With so much to see and do, New Orleans can seem overwhelming, but if you hit all 20 things on our New Orleans city guide, you’ll have an unforgettable trip to the Crescent City…
New Orleans may just be the most unique city in the United States with its own culture unlike anywhere else. French, Spanish, Native American, Caribbean, African, and English influences have converged over hundreds of years to create a city with a vibe all its own.
We found ourselves playing NOLA tour guides to some friends on the most recent MINI Takes the States, and it got us thinking… What are the must-sees? Must-eats? Must-dos? If you had a long weekend to New Orleans, what must you check off the bucket list to say you’ve really experienced the Big Easy?
Without further adieu, we’ve compiled our “must-do” list… (Divided into 3 sections: Experience, Eat, and Party)
(Cover photo: MINI USA)
Click "next" to see our 9 picks for "must-do" experiences in New Orleans (then on to food!)
1. Steamboat Natchez Jazz Cruise
One of only 2 true steam powered sternwheelers on the Mississippi today and the only steamboat to call New Orleans home, the Steamboat Natchez carries on one of the most famous names in the history of steamboats. Aside from stunning views of the city and surrounding areas, you’ll get in that New Orleans swing with live jazz music and a big buffet dinner. (They offer 2-hour daytime cruises with optional lunch buffet as well if that works better with your schedule) Click here to learn more or book a seat.
2. Swamp and Bayou Tour
There’s no shortage of swamp tours operated in the surrounding bayou, but our favorite is offered by Gray Line and features a fascinating pirate history of the Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve on the short bus ride to the bayou. Once on the boat, your true Cajun guide immerses you in the world of the swamp and bayou. With their trusty rubber chickens on strings, the guides bring alligators within feet of you (safely, of course).
If you’re a little more into speed and open air, book the Airboat Adventure instead.
Either way, be sure to check out the albino alligator in the gift shop.
3. Visit the WWII museum
The PERFECT rainy-day New Orleans activity, the National WWII Museum is consistently ranked as the #1 thing to do in the whole city and for good reason. Multiple levels guide visitors through the trials, tribulations, and heroics of WWII with interactive exhibits, priceless artifacts, and emotional personal narratives from the men and women of the Greatest Generation.
After experiencing the main parts of the museum, be sure to check out the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center. Here you can climb the catwalks and get a birds-eye view of multiple WWII aircraft and ground machinery.
The National WWII Museum is easily a half-day to day-and-half experience depending on your pace, so be sure to block out a good chunk of time for this unforgettable place.
4. Tour a cemetery (& take city tour)
Our knowledge of New Orleans cemeteries was limited to what we’d seen in movies like Double Jeopardy and the infamous Easy Rider classic. We knew they were above ground. We had no idea there was so much fascinating history and ritual associated with the cemeteries.
Of course, you can make your own way to one of the cemeteries, but you’ll miss out on all the history and lore. It’s WELL WORTH hopping on a guided tour of the entire city. Multiple companies offer them, but, again, we defer to our friends at Gray Line as a trusted provider we’ve used before.
Seriously. Take a guided tour of the whole city. You’ll never fully appreciate New Orleans if you just stagger through the French Quarter the whole time. They also offer Hurricane Katrina tours if of interest to you. (Ok, off our soapbox now.)
5. Ride the St. Charles Streetcar
Going to New Orleans and not riding a streetcar is about like going to San Francisco and not riding a cablecar. You just have to! The St. Charles Streetcar is a great choice because it starts just outside the French Quarter on Canal, an area even the most clueless tourist can navigate to, and takes you through the “English” side of the city, a part often skipped by those just intent on partying their NOLA weekend away.
A round-trip ride only takes about 90 minutes, and along the way you’ll see the beautiful Garden District and its stately mansions, Tulane, Loyola, and Audubon Park. Make a day of it by hopping on and off at Audubon Park (the zoo is great) and grabbing lunch or dinner at one of multiple great places around Riverbend or our favorite, Commander’ Palace (just a block away from St. Charles- more on that later) You can always pay cash to hop on and off, but we recommend grabbing a 1 day pass for the staggering amount of $3.
6. Stroll through City Park
Reachable by car or the Canal St. Streetcar, City Park is New Orleans’ version of Central Park, and it’s wonderful. Grab a beignet at the cafe inside the park and stroll through sculpture and botanical gardens before heading on to the New Orleans Museum of Art. Got some little ones? Enjoy the playgrounds, amusement park, putt-putt course, and children’s museum all onsite. Whether you love nature, art, or both, you’ll love City Park.
Note: Several guided city tours make stops in City Park, but you’re going to want way more time, so consider going back after your tour ends.
7. Watch a Jazz Funeral or 2nd Line
Parades are kind of a big deal in New Orleans. You may have heard of a certain big one that happens just before Ash Wednesday. No matter what time of year you visit, however, there’s a good chance you can see some sort of parade whether it be a jazz funeral procession or a second line parade. (For a great history of both, check out this website)
Photo via Flickr
8. French Market & Jackson Square
While people everywhere seem to be familiar with Bourbon Street, it’s actually Jackson Square and the French Market that are the heartbeat of the French Quarter. Take pictures of the multiple statues (hopefully all explained to you on a great city tour), browse for gifts and souvenirs, and pop into the bars, shops, and restaurants that fill the area. (Photo via Flickr)
9. Tour a plantation
Just outside New Orleans you’ll find a host of different plantations available for tour. Can’t decide which one to visit? We’re a little partial to Oak Alley Plantation with its beautiful row of oak trees framing the stunning antebellum home. Plan at least 2-3 hours at Oak Alley so you have time for the “Big House” tour and the slavery exhibits on the grounds.
If you don’t have access to a car, plenty of tour operators such as Gray Line offer half and full-day excursions to the different area plantations.
New Orleans is most definitely a foodie's dream come true. Here are some of our favorites...
10. Grab a beignet
Ok, this probably doesn’t shock you. You have to grab a beignet when you’re in New Orleans. It’s just a must-do. Now, here’s where the debate rages on… Where should you get it? If you did a city tour that included City Park, you may have picked one up in the park. If not, you can’t go more than a few yards in the French Quarter without finding a place serving them. The most famous is probably Cafe du Monde in the French Market, and it’s a fine place for coffee and beignets. But… it’s not our favorite.
Our favorite is Cafe Beignet. They have 3 locations spread around the French Quarter, but we love their original Royal St. location. Tucked in an old carriage house, it just feels like you stumbled upon a not-so-well-kept secret. If you find yourself down at Musical Legends Park on Bourbon St. for some daily jazz or on walking past Jackson Brewery, grab some Cafe Beignet beignets there as well.
Photo via Facebook/Kaela Rodehorst Williams
11. Taste fresh pralines
First, you better not call them “pray-leans,” or you’ll be mocked. Ok, now… these tasty little candies are always amazing, but they’re exceptionally good if you can grab one made fresh. Thankfully, there are tons of places in New Orleans to grab fresh pralines, and we even put together this little French Quarter Praline walking tour for you.
12. Dinner in the Court of Two Sisters
Oh, their courtyard. Oh, their food. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the Court of Two Sisters has been heralded for years as one of the very best places in the south for a memorable brunch or dinner. Their jazz brunch features an excellent buffet paired with live music, and it’s awesome. We, however, just love the courtyard when it comes to life at night with its trees and lights, so we’re big fans of dinner here.
In terms of what to order… Everything. Turtle soup to Alligator… It’s all amazing. Just make sure you finish it off with some Bananas Foster.
They don’t have a strict dress code here, but it’s considered “nice casual,” so don’t go in looking like you crawled out of the gutter, ok?
13. Commander’s Palace
Legendary. That’s Commander’s Palace. Since 1893, it’s been winning awards and accolades for its Haute Creole creations, and its still being written about by food critics worldwide. The first time we saw the “Commander’s Blue” and white stripes, we knew we were in for a treat. From the amazing food to the professional, classy servers, it was a true dining experience.
Offering weekend jazz brunch, weekday lunch, and dinner every night of the week, there are plenty of options to fit in your schedule. We suggest making a real night of it and grabbing a dinner reservation. This is your chance to get all “fancy” and have a meal you’ll never forget.
(Note: dress code is “business attire” aka men- wear a jacket and a collared shirt and everyone leave the jeans at home- this is a meal worth dressing up for!)
14. Grab some oysters & po’ boys
If you’re looking for oysters and/or a good po’boy, Acme Oyster House may be the first place you hear people recommend. Of course, fame comes with a cost as the wait here is often pretty long. We’re going to actually steer you across the street to our favorite spot: Felix’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar.
Locally owned just as it always has been, Felix’s likes to say if you ask anyone in town where their grandparents would go for oysters they’ll say Felix’s. While made famous by their oyster bar, Felix’s has a full menu of New Orleans staples from oysters to po’ boys to jambalaya.
15. Learn to make jambalaya and gumbo
If you went with oysters or a po’ boy at Felix’s, then you still need to try jambalaya and gumbo. What if instead of trying them, you actually learned how to make them? Head over to our friends at the New Orleans School of Cooking for one of their daily cooking classes. Here you’ll learn all the tricks to making true Louisiana gumbo and jambalaya and have a chance to buy a little kit with everyone you’d need to make it taste just like the chef’s when you get back home. (P.S. This is also a great place to get pralines)
16. Drink a “hurricane” on Bourbon Street
Ah yes, the famed Bourbon Street. You at least have to walk down it for a bit an do some people watching. You might as well have drink in your hand while you do it. Over the years, the “Hurricane” has become the most well-known cocktail in New Orleans.
It all started when bar owner Pat O’Brien had to get rid of some rum so he could get his hands on better booze. He took the rum, mixed in a bunch of sweet and sugary ingredients, poured it into a hurricane glass and wah-lah. The “Hurricane” was born. Today, you can grab one almost anywhere in the French Quarter, but why not grab one from the bar that invented it: Pat O’Brien’s. (Two locations: 718 St. Peter and 624 Bourbon Street) Enjoy one in the traditional glass then grab one to go and hit Bourbon St.
Photo via Flickr
17. Try NOLA’s Official Cocktail: The Sazerac
A drink with roots in New Orleans dating back to the 1800s, the Sazerac features Peychaud’s bittters, Herbsaint or absinthe, sugar, and rye whiskey. (Back in the day, it was originally Cognac. Sub out the whiskey for Cognac if you’d like to be true to tradition)
So where should you try it? Well, The Sazerac Bar is a good place to start. Located in the Roosevelt Hotel, this stunning bar feels like something you’d see in the Great Gatsby. Over the years, plenty of famous folks have enjoyed a cocktail or two at The Sazerac Bar including the Kingfish himself, Governor Huey P. Long.
18. Carousel Bar & Lounge
Remember how much fun the carousel was when you were a kid? Well, it’s even more fun as an adult with a drink in your hand. The Carousel Bar inside the Hotel Monteleone features 25-seats around a bar under a magnificent carousel top, all slowing rotating in a full circle every 15 minutes just as it has since first installed in 1949. What to order while riding around on the carousel? Try The Goody or the Vieux Carre since both were invented at the Carousel Bar.
You can't really say you experienced New Orleans if you never had a round of drinks at Carousel Bar.
19. Live music on Frenchmen Street
While live music can be found all over New Orleans, the concentration of live music venues and great talent found on and around Frenchmen Street is unparalleled. Suggesting which place to hit up on any given night is nearly impossible, but why not start at the most famous spot?
For most folks, us included, the Spotted Cat Music Club is the quintessential New Orleans jazz club. The Cat has become so well-known it's not uncommon to see it featured in everything from movies to tourism brochures. Our first time at the Cat was a New Orleans memory we'll never forget. Does it get crowded? Yes, but you know what, when everyone's digging the music, somehow it just doesn't seem to matter.
If you really want to make the most of your time on Frenchmen Street, we recommend any of these awesome little packages put together by Frenchmen Street Live.
Photo: Jumbo Shrimp Jazz Band
20. Grab a drink at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop
A self-proclaimed “gumbo of truth and French, Spanish, African, Cajun and American embellishments,” Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop has a history all its own. Supposedly once a New Orleans base for the Lafitte Brothers’ smuggling operations, today it’s thought the be the oldest structure used as a bar in the United States. The 1720s shop-turned-bar is illuminated each night by candlelight and is said to be one of the most haunted places in all New Orleans. On our first trip to Lafitte's, our first thought was, "Ok, so this is where they hid the real New Orleans." We think you'll agree.
Photo via Flickr
While New Orleans has enough to keep you busy for years and years of visits, we humbly submit these 20 things will put you on the right track to being an expert on the Crescent City.
Ok, now, time to hear your suggestions… Ghost tours? Carriage rides? What are your favorite things to do in New Orleans?
For more help planning your New Orleans adventure, reach out to our friends at Visit New Orleans.
MINI Takes the States
Our last trip through the Big Easy was on MINI Takes the States. This is our third time motoring around the country with hundreds (seriously, hundreds) of MINIs. Every few years, MINI puts together a route full of fun activities and adventures for any MINI owner to participate for an remarkably reasonable fee.
The best part? It’s for charity! This year, MINI and MINI owners worked with Feeding America to generate over 1 MILLION meals for those in need through this year’s event! (More on that here)
Click here for more on MINI Takes the States.