Things to Do in New Orleans

by Gray Cargill on January 31, 2012

Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street

Three years after my visit to New Orleans, I still sigh when I think about the city. I loved everything about it–the history, the culture (one of the most diverse in the country), the food, the music, the geography, and the fun-loving, indomitable spirit of the people who live there. When I recently asked you “where are you going in 2012,” several of you mentioned New Orleans. I can’t tell you how happy that makes me! In case it helps you with your trip planning, here is my list of things to do in New Orleans–crucial New Orleans experiences and a couple I just want you to know about. Enjoy!

Experience Bourbon Street

This is a must-do for the New Orleans visitor, if only to say you’ve done it. It’s Party Central. People wander down the street with drinks in hand (yes, oftentimes drunk), in and out of bars checking out the live music. The scene here is not for everyone, but it’s worth experiencing once.

Big Al Carson

Big Al Carson at the Funky Pirate

Listen to Live Music

New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. You’ll find all kinds of live music on (and slightly off) Bourbon Street, including jazz at Preservation Hall (St. Peter Street, just off Bourbon), the dueling pianos at Pat O’Briens (also on St. Peter Street), and the awesome Big Al Carson (blues) at the Funky Pirate. On Bourbon Street, there are rock cover bands, Dixieland jazz bands, and Cajun bands as well. Or go where the locals go to hear good jazz and blues: Frenchmen Street. But likely you’ll be hearing music everywhere you go around the French Quarter.

Streetcar

New Orleans Streetcar

Ride the Streetcars

This is a classic New Orleans experience. Not only are they colorful, but they’re a handy and inexpensive way of getting around the city. There are three streetcar lines in New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar, the Riverside Streetcar, and the St. Charles Streetcar.

Grilled oysters

Grilled oysters

Sample the Local Cuisine

If you eat nothing but pizza and cheeseburgers in New Orleans, there is something seriously wrong with you. Cajun and Creole cooking is part of the allure of visiting New Orleans, and it would be a shame if you didn’t try some of the local specialties while you’re here. How about some gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, turtle soup, po’ boys, muffuletta sandwiches, shrimp creole, crawfish étouffée, or grilled oysters? You can also get traditional southern specialties like grits and fried green tomatoes. Particular dining experiences I recommend:

  • Lunch at Commander’s Palace Combine this with a tour of Lafayette No. 1 Cemetery across the street. Commander’s Palace offers one of the best dining experiences in New Orleans, and 25 cent martinis during lunch.
  • Try a beignet at Cafe du Monde It’s touristy, it’s crowded, and you might not even like beignets (I didn’t), but it’s one of those quintessential New Orleans experiences you simply have to try. What is a beignet? It’s a donut generously dusted with powdered sugar.
Lafayette Cemetery No 1

Lafayette Cemetery No 1

Take a Cemetery Tour

The cemeteries of New Orleans are renowned for their tombs. I visited Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District, which is over 170 years old and is on the National Register of Historic Places. I booked my tour with a group called Save Our Cemeteries. The profits earned on their tours goes directly to preserve and restore New Orleans historical cemeteries.

Steamboat Natchez on the Mississippi River

Steamboat Natchez on the Mississippi River

Stroll Along the Mississippi River

Or if you prefer, take a ride on the Steamboat Natchez. But don’t visit New Orleans without seeing the “Mighty Mississippi.”

Jackson Square

Jackson Square

Visit Jackson Square

You’ve no doubt seen the photos of Andrew Jackson on horseback in front of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. That is Jackson Square, in the heart of the French Quarter. The square is surrounded by some of New Orleans’ finest museums, including the Cabildo.

Courtyard fountain, Garden District

Courtyard fountain at a private home in the Garden District

Tour the Garden District

The Garden District is home to a lot of really beautiful old mansions from the 1800s. If you enjoy architecture, this is a must-see. Hop on the St. Charles Streetcar to get there from the French Quarter. The Garden District is bounded by St. Charles Avenue, 1st Street, Magazine Street, and Toledano Street.

Iron fence

The spooky side of New Orleans awaits

Go on a Ghost Tour of the French Quarter

A friend of mine recommended I go on a ghost tour, and I’m so glad I did. This was a lot of fun! My guide, Carla, was a New Orleans native (of both Creole and Cajun descent) and was fabulously theatrical when the subject matter called for it. It wasn’t particularly scary, but I heard a lot of good stories that night.

Mardi Gras exhibit

Mardi Gras exhibit

Mardi Gras or the Mardi Gras Museum

If you’re not able to visit New Orleans during Mardi Gras, try the next best thing: Visit Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World or the Presbytere off Jackson Square, where you can learn about the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and view a large collection of Mardi Gras artifacts.

Old Absinthe House

Old Absinthe House

Sip Some Local Cocktails

Try the fruity, rum-based Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s or Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (a bar), a Pimm’s Cup at Napoleon House, a Ramos Gin Fizz at the Old Absinthe House, or the Sazerac at the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone. (The Carousel Bar is worth seeing even if you don’t drink.) I don’t recommend the Hand Grenade unless you have an extremely high tolerance for alcohol—it contains gin, vodka, rum, grain alcohol and melon liqueur. If you prefer beer, I can highly recommend the locally-brewed Abita brand. PSA: Go slowly with the drinking when you’re traveling solo. Being pickpocketed is the least of your worries when you’re tipsy. End PSA.

New Orleans wetland

New Orleans wetland

See “Hurricane on the Bayou” at the IMAX Theater

I know some people would scoff at the idea of taking precious exploration time in a new city to stop and watch a movie, but this isn’t just any movie. (And it’s only 42 minutes long.) “Hurricane on the Bayou” documents the story of Louisiana’s disappearing wetlands and the impact that had when hurricane Katrina ripped through the region. It is beautifully filmed and very educational. Bring tissues; it’s pretty emotional, too.

 

City Park

City Park

Visit City Park

While it doesn’t need to be included on a list of things to do in New Orleans, if you want to get outdoors in New Orleans and commune with nature, City Park is a great place to do that. I saw just a small fraction of the park—a very pretty river with swans gliding by and picturesque stone bridges, gazebos, Spanish moss on the trees and walking oaks–but I loved it. I wish I’d had more time here. You can get to City Park by streetcar.

And finally. . . .

Talk to the Locals Every Chance You Get

I had the best time just talking to locals in New Orleans. Everyone seems to have a story of some kind to tell. I heard some hairy Katrina survivor stories and some sad stories about loved ones who didn’t survive. I learned about the education system in the city from two teachers who work there. Waitresses called me “hon” all the time, even when they were young enough to be my daughter. It was charming.

Have you been to New Orleans? What else do you consider a “must do” for anyone visiting the city?

Sha May 21, 2013 at 11:41 am

Gray I have had this bookmarked for a bit and even though I have a had a couple little trips to NOLA, I am going specifically to see things for celebration of my 45th birthday. I am hoping to do some of the things on here. A friend is suppose to join me and then of course my boyfriend will drive down. Those Grenades are so good! LOL I have no problem with them. I also carry a bottle of water too though! I would love to take my camera and get some good photos. Maybe I will as I miss photography and haven’t done any in quite awhile. Will let you know what I do and all.

Gray May 21, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Fantastic, Sha! I think that’s a great way to spend your birthday. New Orleans is so photogenic–if anything is going to get you back into photography, that will. Have fun and yes, come back and let us all know what you did.

Gray March 15, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Wow, Alecia! You went to New Orleans during the hottest time of the year? You are made of tougher stuff than me. But you’re right, it’s like no other city. I’m so happy for you that you’re going back. That’s a long absence from a place you love. Have fun!!!

Alecia March 15, 2012 at 3:55 pm

My sister and I would go to New Orleans every July 4th for the Essence Music Festival and I fell in love with the city. It is like no other city I’ve visited and I would look forward to seeing some of the reisdents every year. We were there right before Katrina and I’ve not been back since. We are planning to return next year and I can’t wait.

Gray February 16, 2012 at 9:23 pm

LOL, Tracy, you were too quick for me. Sorry I couldn’t get this posted before you left. But I’m so glad you loved it as much as I did! It’s a wonderful city.

Tracy Antonioli February 16, 2012 at 9:13 pm

I just found this now, and thought ‘how did I miss this???’ The answer–I was IN New Orleans when it was posted. Well, actually, sailing away from New Orleans. But still. I love this list and agree with every single one, including the last one. I loved the food and the music and the architecture…and the cocktails. But it was the people that made me fall in love with the city. I honestly can’t think of anywhere better to visit solo. I was never alone in a city full of warm, welcoming, friendly people.

Can you tell that I love New Orleans?

Gray February 6, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Oh yes, good point, Marc! It’s nice all year round in New Orleans, so being able to grab a table and sit outside in the middle of winter is a real treat to those of us who live in cold weather locations.

Marc February 6, 2012 at 1:05 pm

I love NOLA! On Bourbon Street, the drinkers should definitely grab a hurricane @ Pat O’Briens. Sit outside if the weather allows you too. It’s a wonderful time even if it’s kind of touristy (like Cafe Du Monde).

Gray February 5, 2012 at 10:06 am

You’re very welcome, Anne! I’m so glad you found it useful.

Anne McKinnell February 5, 2012 at 9:57 am

This is timely I just found your blog as I am going to New Orleans in about a week and now I am looking forward to it even more, thanks for the tips!

Gray February 2, 2012 at 6:03 am

A plantation tour is the one thing I didn’t have time for, Lance, and the one thing I wish I had.

Lance February 2, 2012 at 5:48 am

1. Go to the french quarter
2. Willie Mae’s Scotch House- you have to eat there go early for lunch its a bit of a wait but so worth it. Its real southern food. 2401 Saint Ann st
3. Go on haunted history tour of the french quarter- Rev. Zombie’s Voodoo Shop, 723 St. Peter street
4. Must see Jackson Square
5. Eat a Beignets at– Cafe Du Monte on 800 Decatur Street
6. Wander down Bourbon Street listening to music at night
7. Make sure to eat muffuletta

Have a wonderful town..its one of the best trips I have been on. also if you can make it to Plantation do that as well and we drove down the coast to biloxi mississippi

Gray February 2, 2012 at 5:43 am

I hope you get a chance to, Juno. Add it to your next US road trip. 🙂

Juno February 2, 2012 at 3:55 am

My friend went to University in New Orleans and she told me lots of good stuff about the town. Would love to visit, and eat their food!!! 🙂

Gray February 1, 2012 at 9:32 am

I had you in mind when I wrote this, Alouise. 🙂

Alouise January 31, 2012 at 10:42 pm

Great list. I’ll have to remember these tips when I go to New Orleans this year.

Gray January 31, 2012 at 10:29 pm

Agreed, John. I did mention it under “listen to live music,” I just didn’t give it its own category. 🙂

John January 31, 2012 at 10:23 pm

I think Frenchmen Street would be a valuable addition to this list. Many of the best music clubs can be found in this Marigny hot spot which many refer to as the locals’ Bourbon Street.

Gray Cargill January 31, 2012 at 9:50 pm

All good suggestions, JoAnn–Thanks! Oh, is that what I’ve been doing wrong with the beignets? 😉

JoAnn January 31, 2012 at 9:38 pm

I love beignets. I must say they do taste better late at night after you have had plenty of the local cocktails.

JoAnn January 31, 2012 at 9:34 pm

I will be making my 6th trip to NOLA in May. I haven’t been since before Katrina and looking forward to going when it is warm (three of the previous trips have been during Mardi Gras and the other two were at Thanksgiving).

Tipitina’s is a fun place for live music. Mother’s Restaurant is a good place for a Po-Boy. I recommend the debris sandwich. Central Grocery is always a stop while visiting for their famous muffalettas.

Gray Cargill January 31, 2012 at 8:12 pm

Oh, we are kindred spirits, Suzanne! 🙂

Suzanne January 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm

So glad you posted this~ I will keep all these items in mind for our itinerary! Finally someone else who actually admits to not liking beignets~~~people have looked at me funny when I have said I dont care for them. Id rather have a croissant. But I will try one in Nola too~

Gray January 31, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Oh you should, Abby. It is one of the coolest cities in the US.

Abby January 31, 2012 at 11:59 am

I’m dying over these photos!! I’ve only been to New Orleans once, and it was a quick work trip. I had one free day. I want to go back!

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