New Orleans (NoLa) is my absolute favorite city in the USA to visit as a tourist. It’s the one city I insist on going to every year (and have been doing so ever since I first saw it almost 10 years ago). It’s a bit American, a bit French, a bit Acadian (which is where the word “Cajun” comes from), and bit Creole (a mix of colonial French, Caribbean, and West African). It’s a city with unique and wonderful culture, music, food, and architecture — and if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out!
Below is a list of the top 11 activities I recommend for anyone visiting the city. Pro Tip: go in March or April, when the weather is still mild, and the crawfish are in season. You can, of course, choose to go during Mardi Gras, which is a world-famous festival, but it also makes the city much more crowded and expensive. That’s at the end of February or start of March, depending on the year. For music fans, the annual Jazz Fest might be a more interesting weekend to visit. And for those who hate crowds, maybe avoid both events.
1. Eat all of the food, especially the crawfish
I’m writing a whole separate post on just places to eat in NoLa, so for the purposes of this post, I’ll just condense everything food-related into one item. NoLa has some of the most amazing and unique food in the country. Some things you have to try include crawfish boils, boudin (sausage or balls), BBQ shrimp (which have nothing to do with American BBQ), gumbo, étouffée, po’ boy sandwiches, and beignets (similar to donuts). And that’s just to start. Don’t forget to try some Louisiana beer, too. Abita is the most famous local brewery, and some of its beers (like The Boot) are only sold in Louisiana.
2. Take a ghost tour
If any American city is truly haunted, it’s New Orleans. Between wars, fires, disease, and flooding — I’m pretty sure more people have died per square foot of New Orleans than anywhere else. That — and stories of voodoo, vampires, and a famous historical murderess named Mad Madame LaLaurie — make this type of tour the first one I’d recommend here. There are lots of companies that run ghost tours, so just pick one. Just make sure you go on an evening tour (it’s just more fun that way).
3. Take a cemetery tour
I know it sounds weird, but New Orleans is famous for its cemeteries. You’ll understand once you see them. Because the city is below sea level, you simply can’t bury people in a casket (as they’ll come floating back up). Instead, New Orleans has above-ground tombs and mausoleums, which are a unique and defining part of the city’s visual landscape. Many are beautifully crafted and artfully arranged, others draw tourists for famous “residents” such as voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, but at least one cemetery is worth seeing regardless.
4. Visit the World War II Museum
The WWII Museum in New Orleans is currently the #1 tourist attraction in the city according to TripAdvisor. It is designated by Congress as the official WWII Museum of the United States, and I have actually spent several whole days here over the years. Not only is it huge, but it is also thoughtfully-curated to create a compelling, immersive experience for visitors young and old. And if you’re wondering why the WWII Museum is in New Orleans, it’s because New Orleans is home to the LCVP (or Higgins boat), which is the landing craft that brought US soldiers to shore in every major amphibious assault of WWII. Pre-order tickets online to skip the long lines and don’t forget to see the 4D movie.
5. See the party on Bourbon Street
This may be a slightly controversial recommendation, as Bourbon Street does indeed turn into what can only be called a shitshow late in the evening. Definitely watch for pickpockets trying to take advantage of drunk tourists here. However, I think it’s still a must-visit street in New Orleans — but I recommend visiting in the afternoon, having a famous hand grenade cocktail, seeing the famous Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (turned bar) that’s older than America itself, and heading to Frenchman Street in the late evening (see below).
6. Listen to music on Frenchman Street
Most locals will recommend Frenchman Street over Bourbon Street as the place to go out in New Orleans as a visitor (and you’ll even get some locals here). It’s 2-3 blocks packed with something like 11 bars, all of which have live music most days of the week. Many musical greats got their start here, and I’d say it’s a lot more enjoyable than Bourbon Street for music and dancing all evening/night. It’s directly NE of the French Quarter (in fact, you’ll hit it if you just walk north on Decatur or Chartres from the French Quarter).
7. Shop on Royal Street
Royal Street is just one street down from Bourbon Street, and it’s filled with art galleries and cute little shops. You can spend at least a half day meandering down this street. You can find some high-quality NoLa-themed crafted items and souvenirs, a wide variety of antiques (chandeliers, furniture, coins, swords, Chanel jewelry, and everything in-between), hot sauces and sweets, and all sorts of fun unexpected items like colorful rhinestone tiaras or sequin dusters (yes, I have both). While you’re here, stop for a drink at the famous carousel bar in Hotel Monteleone, as well as a beignet at Cafe Beignet — if they don’t have lines.
8. Take a food tour (maybe in the Garden District)
I told you all about the great foods you need to try in New Orleans in #1, but if you’ve already done that — the next step is to take a food tour of a nearby area like the Garden District. This Magazine Street food tour from New Orleans Secrets is the one I went on (and loved), but again, TripAdvisor has tons of food tour options in all sorts of neighborhoods. I think next time, I’d like to find a Tremé food tour, as it’s the oldest African-American neighborhood in America, known as a birthplace of jazz, and currently famous for things like BBQ.
9. Get a card reading
There’s an old history of voodoo/witchcraft in Louisiana due to the Creole history and culture (which you hopefully learn about on a tour or by reading about it beforehand). So something fun that my girlfriends and I did when we were on a small-group bachelorette party here is book card readings for all of us one day. We did it at a witchcraft store called Hex, but if you Google it, there are a handful of good options in New Orleans. But please, take it with a grain of salt, and do not become one of those women who spends all their time and money on psychic readings.
10. Go on a swamp/bayou tour
This was something I did on my latest visit to New Orleans, and it was a blast! Not only is it cool to get out of the city, but you also get to see and learn about the swamp/bayou ecosystem and see some gators and other wildlife. It’s usually a half-day excursion, and you can do it on an air boat, a regular boat, or by kayak. Kayaks seemed like a lot of work to us, so we chose the regular boat — but we booked the adult-only small boat at Cajun Encounters, and I think that was the right choice. We saw some really cool wildlife and enjoyed all the jokes and stories from Capt. Walker along the way.
11. Take a half-day or full-day plantation tour
This is something I’d recommend if you’re in New Orleans for a longer period of time (or it’s not your first visit) — as it takes up a good chunk of time. It’s a really interesting (and complicated) part of Louisiana history that’s absolutely worth seeing and learning about. There are lots of options for this type of tour, from half-day to full-day. I recommend browsing TripAdvisor reviews and picking something that includes a visit to Oak Alley (pictured).