Of the many cities in the U.S., New Orleans is one of my absolute favorites. There's really nothing like it, the vibe is a mix of French, African and Caribbean, mixed with a bit of voodoo and some southern spook. If you're looking to visit a city that is full of history, culture and of course a city built around one of the biggest festivals of the year, then New Orleans is the place to visit. Here's a list of my must-do's and see's when visiting NOLA!
But first, how to get there:
The closest airport to New Orleans is the Louis Armstrong Airport (MSY), which is just over 10 miles away from downtown NOLA. You can rent a car to get to and from or take a shuttle or ride share. I actually recommend taking a cab/ride share to and from and around town because parking is few and far between around the major sites and if you're drinking, you'll want to be walking around or getting a ride. However, if you're staying at a hotel with a parking garage or plan to go further outside the city, then a rental car may be a better way to go.
Where to Stay:
There are PLENTY of places to stay in and around New Orleans. I always recommend checking out where the major sites are (or the things you'll be visiting) and staying around there. In NOLA, there're are a few major hotels with casinos but I LOVE staying somewhere that has some history or embodies the aesthetic of the place you're staying. On my last trip my friend and I found a terrific place in the Warehouse District that came with all sorts of free perks and welcome packages and was within walking distance to the french quarter! It was a former coffee manufacturing plant and had wonderful amenities and a beautiful design, check out my photos below and read about the former building here.
Now that we've got transportation and hotel figured out, let's talk about things to do!
What to do: In no particular order, here are my top sites to see and places to visit when visiting New Orleans. As always, I try to pick a few things I absolutely have to see and a few things that 'would be nice' if there's time.
1) Stroll through the French Quarter and Jackson Square
If you're in NOLA and want to explore the 'main drag' then head over to the French Quarter and Jackson Square. Take time wandering through the small streets that look like they belong in a different time. The architecture is a mix of old Southern, French/Creole and is absolutely beautiful. You'll find tons of bars, restaurants and shops to explore, which eventually will take you to Jackson Square near the water. I love this area because it's filled with voodoo shops and artisans all along the outside of the square. It's also an absolute feast for the senses, lots of live music, drinking and people watching!
2) Have coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde
I wrote another post on all the best places to eat and quintessential food to try in New Orleans (check it out here), because 1 post simply isn't enough. But I will say that having coffee and beignets at Cafe du Monde MUST be on any to-do list for NOLA. There's really no way to describe this without actually trying it. A legitimate beignet is light and fluffy and FULL of powdered sugar. There's no way you're leaving this place without looking like a mess and that's OK with me, get a platter for you and your friends and enjoy!
3) Visit an above ground cemetery
You can't visit New Orleans without seeing the unique cemeteries throughout the city. What make these special is that they're all built above ground due to potential flooding. There are a few famous cemeteries in the city but the oldest and most famous is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, built in 1789. Most of these graves date back hundreds of years and are crumbling; however, the Nicolas Cage Pyramid Tomb is brand new and is quite imposing at over 9ft tall. When he dies this tomb will be the final resting place for the famous actor, which makes it a popular tourist attraction. There are also other famous grave sites including the original voodoo high priestess Marie Laveau. Take note: due to the high instance of grave robbing and vandalism of famous burial sites, you can now ONLY access the cemetery via a guided tour so be sure to plan and book one ahead of time. Take my advice, the entrance is guarded and you must prove you are with an official tour (usually your tour guide takes care of this).
4) Learn about voodoo at the official Voodoo Museum
Speaking of Marie Laveau, if you're visiting New Orleans you should definitely get into the spirit of things and learn a bit about Voodoo by visiting her House of Voodoo. I love magic and learning about the other side, so for me this place was a must. I'll be honest though and say that the actual museum is a little underwhelming but I'm happy to support small businesses and local cultural efforts. The entrance fee isn't high so I definitely recommend going and at least checking it out while learning a bit about the craft. Here's a few photos of the different altars and figurines inside the museum.
5) Go to Mardi Gras World
Have you ever wondered where all the Mardi Gras floats get made or where they go after the parade? Well look no further than Mardi Gras World! This is an amazing warehouse you can tour through and see how the floats are created throughout the year, and even see past favorites that have since been retired. They even have a shuttle to pick you up and take you to and from the warehouse which is terrific!
6) Be part of a second line
Second lines are traditional in brass band parades and have been called the quintessential New Orleans art form. Behind the "first line" of the brass band is the "second line" which are people who dance and walk along, twirling parasols or handkerchiefs. When you see a second line in action everyone comes alive! You can find a schedule of upcoming second lines published by a local radio station. There's also a certain etiquette for participating respectfully and local dance classes if you're so inclined.
7) Check out the local art scene
New Orleans is FULL of artists and is one of my favorite places to explore the local scene. Be sure to check out Studio Be, which is a mural warehouse in the lower 9th Ward, St. Claude Art District and Art Garage in the French Quarter. Many of these art collectives sprung up after the devastation of hurricane Katrina and are thriving, so I HIGHLY recommend going off the beaten path and showing your support to local artists.
8) Take a Ghost Tour
Of all the cities in the world, New Orleans has to be one of the most haunted. If you want to spend a night learning about the history of the city and maybe even feel the presence of some of its former residents, then you should check out a ghost tour. However, New Orleans is FULL of spooky things to do and needs a post all on its own, check out my full guide here.
9) Visit local wildlife on a swamp boat ride
I'm from Florida, so swamp tours on an airboat are not new for me, but when you're in New Orleans, you really should check one out. There are only a few options for tours and they're all are about 30-40 minutes outside of the city but are an absolute must if you love nature. It's a great way to disengage from the frantic energy of the city and take a relaxing boat ride through the bayou, while in search of NOLA's oldest residents, alligators. My favorite company to tour with is Jean Lafitte's Swamp Tour. They took their time with us, showed us some old shacks built by early settlers and made sure we saw a few adult and baby alligators.
10) Get sloppy on a bar crawl ;)
This is New Orleans, you really can't leave without doing a bit of bar hopping or even going on an all night bar crawl. There aren't too many specifics you have to worry about here other than finding a few bars and getting as many hurricanes as you can. Some of the best bars will be all throughout the French Quarter and on Bourbon Street. Specifically, you might try Lafitte's Blacksmith shop (the oldest structure used as a bar in the U.S.), the Vampire Lounge for hurricanes or Pat O'Brien's for the dueling pianos.
11) Take a ride on the streetcars
There are many ways to get around NOLA, but why not try the street cars? Streetcars are a nostalgic and of course convenient way to get around New Orleans. There are four lines each originating Downtown (i.e., The Saint Charles Streetcar Line, The Canal Street Line, The Riverfront Line and the Loyola/UPT Line) and travel throughout the French Quarter, the Warehouse Arts District, Uptown and beyond. Check out this link to get more info on the lines and routes.
12) See Jazz the way it was meant to be seen
When in New Orleans you have to check out the live entertainment and music scene. Jazz was born here, so naturally you should put yourself in the way of as much jazz as possible. One of the most historic places to see a jazz show is Preservation Hall, which has been hosting shows since 1961! There are two types of tickets General Admission (which are $20 and cash only) and 'Big Shot Reservations' (which are $40-50) and guarantee you the best seat in the house. Note: The venue is small, so there's limited seating. The GA tickets are first come, first serve and eventually will have standing room only once the seats fill up. So if you want to guarantee a spot closer to the front with a seat make sure to arrive 30-45 minutes before the show to stand in line in front of the hall.
These are just a few of my must see's and do's when visiting New Orleans. I plan to come back as much as possible to uncover more of this amazing city and as they say, Laissez les bons temps rouler- let the good times roll!