The Best Things to Do in New Orleans

St. Louis Cathedral is one of the many sites you won't want to miss in New Orleans
St. Louis Cathedral is one of the many sites you won't want to miss in New Orleans | © Marla Holden / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Ildiko Hetesi
5 August 2020

New Orleans is one of the most multifaceted areas in the US. Home to many cultural experiences and activities, it is the perfect place to try out new things. There are hundreds to choose from in this Louisiana city, so here are just a few of our favorites.

Typical buildings in the French Quarter area of New Orleans | © Inge Johnsson / Alamy Stock Photo

Experience the French Quarter, Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras

As the most internationally famous area of New Orleans, you definitely need to see the French Quarter, which – architecturally speaking – looks more Spanish than French. Walk down Bourbon Street, one of the oldest streets in the district, and try the famed Hurricane cocktail in a huge ‘to-go’ tumbler.

If you happen to be in New Orleans at the time of the Mardi Gras Carnival, grab your beads and a drink and join the debauchery. While Bourbon Street gets all the attention of first-timers and party-goers, Frenchmen Street is a good alternative for finding more low-key but excellent bars and restaurants as well as great live music. More local-flavored Mardi Gras action can be seen and participated in by simply leaving the French Quarter and heading for other districts.

Take a cemetery tour or explore on your own

New Orleans has a very particular relationship with death and burial. A tradition of burying the dead in above-ground mini-mausoleums has long been practiced, and the most historical cemetery is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Visits are only possible as part of a guided tour, but a guided tour is also the best way to gain insight into spooky traditions, legends and history.

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is another good place to go, especially if you are interested in Southern Gothic.

To round off the experience, pay a visit to the Museum of Death before hunting down Nicolas Cage’s pyramid-shaped grave-to-be at St. Louis No. 1. Other interesting sites include the Tomb of the Unknown Slave at the Catholic St. Augustine Church.

The Garden District is home to a number of historical houses | © Nikreates / Alamy Stock Photo

Go house hunting in the Garden District

Architecture in New Orleans can be a good enough reason to visit, all on its own. The Garden District in Uptown is a showcase for stunning architectural styles and well worth a morning or afternoon of exploration. Originally a site for large plantations that was then developed in the first half of the 1800s, the Garden District was supposed to be more gardens than buildings, and it used to be the home to very wealthy Americans who did not wish to share the French Quarter with the French and Creole population.

Instead of large gardens, social status was expressed here in the form of spectacular late-Victorian mansions. The beautiful surroundings still attract the well-heeled today. For architecture lovers, the Garden District is a must. Many guidebooks list self-guided itineraries showing some of the gems, but local entrepreneurs also offer in-person guided tours.

Eat, drink and be merry

One of the best shortcuts to the heart of a region’s people is to share the food they eat and try the drinks they drink. New Orleans has an incredible food scene and shows off the cocktails that were invented here. Local cuisine here is diverse, showcasing a Spanish, French, Italian, Creole, Native and American mix with real Southern cooking, creating fun, filling and exotic dishes. On a visit to the city, try its gumbo, jambalaya, po’boy, chargrilled oysters, red beans and rice, crawfish and much more.

Although the ‘cocktail’ was not invented in New Orleans, the city added 12 enduringly popular drinks to the mixed-drink tradition of the world, the most famous one being the Hurricane. Bourbon Street will serve you well if you want to bar-hop; take a few laps of the local spots and then commit to the Carousel Bar, which has arguably served the best drinks since 1949.

Check out the Presbytere, the Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square

In the very heart of New Orleans, these three late-18th/early-19th-century buildings line the north end of Jackson Square and form its most recognisable skyline. Designed to match and serve the secular and religious needs of the quickly growing community, the buildings and the museums tell a number of different stories.

The Mardi Gras Museum and the ‘Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond’ exhibit in the Presbytere highlight two intrinsic characteristics of the people of New Orleans: knowing how to have a party and knowing how to survive. The Cabildo, which was originally the seat of the Spanish colonial government, is more of a concise history and anthropological museum, with both permanent and temporary shows.

Finally, between the Presbytere and the Cabildo stands the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continuous use in the US. As it is an active church, make sure you are mindful of ongoing services. Inside, the stained-glass windows are absolutely beautiful, and so is the wooden pulpit with the carved, scallop-shell-shaped soundboard.

See the sights aboard the steamboat Natchez | © Steamboat Natchez / Unsplash

Cruise the Mississippi River on the steamboat Natchez

New Orleans and the Mississippi River are inseparable, as neither would be the same without the other. If this is your only chance to actually be on the Mississippi, go for it. A lifetime of learning would not explain the impact of the river on the city, this landscape, and the entire existence of the coastline. As being on the river yields some of the best shots of the Crescent City Connection Bridge, going for a cruise offers an insightful overview and great photo opportunities.

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