Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the word’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their New Orleans adventures!
Say New Orleans to most people and two things are bound to come up in the conversation within seconds – Bourbon Street and Hurricane Katrina. The city has been indelibly marked by both of those things, and no visit to The Big Easy is complete without incorporating each into the experience – but focus solely on either one of them and you’ve missed most of what this complicated and fascinating city has to offer.
New Orleans feels unlike any other American city, and in fact it’s easy to feel like you’ve left the country without needing to change money. The year-round heat and humidity will help you understand why life just moves slowly, and perhaps why this city gave birth to that uniquely American art form – jazz. New Orleans doesn’t take itself too seriously, which makes it easier to write off – but don’t be fooled by its relaxed demeanor. This is a city that packs a real punch – one you may still be feeling weeks after you return home.
Okay, yes, you’ll probably want to check out Bourbon Street at least once to see what the fuss is all about – and you may even like it. Just keep in mind that this street-turned-frat-party doesn’t represent New Orleans in its entirety. The city may be a bit bombastic at times, but it’s still demure enough to leave something to the imagination.
Here’s our insider’s guide to New Orleans.
Where to Stay
Deciding where to base yourself on a trip to New Orleans is a bit like picking your favorite child. Each neighborhood in the city has its own distinct identity, and appeals to a different sort of traveler. In most cases, as long as you’re relatively close to the streetcar you’ll be happy, since that means you’ll have access to all the central attractions and you won’t need to rent a car. You’ll find the usual offerings of big chain hotels in New Orleans, but part of the charm of the city is its historic quirks – so go for the place with the creaky doors and ghost stories.
The French Quarter in the heart of New Orleans is a popular choice for many visitors, not least because it means most of the things on your “must-see” list are within a short walk from your hotel. There’s no shortage of historic hotels in the French Quarter, either, although they don’t always come cheap. In this part of the city you just need to be aware of the noise – New Orleans is a late-night city, and if you’re a light sleeper with a room overlooking Bourbon Street and you plan to turn in early, you won’t be happy.
The Garden District is block after block of stately southern mini-mansions (and some not-so-mini mansions) on streets lined with enormous trees. It’s primarily residential, so this is where you’ll find charming B&Bs, guest houses, and vacation rentals as opposed to a plethora of hotels. The French Quarter and Garden District are connected by the streetcar, so you can trundle back and forth easily and cheaply.
The Central Business District is likely to be your home if you’re in New Orleans for work, and it’s not necessarily a bad location, it just lacks the charm of the aforementioned areas. Neighborhoods just outside the French Quarter may not have as many lodging options, but they may be a bit less expensive. To get the best prices on hotels in New Orleans, visit in the shoulder seasons or in the winter (just not during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest) – even hotels in the popular neighborhoods have discounts then.
What to Do
New Orleans is a city that wears many hats, which in turn means it pleases all sorts of travelers. If you’re hoping to explore many facets of the city on a short trip, you’ll need to plan out your days a bit – but if you’re going to adopt the laissez-faire attitude New Orleans promotes (highly recommended), then feel free to let your days unfold and just see where the ride takes you.
Music lovers (and musicians) flock to New Orleans for its long-standing jazz scene, and many rightly make pilgrimages to places like Snug Harbor, Tipitina’s, and Preservation Hall. Clubs like these are worthy of your time (and the cover charge), but you don’t even need to go indoors to find some of the city’s best music. Street musicians occupy every other corner in the French Quarter at all hours of the day and night (have small bills handy for tips if you like what you hear) – and fans of “Treme” will likely recognize several of the musicians, too.
If you love both history and shopping, then the French Quarter’s Royal Street – lined with antique shops – will be just your thing. If you love the water, the legendary Mississippi River and its riverboat cruises may call your name. If you’re traveling with kids, the great Aquarium of the Americas (near the French Quarter) and Audubon Zoo (in the Garden District) are great options.
New Orleans has a number of excellent museums that may interest you (especially if you need a break from the heat and humidity). There’s the National World War II Museum, the Voodoo Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the museum at the Old Mint, and the Louisiana State Museum on one side of the St. Louis Cathedral with a hurricane exhibit you should definitely check out. It chronicles the history of hurricanes in this vulnerable city, focusing mainly on the hurricanes that made New Orleans front-page news in 2005.
A great way to learn about the stories and people that make up the city’s past is by taking a walking tour. The options for tours in New Orleans are plentiful, and local guides tend to be extremely proud to show off their city. You can explore the Garden District (find out what celebrities live where, and which homes are haunted), the French Quarter (learn about why this so-called French district is really more Haitian), and the city’s famous cemeteries (walk the streets in New Orleans’ cities of the dead), among other things.
If you’re in New Orleans long enough, there are also fabulous day trips you can work into your itinerary. You might be in the middle of a city, but the swamp isn’t that far away – and swamp tours are extremely popular with kids and adults (most include a hotel pick-up option in New Orleans). These tours give you a chance to get out of the city for a bit, and to potentially see alligators and other swamp critters – always a big hit with the little ones. Plantation tours are also easy to do from New Orleans, either on your own or with a guide.
Visiting during the city’s famous festivals – particularly Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest – can be exactly the non-stop fun you’re looking for, so long as you’re aware of the higher prices and bigger crowds that come with both. It’s worth noting that New Orleans will take advantage of any excuse for a parade, so even holidays like Easter and St. Patrick’s Day are marked by parades through the French Quarter with big floats throwing beads and candy. It’s like Mardi Gras “lite.”
Eating and Drinking
Leaving “eating everything you possibly can” off the above list of “things to do” in New Orleans may seem sacrilege, but when “eating and drinking” is its own section then it makes sense. New Orleans’ take on being a melting pot is a pretty literal one, in that every culture that has come through the city has thrown something onto the collective stove. You’ll see influences on menus from Europe, West Africa, the Caribbean, and (more recently) Asia.
This area is famous for its “Creole” cuisine, mixing French, Spanish, Caribbean, and West African into dishes like gumbo (a thick stew with peppers and, usually, seafood), jambalaya (a mix of meat, seafood, peppers, tomatoes, and rice), etouffee (a seafood stew served over rice), and maque choux (a mix of corn, peppers, tomatoes, and onions flavored with bacon fat). “Cajun” cooking is sometimes considered the country cousin of Creole, and dishes like etouffee, jambalaya, and gumbo appear in both cuisines in varying forms.
Portion sizes aren’t small in New Orleans, so even a lunchtime sandwich can be a meal for two. Po-boys, New Orleans’ version of the sub sandwich, come heaped with your meat of choice and “dressed” with sandwich veggies and sauce, and a full size of the signature “Muffaletta” deli sandwich at Central Grocery is easily big enough to serve four adults. This is a city that likes its food spicy – hot climates often eat spicy foods, since sweating cools you off – so you may find yourself mopping your brow as much from the jambalaya as the humidity. No matter what kind of cuisine you go for, look for fresh seafood on the menu – oysters, crawfish, and catfish are common choices, along with the more exotic alligator.
Equally appropriate for dessert or breakfast – and available 24/7 – are New Orleans’ famous beignets at Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. These pillows of deep fried dough are usually hard to find under the mountains of powdered sugar (don’t wear black, unless you fancy that dusted-with-sugar look on your lap), but once you unearth them they’re a perfect accompaniment to the chicory coffee the cafe churns out. Another option for your sweet tooth is Bananas Foster, ordered as much for the table-side preparation show as the caramelly dessert itself.
Even if you skip the excesses of Bourbon Street with its yard-long cocktail glasses, you don’t want to miss an opportunity to sip something at a New Orleans bar. You can try a local Abita or NOLA beer, or you can go for something stronger – a Sazerac, perhaps (the signature cocktail of New Orleans), or that super-sweet hangover-in-a-glass, the Hurricane. Either way, you don’t need to down the last half of your drink if you want to move on to the next stop on your bar crawl – just as for a “go cup” and you can stroll as you slurp.
New Orleans has plenty of traditional restaurants serving up deep-fried goodies that would make a heart surgeon blush, but in recent years there are more restaurants offering innovative dishes, too. It’s worth the taxi fare (not to mention the dining splurge) to get to the award-winning Cochon, where you’ll find the city’s beloved pork and alligator in very different dishes than you will elsewhere. Right in the French Quarter, get a dose of something different – and extremely tasty – at the Green Goddess, which sounds like a vegan place but isn’t (there’s even bacon in some of the desserts).
Want to learn how to recreate some of these unique dishes at home? Take a cooking class in New Orleans.
The best free thing to do in New Orleans is listen to street musicians. The city seems to ooze music from every pore, and while serious jazz lovers may want to splurge on the cover charges at a few clubs, you will absolutely hear world-class jazz without ever setting foot inside a night club.
If you only have one day in New Orleans – stroll. Base yourself in the French Quarter and meander. Gaze at gorgeous architecture, stop to listen to street musicians, poke around antique shops, revitalize yourself with beignets, and sit on a bench fanning yourself while the Mississippi lazes past.
The best thing to eat in New Orleans is … everything? Honestly, it’s impossible to pick just one thing. Beignets, po-boys, gumbo – there are unique culinary treats awaiting you around every corner, and your mission is to sample as many as you have room for in your stomach.
To return the favor in New Orleans extend your trip by a few days and plan to do some volunteer work. The French Quarter sustained little damage during the 2005 hurricanes, which is why most people think the city has fully recovered. It has not. There remain vast swaths of the outlying neighborhoods that are essentially ghost towns. Check in with HandsOn New Orleans when you’re planning your vacation and they’ll set help you find a volunteer opportunity that fits your schedule and interest. And if you really want to give back? Stay for a week or more just to do volunteer work. The city still needs us, and we can’t forget that. (Even if you can’t find the time to volunteer, you can make a big difference by staying in family-run hotels and eating in family-run restaurants, as opposed to big chains. Keep your money local – it really helps.)
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s New Orleans tours and things to do, New Orleans attractions, and New Orleans travel recommendations. Or book a private tour guide in New Orleans for a customized tour!