The Best Museums in New Orleans

New Orleans isn't all jazz and Mardi Gras; these museums will fill you in on fascinating local history
New Orleans isn't all jazz and Mardi Gras; these museums will fill you in on fascinating local history | © jejim120 / Alamy
Photo of Shay Lee
1 September 2021

Far more than a party town, New Orleans boasts some of the finest cultural institutions of any city in the United States. From military history to modern art, the Big Easy has all the top museums.

While tourists might flock to New Orleans for its cuisine, vibrant music and colourful festivals – you get all of that and more on our exclusive four-day trip to New Orleans – there’s so much more to the Crescent City than gumbo and jazz clubs. Home to a number of world-class museums, it is rich in art collections and historic homes that reflect the city’s tumultuous heritage. Browse them all with our round-up of the best.

Museum of Death New Orleans

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Museum of Death in New Orleans, Louisiana
Museum of Death in New Orleans, Louisiana | © Dimple Patel / Alamy Stock Photo

Equal parts morbid and fascinating, the Museum of Death does exactly what it says on the tin. Concerned with all areas of mortality, the museum was initially established with the goal of educating people about death in the United States and making people appreciate being alive. True crime fanatics in particular are drawn to its gruesome exhibitions, which include info on everything from serial killers and morgues to macabre art and skulls.

Mardi Gras World

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Mardi Gras World, New Orleans. Image shot 2006. Exact date unknown.
Mardi Gras World, New Orleans | © John Lander / Alamy Stock Photo

More than just a carnival, Mardi Gras is a way of life in New Orleans. If you’re interested in its history, customs and everything in between, be sure to stop off at Mardi Gras World. The largest float designing and building facility in the world – more than 80 percent of the festival’s floats are created here – not only will you have the opportunity to don authentic costumes, but you’ll learn all about the traditions, parades and music of the celebration, complete with king cake and piping hot New Orleans coffee, too.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

Aquarium, Museum
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Aquarium tank and visitors
Aquarium tank and visitors | © Michele Molinari / Alamy Stock Photo

A striking glass and steel building on the banks of the Mississippi River, more than 10,000 animals and 530 species can be seen at this topnotch aquarium. Focusing on the aquatic life of the Americas, exhibits are organised along different regions of the North and the South, including an Amazon River tank with piranha and stingrays, a huge Gulf of Mexico reef with sharks and sea turtles and the star attraction, the Mississippi River, where you’ll find a rare white alligator. There’s even an onsite Escape Room called Escape Extinction: Sharks, which is a whole lot of fun.

The Arsenal

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Built in 1839, the Arsenal – or the Old Louisiana State Armory – stands adjacent to the Cabildo on the site of the old French and Spanish prisons. Built to house artillery and small arms, it served as an armory for most of its existence, home of the Louisiana Legion and the Orleans Artillery. Now part of the Louisiana State Museum, it houses a number of military artefacts from back in the day plus temporary exhibitions that are definitely worth checking out.

New Orleans Jazz Museum

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Celebrating jazz in the very city in which it was born, the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the city’s French Quarter brings music to life through dynamic interactive exhibitions dedicated to some of the city’s most famous musicians like Louis Armstrong and Pete Fountain. Live music takes place in the museum’s $4m performance venue on the third floor, so be sure to bring your dancing shoes along with you, too.

Ogden Museum of Southern Art

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Civil War Museum & Ogden Museum of Southern Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
Civil War Museum and Ogden Museum of Southern Art | © Richard Cummins / Alamy Stock Photo

Sitting adjacent to the National WWII Museum and the Contemporary Arts Center, this Smithsonian-affiliated museum celebrates the culture of Southern artists through folk art, painting, photography, sculpture and handcrafted heritage, as well as contemporary works from Southern artists and designers. With works dating back to 1733, there’s a permanent collection of more than 4,000 pieces from 15 states, making it the most comprehensive collection of Southern art in the world.

The Cabildo

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Cabildo, New Orleans
Cabildo, New Orleans | © Nikreates / Alamy Stock Photo

Originally built by the Spanish government between 1795 and 1799 to house offices of the town council, the grand building of The Cabildo is characterised by Spanish arches and a French-style roof. Famously the spot where the history-making transfer papers for the Louisiana Purchase were signed in 1803, take time to peruse its extensive collection of artefacts that date back to the days of the earliest explorers, including portraits and original documents from the Civil War period. You’ll even have a chance to check out Napoleon’s death mask, one of only four in existence.

New Orleans Museum of Art

Museum
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Outside New Orleans Museum of Art, NOMA, City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA
New Orleans Museum of Art | © Rubens Alarcon / Alamy Stock Photo
Established in 1911 with just nine pieces of art, today the New Orleans Museum of Art is a must-see on most visitors’ NOLA itineraries – and rightly so. Housing an impressive permanent collection of almost 40,000 objects inside its alabaster walls and Greco-Roman columns, you’ll find photography, glass and artworks from America, France, Africa and Japan, as well as a beautiful 5-acre (2ha) garden with more than 60 sculptures shaded under magnolias and Spanish moss-laden oaks. Be sure to carve out a few hours of your day to enjoy this museum in all its glory.

The National WWII Museum

Museum, Theater
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World War II era aircraft in the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana
National World War II Museum in New Orleans | © James Nesterwitz / Alamy
Thousands of visitors walk through the doors of the National WWII Museum on a daily basis, which Congress considers the official World War II museum of the US. Located in Downtown New Orleans, the sprawling complex contextualises the American experience of the conflict through eye witness accounts, multimedia experiences and extensive exhibits including The Home Front, the Pacific and European Theatres and the D-Day Invasion. Elsewhere, the Final Mission: USS Tang Experience offers an interactive look at one of the most epic submarine battles of the war.

Southern Food & Beverage Museum

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Louisiana, LA, South, Orleans Parish, New Orleans, Riverwalk Marketplace, Port of New Orleans, Southern Food and & Beverage Museum, American cocktails. Image shot 2018. Exact date unknown.
Southern Food and Beverage Museum | © Jeffrey Isaac Greenberg 1+ / Alamy
The Southern Food and Beverage Museum, also called SoFab Institute, is a non-profit organization dedicated to the celebration of the food, drink and culture of the South. Throughout the year, it hosts special exhibits, demonstrations, lectures and tastings that showcase Southern cuisine. The museum houses some culinary exhibits: the Museum of the American Cocktail collection, Chef Ryan Hughes’s living exhibit and restaurant, and La Galerie d’Absinthe (Absinthe Gallery).

Louisiana Children's Museum

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Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) believes kids learn through hands-on activities. Here, your kids are encouraged to discover the world by observing, constructing, role-playing, problem-solving and playing. The museum offers reading, math and grocery shopping activities, which help kids understand the world in which they live. The mission here is to intellectually develop children, cultivate their relationships and make education enjoyable. There are three outreach programs: StarLab, which teaches kids about constellations and mythology; Earth Balloon, which teaches geography and environmental conservation; and Lil’ Stuffee, a 7ft-tall (2.1m) walking anatomy lesson, which features blue hair and pillow organs.

The Historic New Orleans Collection

Building, Museum
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18th century home of Jean Francois Merieult. Built in 1792 at 533 Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans.. Image shot 2011. Exact date unknown.
18th century home of Jean Francois Merieult | © Marla Holden / Alamy
General L. Kemper Williams and Leila Moore Williams founded the Historic New Orleans Collection to showcase their various Louisiana artefacts, with the aim to preserve local history. Several historic buildings stand near the institution, with each housing more than three centuries-worth of items. There are four exhibits: the Williams Gallery, Louisiana History Gallery, Boyd Cruise Gallery, and Laura Simon Nelson Gallery for Louisiana Art. Each reveals multicultural stories and explores historical evolution. They also offer an Architecture and Courtyards Tour which explores the oldest neighborhood in town, the Vieux Carre.

Backstreet Cultural Museum

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New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. 4th March, 2019. Masqueraders with the Krewe of Red Beans party at the Backstreet Cultural Museum during Mardi Gras on March 4, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. ( Credit: SEAN DRAKES/Alamy Live News
The Krewe of Red Beans party at the Backstreet Cultural Museum during Mardi Gras, 2019 | © SEAN DRAKES / Alamy
In the ’60s, Sylvester Francis bought a camera and began documenting carnival celebrations, parades and jazz funerals throughout New Orleans. He displayed his pictures in his two-car garage and word about his display spread, leading to this museum’s construction. In 1999, it became a non-profit organization. The museum holds dance and music performances and organizes outreach programs. Each year, BCM provides exhibits for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

New Orleans African American Museum

Building, Church, Museum
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The New Orleans African American Museum (NOAAM) is in Tremé, thought to be the oldest Black neighbourhood in the US. The mission is to preserve and promote African-American contributions to New Orleans during emancipation, reconstruction and contemporary times. NOAAM rests on a former plantation and houses seven historic buildings. The Meilleur-Goldwaite House was built in 1829; over the years, this house has retained the original interior and surroundings. Some available tours explore the St Augustine Church, Creole cottages and Congo Square, a gathering place.

1850 House

Building, Museum
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1850 House. Image shot 2010. Exact date unknown.
1850 House | © Muskopf Photography, LLC / Alamy
One of five Louisiana State Museum properties open to the public in the French Quarter, 1850 House offers a glimpse of upper-middle-class life in antebellum New Orleans – the most prosperous period in the city’s history. A must visit for history buffs, it displays antique art and decor true to the era, with our favorite space being the formal sitting room with neoclassical bookcases, rococo revival-style furniture and a neogothic clock on the mantel.

Confederate Memorial Hall

Library, Memorial, Museum
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Confederate Memorial Hall, New Orleans
Confederate Memorial Hall | © Louise Heusinkveld / Alamy
Confederate Memorial Hall opened in 1891, making it the oldest collection of Confederate memorabilia in the US. It started after resident Frank T. Howard wrote a letter to the Louisiana Historical Association requesting acknowledgement of the Civil War’s survivors and victims. Here, you’ll embark on a journey through the military history and heritage of the South. There are more than 5,000 items inside, including Confederate artefacts, Civil War items and Confederate uniforms and flags.

Naomi Chadderton contributed additional reporting to this article.

Why not make a weekend of it? Book a stay with Culture Trip at one of these quirky boutique hotels in the French Quarter 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 from ticking the best things to do in New Orleans off your bucket list to eating fresh and delicious seafood at these top restaurants or trying local specialties such as a po’ boy at these top spots.

These recommendations were updated on September 1, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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