Oysters, po-boys, beignets and classic cocktails feature prominently on any New Orleans itinerary, but eating, drinking and general indulgence aren’t the only things to do in the Big Easy. Whether you’re a newcomer or a lifelong local, check off these essentials, from antiques-hunting in the French Quarter to unique museums and storied jazz joints (between meals and snacks, of course).
Best things to do in New Orleans
Be a flâneur in the French Quarter
There’s much more to Crescent City’s oldest and most famous neighborhood than the neon debauchery of Bourbon Street. Spend an afternoon browsing the galleries of Royal Street, like M.S. Rau Antiques (630 Royal St, 504-523-5660)—ask to see the secret room filled with extravagant paintings, jewelry, sculpture and furniture. The Quarter has been home to a fascinating cast of characters from the infamous privateer Jean Lafitte, who conspired with his cohorts in Pirate’s Alley, to William Faulkner, whose legacy lives on at the cozy, stacked-to-the-ceiling Faulkner House Books (624 Pirate's Alley, 504-524-2940). Some of the city’s oldest Creole restaurants are here, including Antoine’s (713 St Louis St, 504-581-4422), where Oysters Rockefeller was invented. But if you’re more in the mood for a casual sandwich and a drink, seek out Killer Po-boys at the Erin Rose Bar (811 Conti St, 504-522-3573), a small, dark yet inviting Irish pub with a gourmet sandwich counter in the back.
Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Irfan Ahmed
Take five in Jackson Square
As you stroll through the Quarter, preferably with an icy beverage in hand, don’t overlook its historic hub, named after seventh president Andrew Jackson, who commanded U.S. troops in the Battle of New Orleans. Take time to admire the stunning late-18th-century Spanish architecture, with elaborate wrought-iron designs festooning the wraparound balconies. Overlooking the manicured lawns is the gorgeous St. Louis Cathedral, one of the oldest cathedrals in North America (though the 18th-century Spanish Colonial structure was largely rebuilt during the following century). The square block is humming with street performers playing everything from Dixieland to neo-folk and hip hop, portrait artists and fortune tellers eager to divine tourists’ fate with Tarot cards, runes and prognosticating white rats. Every year during the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, it’s full of people yelling “STELLA!!!” to the heavens.
New Orleans might seem an odd place to officially honor the Greatest Generation, but it makes sense when you learn that the LCVP, or “Higgins Boat,” so instrumental to turning the tide of the Axis during the Invasion of Normandy, was invented and built right here in South Louisiana. Since its founding on the 56th anniversary of D-day in 2000, the museum has expanded both its space and its exhibits, and it now houses an impressive and poignant collection of artifacts, including documents, uniforms, weapons and fully restored period aircraft such as a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. A dramatic 4-D theater experience, complete with simulated gunfire and artillery explosions, is narrated by period-war-movie vet Tom Hanks.
Louisiana oysters are some of the biggest, cleanest and (the best part) cheapest bivalves to be found in the country. And the best place to get them is Casamento’s, a Magazine Street institution since 1919. Its casual, white-tiled dining room is the perfect place to suck down some raw ones and indulge in an “oyster loaf,” which is similar to a po-boy, but served on buttery Texas toast instead of traditional New Orleans French bread. You should know that the place is closed during the summer (sub-optimal oyster season), and doesn’t take reservations, so you’ll likely have to wait in line. But pros know to tip the shucker at his station and he’ll make sure you get a cold dozen to make the wait so much easier. Bonus points for bravery if you ask him for a “flying oyster,” shucked into your mouth from across the room.
Get funky on Frenchmen Street
It’s a very badly kept secret in New Orleans that if you want real-deal local music, bypass French Quarter karaoke clubs and head to the Faubourg Marigny. There, you’ll find Frenchmen Street (between St. Claude Avenue and N Peters Street), a repository of bars, clubs and restaurants unparalleled in the United States for homegrown jazz and funk. For outstanding live music paired with killer food and cocktails (mixed by notable local barkeep Kimberly Patton-Bragg), head to Three Muses (No. 536, 504-252-4801)—we like the West Bank Daiquiri (NOLA rum, lime juice, pineapple-lemongrass syrup). For a more intimate jazz experience, duck into the always-packed Spotted Cat at No. 623 for a standing-room-only set. Even places like Yuki Izakaya (No. 525, 504-943-1122), which serves some of the best Japanese cuisine in the city and has an outstanding sake and soju list, hosts plenty of great live music.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Kylen Louanne Palmer
One of the oldest public parks in the country, built in 1854, City Park spans a whopping 1,300 acres. Walk, jog or bike (two-wheel rentals are available at the Boathouse on Park Lake) along miles of trails passing swampy lagoons and winding through magnificent old live oak trees festooned with canopies of Spanish moss. Among the park’s many features are 26 tennis courts and an amusement park called Carousel Gardens featuring rides from mild to moderately frightening, including the namesake 1906 carousel featuring hand-carved steeds with real horse-hair tails. The 12-acre New Orleans Botanical Garden showcases more than 2,000 exotic and local plants and trees among its fountains, sculptures of satyrs and water maidens, plus a butterfly walk. There’s also an outpost of classic New Orleans coffee-and-beignet purveyor Morning Call if you want to stop for a snack. Bear in mind, though, that the entire park is closed on Mondays.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Infrogmation of New Orleans
No microphones. No amplifiers. No artifice. Preservation Hall offers not just a window into New Orleans’ musical past, but also a continued tradition of musicianship that’s been nurtured over the decades. At the time of the Hall’s opening in 1961, there were few places in the city and even the country in which one could reliably find live traditional jazz, and the venue evolved into a showcase for the art form’s most talented practitioners (many of whom were underemployed at the time), as well as a place where formal New Orleans jazz is, well, “preserved.” The hall is open to all ages, too, which is a bonus if you happen to the little ones in tow and don’t feel like exposing them to the seedier sides of the French Quarter. Playing shows 350 nights a year, the house band is one of the most famous in the city, with other local, national, and even international musicians sometimes sitting in—Robert Plant, My Morning Jacket, Keb’ Mo’, and the Foo Fighters have all played that stage.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Rickz
Set in City Park, NOMA is particularly noteworthy for its collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century French paintings (including works by Edgar Degas, who lived nearby in the 1870s), Picasso and Dufy, and an Art of the Americas collection spanning pre-Columbian artifacts to 19th-century furnishings. Special exhibitions have featured everything from Mayan art and artifacts to modern photography, and of course plenty of homegrown talent, such as NOLA abstract expressionist Ida Kohlmeyer. Don’t miss a walk through the gorgeous, and free, Bestoff Sculpture Garden, which features pieces ranging from Louisiana native George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog to more thought-provoking works like Surrealist René Magritte’s The Labors of Alexander.
There are too many places in New Orleans to get our most famous sandwich, but for the very best, head to Domilise’s. The bare-bones Uptown institution has had plenty of practice—its been making them since 1918. Individual fillings—shrimp, oyster or catfish—are battered and fried to order and served on pillowy Leidenheimer French bread, resulting in the Platonic ideal of what a po-boy should be. Can’t decide? Order the “half and half” shrimp and oyster combo to get the best of both worlds. Better still, the place serves super-cheap draft beer in huge, frosty fishbowl-style goblets. Arrive before you start to get hungry since there’s an inevitable wait.
When it comes to interring the dead, New Orleans does things a little differently than the rest of the country. Due to the city’s high water table and the fact that it’s below sea level, coffins are safeguarded in mausoleums instead of being buried in the ground. This makes the “cities of the dead” beautiful, historic and sometimes spooky places to visit. There are dozens of noteworthy cemeteries in NOLA, but easily the most famous is St. Louis No. 1, which houses the grave of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau (1794–1881), who gained notoriety for performing her exotic rites for a multiracial following numbering in the thousands. Nicolas Cage has erected a huge pyramid tomb for his eventual interment. Because of recent spates of vandalism, the cemetery is now only open to guided tour groups, but it’s certainly worth a look, if only to check out the location of the Mardi Gras acid-trip scene in Easy Rider. You can access the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 on Washington Avenue, in the Garden District, sans tour guide.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Wally Gobetz
Craft cocktails, frozen daiquiris and the like are always a good bet, but NOLA hasn’t slouched when it comes to craft beer, as can be evidenced by the 200-beer selection—45 of them on tap—at the Avenue Pub. Domestic nano-brews? Rare and exotic imports? It’s got them all, from Belgian farmhouse ales to local brews like NOLA Blonde Ale, Abita Andygator, Parish Brewing Co.’s Canebrake and many more, with a friendly and knowledgeable staff to guide you through the extensive menu. Snag a spot on the second-story wraparound balcony and quaff your ale while watching the streetcars trundle down the avenue. Bonus points for excellent pub grub, including an outstanding burger and “dump truck fries” loaded up with pulled pork, grilled onions, bechamel sauce and a port wine au jus.
If you can’t make it to town during Mardi Gras, this is the next best thing. The massive studio not only houses the city’s great rolling artworks, but the people who construct them year-round. Mardi Gras World celebrates the history, creativity and craftsmanship that goes into creating NOLA’s iconic Carnival floats, from a bust of Louis Armstrong to Greek gods, Zulu tribesmen and fantasy creatures. Even better, you can examine them at your leisure instead of craning your neck to get a glimpse of them over the massive crowds as they roll down the street.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Paul Mannix
Shop, eat and drink your way along Magazine Street
Stretching from the Lower Garden District all the way to the Mississippi River, Magazine Street rolls out retail spanning high-end boutiques like local jeweler Mignon Faget (No. 4300, 504-891-7545) and musty vinyl purveyors like Jim Russell Rare Records (No. 1837, 504-522-2602), plus antiques shops and art galleries. The strip is also dotted with dozens of fantastic bars and restaurants. Want to cool down with a craft beer? Hit The Bulldog (No. 3236, 504-891-1516). Or stop by cozy wine bar The Tasting Room’s “Leisure Hour” (3–6pm or all day Tuesday) for $5 glasses of red, white and bubbles. Food options range from gourmet hot dogs to tapas, but we recommend James Beard Award–winning modern Israeli spot Shaya (No. 4213, 504-891-4213).Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/robbiesaurus
You cannot—and this is deadly serious— visit New Orleans without experiencing the most joyful combination of café au lait and beignets at this iconic open-air coffee stand, a French Quarter fixture since 1862. These aren’t just doughnuts and coffee; this is best pairing of doughnuts and coffee in the known universe. The fluffy texture of the hot beignets, spilling over with powdered sugar (don’t wear black) is incomparable, especially with the cafe’s signature chicory coffee. And the place is open 24/7, which means it’s perfect for a post-party indulgence, an early breakfast, or, you know, because it’s Wednesday.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Gwen
Hang out Uptown
Carrollton’s once-edgy Oak Street has been revitalized, largely thanks to the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival in November, which attracts crowds of up to 50,000 for live music and inventive, sometimes wacky po-boy creations. These days, the Uptown strip is lined with cool places to hang out and shop. Stop for coffee at Rue de la Course, set in a former bank with soaring ceilings and massive windows (1140 S Carrollton Ave at Oak St, 504-861-4343), and browse immaculate vintage dresses, Hawaiian shirts and unique jewelry at Retro Active (8123 Oak St, 504-864-8154) then get a drink, and maybe stay for a set, at storied music joint the Maple Leaf Bar (8316 Oak St, 504-866-9359).
Formerly housed in the Riverwalk mall downtown, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum moved into new 30,000-square-foot digs in Center City’s 1849 Dryades Street Market building in fall 2014. Whether your interests lie in the oyster beds of Apalachicola or the story behind the invention of the po-boy (the only sandwich created because of a transit workers’ strike), you’ll find it—and everything in between—at SOFAB. Among the exhibits is an absinthe history gallery charting NOLA’s connections with the “green fairy,” which includes a diorama of the 19th-century Old Absinthe House. But even if you’re not a culinary history buff, come for the in-house restaurant Purloo, serving refined pan-Southern fare (everything from a low country she-crab boil to traditional Louisiana rice calas) at the hands of chef Ryan Hughes. Ask for a seat in the exhibition kitchen if you want to watch your meal being made.
Ride a vintage streetcar
They may no longer take you to Desire, but for only $1.25, Crescent City’s streetcars will carry you all the way from the French Quarter through the gorgeous Garden District and down Carrollton Avenue in the University area. Choose the Canal Street line (red cars), and you’ll head from the foot of Canal through Mid-City. Thirty-five of the St. Charles line’s 73 original cars are still in service, and the vintage wooden seats and the most excellent “chucka-chucka-chucka” sounds will transport you to the 1920s.
NOLA’s famous aquarium is family friendly, sure, but it also hosts dozens of marine species that would give the saltiest sailor a case of the creeps. The massive shark tank alone is scarily impressive, not to mention the electric eels, payara “vampire fish,” snakes, long-snouted garfish, and even a blue-eyed, white-skinned alligator named Spots that looks completely fake until you see him move or blink. Intrepid lovers of marine life can even dive into the aquarium’s Great Maya Reef, filled with cow-nosed rays and hundreds of tropical fish. Needless to say, sushi is not served in the on-site food court.Photograph: Courtesy Creative Commons/Flickr/Gary J. Wood
Established in 1939, and operating at its current location since 1944, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz lays claim to the oldest sno-ball (not to be confused with a snow cone) stand in the country. Ernest Hansen, who founded the shop with his wife, Mary, invented and patented Hansen’s unique ice shaving machine, which turns out perfectly fluffy ice, on which you can have your choice of hand-made syrups. The New Orleans confection comes in flavors from traditional, like spearmint, nectar and satsuma, to more elevated combos, including honey-lavender, ginger-cayenne, and “cream of ice cream,” which tastes exactly like hand-churned vanilla ice cream, and begs to be generously topped with condensed milk and rainbow sprinkles.
Join the liveliest line ever
A roving party and parade put together by local “Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs,” Second Line parades take place on Sundays throughout the year (barring late summer, when it’s too hot and humid). The parades are accompanied by a brass band (the first line and club members), and free to anyone who wants to join in the festivities—the “second line.” There are always enterprising locals selling food and drinks from rolling grills and coolers (cold beer and Jell-O shots are usually on the “menu”), with smoky trucks serving crawfish nachos, hot sausages, po-boys, “yak-a-mein” and other local delicacies. The parade routes usually roll through Uptown and Central City neighborhoods, and stop at divey bars along the way, such as Verret’s Lounge and Gladstone Bar.