Best things to do in New Orleans
What is it? Crescent City’s oldest and most famous neighborhood has much more to offer than the neon debauchery of Bourbon Street.
Why go? 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. Some of the city’s oldest Creole restaurants are here, including Antoine’s, where Oysters Rockefeller was invented.
What is it? Don't overlook the Quarter's historic hub named after seventh president Andrew Jackson.
Why go? There's much more to do here than admire the late-18th-century Spanish architecture—though you shouldn't miss the undeniably stunning St. Louis Cathedral. The square block is humming with street performers playing everything from Dixieland to neo-folk to hip hop 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.
What is it? This museum honoring the Greatest Generation houses an impressive and poignant collection of artifacts from WWII.
Why go? Since its founding on the 56th anniversary of D-day in 2000, the museum has expanded both its space and its exhibits. The collection includes everything from documents and uniforms to weapons and fully restored period aircraft such as a Douglas C-47 Skytrain. A dramatic 4-D theatre experience, complete with simulated gunfire and artillery explosions, is narrated by period-war-movie vet Tom Hanks. There's also a busy, rotating calendar of events (most of which are temporary or for one-night-only), including photographers talks, unusual, historical tours and music.
What is it? This Magazine Street institution has been serving up some of the best oysters in NOLA since 1912.
Why go? Louisiana oysters are some of the biggest, cleanest and cheapest bivalves in the country. Casamento's 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 French bread. You should know that it's closed during the summer (sub-optimal oyster season) and doesn’t take reservations, so you’ll likely have to wait in line.
What is it? This street is a repository of bars, clubs and restaurants unparalleled for homegrown jazz and funk.
Why go? 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. For outstanding live music paired with killer food and cocktails, head to Three Muses. For a more intimate jazz experience, duck into the always-packed Spotted Cat for a standing-room-only set.
What is it? Stretched out over an incredibly vast 1,300 acres, City Park is one of the oldest in the country. Founded in 1854, the grassy oasis attracts millions of visitors every year - and for good reason, too.
Why go? Stroll, run or cycle for miles, glancing at the boggy lagoons and the verdant serpentine landscape. As you wind your way through ancient oaks adorned with canopies of Spanish moss, stop for a spot of tennis on one of the 26 tennis courts or for some (slightly more) high-octance thrills at the Carousel Gardens amusement park. Be sure to take a ride on the namesake 1906 carousel which features hand-carved steeds with real horse-hair tails.
What is it? This historic concert venue has evolved into a showcase for New Orleans' most talented jazz musicians, as well as a place where the art form is, well, “preserved.”
Why go? At the time of the Hall’s opening in 1961, there were few places in the the country where one reliably find live traditional jazz. Playing shows 350 nights a year, the house band is one of the most famous in the city, with other musicians sometimes sitting in—Robert Plant, My Morning Jacket and the Foo Fighters have all played that stage.
What is it? This art museum 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) and extensive Art of the Americas collection.
Why go? In addition to the indoor galleries, you won't want to miss walking through the gorgeous Besthoff 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.
What is it? The bare-bones Uptown institution has been churning out New Orleans' most famous sandwich since 1918.
Why go? You can't beat the po-boys filled with battered- and fried-to-order shrimp, oyster or catfish served on pillowy Leidenheimer French bread—the Platonic ideal of what a po-boy should be. 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.
What is it? There are dozens of noteworthy cemeteries in NOLA, but easily the most famous is St. Louis No. 1.
Why go? New Orleans inters its dead a little differently than the rest of the country. Due to the city’s high water table, coffins are safeguarded in mausoleums instead of buried, creating eerily beautiful “cities of the dead.” In addition to infamous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, St. Louis No. 1 will also be the final resting place for Nicolas Cage, who has erected a huge pyramid tomb for his interment.
What is it? Domestic nano-brews? Rare and exotic imports? This craft beer bar has got them all, from Belgian farmhouse ales to local brews.
Why go? Snag a spot on the second-story wraparound balcony and quaff one of the 200 beers on offer while watching the streetcars trundle down the avenue. Avenue Pub gets points for excellent grub, including an outstanding burger and “dump truck fries” loaded up with pulled pork and bechamel sauce.
What is it? The massive studio not only houses the city’s great rolling artworks, but the people who construct them year-round.
Why go? If you can’t make it to town during Mardi Gras, this is the next best thing. 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 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.
What is it? Stretching from the Lower Garden District all the way to the Mississippi River, Magazine Street rolls out retail spanning high-end boutiques, musty vinyl purveyors and art galleries.
Why go? The strip is also dotted with dozens of fantastic places to shop, eat and drink. Cool down with a craft beer at The Bulldog or stop by cozy wine bar The Tasting Room. Food options range from gourmet hot dogs to tapas, but we recommend James Beard Award–winning modern Israeli spot Shaya.
What is it? This French Quarter fixture since 1862 serves up the best pairing of doughnuts and coffee in the known universe.
Why go? You cannot — repeat — cannot visit New Orleans without experiencing the most joyful combination of café au lait and beignets at this iconic open-air coffee stand. 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. Plus, the place is open 24/7, so there's no reason to skip out on your caffeine-fix.
What is it? Carrollton’s once-edgy Oak Street has been revitalized by trendy festivals and hip hangouts.
Why go? 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, or get a drink and catch a set at storied music joint the Maple Leaf Bar. If you visit in November, don't miss the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival, which attracts crowds of up to 50,000.
What is it? The vibrant Southern Food and Beverage Museum covers everything from the history of red beans and rice to the oyster beds of Apalachicola.
Why go? You’ll find the story behind the invention of the po-boy (the only sandwich created because of a transit workers’ strike) and so much more 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. All of this food talk making you hungry? No sweat – the on-site restaurant, ‘Toups South’ serves up some of the South's best-known dishes.
What is it? For only $1.25, Crescent City’s streetcars will carry you all the way from the French Quarter through the gorgeous Garden District and other nabes.
Why go? 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. Choose the Canal Street line (red cars), and you’ll head from the foot of Canal through Mid-City.
What is it? NOLA’s prolific aquarium may be great for family day trips, but there's way more to this aqua adventure. The venue is home to an immense collection of exquisite marine species, some of which are pretty terrifying (or enough to give a salty sailor a case of the creeps, anyway).
Why go? The massive shark tank alone is scarily impressive, not to mention the electric eels, payara “vampire fish,” snakes and long-snouted garfish. Aspiring marine biologists can even dive into the aquarium’s Great Maya Reef, filled with cow-nosed rays and hundreds of tropical fish.
What is it? First established in 1939, the ice-stravaganza that is Hansen’s Sno-Bliz is the oldest sno-ball (not to be confused with a snow cone) stand in the country. In 2014, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz was even named as an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation (a national, not-for-profit culinary arts organization).
Why go? Ernest Hansen, who founded the shop with wife Mary, invented and patented Hansen’s unique ice shaving machine, which turns out perfectly fluffy ice. The New Orleans confection comes in flavors ranging from the traditional, like spearmint, coconut 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.
What is it? A roving party and parade put together by local “Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs,” Second Line parades take place on Sundays throughout the year.
Why go? 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 almost always enterprising locals selling drinks from rolling coolers (cold beer and Jell-O shots are usually on offer), with smoky trucks serving crawfish nachos, hot sausages, po-boys, “yak-a-mein” and other local delicacies.