New Orleans has an identity unlike any other city in the world, made up of cultures and people as diverse as the French, Spanish, Creole, Latino, Sicilian, Native American, and many more. So much so that it has been described as a Caribbean city, not a Southern one.
It is one of the oldest cities in the USA, and it is famous for its carnivals and cocktails, distinct music and Creole cuisine, amazing architecture, voodoo, and parties that never stop.
Also called the Big Easy because of the laid-back attitude of its inhabitants, a visit to New Orleans is a blast for adults and children alike.
It is an easy city to explore, with most attractions within walking distance from the famous French Quarter, heart, and soul of this delightful city. Following is a list of a few of the highlights which should be on every visitor’s must-see list.
1. The French Quarter
To feel and experience the unique rhythm, style, and attitude found only in New Orleans you have to visit the French Quarter, the historic heart of the city filled with bars, music, restaurants, and beautiful buildings.
It was around this central square, also called Vieux Carré, that the city developed after it was founded in 1718, and much was done in order to preserve the area and its historic buildings that New Orleans is so famous for.
The French and Spanish Creole architecture is noticeable in the century-old structures, many brightly colored with intricate cast-iron balconies, shuttered windows and exquisite woodwork.
But it is mostly the vibrant nightlife, jazz, and other music clubs, restaurants and countless bars serving crazy, potent cocktails and drinks that draw visitors to this happy spot.
You have to treat yourself to a Vieux Carré cocktail, named after the original name of the French Quarter, at the Carousel Bar in Hotel Monteleone. The bar is built around an antique carousel, so you rotate with the carousel while sipping the signature cocktail, an absolutely unique experience!
There are lots of attractions in and around the French Quarter, of which Bourbon Street is one of the best known because of all the Mardi Gras festivities that take place there.
2. Bourbon Street
Known as the place where the party never stops and you can wander around with a so-called “Go Cup” filled with any alcoholic drink, any time of the day or night, the street actually has an interesting history.
It was named Rue Bourbon, not after the whiskey, but after the House of Bourbon to pay homage to France’s ruling family by royal engineer Adrien de Pauger who designed the city’s streets and layout in 1721.
It was ravaged by the Great New Orleans Fire in 1788, rebuilt by the Spanish and became Bourbon Street after the Americans gained control of the colony in the early 1800s.
It used to be a residential area, but since the late 1800s and early 1900s it was changed into an entertainment strip when the Red Light District of Storyville was established, and it became a prostitution and gambling hotspot and the birthplace of jazz.
Today it is a pedestrian area packed with bars, souvenir shops, street performers and nightclubs.
3. Royal Street
Also in the French Quarter, but in stark contrast to Bourbon Street, take a walk through Royal Street which runs parallel to the Bourbon party zone.
It has been called the prettiest street in New Orleans because it is home to some of the most beautiful houses, gorgeous buildings and best wrought-iron balconies decorated with plants and flowers in the city.
In this thoroughfare, you will find smart and quaint art galleries and antique shops, Brennans Restaurant with its unmissable pink facade and Hotel Monteleone which houses the Carousel Bar.
4. French Market
For specialty shopping, eating, drinking and free live music performances you have to spend some time at the historic, centuries-old French Market in Decatur Street.
The huge open-air market is one of the oldest of its kind in the USA and has been in existence since 1791. It forms part of the French Quarter, stretching inland from the Mississippi River and covers an area of six blocks from Cafe du Monde at the one end to the flea market stalls on the other end.
Do take some time to have a cup of coffee at the iconic Cafe du Monde, in operation since 1862 and open 24/7, seven days a week!
At the Farmers Market you can buy stuff like fresh produce, seafood, spices, and specialty food or have something to eat at one of the many eateries open daily for breakfast, lunch or dinner. For souvenir shopping, pop in at the Flea Market where you will also find clothing, antiques, handmade arts and crafts, jewelry and more.
Stop by the Dutch Alley, a pedestrian plaza in the heart of the French Market, which features a tent for live performances, historic statues, and the New Orleans Jazz National Park visitor center.
5. Jackson Square
This square in the French Quarter features prominently in the history of Louisiana as it was the site where Louisiana was incorporated in the United States after the territory was purchased from France in 1803.
Jackson Square features three 18th century historic buildings namely St Louis Cathedral in the center, with the Presbytére to the right and the Cabildo, or old city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, to its left. The Presbytére and Cabildo are both Louisiana State Museums.
In the center of the square and in front of St Louis Cathedral towers the equestrian statue of General Jackson. Originally named Place d’Armes, or “weapons’ square” when New Orleans was a French colony, then Plaza de Armas under Spanish rule, it was renamed after General Jackson following his victory in the Battle of New Orleans in 1915.
Today tourists flock to the square where street artists paint and display their works of art, and jazz musicians, brass bands and fortune-tellers entertain tourists.
6. The National World War II Museum
With everything to see and experience in this museum, it is a must-visit attraction while in New Orleans. Not only do you get an insight into America’s role in WWII, but you also learn what life was like for everyone involved in the war.
In this unusual museum, you have the opportunity to watch Beyond All Boundaries, a production narrated by Tom Hanks, that takes you from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the end of the war. The special effects like explosions that shake your seat, cold air and soap flakes around you will make you feel the chill of the Battle of the Bulge.
Visitors can also dine in 1940’s style at the BB’s Stage Door Canteen, and ride in a restored PT boat on Lake Pontchartrain, the type of craft that was used in the Normandy landings.
The National WWII Museum is in Magazine Street and can be reached by the St Charles streetcar.
7. Steamboat NATCHEZ
Experience the Mississippi and learn more about New Orleans when you take a cruise through one of the world’s most active ports on the NATCHEZ, an authentic steamboat with a captain shouting his orders through a hand-held megaphone.
You will feel transported back in time as you stroll around the deck to the tune of old-time music on the two-hour long cruise. You are allowed to visit the engine room and have a close-up look at the paddlewheel.
Harbor cruises depart from the French Quarter, and cruise options include a dinner jazz cruise, Sunday jazz brunch cruise, and special event cruises. Tours include a concert and narration of historical facts.
8. New Orleans City Park
A visit to City Park in New Orleans is like a visit to one huge entertainment center with something to do for everyone. Approximately 50% bigger than Central Park in New York, it houses the New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans Botanical Gardens, an amusement park, a farm area, golf course, mini-golf, tennis courts, hiking trails and still more.
Kids love Storyland, a story-themed playground, and the amusement park which features 18 rides. These include a roller-coaster, bumper cars, Ferris wheel, and the main attraction: an antique, hand-carved carousel that dates back to 1906.
The park can be explored by foot, you can rent a bike to cycle around or rent a paddleboat or gondola to explore the area from the water. Fishing for bass and catfish is also allowed in any of the 11 lagoons located in the park.
The park can be reached by car, bike or streetcar from the French Quarter.
9. Mardi Gras World
New Orleans is known for many things, of which the city’s celebration of the Mardi Gras Festival is the most notable. This can be seen not only during February and March, the months during which the actual festival takes place throughout the city, but in the traditions, colors, and throws that are visible in souvenir shops and parties in the French Quarter on a daily basis.
At Mardi Gras World you can get an overview of the history of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and get a behind-the-scenes look at where floats and props for the festival have been designed and built since 1947.
Take a guided tour through the studios where the artists and craftsmen work and you will get an idea of the imagination, design, and work that goes into producing the magnificent floats, props, and costumes that make up the annual parade.
10. Take A Ride In A Streetcar
Explore the city and all its hidden treasures by taking a ride in a romantic streetcar, one of the cheapest but definitely the most charming forms of transport in New Orleans.
There are five streetcar lines operating in New Orleans, of which a ride in the dark green streetcar on St Charles Line is an experience in itself. The car still has the mahogany seats, brass fittings and exposed light bulbs from yesteryear, and the line is the oldest continuously operated streetcar line in the world.
It has been said taking a ride in this specific streetcar is like taking a ride in a museum on wheels and to top it all the ride along St Charles Avenue is like a journey through the rich history of New Orleans.
It takes you from the French Quarter through the Garden District, and along its 13.2 miles run past historic monuments, picturesque homes, Audubon Park and lots of well-known restaurants and hotels.
Save money and buy a Jazzy Pass for unlimited travel on the streetcars.
11. Go On A Ghost Tour
When you are in a city that is also called the “Most Haunted City in America”, where cemeteries are tourist attractions and Marie Laveau, the Queen of Voodoo is buried, it makes sense to go on a ghost tour and learn from an entertaining, educated guide more about the folklore and legends that form such an integral part of the history of New Orleans.
There are a variety of tours to choose from, like the New Orleans Ghost Adventures Haunted Houses and History Tour. On this two-hour long tour you are taken to “haunted” locations which were investigated by real ghost hunters, to St Louis Cemetery No. 1 where the voodoo queen is buried, and Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District.
The night-time Ghosts and Spirits Walking Tour takes you through the French Quarter. You will hear stories about haunted hotels and the courthouse that featured on major TV channels.
As they say in “Experience New Orleans”, “Why come here to drink spirits when you might actually get to see one?”
12. Audubon Insectarium
Brace yourself for an experience of a totally different kind when you visit the Audubon Insectarium and Butterfly Garden.
In this unique museum, you will not only see and hear thousands of creepy crawlies but can even eat them in Bug Appetit, where chefs prepare dishes containing different kinds of insects like mealworms and crickets!
The experience starts when you enter the huge walkway leading into the insectarium loaded with bug facts, terrariums and cases displaying insects and huge sculptures of insects all along the walls.
In the underground exhibition, you can “become” a bug and crawl through a typical insect habitat to experience a day in the life of an insect, go into the swamp area to learn more about the Louisiana swamps and creatures that live there, watch a 4-D movie in the Terminix Immersion Theatre and even build a bug.
Go into the Asian-themed Butterfly Garden to see thousands of beautiful butterflies in flight, and meet the biggest and most impressive insects in the Hall of Fame.
The insectarium is in Downton New Orleans, on the Mississippi River adjacent to the French Quarter.
13. New Orleans Jazz Museum
Since you find yourself in the city where jazz music was born, do visit the Jazz Museum that celebrates the history of jazz in all its forms.
The museum is home to the largest collection of jazz artifacts in the world, including Louis Armstrong’s first cornet and the first recording ever made of jazz music on a disc dating back to 1917.
The museum is housed in the Old U.S. Mint Building near the French Quarter and Frenchman Street, known for its vibrant music scene.
14. The Bywater
Take a walk through the bohemian, artistic neighborhood called Bywater, a short walk east of the French Quarter, to admire the colorful murals, quaint boutiques that sell handmade goods, and all the art galleries in the St Claude Arts District.
Besides all the outdoor cafes, bars, and restaurants, it is also home to St Roch Market where you can feast on southern specialties in a charming Victorian food hall.
Meet the man himself, the folk artist Dr. Bob, when you visit his studio and art gallery, Dr Bob’s Folk Art filled with unique works of art and browse through two levels filled with vinyls at Euclid Records.
15. Preservation Hall
Take in a live jazz show at the unpretentious 18th-century building in St Peter’s Street in the French Quarter.
The venue is situated in a fairly dilapidated Creole townhouse, which once served as a residential property but became an art gallery and performance hall by 1961.
Local artists still perform in Preservation Hall every night, and it is said to be the best place to go if you want to experience real live jazz music.
Seating is limited since most of the venue offers standing room only, but it is a quintessential experience when in New Orleans and worth the trouble.
A Few Important Tips To Keep In Mind When Visiting New Orleans:
- Save money and buy a Go New Orleans Card for free entry to the city’s main tourist attractions
- Do not spend all your time on Bourbon Street. Visitors are advised to spend their evenings in Frenchmen Street which is not as wild but where the entertainment is just as good or even better.
- Be prepared to do a lot of walking, as New Orleans is one of the most walk-able cities in America.
- You do not have to rent a car in New Orleans. Parking is hard to find and expensive, you can see most of the attractions by foot and public transportation is very affordable and readily available.