New Orleans: Where vibrant cultures and one of the world’s most famous parties come together over sugar-dusted beignets
Perhaps no other U.S. city has more nicknames than New Orleans: The Big Easy, The Birthplace of Jazz, The Crescent City, Mardi Gras City, NOLA, The City that Care Forgot, The Northernmost Caribbean City… and there are even more floating around! But no matter what you call it or why, know this: New Orleans is unlike any place you’ve ever been.
New Orleans Overview
The city is located in the southeastern part of Louisiana in the Mississippi River Delta, south of Lake Pontchartrain. It is the largest city in the state and is a major hub in the Gulf Coast region, both economically and culturally. And speaking of culture, The Big Easy just might be the most culturally-rich city in the U.S., with its blend of French, Spanish, Haitian, Native American, African American, Cajun, Creole, German, Jewish, Italian, Latino, and Irish influences. In fact, there is such a seemingly endless variety of racial, ethnic, linguistic, and culinary experiences in New Orleans that calling it polycultural is a woeful understatement. Perhaps “magical” is more appropriate.
Where do you find that magic? In the friendly faces, soulful music, mouth-watering cuisine, and breathtaking architecture that permeates the city. It’s difficult to describe a place like NOLA in words, as it’s not a place one merely “visits”. At the risk of sounding trite, it’s a place that is “experienced,” if ever there was one.
There is one very important phrase you should know before you go: Laissez les bons temps rouler, meaning “let the good times roll.” Let us help you get started on that with some of our pick for things to do, places to stay, and some can’t-miss tours and sights New Orleans has to offer.
Things to See and Do in New Orleans
New Orleans is good for list-likers (is that a word?). We know some of you don’t like lists; we get it. But before you poo poo the idea of a New Orleans to-do list, know that it’s very easy to get overwhelmed here with so many cool things going on all. the. damn. time. Plus, we know some of y’all are partiers while others are more laid back, which is what’s great about New Orleans. It can be as crazy or as relax-y as you like. In no particular order :
- French Quarter: Also known as Vieux Carré (“Old Square”) or the Crown Jewel of New Orleans, the French Quarter is the city’s oldest–and some would say–most vibrant neighborhood. Here the energy runs high, the architecture is diverse, and arts and eats abound. Head to the world-renowned (albeit touristy) Bourbon St.; the perfect place to kick off a girls’ night out or bachelor party. For a more easy-going experience, check out The Historic New Orleans Collection museum to get some fascinating insight on the city’s history. Add a stop by Jackson Square historic park to the list also.
- Streetcars: Oh, these are adorable! Hopping on a streetcar is an ultra-fun and convenient way to tour the city. Mahogany seats, brass fittings, the exposed lightbulbs are representative of the city’s historic charm. And did we mention it’s fun? Whether you’re riding to get from place to place or simply touring the city, a streetcar ride is a quintessential New Orleans experience. Consider picking up one of the handy passes that allow you unlimited rides–they’re called Jazzy Passes. How cute is that!
- Festivals: With more than 130 festivals a year, New Orleans is the absolute best place to turn up the music, celebrate art and culture, eat, drink, and be merry. Some of the most popular include the French Quarter Festival, the Jazz and Heritage Festival, Oyster Festival, Satchmo Summerfest, Southern Decadence, and the Essence Festival. No matter which time of the year you’ll be visiting, there will probably be something fun and/or delicious to rave and cheer about.
- The National WWII Museum: Consistently rated as New Orleans’ #1 attraction and one of the world’s best museums, this museum should definitely be towards the top of your New Orleans must-do list. You’ll find a huge variety of artifacts, immersive exhibits, multimedia displays, and first-person oral recollections that help bring the war that changed the world to life. Whether you’re a WWII history buff or simply want to learn more about the conflict, you’ll find plenty of fascinating ways to spend the day here. It’s also a great family-friendly activity, as the kiddos will love seeing the planes and military vehicles on display.
New Orleans City Park: This park is about as unique and magical as the city itself. Encompassing a whopping 1,300 acres, the park is about 50% larger than NYC’s Central Park and is one of the oldest urban public parks in the U.S. Stroll through the world’s largest stand of mature oak trees and snap a picture with one that’s almost 800 years old! With so much to explore–sculpture garden, art museum, fishing, boating, biking, amusement park–it’s the perfect family day out. Or just nap under the oaks by yourself. We won’t tell.
- Eat: Ok, so adding “eat” to a to-do list seems a bit uninspired, but you simply cannot visit NOLA without having a must-try food list. The city is home to the most widely recognized regional cuisine in the U.S., and it’s Creole and Cajun-inspired dishes are knock-your-skivvies off dee-licious. In fact, food here is a bit of a religion, and passions and convictions about what makes each dish authentic run deep. A few faves: Po’boys, crawfish étouffée, jambalaya, gumbo, red beans and rice, muffulettas, beignets, bananas foster, king cake, oysters a gazillion ways, pralines, BBQ shrimp… we’d go on but our pants no longer fit.
New Orleans Boutique Hotels
What’s truly remarkable about boutique hotels is that they perfectly capture a little slice of life of their city. And this is certainly the case at the best New Orleans boutique hotels. Of course, there are plenty of charming properties in NOLA’s cultural hub–the French Quarter. Whether you’re looking for a place stay to celebrate Mardi Gras just steps away, or want a more cozy and intimate experience, you’ll find the perfect stay.
Also, do consider a stay in the Central Business District or Downtown neighborhoods. Some of the city’s best sights and things to do are found here. You’ll find everything from modern yet understated boutique hotels to classy 1940s-style properties that make your stay feel like a trip into the past.
And feel free to mix things up. Some folks enjoy finding a boutique hotel that, in many ways, mirrors their own style and interests. Conversely, we’ve heard of folks who enjoy a step back in time to channel that 1880s and -90s vibe. Some travelers even base their activities around a certain time period and find things to do and places to visit that reflect a specific era.
One thing is certain–many new boutique properties have opened up in New Orleans in recent years. Some bring a more traditional vibe to the hotel scene, while others surprise guests with fresh and unexpected twists. Obviously, this makes choosing the right hotel harder… but what great problem to have!
New Orleans Guided Tours
In New Orleans, the specter of sensory overload looms large and it’s easy to get swept up in a whirlwind of sights, sounds, colors, gumbo, and plastic beads that can consume you and throw you off track if you’re not careful. That’s why it’s helpful to add one or more guided tours to your vacation itinerary. We know guided tours can conjure up images of white knee socks, black-strapped sandals, and suspenders, but hear us out: Guided tours–if you pick the right ones–really can show you the best of an area or an attraction. Here are a few of our favorites to get you started.
- Swamp Tours– Fun fact: Alligators have been around for 150 million years and survived the mass extinction of the dinosaurs a mere 65 million years ago. That means they are very resilient and very cool. And very scary if you’re not careful, which is why a New Orleans swamp tour is just what you need. Check out Cajun Encounters to get you through the gators, snakes, wild boars and other fascinating critters. We love that their tours are eco-friendly, consistently high rated, and that they’re locally owned and operated.
- Plantation Tours– An educational New Orleans plantation tour is a good way to learn about U.S. history in a way that’s engaging for the entire family. One caveat: Obviously, you’ll be exposed to the horrors of slavery, so please be aware of the sensitivites of your family or travel companions. The Old River Road Plantation Adventure offers a variety of antebellum mansion tours, from half day to full day, for the perfect amount of adventure for you. Delve deep into the region’s complex history with a knowledgeable guide as you sip a refreshing mint julep. Perfect!
- Cemetery Tours– Because New Orleans was built below sea level, the city’s dearly departed are buried in above-ground tombs. Some are lovely and ornate, while others are just plain funky and fascinating. Of course, no cemetery visit would be complete without a few ghost stories, and NOLA has more ghost stories per person than any other U.S. city! (That’s a fact we just made up, but it MUST be true.) If you’re looking for a fun, fascinating, historic, and spooky adventure, check out French Quarter Phantoms cemetery tour.
- Mardi Gras Tours– Yup, there are tour guides available for the most famous party in the U.S. of A, and they’re well worth it. In case you haven’t heard, Mardi Gras can get pretty crazy and trying to plan the perfect trip with so many goings on can be a challenge. Enter Mardi Gras Insider Tours to make things easy so you can focus on having a great time. Get insider know-how, book the perfect room in the middle of the action, and have a 24/7 guide/concierge to ensure the good times are rollin’ smoothly.
Hopefully you now have a good starting point for your New Orleans vacation. Need more information? Check out our New Orleans travel guide, where you’ll discover the best time to travel, a list of citywide festivals, hotel information, and more.