with stained glass windows and Victorian architecture. 

It is another excellent budget-friendly attraction with free admission. You may also attend Sunday Mass at 9:00 am or 11:00 pm. Remember, it is a church, after all; therefore, please silence your phone upon entering. Photography is allowed, but nobody wants to interfere with the quiet and peaceful vibe that the St. Louis Cathedral offers. 

St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square
Beautiful St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. Photo by Steve Lussier on Unsplash

Explore The Garden District

New Orleans’ historic garden district is famous for its beautiful homes with large gardens, delicious restaurants and unique boutiques.

This is the oldest neighborhood in the city, established in 1833 after being part of the Livaudals Plantation. A great way to travel around the area is by trolley on the famous Saint Charles Streetcar Line starting on Canal Street with fares starting at $1.25. You can also purchase a “Jazzy Pass” that will allow for multiple rides depending on which package you are buying. This is a fun way to spend a couple of hours, even if you don’t get off the streetcar!

If you are a fan of the popular TV Show American Horror Story, you may recognize the famous Buckner Mansion, which was featured in season 3. It is located on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Coliseum Street. There are many other stunning Victorian-style mansions around the area as well.  

Staying in the garden district is also a great idea if you are trying to avoid all the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter. 

St Charles street car
Take a couple of hours to ride the St Charles line. Photo by Chelsea Audibert on Unsplash

Frenchmen Street

Frenchmen Street boasts a fantastic live jazz scene. It is not as well known by the tourists as Bourbon Street but is frequented by locals looking for a stellar night out. However don’t expect it to be quiet, you’ll still want to book a table.

Some of my favorite music venues along here include Blue Nile, Café Negril, Maison, and The Spotted Cat for live jazz. There are also several delicious eateries in the area, such as The Three Muses and Dat Dog.

Expect to bump into scenes like this all over the French Quarter! Photo by Morgan Petroski on Unsplash

Suppose you make your way down Frenchman Street toward Esplanade Avenue. In that case, you will arrive at the delightful New Orleans Jazz Museum. They offer quite a few exhibits that provide the history of the musical genre’s influence on the crescent city’s culture. 

Eat Beignets at Cafe du Monde 

No one should leave New Orleans without trying beignets (donuts) from the historic Café du Monde. This super popular place originated as a coffee stand, started by the Fernandez brothers back in 1942.

They only serve two items: beignets and coffee. Their frozen Cafe Au Lait is absolutely out of this world and so refreshing on a hot summer day. 

It is hard to miss the stand with a line stretching around the block. Although, the sugary beignets are well worth the wait. 

An excellent way to shorten your time in line is to wait for takeout rather than a seat inside. The stand is open 24/7, so feel free to head over for some late-night snacks after a night out if you want to avoid the long lines during the day. 

warm beignets at Cafe du Monde
Get your face into these warm beignets at Cafe du Monde!

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

This unique museum has an exciting and curious collection of apothecary jars, historical medical instruments, and a beautiful backyard area.

You will learn so much during your time at this museum, which offers some wild facts about medicinal practices during the early 1800s and 1900s.

The museum has two floors where two adorable cats on the stairwell may greet you. The second floor has an extensive spectacle exhibit that depicts how eyeglass styles have evolved. You can also check out the living quarters of Dr. J William Rosenthal, a famous ophthalmologist in New Orleans. 

Admission to the museum is $10 per adult with a discounted rate for students, seniors, and the military. Ask about the ghosts said to roam in here and don’t forget to check out their gift shop for some fascinating souvenirs.

The curious New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Mardi Gras World

This fabulous art museum features some spectacular floats that make their debut at New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras parade.

Tickets are $22 for adults and $14 for children under twelve years old. Tours are held between the hours of 9:30 am to 4:30 pm are approximately half an hour long. 

It is a great destination for photoshoots and to learn about the history of the most beloved holiday in the city. I especially recommend visiting if you miss Mardi Gras season to still enjoy all the fun. 

Megan at Mardi Gras
A little touch of Mardi Gras at an event in New Orleans!

National World War II Museum

Located in the Warehouse District, the WWII Museum is such a great (and huge) attraction regardless of age. Admission for the museum begins at $30 for adults with discounted rates for students, children, seniors, and the military. It is also free to visit for members and World War II veterans. 

There are several fascinating exhibits, including an assortment of warplanes and weaponry from the war. Many of the exhibits have interactive elements and provide a ton of information on the effects of the war. It is a vast museum, so be sure to dedicate a few hours there to ensure you get the most out of your experience. 

Entrance of the WWII Museum
Entrance of the WWII Museum

Saint Louis Cemetery

I love cemeteries and this historic cemetery is beautiful yet eerie with its above ground graves and mausoleums (because of the high water table in New Orleans).

Several episodes of The Originals were filmed on the grounds of St Louis Cemetery No.1, which attracts fans of the show. In addition, the famed voodoo queen Marie Laveau also rests in the cemetery along with some of the cities’ most notable figures. It may seem like an odd activity, but I had such a great experience on this cemetery tour

It costs $20 to enter, and tours are held Monday through Saturday at 10:00 am, 11:30 am, and 1:00 pm. Although, if you snag tickets for one of NOLA’s many ghost tours, the entrance fee will be included in that rate. 

This nine-foot pyramid tomb belongs to actor Nicolas Cage, who bought it in 2010 and was recently spotted coming back for a look at his future resting place!

Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park

Not many visitors to New Orleans find this spot in Louis Armstrong Park, but it’s a must-see when I host tour gourds to the Cresent City. This little area of the park is the birthplace of jazz music.

In this corner the slaves from Africa, West Indies, Haiti and other nationalities, would gather on a Sunday afternoon – their only time off. They would play music and make handicrafts, sing, dance together from about the 1740s. By 1819 up to 600 people would gather here and drum and dance in Congo Square. This was the beginning of Mardi Gras and eventually jazz and rhythm and blues.

Congo Square - where jazz began
Congo Square – where jazz began

Louis Armstrong popularised the sound and thus the park is named after the legendary jazz great.

Audubon Aquarium and Zoo

The Audubon Nature Institute is the perfect family-friendly activity in the city.

It is home to an abundance of wildlife, such as Asian elephants, giraffes, spider monkeys, rare white alligators, tigers, and penguins. Ticket prices begin at $24.95 for the zoo and $29.95 for the aquarium. 

Audobon Zoo entrance
Audobon Zoo entrance

There are various unique experiences to enjoy during your time here. The aquarium’s new shark discovery exhibit features a touch tank where you can interact with sharks and rays firsthand. In addition, be sure to check out the Mississippi River exhibit to learn more about the animals that live within Louisiana’s ecosystem.

And pack your swimsuits because Audobon Zoo also features a large lazy river and waterslides that are perfect for staying cool. 

Voodoo Museum

I actually hate this stuff but if you’ve never been to New Orleans you’ll see it everywhere.

New Orleans is a spooky city with lots of voodoo and ghostly tales. It was home to famous voodoo queen Marie Laveau and if you’re so inclined, the historic Voodoo Museum might be for you.  

Although it is relatively tiny compared to some of the others on this list, the museum is full of interesting artifacts, sculptures, paintings and memorials. You’ll learn about the history of voodoo culture and practices. Specifically, the impact both had in New Orleans. 

Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and $8 for students, seniors, and military families.

Best Places to Eat in New Orleans 

New Orleans is a foodie’s paradise! There are a plethora of great cocktail bars and restaurants serving up incredible dishes. New Orleans will offer you a dining experience like no other, from alligator po’boy sandwiches to char-grilled oysters. Fine dining to cooking classes.

A Court Of Two Sisters

This restaurant has one of the most beautiful outdoor seating options I have ever seen and you can enter from either Bourbon Street or Royal Street.

If you come in from Bourbon you’ll see a large water fountain surrounded by greenery, flowers and sculptures in a wonderful outdoor garden dining setting. The interior is just as beautiful.

A Court Of Two Sisters offers a spectacular buffet brunch with a mix of breakfast staples and traditional Louisiana fare like jambalaya and the most scrumptious shrimp creole.

Their brunch also boasts live jazz music that elevates the overall dining experience. If you cannot make it for brunch, I recommend checking out their dinner options. 

Outside Court of Two Sisters
Outside Court of Two Sisters

BOIL Seafood House

Crawfish boils have been a significant part of Louisiana’s dining scene since the early 1960s.

This simple yet incredibly delicious way to eat seafood is a total game-changer. BOIL Seafood House in the Lower Garden District allows you to customize your meal based on the type of catch, broth flavor, and level of heat. They also offer seafood buckets and a myriad of delicious fried fish appetizers. 

Please note that this restaurant is typically bustling in the evening, so be sure to call in advance to make a reservation. 

NOLA Po’boys

Look no further for some classic po’boys than this French Quarter eatery.

NOLA Po’boys has a wide range of flavors including catfish, shrimp, alligator, chicken and roast beef. If you are in the mood for a sandwich, check out their savory fried seafood baskets that are served with a side of French fries. Their Boudin Ball appetizer, made with cajun boudin pork, is also 100% worth a try. 

The best part is that the restaurant is open until 3:00 am on the weekends, making for the perfect late-night food run after grabbing drinks on Bourbon Street. 

classic shrimp po boy
Grab a classic shrimp po boy!

Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar

This creole-inspired restaurant in Uptown NOLA is a must-try for seafood lovers.

Superior offers an excellent daily happy hour special from 4:00 pm-6:30 pm with 75 cent oysters and discounted drinks. You seriously cannot go wrong with their frozen Paloma cocktails!

Their menu has a variety of tasty dishes, including crawfish mac and cheese, blackened fish napoleon and their signature Pasta De La Mer. 

The Gumbo Shop

Located in the French Quarter, this New Orleans staple serves up some of the best gumbo and jambalaya in the city.

The restaurant offers two gumbo flavors: seafood okra and spicy chicken andouille. In addition, you can find a wide array of creole dishes like crawfish etouffee, blackened catfish, and crab cakes. 

I adore the flavors of gumbo and even learned how to make my own at a demonstration class at the New Orleans School of Cooking in the French Quarter.

Brennans

This restaurant is a New Orleans institution! It opened on Royal Street in 1946 and is in the Top 100 Best Brunch Restaurants in America. But don’t just come for brunch. Their dinners are superb fine dining, white table cloth quality and you’ll try classic New Orleans cuisine here.

The last time I dined here we came late (after being at Kermit Ruffins BBQ – one of my favourite live music venues) just for their famous Bananas Foster, a dish that was invented here and is flambéed at your table: bananas, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and rum served with vanilla ice cream.

Brennan’s Banana’s Foster, flambéed at the table

Upperline Restaurant

This is another New Orleans dining institution. Located in the Garden District, on the Upperline trolley, owner JoAnn Clevenger has run this restaurant for longer than most of us have been alive! She was off the night we last went, celebrating her 80th birthday.

The art on the walls are one of the reasons to eat here, each piece part of the history of the restaurant and the city. Some painted by former staff, others JoAnn has collected over the years. If you do get a chance to meet her, she can tell about each one.

If you’re not a local New Orlean, her food will surprise you with tastes you might not have ever heard of before. Try it all! The fried green tomatoes with shrimp remoulade (she even provides the recipe on her website), the Duck and Andouille etoufee. You can enjoy a tasting menu if you’re like me and can’t decide.

You need to make a reservation but you can’t do that online. The website is so old school it was probably created in 1995 and hasn’t been updated since. You need to phone, but only between Wednesday and Sunday. I love that about this place. It’s jam packed, so the locals just pop on down.

After Hurricane Katrina, Upperline was the first restaurant to reopen in the Garden District and it became a hub of community spirit.

Where To Shop In New Orleans 

While you really come to New Orleans for the shopping, there are many unique shops throughout the city to snag souvenirs, clothes and antiques.

  • The Outlet Collection At Riverwalk – a lively shopping mall along the beautiful Mississippi River waterfront. 
  • Magazine Street – a collection of boutiques, art galleries, and local artisan shops in the Garden District.  
  • Royal Street – art galleries and antique shops will keep you browsing for hours.

BONUS ACTIVITY: Check Out A Swamp Tour!

If you want to see real gator, racoons and other wildlife, a swamp tour is great fun. You will have to travel out of the city for this, but they offer hotel coach pick ups if you don’t have a car.

Louisiana is home to some of the most beautiful swamps and wildlife where tour guides educate you on the history and fun facts about the area’s ecosystem. Many of these tours also provide the opportunity to hold baby alligators, allowing for the perfect Instagram shot. 

A few swamp tours that I recommend looking into are: 

Racoon selfie on our swamp tour
Racoon selfie on our swamp tour

Best way to get around New Orleans

Most of the attractions in this post are in the French Quarter and if you’re staying in the Quarter (I can totally recommend that you do and here are 6 amazing hotels to check out), you’ll walk and walk. Bring sensible shoes, because seriously – you will walk!

But when you get exhausted or you want to go out for dinner and those little shoes are just not going to cut it, there’s always Uber.

You can also rent bicycles, which is another great way to see the city. A cycle tour is especially good when you first arrive so you can get your bearings on where everything is for when you want to return.

street corner musicians in the French Quarter
Just a typical street corner in the French Quarter

Got a spare night? Stay on a plantation!

One of the best ways to finish your NOLA experience is to head along the Mississippi River to Houmas House and stay in your own luxury villa on the grounds of this majestic plantation home. Or you could do this as a day trip and come out here for lunch and a tour of the mansion.

I’ve stayed here twice now and brought my little tour group here recently, can’t wait to go back.

This such a unique experience in possibly the finest, best restored historic house in the region. You need to book on one of the house tours where you’ll be taken through every room, lovingly and lavishly restored by current owner Kevin Kelly who is still collecting period memorabilia.

He has built several accomodation villas, some with four-poster beds, and you’ll have an amazing dinner at the Coach House restaurant, built from plans he found for a coach house. Arrive a few minutes early to start with a drink in the Turtle Bar first.

Houmas House pond
Beautiful Houmas House and the pond

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!

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