The New Orleans menu is long and storied. And yes, we mean the food, but also the… everything. As the city that commands access to the Mississippi River, it’s perhaps appropriate that New Orleans rewards immersion. The city's best experiences require visitors to dunk themselves in.
In New Orleans, the rainbow palette of the houses is a feast for your eyes. The music breathes pure sonic fire into your ears. The roots of the live oaks shred the sidewalk beneath your feet. The flavors of the food delight the tongue. The scent of angel’s trumpet flowers fills residential side streets. Every corner of the city treats visitors to a new sensation, and from there, a new way of seeing and appreciating the world, especially this particular world, built on Caribbean folkways, the African diaspora, French and Iberian culture, and a specifically Southern American embrace of exuberance and community.
These are the 11 best things to do in New Orleans.
1. Catch some music on Frenchmen Street
New Orleans produces a plethora of art, but none of the creative output has left such a palpable imprint on the world as music. Jazz was born here. The granddaddy of modern pop music was a synthesis of African rhythms kept alive by slaves and free people of color, European harmonies, and brass instruments introduced by marching bands.
Jazz is often thought of as prestige music, but it largely grew out of Storyville, the city's infamous Red Light District, which was destroyed in 1917. This was the music of New Orleans' seedy underbelly, and while the music has evolved, the city has never lost touch with its muddy roots.
Although New Orleans is getting more expensive, working musicians still live by their gigs here, and the most accessible way to see them is on Frenchmen Street, in Faubourg Marigny. There are several clubs here, each within a few city blocks of one another. These include the Spotted Cat and d.b.a., where shows kick off regularly, usually around 6pm and 9pm.
And jazz isn’t the only game in town. On St Claude Avenue, you might catch a DJ spinning bounce music – The Big Easy’s native twerking dance genre – or burlesque at the Hi Ho Lounge. The Saturn Bar is the place to go for an R&B dance party.
Planning tip: There’s a lot of music on tap in New Orleans. To find it, WWOZ’s Livewire puts together an exhaustive list of local live gigs which is painstakingly updated daily.
2. Experience a Mardi Gras parade
It may be celebrated in other cities, but there is no Mardi Gras like New Orleans Mardi Gras. This is a party where the city’s penchant for hedonism is cranked up to the highest possible setting, then unleashed on her citizens in a riot of intensely creative costuming and joyful parades.
It’s worth noting that there is no one way to Mardi Gras – the holiday has as many ways of being enjoyed as there are New Orleanians – and Fat Tuesday itself is the culmination of roughly two and a half weeks of gradually intensifying partying otherwise known as Carnival season.
Planning tip: During Mardi Gras, it’s easy to watch parades if you join the crowds along St Charles Avenue who throng the floats for trinkets (“throws”) tossed to the masses. Smaller walking parades are another big part of the Mardi Gras experience, and anyone who wants to join one is usually can. The caveat is: you need to wear a costume, and you need to know where the walking parades are. On Mardi Gras day, the biggest walking parade is the Society of St Anne procession, which can be caught around 9am anywhere around Burgundy and Louisa Streets in the Bywater.
3. Stuff your face at a local restaurant
The sensory pleasure most people immediately think of when they hear “New Orleans” is food. This city has been doing locavore and slow eating and seasonal menus for (literal) centuries before those words became the buzzy marketing nomenclature attached to restaurants all over the US. Chefs here realized they were in a different place, and adapted the ingredients of Louisiana’s seas and swamps and woods into one of North America’s great hyper-regional cuisines. Maybe that’s why this city so dominates lists like the James Beard awards, despite its relatively diminutive size.
But New Orleans food isn’t the only food you can find here. Waves of immigrants have brought their own dishes, and even the city’s grande dame old-line restaurants increasingly incorporate international influences. And yet, the food culture here remains kind of old-school. People here value eating and put great stock into, well, stock – and whatever else goes into the gumbo pot.
So eat. Eat. Eat some more. Don’t worry about the calories. They’re the evidence of time well spent. There are as many New Orleans food experiences as there are local cooks, but crawfish boils, which occur in spring, with their mix of communal good times, cold beer, and messy mastication, are a quintessential experience.
Local tip: You’ll hear the word “lagniappe’” (lan-yap) come up a lot on the New Orleans dining scene. It’s Louisiana French for “a little extra,” and is usually some kind of small dessert or amuse-bouche, likely off-menu, that is offered to diners on the house.
4. Walk down Royal Street
The French Quarter is undoubtedly the most iconic New Orleans neighborhood, which is kind of ironic because the Quarter has few actual permanent residents. This is largely a tourist area, but this doesn’t make it any less engaging. While Bourbon St grabs a lot of the headlines, parallel Royal Street is where you can find a lot of what makes the Quarter still so very special.
Here you’ll find antique shops, art galleries, cafes and a pedestrian-only area where street performers bring the music of the city to life with a backdrop of elegant Caribbean townhouses framed by wrought iron balconies on their upper floors.
Detour: Royal Street runs past the back end of Jackson Square, perhaps the most recognizable public space in the city. Head here to listen to street musicians (please tip) or get your palm read by a tarot reader.
5. House Hunt on St Charles Avenue
The city’s most beautiful avenue follows the curve of the Mississippi, running through neighborhoods like Uptown and the Garden District. St Charles Avenue is blessed with shade from enormous live oaks, which grow through sidewalks that run by some of the largest mansions in the city.
Whatever else you may think of these giant homes, they are beautiful, and on a pleasant afternoon or evening, strolling past them is a dreamy prospect. If you want to see similar homes on a less-trafficked throughway, try parallel Prytania Street.
Planning Tip: If you’re going to be on St Charles Avenue, hop on the St Charles Avenue streetcar, which ferries passengers on its iconic green rail cars throughout the day.
6. Immerse yourself in artsy Bywater
The candy-colored homes of Bywater have been attracting transplants to New Orleans for decades – this district is relatively close to the French Quarter while still feeling a world away. Once a largely African American neighborhood, it is now majority white and full of the sort of artisanal goods stores and vintage shops and restaurants and bars (including one with a lovely hidden pool in the back) that are the telltale signs of hipness.
The debate over whether the Bywater has been gentrified or revitalized is ongoing, but what cannot be denied is that this is the center of gravity for tourists seeking a New Orleans that blends contemporary bohemian culture with the rainbow palette of homes that is very much the architectural fabric of the 19th century.
Detour: If you want to see the Mississippi (or jog by it), head to Crescent Park, a waterfront park that extends from here all the way to Faubourg Marigny, at the edge of the French Quarter.
7. Relax along Bayou St John
Firmly off of the tourist radar, Bayou St John is a quiet inland urban waterway surrounded by a small strip of green grass, crossed by a few bridges, including the pedestrian Cabrini Bridge, and framed by houses that run the gamut from mansions to pretty cottages (as well as the Creole style home of the city’s first mayor).
Come out here to people-watch, to see the sun dip behind the homes and the oak trees, and to enjoy a scene of surprising zen and serenity in a city otherwise known for loud good times. Even locals – especially locals, really – like to take a break from this town's penchant for excess. When they need to just relax, breathe and enjoy some gentle beauty, they often head to Bayou St John, and it makes sense for you to join them.
Detour: It makes the most sense to drive or bicycle up Esplanade Avenue, another one of those beautiful New Orleans streets lined with gorgeous old homes. You can walk along Esplanade, but if you do so, the safest area is from Broad Street up to City Park.
8. Get enjoyable lost in City Park
To be fair, the name City Park is a slight misnomer. The park isn’t technically owned or operated by the city of New Orleans but this is semantics. City Park is a wonderful green space in the heart of town that houses the New Orleans Museum of Art, forest trails, waterways, enormous live oak trees, playgrounds, the gorgeous Louisiana Children’s Museum, a sculpture garden, and a singing tree, among many other attractions.
The trails through Couturie Forest, off of Harrison Avenue, give visitors a taste of the bottomland forests that once carpeted so much of South Louisiana.
9. Ramble in the shade in Audubon Park
Located smack in the middle of Uptown New Orleans, just off of patrician St Charles Avenue, Audubon Park is another impossibly green space dappled with Spanish moss and edged with huge mansions cut through by a walking and biking trail.
It’s much beloved by locals and students at nearby Tulane and Loyola universities, and an easy spot for parents to bring kids, especially given that part of the park is given over to the exceptionally fine Audubon Zoo. Make sure to walk the dirt paths that run along the perimeter of the park along the yards of the aforesaid mansions; the gardens, landscaping, and occasional rope swings attached to trees all make for a lovely tableau.
Detour: Running along the Mississippi River just south of Audubon Park, the Fly is a green space largely given over to sports fields, although there are also lawns on the waterfront that are perfect for a picnic.
10. Have a drink at a neighborhood bar
New Orleanians swear by their local gin joints. But locals aren’t all about the alcohol-pocalypse of Bourbon Street. This is the city that (arguably) invented the cocktail, drinks generally made for sipping and taking the edge off, not getting smashed. There’s no shortage of variety when it comes to bars here, from some of the best dive bars in the country to fancy hotel bars. In the latter category, the bar at the historic Hotel Monteleone, which literally rotates (slowly), is always a favorite.
The city’s neighborhood bars are something special, though, and as varied as the neighborhoods themselves. On Magazine Street, you’ll find classy cocktail lounges and Tulane graduates; in the Marigny, a mix of LGBTQ+ friendly spots and hip drinking holes; near Tulane and Loyola, student bars abound. Yet everywhere, people are happy to chat with strangers and strike up a conversation. Don’t leave town without trying a sazerac, the native blend of rye whiskey, bitters and absinthe that is the Platonic ideal of the New Orleans drink; Bar Tonique, at the edge of the French Quarter, makes a legendary version.
11. Pay your respects at a cemetery
Sure, New Orleans is lively, but some of its most fascinating urban geographies house the dead. The cemeteries of New Orleans drip with Southern gothic grandeur and vibe. Best known for their above-ground tombs and mausoleums, each one of the city’s many cemeteries is a window into the past, cast in stone. In some “blocks” of these cities of the dead, you’ll see the communal vaults of families or even professional associations; and because there simply wasn’t much space for cemeteries, mixed faiths can often be found sharing the same acres of land.
The above-ground tombs of New Orleans supposedly owe their existence to the city’s high water table, but these days, historians seem to acknowledge the real reason for the raised vaults is cultural; the original colonists in New Orleans came from France and Iberia, where there is a long tradition of above-ground cemeteries.
The city maintains an extensive website on local cemeteries and when they’re open to visitors. If you want to find a cemetery that mixed above-ground tombs with “regular” burial plots that are rarely visited by tourists, check out Carrollton Cemetery No. 1, also known as the Green Street Cemetery, a few blocks off Carrollton Avenue in Uptown New Orleans.