The Big Easy is one of the greatest cities in the United States.
It’s not hard to have a good time in New Orleans, the small, crescent-shaped city sitting on swampland, where there’s live music, fried seafood, and a colorful history lesson around every corner. But visitors spending all their time in the tourist-saturated Bourbon Street area are missing out on the best of what the city has to offer. Sure, you can’t do it all on a single trip to New Orleans (there aren’t enough meals in a day), but we’re here to make sure you skip the overrated and indulge in the very best things to do, see, and eat. Follow this list to make the most of every piece of brass, decadence, charm, and history the city has to offer.
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Indulge in Beignets
Many begin a trip to New Orleans with a towering plate of these square donuts, best-enjoyed piping hot, covered in powdered sugar, and alongside a cafe au lait. Though it accommodates large throngs of tourists each day, the quality of coffee and beignets at Cafe Du Monde hardly wavers from excellent, and if you’re willing to stand in line (especially on weekends and during festival season) head to this green and white awning next to the French Market. As a low key alternative, enjoy the same quality beignets and coffee on the wide patio at Morning Call, a 24-hour stand inside City Park.
Get a Drink to Go
It’s essential for any visiting imbiber to take advantage of the lack of open container law in New Orleans and experience taking a (plastic) cup “to go”, a freedom seldom experienced stateside. This allowance, combined with frequent warm weather, means you can bring a cocktail with you while picnicking, sightseeing, or simply walking to the next bar. In the Quarter, stop for a Frozen Irish Coffee, local beer, or craft cocktail, and wander the streets, or head to a bench by the river to watch the barges go by.
Go on a Swamp Tour
There are a few ways to enjoy the wild wetlands of Louisiana, a piece of nature unique to this part of the world, with enchanting plant and wildlife. Airboat tours are the most popular option, but the more adventurous will try a kayak or canoe tour. By foot, you can explore the Barataria Preserve, a National Park and protected swamplands with a series of connected boardwalks. Regardless of what option you choose, prepare for picturesque reeds and mosses, mangrove and cypress trees, and sightings of herons, cranes, turtles, frogs, and alligators, who will often appear on the side of boats expecting to be fed by guides.
Get Active in City Park
This 1,300-acre park boasts the most live oaks in the world (some of them more than 600 years old), natural bayous, manmade lakes, gorgeous greenways, and walking paths. Recreation in the park includes a cafe, an art museum, a sculpture garden, a putt-putt course, an amusement park, a golf course, a tennis court, a riding stable, exercise machines and boat rentals. Despite all this entertainment, the most beautiful sections are still the preserved, overgrown areas of wild swamplands and forest.
Eat and Drink Your Way Down St. Claude Avenue
Dubbed the St. Claude Arts District, this unassuming stretch of street between the Marigny & Bywater (a five-minutes’ walk from Frenchmen Street) is home to some of the best cafes, kitchens, and local nightlife in the city. Plan to skip Bourbon and Frenchmen Streets at least one night of your trip, and instead check out a burlesque showcase at The Allways Lounge, a play at The Valiant Theater, or an improv comedy set at The New Movement. For food and libations, Red’s Chinese, Kebab, or Junction Burger will not disappoint. Late night, go to Siberia for pierogis and a punk show, then head to the Hi-Ho Lounge or Saturn Bar for a local DJ set.
Get a Drink at America’s Oldest Bar
Now a French Quarter bar called Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, this ramshackle one-story building, known as the oldest standing building in New Orleans, was once the workshop of infamous pirate and early gangster Jean Lafitte. The front room is packed with tourists and rowdy locals, and the bar features Abita beer and swirling machines of the shop’s frozen “Purple Drink”, a sugary, boozy specialty that is sure to lend to interesting nights and more interesting next mornings. Don’t stop here: the back room is a piano bar, and if you wait around long enough you might get a stool at the crowded piano, where revelers sing along to Billy Joel.
Take a Ride on the Algiers Point Ferry
Taking the quick ferry ride across the Mississippi is worth it just for the experience of being on this historic waterway, and Algiers Point is a fun, quaint destination in its own rite. This small corner of the West Bank is filled with cobblestone streets, adorable colorful shotgun houses, and small neighborhood gems. There is a walking/biking path and plenty of green space on the levee, where you can enjoy fantastic views of the river, the French Quarter, and the Central Business District (CBD) across the way. Before catching the last ferry back, head to Old Point Bar for local music, or stop for a drink at the hip Crown and Anchor pub.
See Local Bands on Frenchmen Street
While some may complain about this nightlife destination’s growing popularity (read: more bachelor parties and Bourbon-Street vibes), spending an evening on Frenchmen Street is still an absolute must. Nowhere else in the city can you capture such a concentrated amount of local music and nightlife revelry as within these four blocks in the Marigny, just a few minute’s walk from the French Quarter. Half the fun is wandering the street, where there are nightly brass bands, food carts, and art vendors. Iconic music clubs like the Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, and The Maison have drink minimums or low (or no) covers to enter.
Stroll Around the Sculpture Garden
A walk through this outdoor art museum inside City Park is on every local’s list of the best free experiences in New Orleans. It’s a pleasant oasis within the city, and you can stop for beignets at Morning Call afterward to make a morning of it. The streetcar drops you off at the NOMA entrance to City Park (where Carrolton and Esplanade avenues intersect), and it’s a five-minute stroll to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. 64 sculptures range from romantic busts to post-modern metal works, and the well-manicured 5-acre grounds are gorgeously framed by pines, magnolias, and Spanish moss-laden live oaks.
Visit the Pharmacy Museum
Tucked behind a small glass storefront on a historic block of Chartres Street, this former apothecary is an underrated gem of the French Quarter and an entertaining couple of hours. Home of one of the nation’s first official pharmacies, this gorgeous museum now tells the story of early medicinal practices, displaying concoctions and instruments that often mix voodoo, superstitious, and medieval practices. Don’t miss the courtyard and herb gardens out back. Admission is $5 for adults, and guided tours are given at 1 pm on Tuesdays and Fridays.
Fall in Love at Bacchanal
What started as a little wine shop and backyard music show on a dead-end street in the Bywater is now a wine garden, a five-star kitchen, and a popular music venue. This is a favorite romantic destination for locals and tourists alike, and despite its recent popularity and growth, Bacchanal hasn’t lost its original magic. Sipping wine any night of the week here, over small plates of cheese, grilled octopus, and duck confit, is like attending an enchanting concert in a twilit secret garden. If you want someone to fall in love with New Orleans, take them to Bacchanal.
Enjoy the View from a Rooftop Bar
A number of new rooftop hotel bars (open to the public) now offer an alternative way to view this crescent-shaped city. Experience an aerial view like none other when you step in for a cocktail at Hot Tin (at the Pontchartrain Hotel), with delicious mules and Tennessee Williams-themed decor. Views of the CBD and Warehouse District from Monkey Board (at The Troubadour) are accompanied by a DJ set and great happy hour snacks. At Alto (at the Ace Hotel New Orleans), sip tropical drinks and take a dip in the pool while enjoying a breathtaking sunset over the French Quarter.
Go Shopping on Magazine Street
Spend an afternoon on a leisurely walk up or down this busy Garden District street, featuring award-winning restaurants (La Petite Grocery, Shaya), local lunch favorites (District Donuts, PIZZA Domenica, Stein’s Market & Deli), and the city’s best collection of vintage, art, clothing, and furniture stores. Noteworthy of this shopping district is the number of small, locally-owned (though mostly high-end) boutiques that fill the long stretch of Magazine Street between Audubon Park and Jackson avenue. For unique, local goods to take home, don’t miss NOLA Boards, Tchoup Industries, The White Roach, and Defend New Orleans.
Snack on Char Grilled Oysters
There’s really no better way to enjoy gulf oysters than cooked in this iconic New Orleans fashion, especially with a cold Barq’s or local beer and large hunk of french bread in hand (for sopping up extra butter). In a method accredited to Drago’s Seafood over 20 years ago, chefs take fresh gulf oysters and cook them over a flame grill (with plenty of butter, cheese, and seasonings), creating oysters that are uniquely juicy, smoky, and steamed. A few places do it exceptionally well: in the French Quarter, go to Drago’s or Acme Oyster House; head to Katie’s or Neyow’s in Mid City, and Uptown/Garden District try Basin Seafood or Casamento’s.
Visit the WWII Museum
Started in 2000 as a D-Day Museum, this expansive, multi-pavilion center in the CBD is now the nation’s official WWII museum. Serious history buffs could easily spend an entire day here, and it’s large and entertaining enough to have a little something for everyone. Exhibits center around different themes and stages of the war, including interactive features and personal stories, a 4-D Imax, and a virtual submarine experience. For the serious WWII enthusiast, the museum books excursions (or affordable deck tours) on a restored Higgins PT-305 boat, patrol-torpedo boats invented in New Orleans and considered an integral part to the end of the war.
Take a Creepy Walk Through a Cemetery
Touring the iconic tombs and above-ground burial systems in the most famous town below sea level is a must. The two cemeteries within the French Quarter, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, are home to some of the most classic ornate stonework, and famed old city dwellers like voodoo queen Marie Laveau (St. Louis No. 1) and R&B singer Ernie K. Doe (St. Louis No. 2). The Garden District cemetery of Lafayette No. 1 is perfect for a gorgeous, eerie stroll (think Interview with a Vampire and Double Jeopardy), ideal after a large lunch at Commander’s Palace across the street. Alternatively, book a comprehensive tour and knock out the most popular cemeteries in one day.
Eat Vietnamese Food
The largest Vietnamese population came over to New Orleans at the end of the communist regime in the 1970s (taking comfort in a similar climate and a large boating economy), and today it is a vibrant community that adds significantly to the culture of New Orleans. It used to be said that there was no worthwhile Vietnamese food on the East Bank (New Orleans side) of the river, but that is changing: Pho Tau Bay, once a staple of the West Bank, has opened up a casual, delicious pho spot near downtown. Nine Roses, Magasin Cafe, and Lilly’s are all excellent choices for spring rolls, pho, and banh mi. If you’re here in early spring, make a trip out to New Orleans East for the Tet Festival, a three-day celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, with fireworks, dancing, traditional games, and food.
Explore Bayou St. John
It’s hard to believe this charming city neighborhood was once a rustic country retreat for early settlers in New Orleans. The best shopping and restaurants within Bayou St. John are along Esplanade Avenue (1000 Figs, Cafe Degas, and Swirl Wine), and Carrollton Avenue (Tubby & Coo’s Mid-City Book Shop, Pandora’s Snoballs, Blue Oak BBQ). Along the bayou, you can still visit iconic 18th-century country houses like the Pitot House (now a museum and venue) and watch boaters and locals picnicking from the pedestrian bridge. Bike or walk along the bayou and up to City Park, or down to the Quarter via the Lafitte Greenway. In the evening, get po-boys from Parkway Bakery and stroll over to the water for a sunset picnic.
Ride the St. Charles Streetcar
The oldest, most picturesque streetcar in town glides from the river bend past Audubon Park and through Uptown and the Garden District, landing you at Canal Street and the start of the French Quarter. Aside from the live oaks and gorgeous historical mansions lining St. Charles Avenue, this is an inexpensive ($3 for an all-day pass) tour of the city, lending an understanding to the shape of the crescent that makes up a great deal of the city and the ebb and flow of neighborhoods.
Eat Po-Boys in the Irish Channel
Named for a large concentration of working-class Irish immigrants who helped settle the area in the early 19th century, this little neighborhood includes colorful shotgun houses, busy pubs, and some of the best and oldest New Orleans eateries. Perhaps the two greatest po-boy spots in the city are within blocks of each other in the Irish Channel, located in a small area in the riverbend of the Garden District. Both Tracey’s and Parasol’s are divey, informal sports pubs where the sandwiches just happen to be amazing (the other contender, Domilise’s, is a 10-minute drive uptown). Tracey’s is mostly known for their roast beef or debris po-boys, sloppy, over-stuffed sandwiches dripping with meat and gravy. Parasol’s, a small corner bar with a killer frozen Irish Coffee, serves giant, delicious roast beef and fried seafood po-boys in their back room.
Indulge in a Five-Star Meal at an 100-Year-Old Restaurant
It’s worthwhile to plan your trip around indulging in one of the city’s pricey but famed old restaurants, where you can often expect to follow a dress code (no hats or shorts for men) and experience a level of Southern hospitality and service that has mostly gone out of style. The greatest bargain is at lunchtime during the week, when martinis are on special ($.25 at Commander’s Palace, $.10 at Ralph’s on the Park, and one featured cocktail for $.25 at Antoine’s), and a three-course pre-fixe lunch will cost you $20-30. For an all-out experience, make a reservation for Jazz Brunch (Commander’s, Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, and Court of Two Sisters all have it). When choosing a restaurant, Commander’s Palace perhaps has the most consistent of high-quality food, but Antoine’s and Court of Two Sisters win for romantic old-school atmosphere.
Drink a Drive-Thru Daiquiri
Much like the go-drink, there’s a ceremonial quality to visiting a drive-through daiquiri place, and these sugary frozen concoctions, coming in all sorts of boozy, fruity flavors and classic cocktail renditions are an iconic part of New Orleans drinking culture. Many of the best spots are on Airport Road, and on your way to or from the plane is a good time to grab one. Technically the law now says you should keep your paper straw top on a daiquiri while in the car at all times, and of course, the driver needs to wait until they get home.
Discover Music History at Congo Square
A visit to this small cobblestone square is a step into an impactful and largely tragic age of American history. In the early 18th century, the mayor of New Orleans banned enslaved Africans from gathering anywhere except the “place congo,” and for the following decades of oppression, this space off of Rampart Street became the Sunday meeting place for singing, dancing, and celebrating African music and culture. The musical and rhythmic expressions of the slaves and the mix of cultures that happened here has helped form the roots of African American culture and contemporary American music. In the 70s, Jazz Fest started here before eventually moving to the Fairgrounds as it grew. Now, Congo Square has been preserved as a small section of Armstrong Park, a sculpture garden and urban green space dedicated to New Orleans music makers. The Lafitte Greenway meets up with Armstrong Park across the street and connects it to other neighborhoods in town, making it a perfect end or beginning point for a longer city-wide walk.
Get Spooked on a Ghost Tour
You don’t have to be a true believer in these tales to have fun walking through the French Quarter with an entertaining guide, spewing both tall tales and realistic narratives, chock full of architectural tidbits and history lessons. Lord Chaz offers a gothy, over-the-top night walking tour of Bourbon Street and beyond, and French Quarter Phantoms and Haunted History Ghost Tours rival ground for the most popular (ghost lovers might even find time to do both). Care more about the fun than the phantoms? Try a haunted pub crawl.
Party Somewhere Besides Bourbon Street
You’ll find some of the best local, live music at intimate venues (usually plastic cup, cash-only dive bars) off of the main throughways of Frenchmen and Bourbon Streets. Rebirth Brass Band has a longstanding date at The Maple Leaf Bar, and every Tuesday night music lovers cram into this raucous barroom Uptown for what is always a good time. Likewise, the Soul Rebels Brass Band is at Les Bon Temps every Thursday night; you can count on Circle Bar, BJ’s Lounge, Dos Jefes, and Chickie Wah Wah’s for varied local shows most nights of the week. When in doubt, check the WWOZ Livewire—a local radio station’s daily listing of all the best music in town.