The Big Easy, they call it – and getting into the southern swing of New Orleans is a piece of cake. Louisiana’s most famous city, hunkered beside the lazily flowing Mississippi River, loves its food, its drink and its carousing, partying around the clock with loud, loud music. So where do you start? How about right here – with our guide to the best things to do in New Orleans.
Ferns overflow from hanging baskets, dangling from intricate wrought-iron balconies; buskers blast trumpets and play electric violins; and drinkers weave along this elegant avenue of mansions, built in the tiered Creole townhouse style. This is the main artery of New Orleans’ history-steeped district, the French Quarter. It’s party central during the yearly Mardi Gras festivities, but buzzing with locals and visitors all year round. Stroll down it to soak up the atmosphere of the city, stopping in at century-old restaurant Galatoire’s or the Old Absinthe House for a taste of the past.
A great reason to explore New Orleans is to gain an understanding of its long and colorful history. This dainty, twin-spired white cathedral, facing a pin-neat square in the French Quarter, looks like something out of the Magic Kingdom, but it’s the oldest continuously active Catholic cathedral in America, built in 1727. It’s not just a pretty façade, either: you should take a peek inside to see the perfectly polished checkerboard flooring and high, curved ceilings with rich depictions of Jesus and the disciples.
Music Venue, Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark, $$$
This sultry southern city gets hot in the spring and summer months, and a great way to cool off is by gliding along the Mississippi River on a scarlet-and-white paddle steamer. The Steamboat Natchez is the definitive vessel: board it for a two-hour lunch or jazz cruise and you’ll have plenty of vintage style and atmosphere – loading up on brunch as a trio riffs and jams inside, then taking to the breezy balcony, stars and stripes fluttering overhead, a paddle wheel the size of an elephant thundering behind.
This strangely familiar square unravels from the base of St Louis Cathedral like a neat green carpet, topped by a statue of seventh President Andrew Jackson in full battle mode. It’s one of the most photographed settings in the city – just try and photograph it without a bridal party wandering into view – but more importantly it’s a hub of local life, with musicians, fortune tellers setting up card tables, and street artists selling rainbow-bright crafts, including the odd voodoo doll.
This striking cement-and-glass structure contains the stories of American soldiers who served in World War II, told in a modern, immersive style – in one room, you can ask a pre-recorded videoed serviceman questions, and be answered using voice recognition technology. This is a big museum, so allow yourself a whole afternoon to take it all in, from national propaganda to artistically suspended warplanes, code-breaking machines and staged battlefield scenes.
More like a nature reserve than its curt name suggests, this 1,300-acre (526ha) green sprawl has multiple waterways, a sculpture garden, a stadium and a driving range to stumble upon, not to mention the city’s wedding-cake Museum of Art. Stroll to the Botanical Gardens to see its prehistoric plants, giant staghorn ferns and exotic purple orchids, attractively woven around trickling cascades, rock formations and ornamental bridges; then ride the tilt-a-whirl at the delightfully olde-worlde Carousel Gardens amusement park.
While you’re exploring City Park, stop in at this proud, colonnaded building, fronted by a tranquil lily pond. Stepping into its spacious, balconied white interior, you’ll find heavyweight American and European fine art, including a couple of Picassos and Degas as well as thought-provoking mixed media pieces by contemporary Louisiana artists. Don’t miss the outside, either – a serene sculpture garden with Rodins, Oldenbergs and Moores, and a natural canopy of mossy, 200-year-old oaks.
This city has a strong theme of ghost stories and black magic running through it – embrace the spooks by taking a tour of the ornate mausoleums and crumbling crypts of this (still in use) 1700s resting place. You must book a guided tour to enter, but you’ll get to visit the grave of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, where occultists leave trinkets and flowers, and the strange pyramid-shaped tomb that actor Nicolas Cage – still living – bought in 2010, presumably as his future resting place.
Along with history, voodoo and cocktails, NOLA’s music scene is one of its biggest attractions – jazz music, to be exact, blasted from every street corner as well as from stages and bars across town. Hear the best of it along this brightly painted street in the French Quarter, where neon signs and bohemian murals indicate basement clubs and packed watering holes soundtracked by trumpeters and double bassists. Squeeze into legendary spots such as Snug Harbour or The Spotted Cat or just follow your ears to anything you like the sound of.
A great pleasure in this town is simply wandering its uniformly pretty, period-perfect neighborhoods – the loveliest of which has to be the Garden District. Ride the nearly 200-year-old St Charles Streetcar there from the French Quarter for a thoroughly vintage experience, taking to Prytania and Jackson streets by foot to see its towering 19th-century mansions set in tropical-feeling gardens, all flamingo-pink façades, lacy balconies and fairytale turrets. For lunch, stop by Magazine Street, lined with characterful seafood, Creole and hot dog joints.
This is an updated version of an article originally by Ildiko Hetesi.