One of the more popular unofficial taglines for New Orleans is 'a theme park for adults.' As branding goes, this is decently accurate, and applies across the 'booze-ergois' of neon Bourbon Street to the hipster crowd in the Marigny and Bywater to the foodies prowling Uptown for the next James Beard-nominated noms. But can this town, so well known for its adult diversions also be a theme park for, y’know, kids? The answer is, as so many New Orleanians are wont to say, 'Yeah you right.'
The dog parade of Barkus is one of many parades in New Orleans that are fun for all ages © Adam Karlin / Lonely Planet
New Orleans is one of the most playful cities in the country. While we’re leery 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 disapproval. Even the highest end restaurants are cool with kids, who are generally looked after with an indulgent smile.
By going a bit deeper into the neighborhoods, you can find a more family-friendly version of Mardi Gras © Adam Karlin / Lonely Planet
Can I bring a kid to Mardi Gras?
Colorful spectacle is core to New Orleanian identity, and this sort of pageantry gets put on parade (literally) every winter, spring and fall weekend at second lines, local parades that march through primarily African American neighborhoods. Many local families march with their children in second lines, which are open to the public, but fair warning: loud bands and plentiful alcohol consumption is the norm. Kids of any age who are into music and culture travel can appreciate these parades, but if you’re the sort of parent (or have the sort of child) who prefers a quiet outing, you may want to skip a second line.
Of course, it’s not like this city lacks for 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 and the parading dogs of Barkus).
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. Other parades like Barkus roll through the French Quarter, while Chewbacchus runs through Faubourg Marigny. In general, truly bad adult behavior tends to concentrate around Bourbon St and Frenchmen St during Carnival, but head a few blocks in either direction from these places and you are likely to find families enjoying themselves.
One other note: 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 Crescent City Lights, the NOLA Project and Cafe Istanbul in the Healing Center.
Dat Dog is one of many kid-friendly restaurants in New Orleans – and its balcony is the perfect spot to watch live music on Frenchmen St while avoiding crowds © Katie Sikora
Dining out with kids in New Orleans
New Orleans has 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, Carmo and Green Goddess 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. On the flip side, some food mainstays 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.
Seeing music with your munchkins
Live music is a big draw for many visitors to New Orleans. It’s tough to take children to most music clubs, which tend to serve booze and have 21 and up entrance requirements. But you can catch outdoor performances on Frenchmen St, for example, by hanging out on the kid-friendly second-floor balcony of the Frenchman St location of Dat Dog.
At Jazz Fest, there’s a dedicated children’s tent which usually features good music: put it this way, parents won’t mind hanging out here even though bigger acts are playing elsewhere. 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. All of the above is true, but if you or your children have a tough time pushing through big crowds, you may want to skip this one (Jazz Fest also draws large crowds, but its open location at the race course grounds makes them much easier to navigate).
Lively second line performances often take place in New Orleans neighborhoods © VeryBusyPeople / CC-by-2.0
When it comes to music for kids, we find that more locally focused, less prominent festivals, like the annual Jazz in the Park series, Bayou Boogaloo or the Congo Square Rhythms Festival, are a way of seeing music in a setting that is easy on families. All of these events have plentiful food vendors, adult libations for those who need them, and an easy-going crowd that is neither too sedate nor too aggro.
Getting outdoors with kids
The swampy, buggy wetlands of South Louisiana are their own kind of playground, but it’s not one that is easily accessible to the uninitiated. You can take a swamp tour, of course – the kids will probably get to watch alligators prowl the Bayou – or, if you’d rather not spend the money, 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. Fair warning: South Louisiana gets hot, and it gets humid. Bring lots of cold water for yourself and your kids for any nature outing, any time of year.
Audubon attractions (and beyond)
If swamps aren’t your thing, you could take children out to play mini golf or stomp around the trails that web through City Park; Couturie Forest is the best place to head to feel like you’re lost in the woods. Many families like to have a sunset picnic on Bayou St John, a natural waterway that runs through Mid-City. Audubon Park is more groomed than City Park, and sits on a stretch of Magazine St and St Charles Ave rife with good food options. This is the location of the Fly, a popular riverfront pedestrian walkway, and of course, the Audubon Zoo.
The Audubon Zoo, Aquarium and Insectarium are a trifecta of family-friendly sites that are popular with tourists and locals. 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 man-made slope located near the African wild dogs.
Children will enjoy the gross-out factor of the Audubon Insectarium © Louisiana Travel / CC-by-ND-2.0
The Aquarium of the Americas has playful otters, cute penguins, a Mayan sunken temple exhibit and a questionable display of an oil rig and sea life living in perfect harmony. Last but not least, the Insectarium has giant beetles, a wonderfully disgusting cockroach display, a cool indoor swamp and – oh boy! – a cafe that sells all kinds of insect-derived food.
Finally, we’d be remiss not to mention the huge Louisiana Children’s Museum, which come to think of it, is kind of a theme park for kids (albeit more educational). There’s giant bubble-blowing exhibits, play loading cranes, a book forest, a play shopping area, and plenty of other stuff that should appeal to any kid under 10. The Children’s Museum is building new digs in City Park, scheduled to be finished in the summer of 2019; check on that progress before you visit.
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