10 Best Things to Do in New Orleans

things to do in new orleans
Plan to walk around Bourbon Street; the French Quarter is very close to the cruise ship terminal. - Photo by Spondylolithesis / Thinkstock

The Big Easy is an American city like no other, celebrating its eclectic blend of Spanish, French, and African ancestry in its architecture, cuisine, music, and fatalistic yet optimistic approach to life. Base yourselves in the French Quarter, and everything is accessible via foot or the St. Charles Streetcar, which extends uptown to Audubon Park.

Tip: New Orleans loves to have a good time, especially during Festival Season, which kicks off with Mardi Gras in February and ends with the Wine and Food Experience in late May. In between, you’ll find the French Quarter Festival, Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka Jazz Fest), among others. Hotels fill up fast, and some top restaurants don’t take reservations during festival season, so plan ahead.

New Orleans Hotels

The saltwater pool at the Dauphine Orleans Hotel - Photo by Dauphine Orleans Hotel

Splurge: Audubon Cottages – The French Quarter has been a residential neighborhood since its inception in the 1700s. Behind the shuttered doors are alleyways and courtyards hiding beautiful treasures like this romantic bed-and-breakfast, which comprises seven historic cottages set around a landscaped saltwater pool said to be the oldest in the city. The property was beautifully restored and reopened in 2013 as part of the New Orleans Hotel Collection. The name pays homage to John Audubon, who lived in cottage one from 1821-22 while working on his “Birds of America” collection. Cottages span one to two bedrooms, all with separate living room, butler service, and breakfast served alfresco on your patio.

Steal: Dauphine Orleans Hotel – Also part of the New Orleans Hotel Collection, this convenient spot has 111 rooms spread across three historic buildings. The Main House has the least expensive rooms, comfortably outfitted with Tempur-Pedic® beds and complimentary perks like Wi-Fi, continental breakfast, and a welcome drink at May Baily’s Place, a former bordello. Some premium and superior category rooms feature a balcony overlooking Dauphine Street.

Tip: New Orleans is said to be America’s most haunted city, so it’s no surprise to find that some of the older hotels have permanent guests of the spectral kind. The Bourbon Orleans Hotel is said to have the most ghosts, including phantom children from its days as St. Mary’s Academy, and an ethereal dancer who still waltzes in the ballroom.

Restaurants in New Orleans

Beignets come topped with clouds of powdered sugar. - Photo by tyalexanderphotography/Thinkstock

Breakfast: Café Du Monde – Chicory coffee and beignets are emblematic of New Orleans, and no place does them like this iconic outdoor café that’s been wedged between Jackson Square and the Mississippi since 1862. The omnipresent morning line moves fast, helped along by street musicians playing jazz for tips. Menu options are limited to what the eatery does best: light, airy, fried fritters topped with a pile of powdered sugar. Want to avoid the line? Come by later; it’s open 24 hours every day except Christmas. 

Lunch: Galatoire’s – Since 1905, this elegant restaurant on Bourbon Street has been NOLA society’s favorite place to celebrate life’s signature moments, from engagement showers to power lunches. Friday lunch is a scene. Galatoire’s doesn’t accept reservations for the downstairs dining room, so diners arrive early to stand in line — or pay someone to do it for them, a trick used by regulars — to secure a coveted seat. The din gets louder throughout the afternoon as groups wine and dine, pairing lemony crabmeat maison and rich, deep crawfish etouffee with seriously strong glasses of brandy milk punch, the city’s preferred daytime cocktail. Don’t want to wait in line? You can make an advance reservation, for upstairs seating only. 

Dinner: Cochon – Few people have more cred to true Cajun food than Chef Donald Link, who grew up in Lafayette, the heart of Cajun country. Link made his name with Herbsaint, which took an elegant European spin on New Orleans cuisine. In 2007, he opened Cochon, getting back to the hearty, humble food that he grew up with. Heavy on all things pork — the restaurant’s name means “pig” in French — dishes like smoked ham hock with red beans and rice, fried boudin, and wood-grilled oysters earned Cochon a James Beard Foundation nomination for Best New Restaurant, and Link the nom for Best Chef South in 2012. Cochon Butcher next door offers tasty sandwiches with sides like smothered greens and deviled eggs. 

Cocktails: Carousel Bar & Lounge – The lobby bar for Hotel Monteleone is set in a full-scale, rotating carousel, so you can belly-up on a stool and watch the world go by without moving a muscle. The menu of cocktail classics includes the Sazerac, Vieux Carre — invented here — and a delicious daiquiri that will make you forget any notion of the frozen slush served at spring break bars. Enjoy live jazz and blues Wednesday through Saturday nights. 

Tip: Don’t dismiss the po’boy as a typical submarine sandwich; the crisp, light French bread sets it apart from what you’ll find in the rest of the country. “Dressed” means with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickles, and mayo. In the French Quarter, hit Johnny’s Po-Boys for fried oyster po’boys to go; then enjoy them a block away on a bench overlooking the Mississippi. 


Activities in New Orleans

At night, Frenchman Street fills with the sound of jazz. - Photo by Heeb Photos/eStockPhoto

For Everyone: Ogden Museum of Southern Art – It’s only fitting that the country’s premier museum celebrating the South’s artistic soul would be here, at the base of the mighty Mississippi. The collection spans painting, sculpture, pottery, and photography, including a pre-eminent collection of self-taught, primitive, and visionary artists such as Georgia’s Howard Finster and Mississippi’s Jimmy Lee Sudduth. New Orleans names are represented too, like the late George Dureau, a beloved French Quarter denizen whose emotional photographs inspired Robert Mapplethorpe. Rotating exhibits showcase contemporary exhibits by working artists from all walks of life, rural potters to acclaimed professors and gallery artists. 

For Families: Audubon Park – Designed by John Charles Olmstead, this 300-acre park celebrated 100 years in 2016. In addition to golf, tennis courts, and walking trails that wind past 250-year-old oak trees, the Audubon Nature Institute offers animal encounters like penguin feeding in the aquarium and the chance to touch creepy crawlies at Field Camp at the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. 

For Couples: French 75 – New Orleans has been at the forefront of cocktail culture; locals were hand blending and infusing liquors with herbs long before hipsters started growing mustaches. This romantic spot offers a sophisticated place to duck into when the Quarter gets too frenetic. Tell the bartender your preferred spirit and flavor profile — bitter, herby, limey, sweet — and he’ll concoct something from his vast repertoire. Cozy banquettes and vintage monkey lamps give this stately circa-1800s bar a timeless vibe, and the kitchen makes the best souffleed potatoes in town, artfully served with a béarnaise for dipping. 

For the Adventurous: Frenchmen Street – For the city’s best live music, head to Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. Every night of the week, bar doors are open and music pours out into the street, inviting passersby to step in and join the party. On weekends, street performers add to the energy, with everything from retro acoustic trios to full-on brass bands. The Spotted Cat is a great dive, and Snug Harbor gets the classic jazz set. But for pure energy, check out Blue Nile. It hosts powerhouse ensembles like the 10-piece To Be Continued Brass Band, which hits the stage every Sunday night at 11, crowding the dance floor with partiers of every age and hue. 

Insider Tip

New Orleans is a city made for strolling, so make the most if it with a walking tour. Historic New Orleans Tours offers four choices, from a quiet amble through the elegant Victorian homes of the Garden District to a spirited Cemetery Voodoo Tour, which takes you through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and includes a visit to the above-ground tomb of voodoo queen Marie Laveau.

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