Best Things to Do in New Orleans: Big Fun in The Big Easy
Here are the can’t-miss sights and sounds in New Orleans. By Paul Oswell | October 15, 2021
Come with an open mind and a loose agenda, and you’ll leave with great memories of an American city unlike any other. Yes, there are the traditional landmarks and attractions to see in New Orleans, but it’s arguably more important to taste the renowned food and hear the legendary musical performances that give this city it’s recognizable culture and flavor. Sure, Bourbon Street is boozy and fun, but you’ll find that there is so much more to discover beyond those few blocks.
Get excited for memory-making fun with the best things to do in New Orleans, including:
The birthplace of jazz: Experience music that was born here at authentic, local jazz clubs
Bring your appetite: New Orleans is one of the world's most exciting foodie destinations, with dozens of Cajun, Creole and Southern delicacies to try
Dive into history: Wonder at the moving multimedia presentations at The National World War II Museum
Explore New Orleans on Foot
The best way to form an immediate impression of New Orleans is by walking around the historical French Quarter. Start at Jackson Square, and as you weave between the tarot card readers and artists and brass bands, you’ll see St Louis Cathedral and the Spanish colonial Cabildo. Head down Royal Street and poke your nose into antique stores, before following the sounds of the calliope organ to the banks of the Mississippi River, where you can hop on a paddle steamer for a jazz brunch.
After all of that indulgence, you’ll need a relaxing tour. Hop on the St Charles streetcar from Canal Street and sit back for a cheap (fares are $1.25) tour of gorgeous Uptown mansions. Or you could walk to the Treme, one of the oldest African-American neighborhoods in the country, and marvel at the musical history of the Petit Jazz Museum or the breathtaking costumes of the Mardi Gras Indians at the Backstreet Cultural Museum.
New Orleans Museums and Galleries
If it’s hot and humid, ducking indoors to cool off is a great idea, and you may as well explore a world-class museum while you do. The National World War II Museum can hold your interest for hours on end with its state of the art exhibits; be sure to see the stunning 4D movie presentation, “Beyond All Boundaries.”
Art galleries are also great places to escape the heat, and the classic landscapes and contemporary abstract art of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art will also give you a great sense of place. If you’re walking in City Park, the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) is right there and has regional and international works, plus a wonderfully engaging outdoor sculpture garden.
Your options in the park don’t end there, though. You can also relax under one of the old live oak trees or look in at the Louisiana Children's Museum, the botanical gardens or the Carousel Gardens, a small amusement park. For fun, kid-friendly, interactive exhibits with a local flavor, JAMNOLA in the Marigny neighborhood is a colorful, accessible playground of local culture.
Where to Hear Live Music in New Orleans
One thing you’ll notice here is that live music is everywhere, and it creates a near-constant soundtrack as you move around the city. Street performers are more likely to be full brass bands than one person with a guitar. You’ll want to find some jazz, though, and you can do that easily at any of the clubs up and down Frenchmen Street, or at one of several daily shows at Preservation Hall. For the latter, you should get there early (you can’t pre-book) and line up, but be sure to buy a cocktail first as it’s perfectly fine, if not expected, to sip drinks while you walk around the city.
If you’re in the mood for edgier live shows, you should head for St Claude Avenue, a hip neighborhood with lounges that put on burlesque, drag and non-jazz music, with in-the-know locals making up the majority of the audiences.
What To Eat in New Orleans
If you meet any locals, they’re likely going to want to talk to you about food. Most restaurants here, especially downtown, will feature the Creole and Cajun cuisine that the city is famous for. Gumbo, jambalaya, po’boys and turtle soup are widely available, and locals will have strong opinions about where to get the best versions.
For a whistle-stop tour of the city’s classics, you should eat beignets at Café du Monde, a muffuletta sandwich at Central Grocery, a po’boy sandwich at Parkway Bakery and oysters at Luke at the Hilton New Orleans/St. Charles Avenue. If you’re in town during the season (usually February to June), most local bars have crawfish boils, a highly recommended and enjoyably social way to eat and meet new friends.
New Orleanians also love to drink, so it’s no surprise that several cocktails were invented here. There’s a rye whiskey cocktail called the Sazerac that you should drink in the Sazerac Bar at Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel, or ask for a Ramos gin fizz or a grasshopper. There’s a citywide festival in July called Tales of the Cocktail and year-round you can visit the Sazerac House, a multi-level, multimedia celebration of the city’s official spirit.
Let’s also talk about Mardi Gras, the world’s largest free party. The parades start a month or so before the big day, gathering in frequency and size. We recommend you come for at least a week (including a day’s recovery on Ash Wednesday). The large parades and floats are dazzling, but talk to locals and you’ll get the inside scoop on parades with adorable, shoebox-sized floats, or pageants of dogs in costume. It’s easy to miss some magical moments if you don’t know where to look.
Make Your New Orleans Memory
New Orleans is a city that rewards curiosity. Locals welcome amenable strangers into their worlds, and you could easily find yourself invited to a backyard cookout, a Mardi Gras parade or a sports-watching party if you strike up a conversation with the right person. The city should delight all of your senses, so bring an appetite for life and you’ll take home sensory memories of sights, sounds and tastes that should last a lifetime.
Paul Oswell is an award-winning travel journalist. He lives in New Orleans.
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