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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?