Things to Do in New Orleans
So much can be said about the Mississippi that it almost defies belief. So much more than just the largest drainage system in North America, the might Mississippi is entrenched in the collective American psyche. From the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Beasts of the Southern Wild, the grand idea of the muddy river delta and its great abundance stays with us. Beginning in the far reaches of Canada, the long arms of the mighty Mississippi reach across the United States and eddy down the flat belly of America and out through the Louisiana river delta. While in New Orleans you can stand on the banks of this muddy river and be intoxicated at its briny smell, the tugboats and tankers that regularly parade its banks, and get a sense of what it means to be standing at the beginning of something.
Bordered by Chartres, St. Peter, St. Ann and Decatur Streets near the Mississippi River in the French Quarter, Jackson Square is a colorful city plaza and home to the elegant St. Louis Cathedral. A National Historic Landmark, the square attracts visitors and locals who gather to listen to street performers and buskers, have their palm read by a gypsy, browse the shops, have a chicory coffee and beignet at Café du Monde or just relax under a tree while life in the French Quarter moves around them.
Jackson Square is a great place to pick up some local art, as well. Artists must have permits to sell their work in the square, and only 200 are issued annually, meaning you’ll be browsing through pieces by legitimate and talented artists. Across Chartres Street sits the Cabildo, the 18th-century building where the Louisiana Purchase was signed.
The infamous Bourbon Street, also known as Rue Bourbon, conjures up images of endless partying, drinks of all shapes and sizes, strips clubs, bachelorette parties, and of course, Mardi Gras. The Las Vegas comparisons are well deserved with enough alcohol and revelry to rival Sin City for the title of America's party capital.
Outside of Mardi Gras season, visitors flock to Bourbon Street for its well-known drinking establishments including the Old Absinthe House, Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, Johnny White's Bar, not to mention Pat O'Brien's- home of the hurricane cocktail and dueling piano bar.
Not your typical attraction, the LaLaurie House is one New Orleans icon that is usually viewed in something of a different light. Part of any good New Orleans ghost tour, the LaLaurie House history is far from pristine or pretty, though the house itself is beautiful. Once home to the wealthy socialite, slave-owner, and serial killer Marie Delphine LaLaurie (aka Madame LaLaurie), a fire in the late 1834 brought to light (quite literally) the skeletons in the LaLaurie’s closets. Seemingly supernatural stories of great horror were unearthed here, where the LaLauries committed acts of unspeakable brutality and torture upon their slaves. Iron collars, disfigurement, and other mechanisms of torture occurred here that were so gruesome that stories about them continue to this day.
Famed for the ancient live oak trees that flank its main walkway, the Oak Alley Plantation might seem eerily familiar. Used as a site for several movie screenings including the popular Interview With A Vampire, the Oak Alley Plantation is, in real life, all the more beautiful and exciting. A sprawling plantation with over 1300 acres to its name and an interactive Civil War museum, visitors to Oak Alley enjoy the beauty of the grand antebellum plantations with a historical walking tour. A 17 ft-wide veranda and opposing doors and windows provide shade and cross-ventilation for the main house during hot summer days, but what makes a trip to Oak Alley memorable isn’t the beautiful architecture - it’s the lush grounds themselves, the mossy oak trees, and the stories of bygone days. These will have you imagining yourself sipping a mint julep and laughing as part of what was once the magnificent southern aristocracy.
Across Chartres Street from Jackson Square and adjacent to the Cabildo, where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, St. Louis Cathedral stands tall and proud, beckoning French Quarter visitors to take a little time out of their drinking and dancing to admire the oldest continuously used cathedral in the United States. The seat of the city’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese, St. Louis Cathedral was built in 1789 and rebuilt in 1850. The cathedral is also known as the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, and its all-white, Spanish Colonial façade with three black spires is one of the most instantly recognizable landmarks in the South. The inside is just as beautiful – go in for a break from the sun and a chance to admire the frescoes on its arched ceiling.
More Things to Do in New Orleans
Often considered the heart of the Quarter, the New Orleans French Market is the grand bazaar that serves as much as a cultural meeting place as it does a market space. Always something to see, smell, eat, or purchase, the French Market is both a farmer’s market and a flea market that comprises over three centuries of history in six city blocks. Located along North Peters Street and bordered by the Mississippi River, walking the French Market is the best way to get a real feel for both the history of the area and its culinary predilections. Eat spicy boiled crawfish, listen to the bands that play on the corners, get a coffee at the famous Café Du Monde, or shop the local boutiques and curio stalls to your heart’s content. There’s nothing like in anywhere, and walking the streets you feel that New Orleans wouldn’t have it any other way.
The St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans’ most famous resting place, is actually made up of three cemeteries.
More than 100,000 bodies lie in Saint Louis Cemetery #1, which takes up just one square block between St. Louis and Conti streets just outside the French Quarter. A bit of a morbid attraction, the cemetery has been a lauded place of burial since it opened in 1789, making it the oldest of the city’s three Roman Catholic St. Louis cemeteries.
What makes it both creepier than your average cemetery and way more dramatic is that all the graves are above ground vaults, most of which were built in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many notable New Orleans residents lie here, including Homer Plessy and Etienne de Boré. Famous Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau is also rumored to be entombed here.
St. Louis Cemetery #2 is located on Claiborne Ave., just a few blocks from St. Louis Cemetery #1.
Few other places on earth can claim a cemetery as both an interesting tourist destination and a cultural icon. New Orleans’ elevation is technically a negative number, so the early settlers to the area had trouble with the bodies of their recently interned washing away come the summer rains. The settlers quickly learned that the only way to properly keep their dead in place was to build raised cemeteries, and thus the tradition of New Orleans’ raised cemeteries took hold.
Lafayette Cemetery is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, and this nearly 200 year-old attraction has a history that goes beyond the raised cement graves. Ripe with ghost stories and notable New Orleans elites, the Lafayette Cemetery, as any tour guide will tell you, holds the remains of only “Americans,” while the also popular St. Louis Cemetery houses what is left of the Creoles.
If stone bridges, botanical gardens, sculpture, theme parks, hundreds of centuries-old oak trees and numerous waterways are indicative of a good park, then consider New Orleans City Park one of the best city parks in the world. Over 1300 acres of sprawling land comprises this park, making it the sixth-largest urban park in the United States and a routine stop for family fun. Distinguished by a large menu of activities, whether it’s stopping in the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, renting a boat or bike to see some preserved bayou, walking the sculpture gardens, golfing, playing tennis, fishing, or just relaxing in the park on a picnic, a day spent in New Orleans’ City Park is always a good time.
The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is comprised of six sites, offering everything from outdoor activities to history lessons and boat tours. The Acadian Cultural Center in Lafayette teaches the history of the Acadian or Cajun people who settled southeast Louisiana, while the Barataria Preserve in Marrero is a 23,000-acre wetland. The visitor center includes exhibits, dioramas and hands-on displays.
Head to the Chalmette Battlefield to visit the site of the War of 1812’s Battle of New Orleans. The Chalmette National Cemetery is also nearby. Meanwhile, the French Quarter Visitor Center is conveniently located on Decatur Street in New Orleans, and in Eunice, the Prairie Acadian Cultural Center offers music, stories, dancing and craft demonstrations. Learning about Louisiana’s bayou country includes boat tours, history walks and sessions with local musicians at the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux.
Located on the outlying border of the famous French Quarter, the Louis Armstrong Park is a lovely 32 acre haven, full of beautiful grassy knolls, lagoons, and cultural auditoriums and structures that are everything jazz.
In the southern corner of the park is the historic Congo Square, a cobblestone laden open space that was used in the 17th century as a gathering point, where African-American slaves came to socialize and make music, one of the earliest signs of African influence in jazz. Behind the square lay a plethora of buildings such as the Mahalia Jackson Center for the Performing Arts, Jazz National Historical Park, and the recently renovated Perseverance Hall, where there is now a jazz exhibit and a line of scheduled performances throughout the year. All these places and more are a testament to Louisiana’s long and prospering music tradition in the face of oppression and hard times.
Royal Street often plays second fiddle to its more-recognizable bigger brother Bourbon Street. And while Bourbon Street has its place and charms, there is a lot more going on along Royal Street for those with a more casual disposition and a more discerning eye.
Known for its art galleries, restaurants, and curio shops, Royal Street is just a block away from the hustle of Bourbon Street, but retains all of the French Quarter character and charm. A shopper paradise, the casual explorer of Royal Street will note the French and Spanish architecture, while those with a photographer’s eye will likely fall in love with the wrought ironwork, the fern-filled courtyards, and the cobblestone and brickwork. Royal Street has something for everybody, which is why many prefer it to Bourbon-just one block over, but a whole world of difference. Take a stroll down Royal Street to see why those that come to the Vieux Carrie fall in love with Royal Street.
Located just off Highway 90 in the heart of the Warehouse District lies one of the most enticing, modern, and comprehensive World War II museums in all the country; New Orleans own World War II Museum. Rated a 29/30 on Google and scoring high marks across every major review site, the National World War II Museum (also known as the D-day Museum) explores the lives of the American men and women who took part in World War II through letters, recruitment posters, weapons, film, and even fighter plane replicas and a real Sherman tank.
Famous for its interactive exhibits, the New Orleans WWII Museum decided to take things one-step further and offer a 4-D experience in which chairs vibrate and shake, fog and lights bring the on-screen experience to life in something akin to a history-laden Universal Studios ride. In-line with its on-going efforts to bridge the gap between entertainment and education, the WWII Museum offers its guests a chance to visit the Stage Door Canteen.
Steeped in history far richer than the former plantation owners could have dreamed of owning, the Laura Plantation lies just beyond the reaches of the Greater New Orleans area. Originally built in 1804 by a French naval veteran of the American Revolution by the name of Guillaume Duparc, the plantation was erected on the site of an old Colapissa Indian village. A Creole-owned sugar plantation, the Laura Plantation differed from most plantations in its Code Noir ethics, its somewhat removed societal circumstances, and its beautiful sprawling sugar plantation landscape.
Touring this iconographic plantation, you’ll learn the difference between Creoles and Cajuns, hear chilling ghost stories, and see how a bygone way of life now heralds itself as one of the top Louisiana cultural attractions.
New Orleans is home to one of the largest lakes in the world, were it really a lake, that is. Lake Pontchartrain, while spanning 630 square miles, is really an estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico, but proud New Orleanians and those from surrounding parishes know and love this open body of water as “Lake Pontchartrain.”
A natural habitat that supports innumerable species of life, this important environmental habitat was once in jeopardy from years of dredging. Today, however, recovery and conservation efforts have revitalized the “lake” and so events ranging from Saturday picnics to triathlon races take place every day in the brackish waters of Lake Pontchartrain. A 24-mile-long causeway that spans the lake (technically the longest bridge in the world), and delivers eager explorers to Mandeville and the “North Shore” where you’ll find quiet communities that love boating, fishing, and life on the lake.
Came to New Orleans to get a taste of antiquity? Then look no further than the Old Ursuline Convent—the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. But that’s not all – built in 1752, the convent is also a treasure trove of religious antiquity which features, among other religious treasures, the famous Archdiocese archives.
Not just a documentary museum, this ancient antebellum mansion located in New Orleans Garden District also houses some of the best examples of opulent southern décor. Enter via the Chartres Street entrance and be met with the most beautiful manicured garden in New Orleans, while within the mansion, the first thing you’ll notice is a handcrafted cypress staircase followed by some of the most fascinating oil paintings featuring religious motifs. Other rooms tell the various histories of the Old Ursuline Convent—the building was once an orphanage, a makeshift hospital, and even a temporary residence for traveling bishops.
Little is more iconic to a native New Orleanian than the towering Superdome. The Superdome has served as a cultural symbol for New Orleans since it was first built in 1967, and has since played host to a number of big New Orleans events including numerous Super Bowls, Sugar Bowls, and even as home to the many displaced during Hurricane Katrina. This marvel of engineering spans 13 massive acres and when the crowd cheers for a sporting event, gives the home team a statistically significant home-field advantage. This is the largest fixed-dome structure in the world, and proud home to the New Orleans Saints.
Ask any tourist about the Faubourg Marigny and you’ll likely be met with blank stares. Ask any local about the Faubourg Marigny, and you’ll hear about one of New Orleans’s most interesting and musically active neighborhoods. A triangular area between Esplanade and Elysian Fields Avenue, this historic New Orleans neighborhood spans only a third of a square mile but has a wildly disproportionate concentration of musical talent.
Long a local secret, national attention landed upon Faubourg Marigny when, after Hurricane Katrina, a new wave of interest in New Orleans began, and with the economic resurgence that filled the land the Marigny neighborhood entered the spotlight as a local place to be and be seen. Historically, the Faubourg Marigny was developed as New Orleans’ second suburb in 1806, and was the first recording neighborhood outside of the famous French Quarter.
While Bourbon Street may take the spotlight, the real party is down on Frenchmen. This little corner on the cusp of the French Quarter is home to numerous live music venues and dance halls that, throughout the years, have put New Orleans’ 7th Ward on the map. It’s here that you’ll find the best of New Orleans live music, and many a long festival night will lend way to Frenchmen’s small three block section of New Orleans.
There are numerous nightclubs here, but arguably the most famous are: D.B.A., the Spotted Cat, and Snug Harbor – each of these has its own flavor and charm, but the best of an evening out will consist of getting your beer “to-go” and popping in-between the venues like the rest of the crowd. Looking for an authentic New Orleans experience? Come to this little slice of live-music heaven and see how New Orleans earns its reputation as a music capital.
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