Are you in search of an incredibly unique experience when you visit New Orleans? NOLA doesn’t hide its character, so it’s hard to miss out on what makes this city so special no matter what you do. In order to make the most out of your trip to America’s most iconic cities, allow us to give you some insight on all the must-see spots that come highly recommended.
The Special Attractions of New Orleans
Tour the French Quarter
You can’t come to town without seeing the city’s most historic — and some say beautiful — neighborhood. The French Quarter dates back to 1718, and its streets are lined with a mix of old and new, including restaurants that have been around for more than a century. Historic mansions, family-friendly attractions, cathedrals, museums and even an aquarium are all located within the community. It would take days for you to see it all. The French Quarter is also home to some of the city’s most famous eateries, including restaurants that first opened their doors in 1840 and have been serving beloved New Orleans, Cajun and Creole cuisine ever since. Don’t forget to shop while you’re here. You’ll find a unique blend of new upscale brands, antique shops, boutiques and specialty stores within the neighborhood.
Spend a Day in the Park
Enjoy the great outdoors by spending a morning, afternoon or an entire day at one of the city’s gorgeous parks and green spaces. Each one offers something unique, whether it’s a beautiful view of the Mississippi River or a botanical garden. The 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park is a favorite with locals and tourists alike, dating back to 1854. Today, it’s home to a storybook-themed playground, family-friendly amusement park, golf course, botanical garden and fishing lake. The historic New Orleans Museum of Art is also located in the park.
Attend a Festival
New Orleans loves a good celebration, but not all of them are as wild and crazy as Mardi Gras. Throughout the year, the city hosts dozens of festivals, many of which have taken place here for decades. Celebrate literature and drama with the annual Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival that happens every spring. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the place for live music and loads of fun. Celebrate food, friendships and even more live music at the annual French Quarter Festival that started in 1984.
See Wild Animals
When it comes to things to do in New Orleans for families and animal enthusiasts, the Audubon Zoo tops the list. The 58-acre zoo is often considered one of the best of its kind in the country, and it dates back to the 1884 World Exposition. From the 1920s-era sea lion pool to the rare white tiger, view more than 2,000 animals, many of them in their natural habitats. There is even a baby animal nursery. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget. Nestled along the banks of the Mississippi River, you’ll find another hot spot for spotting wildlife: Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. It’s home to more than 15,000 sea creatures. Pet a shark, see a seahorse glide through the grass in their tank and view the rare white alligator. There is even a rainforest exhibit with exotic frogs, snakes and birds.
Remember at the National World War II Museum
If you’ve ever wondered what life was like during World War II, for both soldiers and civilians, you can learn all about it at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. It opened its doors in 2000, and people have flocked to the museum from all across the country ever since. There’s a 4D movie, along with artifacts, exhibits and oral testimonies. Plan to spend a few hours here learning about one of the most notable events in world history.
Take a Swamp Tour
No matter how much time you spend in the heart of the city, it’s hard to forget that New Orleans was built in the Bayou. That means there is swampland aplenty to explore. Several local companies offer swamp tours, and you must add one to your bucket list. Explore the swampy waters via kayaks, airboats, flatboats and other vehicles that take you up close and personal with wildlife, including alligators and crocodiles. You’ll also learn about the ecology and history of the area from experienced guides.
Cheer on a Local Team
You may not realize it, but New Orleans is a big sports town, playing host to both pro and collegiate teams. Depending on when you visit, you may want to catch the New Orleans Saints take to the field on a football Sunday, or you can head to the Smoothie King Center to watch the NBA’s Pelicans shoot some hoops. If you visit New Orleans during the springtime, you may want to take yourself out to a Baby Cakes minor league ball game. No matter what time of year you’re in town, you catch the Tulane Green Wave play more than a dozen men’s and women’s sports, including football, baseball, basketball, tennis and beach volleyball.
Food & Nightlife
Since the 1930s, Charlie’s Steakhouse has been a staple restaurant for New Orleans’ working class, making it the oldest steakhouse in the city. The restaurant has a comfortable, welcoming ambience and a simple menu consisting of quality steaks and assorted sides. This is a popular spot where locals dine, so make sure you secure reservations before heading over.
Antoine’s Restaurant made culinary history in 1889 when chefs developed the dish, Oysters Rockefeller. The menu featuring classic Creole dishes has stayed the same for more than a century and includes dishes like pompano Pontchartrain, Eggs Sardou and Cafe Brulot. If you have to choose only one place to dine when you visit New Orleans, try to get a table at Antoine’s.
Maple Leaf Bar
Home of the Grammy-award-winning Rebirth Brass Band, Maple Leaf Bar is more than a run-of-the-mill jazz bar. It’s a complete artistic experience that encompasses music, visual art and spoken word. You routinely hear poetry readings and recitations mixed in with the funky music. On some nights, you can watch the resident painter work.
One Eyed Jacks
Located on the eastern side of the French Quarter, One Eyed Jacks features a smorgasbord of entertainment each night. The rotating schedule features jazz, funk and rock bands from all over the city. This former theater is also a hotspot for burlesque shows and themed dance parties that last all night. Settle in with the signature drink, The Matador, or some PBR shots and enjoy the show.
A French Quarter staple since 1956, Brennan’s Restaurant on Royal Street serves classic New Orleans cuisine with a combination of traditional Creole and contemporary specials. From the architecture to the menu, this landmark restaurant pays homage to the cultures and flavors that blend together in New Orleans. Taste the flavor of freshly caught seafood and finish with the restaurant’s signature dessert, Bananas Foster.
Carousel Bar & Lounge at Hotel Monteleone
Located in the iconic Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter, the Carousel Bar features a rotating bar. This intricately designed merry-go-round has 25 seats that give you the perfect spot for people watching as you enjoy one of the bar’s signature cocktails. Start your night here with a sample of bar bites and drinks or make it the final destination for an evening night cap.
Cafe du Monde
When you need a break from the revelry, head over to Cafe du Monde for a late night snack of beignets and cafe au lait. This spot is a New Orleans landmark that first opened in 1862 and is a must-see site at least once during your trip.
Though the city is uniquely itself through and through, different parts of town have different vibes. The neighborhood you stay in will also influence your experience of New Orleans. The French Quarter, for example, is the main tourist hub of the city, so travelers who want an off-the-beaten-path experience may want to steer clear of this part of town. However, though it does have a lot of T-shirt shops and other standard staples, the French Quarter is unique because most of the businesses in the area are still locally owned and the architecture is so uniquely New Orleans.
There are other parts of the city to head to if you want to take in the local character with an edgier or less touristy vibe. The Garden District is home to the St. Charles Streetcar, a charming way to sightsee in style without wearing out your feet. Treme was once the city’s musical heart and soul, but most of the old jazz and blues clubs have been replaced with coffee shops and other symbols of gentrification. But visiting this part of town can still connect you to a sense of place and cultural history, even if the old landmarks aren’t physically there anymore.
Marigny is one of the up-and-coming parts of New Orleans that people who appreciate a bohemian atmosphere may want to stay in or check out. Particularly good for walking and biking during the day, parts of Marigny can get a bit rough at night. But if you stick to well-trafficked areas like Frenchmen Street, you’ll enjoy delicious food and great live music for a fully immersive New Orleans experience.
Gorgeous Vacation Rentals
One of the great things about traveling to NOLA is that you have the opportunity to stay in some truly unique buildings that you may not find in many other places on the planet. Many New Orleans vacation rentals are in newer buildings that have been renovated or built from the ground up after Hurricane Katrina, but there are still a lot of historic homes standing tall and waiting for you to rent them for your trip.
Two of the most distinctively New Orleans home styles are the shotgun shack and the Creole townhouse. A shotgun shack, so famed in blues and jazz songs, is a humble cottage that looks tiny from the front but usually extends quite a ways to the back. These homes are long and thin, with rooms stacked in a row rather than spreading out to the sides. Most shotgun shacks are brightly painted and have front porches that you can enjoy during your stay. The Creole townhouse is also notable for its porches, or rather its balconies. Classic Creole townhouse architecture includes the lacy ironwork balcony railings that show up in so many photos of New Orleans. Most of the buildings in the French Quarter are in the Creole townhouse style, though you may find homes like this in other parts of the city, particularly in the close-in areas that weren’t destroyed by Katrina and subsequent flooding. The areas of Downtown and Marigny that border the French Quarter are good places to look.
From the beautiful homes, to the iconic bars and restaurants, you’ll find plenty to keep you busy in New Orleans. Make sure you have a cozy vacation rental where you can retreat after exploring the fun side of the city!