It’s difficult to go in the wrong direction upon arrival in New Orleans. This city is packed with activities and attractions that have lived up to the hype for decades, as well as plenty of new, experimental spots that are rapidly gaining acclaim and popularity. From roaming the French Quarter to riding a streetcar, here are the best things to do in the Big Easy.
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Sometimes dubbed simply “The Leaf,” the Maple Leaf Bar and music venue is a consistent favorite for locals, students from the nearby universities and visitors, especially on Tuesday nights, when it hosts the much-beloved Rebirth Brass Band. Other than being a popular music bar, it also hosts special events, including crawfish boils when it’s seasonably appropriate, and it’s the after-party hotspot for the annual “Midsummer Mardi Gras” parade in August.
Home to one of the largest collections in the South, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art is a must-see for art aficionados or anyone with an interest in seeing the work of the region’s diverse artists. The museum offers educational programming for all ages, as well as an acclaimed music series held every Thursday in its atrium, and it’s located within walking distance of restaurants, bars, shops and the French Quarter.
Brimming with shops, galleries, flea markets, eateries and bars, Magazine Street is a 6mi (10km) road running parallel to the Mississippi, extending from Uptown to the Lower Garden District. You can jump on and off the Magazine Street bus, but it’s best to explore on foot, as there’s usually a lot of traffic around traffic, especially on weekdays. Plus, you’ll be freer to stop in at the colorful farmers’ markets and irresistible food trucks scattered along its length.
There’s no energy that really compares to the New Orleans Saints fans’ energy in the Superdome and the tailgate parties that occur before, during and (depending on the outcome) after the game. New Orleanians are passionate about this team, whether they win or lose, and the whole city gets involved during their home games, when you never have to roam far to find a tailgate party, a porch gathering or a dive bar offering cheap drinks and often complimentary food.
An enclave of the city with a bohemian bent, Frenchmen Street is lined with music venues, bars and late-night joints. While it was once considered more of a locals’ hotspot (along with in-the-know tourists), it is now one of the most famous stretches of tarmac in the city, due to its abundance of live music venues, casual eateries and the general bustling scene. It’s not all jazz, either: blues, reggae and rock also have a place on Frenchmen Street.
Unbeknownst to most tourists, the New Orleans Lakefront offers beautiful views of Lake Pontchartrain, along with a number of laid-back restaurants along the water that serve fresh seafood. Get there in the late afternoon to hit up a happy hour, and stay for a sunset stroll. You can also take guided tours of the lakefront area and learn about its historical significance for New Orleans’ cultural and industrial development.
With gorgeous, historic buildings that date back to French and Spanish colonial times, the French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city and one of the best places for photos and adventures. First developed at the start of the 1800s, it’s now the spot where you can find a number of the landmarks and attractions mentioned in this list. We recommend taking a tour led by a local insider as part of our specially curated tour of New Orleans.
If you’d rather go solo, however, start at the foot of Canal Street and meander until you get to Esplanade Avenue; don’t set a strict agenda, just let it play out as you see fit – you won’t be bored or disappointed.
If you’re not a hurry to get anywhere and want to enjoy the scenery at a leisurely pace, hop onto one of the city’s streetcars. For just $1.25 (£1), you can get across town effortlessly, taking in the cityscape along the way. There are a number of routes along St. Charles Avenue, Canal Street, Rampart Street and the Riverfront.
Another outdoor spot that offers sweeping views of the water – this time, the Mississippi River, not the lake – is dubbed the Fly, and it’s located in Uptown. It’s the waterfront portion of Audubon Park behind the Audubon Zoo, and on warm days it is a popular destination for students at the nearby Tulane and Loyola universities. It’s also a pleasant spot to go for a jog or a bike ride, to throw a frisbee around, or just sit back and enjoy a good book as the riverboats pass by.
Even though Bourbon Street is a tourist trap that’s generally avoided by locals, a list of New Orleans attractions would seem incomplete without it. Named after a French royal family rather than the potent beverage, Bourbon Street is a neon-colored strip of bars, music clubs and strip joints in the bustling Upper French Quarter. It’s known for its all-night parties, balcony views and sense of abandon, and it’s definitely something to experience – at least once.
It might seem a little creepy to just hang out in a cemetery, but the New Orleans cemeteries are famous for their above-ground tombs (since the city is below sea level) and the general sense of antiquated beauty. There are about 45 cemeteries in New Orleans, and within them are thousands of mysterious-looking vaults, often adorned with sculptural decorations that represent the surname, occupation or faith of the deceased inside.
A number of artist-run independent galleries along the St. Claude Avenue corridor have popped up in the past several years, in an urban hipster haven that has been experiencing a population boom. More than two dozen collectives, co-ops, pop-up restaurants and collaborative spaces can be found in the area, drawing in some of the region’s most imaginative performers and budding entrepreneurs.
The Garden District of central New Orleans is home to one of the finest collections of historic mansions in the southern United States. It was developed from the 1830s to the early 1900s, as prosperous newcomers built homes to reflect their wealth and status. Some of the most elegant buildings and largest gardens can be seen on First Street and Camp Street. You can take a guided tour of the area to learn the history, or simply wander the smart streets by yourself.
Situated to the left of St Louis Cathedral opposite Jackson Square, the Cabildo is one of New Orleans’ most historic buildings. Built in 1795 for the city’s Spanish governor, it was where the first town council convened in 1799 and, even more significantly, where the Louisiana Purchase was finalized in 1803. Nowadays, it’s home to the Louisiana State Museum, which is focused on the state’s rich history and the people and traditions of New Orleans.
For a little off-piste exploring, head 20mi (32km) east of downtown to the ruins of Fort Macomb. Built along with 42 other defensive structures in 1822 in order to protect one of the passageways from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Pontchartrain, it was also used as a base by Confederate troops in the Civil War, before being abandoned in 1871. The structure suffered further damage as a result of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but Fort Pike, 10mi (16km) to the northeast, is better preserved.
Additional reporting by Mark Nayler.
Why not make a weekend of it? Book a stay with Culture Trip at one of the best hotels in New Orleans or stick to a tighter budget at one of these budget hotels and hostels in Mid-City. There’s plenty to keep you busy too, from exploring the best museums in New Orleans to trying local specialties such as a po’ boy at these top spots or eating delicious, fresh seafood at these top restaurants.