The year-round party vibe of New Orleans takes on an extra sparkle during the holiday season, and 2021 promises an enthusiastic return to the celebrations of years past. Christmas lights and decorations adorn homes and businesses, while the streets are filled with holiday music – with that distinctly Big Easy flair, of course. 

From decked-out hotel lobbies and cathedral concerts to bonfires on the levee and Réveillon dinners introduced by French colonists that stretch into the wee hours, here are the best things to do during the holiday season in New Orleans.

New Orleans has implemented a strict COVID-19 safety plan that requires proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter most public spaces. Read more about the city’s current COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines here

A family walks through the lobby of The Roosevelt to look at Waldorf Wonderland, a block-long display of Christmas trees, white tree lights and other holiday decorations
Waldorf Wonderland is one of the many hotels that go all out with their decorations © Zack Smith Photography

Go hotel lobby hopping

Many of New Orleans’ higher-end hotels are famous for their over-the-top holiday decorations and seasonal events. In the Central Business District, the Windsor Court Hotel boasts a towering 20ft Christmas tree along with wreaths, garlands and several smaller trees trimming its expansive public spaces. Children can post letters to Santa at the hotel’s holiday mailbox and guests of all ages can soak up the scene with an elegant holiday tea. 

At The Roosevelt, a block-long lobby display known as Waldorf Wonderland has been a holiday tradition since the 1930s. This year it has been expanded with thousands of additional lights and decorations, including 44 Christmas trees. 

In the French Quarter, the Ritz-Carlton’s artfully decorated lobby is a favorite of Instagrammers. The hotel’s jam-packed December calendar includes gingerbread builds, Papa Noël teas and holiday dinners. Other hotels known for their displays include the Hotel Monteleone, Harrah’s and the Bourbon Orleans. While you don’t have to be a guest to check out these decorations, many hotels do offer special Papa Noël rates during the holidays if you decide to stay.

Embrace musical merriment

It’s no surprise that the birthplace of jazz takes a musical approach to its holiday celebrations. From concerts to caroling, the December calendar is full of merry musical events throughout New Orleans. On the Sunday before Christmas (December 19), Caroling in Jackson Square is a free event that invites everyone to sing Christmas carols by the glow of candlelight – show up early to get a good spot. 

Rather just listen? The St. Louis Cathedral hosts a free concert series featuring choirs, gospel singers, jazz musicians and more. Check New Orleans’ local events calendars for plenty more holiday concerts happening throughout the city, including a Creole Christmas series at the iconic Preservation Hall.

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Winter light display for Celebration in the Oaks at a fountain at City Park in New Orleans
Head to City Park for Celebration in the Oaks, a popular holiday light display © Paul Broussard

Be dazzled by the Celebration in the Oaks

Veer off the well-trodden tourist track and head to City Park for a beloved New Orleans Christmas family tradition. Celebration in the Oaks is one of the most spectacular holiday light displays in the country, featuring more than a million lights twinkling all around City Park. Though it’s usually a walking tour, visitors to this year’s event can choose between a 2.25-mile driving tour through the grounds or an all-access pass to the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, which features 18 rides and a festive outdoor beer garden.

Indulge in a Réveillon dinner

New Orleans’ Réveillon (REV-ee-on) dinners date back to the 19th-century Creoles, who gathered for family feasts after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Today’s celebrations take place at dozens of restaurants throughout the city, with many traditional dishes still featured on the decadent menus, from turtle soup and crawfish cakes to cornish game hen. 

The fixed-price menus typically feature three or more courses, often offering tremendous value for diners. Be sure to book ahead to enjoy Réveillon revelry at classic French Quarter pillars like Arnaud’s and Galatoire’s, or the Garden District’s Commander’s Palace

Go ice skating at NOLA Christmasfest

It’s not uncommon to see 70°F days in New Orleans in December, but you can still go ice skating – you’ll just have to head inside to do so. Now in its eighth year, NOLA Christmasfest is a family-friendly event at the New Orleans Convention Center that features ice skating, rides, ice slides, ice bocce and a Yuletide Market. This year’s Christmasfest features two sessions per day from December 17-22 and December 25-30 with timed entries designed to help manage crowds.

Christmas ornaments hang from a tree outside the front of a grand house in New Orleans
Book a Holiday Home Tour to see inside some of New Orleans’s grandest houses © Zack Smith Photography

Take a Holiday Home Tour

The Christmas season presents a rare opportunity to peek inside some of the city’s grandest homes during New Orleans’ annual Holiday Home Tours. If you’re interested in homes of the Garden District, the Preservation Resource Center is hosting both virtual and in-person home and garden tours on December 11 and 12. In the French Quarter, the self-guided Patio Planters Holiday Home Tour takes place on December 19.

Warm up by a bonfire on the levee

Another holiday tradition dating back to Louisiana’s early Creole settlers, holiday bonfires light up the levees along the Mississippi River throughout the Christmas season. Some say the bonfires originated as a way to light the path to midnight mass; others claim they help Papa Noël find his way on Christmas Eve. 

You’ll find most of the bonfires in surrounding parishes (counties), usually accompanied by music, warm bowls of gumbo and fireworks. The city’s only official holiday bonfire, the Algiers Bonfire and Concert, takes place in early December at Algiers Batture.

Accessible by the Algiers ferry, the event features music, food from local vendors and a holiday craft market, plus a 30ft sculptural bonfire created by the NOLA Burners. About an hour from the city, the Festival of the Bonfires in St. James Parish features carnival rides, food, entertainment, crafts, and nightly bonfires from December 10-12.

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