One of the more popular unofficial taglines for New Orleans is "a theme park for adults."
As branding goes, this is pretty accurate when it comes to the neon lights of Bourbon Street, the hipster crowds in the Marigny and Bywater, and the foodies prowling Uptown for the next James Beard-nominated hot spot. But can this town, so well known for its adult diversions, also cater to kids?
The answer is, as so many New Orleanians are wont to say, "Yeah you right!" From street performers, live music, parks, museums, and yes, even some Mardis Gras parades, New Orleans has a lot to offer everyone in the family.
While we’re wary of engaging regional cliches too deeply, there is more than a grain of truth to the Big Easy’s penchant for, well, taking it easy. A stuffed-shirt approach does not yield much in New Orleans beyond head-shaking wonder, which means that even the highest-end restaurants are cool with kids, who are generally looked after with an indulgent smile.
From zoos, playgrounds and other classic family favorites to keeping youngsters occupied in city neighborhoods, here are New Orleans' top kid-friendly experiences.
1. Take a family walking tour of the French Quarter
A popular place for families is the French Quarter. Although many visitors treat it as a sort of adult playground, with Bourbon Street serving as a neon heart of bad behavior, skip this side, and you'll find a compact neighborhood where historical preservation, incredible dining and great nightlife intersect like nowhere else in the USA.
Explore the area with a morning walking tour run by Friends of the Cabildo. It’s an excellent introduction to both the architecture and history of the area. After the tour, take a walk along the river and consider catching a concert sponsored by the National Park Service at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Or, walk up and down Royal Street and lounge alongside the river. If you feel inclined, rent a bicycle; you can cover lots more ground that way. There are plenty of shops and galleries to peruse here.
The hub of activity in Jackson Square is sure to be loved by kids. Any time of day, you may encounter street artists, fortune-tellers, buskers, brass bands and similar folks all engaged in producing the sensory overload New Orleans is famous for (and kids go crazy over). The square is framed by a fairytale cathedral and two excellent museums, and nearby are steps leading up to the Mississippi River. Drop by Café du Monde for some powdered-sugar treats.
Planning tip: Looking to stay close by? The Olivier House is a French Quarter standby that's good with kids. And Dauphine Orleans is a boutique-style hotel with family-friendly amenities.
2. Go on a swamp tour by boardwalk or kayak
The swampy, buggy wetlands of South Louisiana are the perfect day trip from New Orleans. They form their own kind of playground, but not one that is easily accessible to the uninitiated. One option is to take a swamp tour – the kids will probably get to watch alligators prowl the Bayou – or, if you’re on a budget, you can walk the boardwalk at the Barataria Preserve, just south of the city. Gators can sometimes be spotted there, and even if you don’t spy those grinning reptiles, the local cypress swamp has an otherworldly beauty.
A similar landscape awaits visitors to the boardwalk trails that skirt through the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, located in New Orleans East.
Planning tip: Fair warning – South Louisiana gets hot and humid. Bring lots of cold water for any nature outing, no matter the season.
3. Find family-friendly Mardis Gras experiences
Colorful spectacle is core to New Orleanian identity, and this sort of pageantry gets put on parade (literally) every winter, spring and fall weekend during a celebration known as second lines – local parades that march through primarily African American neighborhoods. They are open to the public, and many local families march with their children in tow, but loud music and alcohol consumption is the norm. Kids who are into live music will love it, but it can be a sensory overload for those who prefer a quieter outing.
This city does not lack in parades. Processions affiliated with festivals and holidays like Decadence, Gay Easter, Halloween and, of course, Mardi Gras always include folks in fantastic costumes tossing "throws" (beads, toys, etc) to kids. Indeed, many locals would argue that, contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras and the preceding two weeks of Carnival are fundamentally family-oriented holidays. Accessible parades for children include the sci-fi-ganza of Chewbacchus (which runs through Faubourg Marigny) and the parading dogs of Barkus (which rolls through the French Quarter).
You may see public inebriation anywhere in the city during Carnival, but the main parade route on St Charles Avenue, which passes through Uptown, the Garden District, the Lower Garden District and the CBD, is always filled with families.
The enormous Endymion parade, which rolls through Mid-City, is held up as a family-friendly event, but we find it too crowded for our tastes.
In general, truly drunken adult behavior tends to concentrate around Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street during Carnival, but head a few blocks in either direction, and you are likely to find families enjoying themselves.
Local tip: A taste for pageantry easily translates into a love of theater, and many theater programs in New Orleans market themselves to families. Be on the lookout for family-oriented shows at the NOLA Project and Cafe Istanbul in the Healing Center.
4. Choose your own adventure in City Park
City Park is larger than New York's Central Park, and it has alligators – what are you waiting for? If alligators aren’t your thing, it is also home to long lines of live oaks and weeping willows; a botanical garden that contains New Orleans in miniature; ice cream; Greek columns; a sculpture garden that surrounds the New Orleans Museum of Art; and a singing tree, festooned with wind chimes and romance – the sort of space where love and music slowly infuse the air with giddiness.
A walk through the hardwood trees of the Couturie Forest will make you feel like the city is far, far away. The paths lead to the highest point in the city, Laborde Mountain, which affords you stunning views as you catch your breath. Check out the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, especially the 1906 carousel that's a gem of vintage nostalgia. Other thrills include a Ferris wheel, bumper cars and a tilt-a-whirl.
The Louisiana Children’s Museum is also in City Park. It's kind of a theme park for kids (albeit more educational). There are giant bubble-blowing exhibits, fun-size loading cranes, a book forest, a play shopping area, and plenty of other stuff that should appeal to any kid under 10.
5. Spend a day at Audubon Park
Audubon Park is more groomed than City Park and sits on a stretch of Magazine Street and St Charles Avenue rife with good food options, and the Fly, a popular riverfront pedestrian walkway.
This is also where you'll find Audubon Zoo, along with the Aquarium and Insectarium, forming a trifecta of family-friendly sites. The zoo is a genuinely excellent example of the genre – it’s large, the animals have spacious enclosures, and the setting in Audubon Park is wonderful. During summer, be on the lookout for the onsite waterpark, "Cool Zoo." Also, note that there is a waterfall and grotto (of sorts) in the shadow of Monkey Hill, a small artificial slope located near the African wild dogs.
The Aquarium and Insectarium are temporarily closed for renovation, scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2023. When they do, you can expect to find playful otters, cute penguins and a Mayan sunken temple exhibit at the Aquarium, and giant beetles, a wonderfully disgusting cockroach display and a cool indoor swamp at the Insectarium.
Planning tip: Discounted tickets are available online, provided you book in advance.
6. Visit New Orleans' best family-friendly restaurants
New Orleans has some of the best food in the USA, and the good news is you don't have to miss out just because you're traveling with kids. While there are few non-chain places with dedicated children’s menus, most New Orleans restaurants are more than willing to adjust the menu to a child’s tastes.
Foodie magnets like Rosedale, Domenica, MoPho and Carmo are all buzzy spots where kids are indulged and families are welcome. Other restaurants, like Satsuma, Pizza Delicious, Dat Dog and Katie’s, are explicitly family-friendly. Many of the city’s local breweries, including Urban South, Second Line Brewing and Parleaux Beer Lab, have dedicated child-friendly areas with space for little ones to play and roam.
Planning tip: Some places that derive a large portion of their income from alcohol sales, like Bacchanal and Coop’s, do not allow minors on site – when in doubt, call ahead.
7. Soak up the local vibes at an outdoor performance with live music
Live music is a big draw for many visitors to New Orleans, but most music clubs tend to serve booze and have 21-and-up entrance requirements. There are plenty of places to catch outdoor performances, though. A wander down Frenchmen Street, for instance, will often showcase street musicians. Or try hanging out on the kid-friendly second-floor balcony of the Frenchman Street location of Dat Dog.
When it comes to festivals, some parents swear by French Quarter Fest as a good, kid-friendly festival, by dint of its free admission and multiple venues scattered throughout the French Quarter. It can mean pushing through big crowds, though, so if you or the kids aren't up for that, you may want to skip it. Jazz Fest also draws large crowds, but its open location at the race-course grounds makes them easier to navigate. There’s a dedicated children’s tent that usually features good music: put it this way, parents won’t mind hanging out here even though bigger acts are playing elsewhere.
When it comes to music for kids, we find that more locally focused, less prominent festivals, like the Bayou Boogaloo or the Congo Square Rhythms Festival, are a way of seeing music in a setting that is easy on families. They have plentiful food vendors, adult libations for those who need them, and an easy-going crowd that is neither too sedate nor too aggressive.
Getting around New Orleans with children isn't always easy
One thing to consider if you're exploring by foot is that New Orleans' ill-maintained sidewalks are horrible for strollers – you'll want to bring one that is maneuverable and durable. Another option is bicycling through the city, if your kids are old enough or you have a kid's bike seat. It's easy to cycle, and you can cross the entirety of the town in 45 minutes. If you're looking to access outer neighborhoods such as Mid-City, a car is the easiest way to travel.