New Orleans is an incredibly unique city. I can honestly say that it feels the most foreign when compared to the rest of the United States (edging you out Miami). New Orleans has a bizarre range of influences. French, Spanish, West African, and Southern are the most prominent in this amalgamation of culture.
Many think of New Orleans as an adult oriented city (it really can be) but there are plenty of things to do in New Orleans with kids. NOLA’s unique flair can be appreciated in a family friendly environment as well.
Quick History Review
Before the United States, the French ruled New Orleans and a large swath of accompanying land. Partially due to existing hostilities between the French and British, America was able to win the Revolutionary War (with the help of the French navy).
After America became truly independent, French and British hostilities continued, ultimately leading to the Napoleonic Wars. To help finance these wars, the French sold the US their territory in North America (featuring New Orleans and commonly known as the Louisiana Purchase) for a fraction of its worth. The US acquired pieces of what now constitute 15 states for 3 cents an acre (42 cents an acre when taking into account inflation). High Five for the sweetheart deal France!
Today New Orleans is best known for Mardi Gras, which historically was one last party before beginning lent. Today Mardi Gras is known for drinking, dancing, costumes, parades, and general debauchery. While that can contribute to the allure of the city, there is so much more to see outside of this event. Below is a list of 10 things you can’t miss on a trip to New Orleans.
Where to stay in New Orleans:
While in New Orleans we stayed at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans. This hotel is a little bit pricier than we normally go for, but I 100% think it was worth the extra expense (be sure to check though as certain times of year are a lot cheaper). The location is perfect! Airport access to this hotel is easy. Also, it’s located close to Bourbon Street and other prime tourist attractions, but it is still far enough away that you won’t hear people partying all night.
The hotel was completely redone post Hurricane Katrina so it feels brand new. Another part I loved were the views of downtown and the Superdome from the upstairs lounge and gym.
To book or check prices, click here.
Note – I highly recommend staying in the French Quarter where almost all the attractions on this list will be within walking distance! You can search for the best hotels in New Orleans below from booking.com
The Top 10 Things to do in New Orleans (besides drunken debauchery on Bourbon Street)
1. St Louis Cathedral New Orleans (Jackson Square)
This is the center of historic New Orleans. It is one of the best places to see historic architecture and meticulous landscaping.
Looking to try something different while in New Orleans? Take a haunted bus tour and experience the ultimate ghost ride. Book your tour here.
2. Airboat Tours New Orleans (Alligator Swamps)
New Orleans airboat tours are available not too far out of the city and are absolutely incredible! Going on a swamp boat tour is not like going whale watching where you wait all day hoping to catch a peak of a single far away whale.
On the air boat tour I went on, we saw hundreds of alligators, and our tour operator literally was encouraging them to jump into our boat. I feared for my life, though I was repeatedly assured this was totally normal.
The best swamp tour New Orleans offers in our opinion is Airboat Swamp Tours of New Orleans. I cannot recommend a swamp tour enough!
Book Your Tour: New Orleans – Bayou Swamp Boat Tour
3. Explore Bourbon Street & The French Quarter
This street is in the heart of the French Quarter, and is basically New Orleans oldest neighborhood. It is best known for its bars and strip clubs, but is also an amazing place circled by street cars where you feel like you can go back in time hundreds of years.
4. Take a Riverboat Cruise
A riverboat cruise is a beautiful way to experience see the Mississippi River, the New Orleans skyline, while often enjoying buffets and live Jazz music. In colonial times riverboats helped develop the port of New Orleans.
Riverboat cruises I recommend:
Book your tour: Day Jazz Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez in New Orleans (2 hour cruise including a Creole lunch option)
Book your tour: Evening Jazz Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez in New Orleans (2 hour cruise with buffet dinner option and live music)
Book your tour: Evening Jazz Boat Cruise with Optional Dinner
5. Plantation Tours
Southern charm is definitely on display if you take the time to get out of the city and view the old country.
A lot of the plantation tours in New Orleans combine the plantation tour with an airboat tour. The best of both worlds! Oak Valley Plantation tours are some of the most popular and highest rated tours in New Orleans.
I will link my favorite and highest rated plantation tours below.
Book your tour: New Orleans Oak Alley Plantation Half-Day Tour (Duration 4.5 hours)
Book your tour: Oak Alley Plantation & Airboat Swamp Combo (Duration – 8.5 hours)
Book your tour: Louisiana Plantation & Swamp Boat Bayou Full-Day Tour Combo (Duration – 7 hours)
6. Take a Historic Cemetery Tour
Due to the lack of elevation, cemeteries are above ground in New Orleans. This makes graves in these cemeteries more visible, which inspired ornate decorations. There are a number of cemeteries in town that are hundreds of years old. They are especially spooky at night, and can be explored alone, or as part of a haunted tour.
One of the most popular tours in New Orleans right now is the 2-Hour New Orleans Ghosts & Vampires Walking Tour. Highly recommend checking it out.
Book your tour: New Orleans #1 Haunted Ghost, Voodoo, & Vampire Tour
Book your tour: 2-Hour Haunted Cemetery and City Tour at Night in New Orleans
7. Walk Across the Levees
New Orleans is literally located below sea-level. To keep the city from turning into a swamp, planners built levees to keep the water out. Walking across the top of these levees is a must do. Unfortunately during hurricane Katrina the levees broke and the city quickly filled with water. Damage from the flooding can still be seen.
8. Eat Incredible Food
Of all the cities in the United States I think New Orleans has the most unique food. No it is not you Chicago! Deep dish Pizza may be enjoyable, but is not that different than the pizza we eat in the rest of the country, especially considering the US ripped Pizza off from somewhere else anyway. Things to do in New Orleans
Warning – if you are a health nut, prepare to be disappointed!
Some of the can’t miss items are: Things to do in New Orleans
- Beignets – deep fried donuts covered in powdered sugar. This sounds simple, but world famous Café du Monde makes them like no other. (pictured above)
- Oysters – often gulped down raw
- Gumbo – traditional thickened soup, often full of seafood and served with rice.
- Alligator – I felt like I was chewing on a bouncy ball
- Po’boys – the New Orleans sandwich, typically with roast beef, gravy, fried shrimp, oysters, and mayonnaise (yes I’m serious).
- Crawfish – boiled and served spicy. Often you are expected to crack open the shells, and suck the head out (I passed on this).
The Best Foodie Tours in New Orleans:
Book your tour: New Orleans Afternoon Food History Tour – Duration 3 hours. On this tour you will be able to sample a wide range of Louisiana food staples like Boudin, Beignets, Pralines and GumboVisit high-end restaurants, boutique candy shops and hole-in-the-wall joints. Rated a 4.9/5 with over 200 reviews! Book here.
Book your tour: Combo Cocktail and Food History Tour
For an even more in depth guide of food you have to try when visiting New Orleans click here.
Obviously Mardi Gras is the biggest festival, but the locals seem to be looking for any excuse to party. Some of the biggest parties that happen each year are Jazz Fest, Southern Decadence (LGBT), and the Creole Tomate Festival.
My favorite is the San Fermin Festival. This event was designed to replicate the “running of the bulls” in Spain, but roller-derby girls with wiffle ball bats serving as the bulls chasing runners. Yes, this is a real thing that brings in thousands of people each year!
10. New Orleans Saints Football Game
This NFL team is basically a religion in New Orleans, which might be why they named the team the Saints. Even if football isn’t your thing, the costumes and fervor of the fans are worth watching; just make sure you aren’t rooting for the visiting team.
Psst: If you’re interested in planning the cheapest trip possible to New Orleans, then I created a free cheatsheet for you, which details the top 6 tools we used to plan our trip. Click the HERE to download it!
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What a unique place to visit! It looks like New Orleans has a few things that you may not find anywhere else (as in the San Fermin festival, lol!). I love the old architecture and the history though, it would be so fun to explore.
Visiting New Orleans is HIGH on my travel bucket list. I know a lot of people who move there from Chicago or move here from NOLA. They say it’s because of our connecting jazz/blues cultures. I’d love to go on a food tour around NOLA, I hear the food is AMAZING <3
Food tour would be amazing! Too bad I have so many food allergies…haha
There is so many different kinds of food I’m sure you can find something to eat lol. It’s an amazing place to visit.
So true. We loved New Orleans!
What an awesome list of things to do! I plan on going to New Orleans in the near future, so this post is going to come in handy! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks for reading Lauren! Have fun on your trip!
I think that a cemetery tour would be amazing. I can only imagine the history you would learn about. And Beignets are a must have!
These are great ideas. I like to go down to New Orleans with my daughter every year or so. We have to try a riverboat cruise!
There are so many places that I want to visit in the United States, New Orleans is now on the list! Jackson Square looks wonderful.
Jackson Square was definitely a trip highlight!
New Orleans is on my list! Hopefully not in my lifetime will it be missed! What great things you have highlighted that I will be sure to put in my list
We took a trip to New Orleans in May. Absolutely loved the city! We did quite a few things on this list. Fun times!
There are so much to do. I have never been to New Orleans, but I would love to experience all these one day.
Omg what a fun list!!! Out of all my world travels this is one place I’ve never been. Hope to change this really soon!
I hope you get to go! New Orleans is a lot of fun!
Wow! The streets are so picturesque and romantic. How I wish I can visit New Orleans someday and join in their festivities!
We were able to explore New Orleans this year and loved it! This is a great list of thigns to do in New Orleans.
I love the architecture in New Orleans. There seems to be a lot of history there. I’d love to see the plantations and take a river boat tour!
Wow, New Orleans looks like such a fun place to go! I’ve never been there, but it’s definitely on my list of places to go.
Thank you for the suggestions! These really help when you travelling overseas. I plan on visiting your country soon. :)
That is awesome! I hope you enjoy it when you come!
I’ve never visited New Orleans, but your post makes it look like so much fun. I would love to go on one of those plantation tours!
Its funny to think that I use to live in Louisiana yet I haven’t done half of these things!
That is always how it is, we live in Las Vegas and never go down to the strip or casinos. It is funny how that works.
I’m the only one in my family that hasn’t been to New Orleans. My daughter was just there this weekend. I didn’t realize there was so much to do!
Me and my husband went a few months ago and we were in the same boat as you. I had no idea how unique the city was. There really is a lot to see and do!
Good Web Site.
Thanks so much Philix!
As a New Orleans resident, I want add a few things! Home tours- If you’re a traveller who enjoys architecture, be sure to take a tour of homes in the Garden District along with a tour of cemeteries. Overall, the two top things I get asked from tourists are 1. Where should I eat? 2. Where do celebs live? My advice for the former is to take advantage of the incredible variation of ethnic food in the city. New Orleans has a strong Vietenamese population, and every neighborhood has a famed Vietnamese restaurant. Don’t eat just Cajun food while you’re here. There so much diversity to eat and explore. Also, I suggest Frenchman Street over Bourbon St. Bourbon is nothing but a tacky money pit. Unless you’re with a bachelor/bachelorette party- skip spending a prolonged amount of time there. Frenchman has great jazz clubs and cafes waiting instead.
** P.S. Your tip about Bourbon St./The French Quarter is a bit misleading. There are no street cars that run within the Quarter, only along the parameters- Canal St, Riverfront, and St. Charles.
Thank you so much Hannah for adding more to our list!! You have some great tips! :)
I think “tacky money pit” is laying it on a bit thick. I echo the Frenchman endorsement, but Bourbon-bashing is a bit stale. A few fun spots on Bourbon to check out:
1) Maison Bourbon (641 Bourbon): Great band plays traditional Dixieland fare here nightly. One drink minimum and you can enjoy toe-tappin’ fare as long as you like.
(I also recommend Preservation Hall, but be ready for a line…)
2) Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop: Well past the gay bars on Bourbon (e.g. Oz, Lafitte in Exile), awaits the mostly unlit Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop – one of the few original French colonial buildings left in the Quarter.
Tip: It can get pretty crowded here (and, depending on the night, a little bro-dawg-ish), but if you arrive early afternoon, claim a seat (or wait and watch for one to open up that you can swoop in on, as I do), it’s a fun spot to take a load off.
Jukebox is electronic; pretty wide selection. Get a cold Abita (regular local beer; no poncy BS), or whatever strikes your fancy. Just watch your step, as the interior is lit almost solely by dim candlelight.
3) Clover Grill (900 Bourbon): Sassy, friendly staff. Good ol’ fashioned basic, greasy breakfast fare at just about any hour. Do it.
Bourbon street was one of the highlights of our trip (for me). It was unlike anything I had ever experienced, haha. Thank you so much Tom for giving us and our readers some more specific tips on what to do on Bourbon street! I will have to try some of these out next time we are there.
My pleasure, and if you folks head back there drop me a line on Twitter (@nolatom), I have plenty of other tips to share. I love my city and I want y’all to have a great time.
Awesome! Thanks again Tom.
I agree about downgrading French Quarter. We take our kids there and they love it too! Once you step into New Orleans you KNOW you are somewhere special. Places and things to see in or close by the Quarter. French Market, the cathedral, Jackson Square, Decatur, shops and antique stores on Royal, awesome restaurants, voodie shops to pop in, carriage rides that tour and give New Orleans history, ghost tours (if that’s your thing), and ride all the street cars. It’s nice to sit and sight-see while you chill in the streetcar.
In saying all that, I don’t care one single thing about Bourbon at night. Kids or no kids! Too many other great places to go.
My husband, best friend and I are going there next month (May 2019) I am super excited to visit this amazing city.
I’ve never been to New Orleans, but I hope that soon I’ll be going to New York.
I know it can be annoying, but I’d like to ask you if you could look at my travel campaign on FundMyTravel. Few months ago, I was on exchange in France. Since I came back, I’ve been trying to find my place in this world, but there is nowhere I could go. I think I’m a wanderer. I feel like my heart knows where it should be and I’m trying to fulfill its biggest dream – that’s why I created https://www.fundmytravel.com/campaign/iWjkZ7aSy2. If you could check it out, I’d be really, really grateful. Thank you so much.
Hey Olga! Thanks so much for commenting. I will check out your Fund My Travel page. It can be so hard to figure out where you belong at times. I totally get it. Before I got married and settled down in Las Vegas I felt the same way. Good luck with your upcoming adventures!
wow, new Orleans has a lot of places to visit, I even didn’t know about thm!
Your nola info is perfect for me and my sister who are going. In may- Any chance u rememeber the airboat company u booked with? And did u use their transportation or did u drive there urself? Oh And if u remember the riverboat cruise u did as well? Those r two musts for us and i want to get it right. Thank you!
Never, ever, EVER tour the cemeteries alone, especially at night. There are plenty of reputable toir groups. If you want to balk at the price, I guarantee it’s way cheaper than losing all your valuables, or worse.
I am wondering where the big white with the big trees is situated? How is it called? It looks like something I like to visit very much. Thank you in advance from the Netherlands.
As a displaced New Orleans native, I thought your description of the food well done. Ask any New Orleans native what they miss most, an they will say ” the food” .
We dont miss the red ants and roaches.
When coming the Big easy always budget some money for the many nice resturants there. Just let your hair down and have a good time.
Let the good times roll.
This is such a great list! Hoping to take a trip later this year, and this list made me even more excited. Thanks for sharing!!
Of course! Thank you so much! I hope it helps! Are you planning a trip to New Orleans soon?!
It definitely will help! Probably not until fall this year, though I wish I could go sooner!
If you’re traveling with children to New Orleans, there is a good zoo. It’s part of the Audubon Park which is lovely and has an art museum. Also the Aquarium of the Americas is located at the Riverwalk Mall and that would be a great way to spend a day. There is also a fun children’s museum in the city and an insect museum. Also a world war 2 museum. We like to ride the St. Charles streetcar to leisurely gaze at hundreds of mansions.
I was unable to find the link mentioned above about a free cheatsheet for you, which details the top 6 tools we used to plan our trip. We are going next month and looking for any great insigt.
Oh no, so sorry Rachel. I must have accidentally removed it while updating the post. I will send you an email with it! I hope you find it helpful and have so much fun on your trip!
Would you mind sending me the cheatsheet as well? I’m hoping to visit in July and would love to see what you put together!
Hi Claire! I, too, would appreciate a copy of the cheat sheet as well. My boyfriend and I are going this week with 2 other couples and it is MY first time and I really appreciate all the comments and advise on what to see and do!
Hello. Thanks for sharing. I was also unable to find the link to the cheatsheet. We are going in a July and this would be helpful.
Can you please email me the cheat sheet the 6 tools that you used to plan your cheap trip
Wow, this is a great article and definitely provides some great recommendations for anyone visiting New Orleans. Unlike traditional boat tours, we meander down the bayous in peaceful and quiet kayaks. Visitors have been loving the new take on the classic swamp tour. Thanks again for the great article!
Thanks for the info. Can you send me the cheat sheet too
I fixed the post so you can download it now! Let me know if you have any issues. (Also, make sure to check your spam folder if the email doesn’t appear)