Jay Cooke led the award-winning New Orleans 4 guidebook team for Lonely Planet. He's written about the city for the Houston Chronicle, BBC Worldwide and more.
So you’re heading to New Orleans? Lucky you! However long you stay in the Crescent City, you’ll never lack for ways to pursue your delights. Arts & culture? Check. Food and drink? Duh. Live music, local designers, long afternoons wandering through colorful neighborhoods bursting with life: All these experiences and more are yours for the taking in the city where the good times roll nightly. Whether you’re in town for a 24-hour rager or an extended vacation, here’s our handy planner for discovering some of what makes New Orleans so unique.
The French Quarter – Full Day
The heart and soul of New Orleans’ travel industry well surpasses its hype. Wandering the French Quarter, you’ll follow in the footsteps of some of the city’s earliest settlers, who started populating the “Vieux Carré” (“Old Quarter”) three centuries ago. The neighborhood stands today as an architectural time capsule, rich with Creole and Victorian designs. Plenty of tourists mill about, but the Quarter is a vibrant local neighborhood, too. No surprise, really, given the location (tucked against the Mississippi river), restaurants, and undeniable charm. Grab beignets at Café du Monde, watch the Jackson Square street artists, poke along Royal Street antique shops, and pop into one of the many bars for a liquid refreshment.
Bourbon Street – One Long Night
First time in New Orleans? Bet you’ll end up on Bourbon Street at least once. The street that made hurricanes in go-cups famous, Bourbon Street is where New Orleans craziness is on full display. It can get pretty rowdy on many nights, no doubt. But it’s a bucket list box to check, too, with some cool historic bars, like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Whatever you do, when on Bourbon Street, check your judgement and just go with the flow.
Frenchman Street – Half a Day or One Evening
Locals love live music too, and when they want to pack in multiple acts each night, they bounce down to Frenchman Street. The border between the Quarter and hipster-heavy Faubourg Marigny, Frenchman is home to bevy of bars and nightclubs hosting acts each night. There’s Café Negril for reggae and brass bands, Three Muses for dinner and a show, and Snug Harbor, where classic jazz rips all night. Want to bring the music home? Head to the Louisiana Music Factory, where stacks of vinyl await.
City Park & Audubon Park – Half Day Each
Need a break from bands and booze? New Orleans is graced with a pair of fabulous parks to explore. In Uptown, Audubon Park owns the natural sciences crown, with a zoo, aquarium, and super fun butterfly garden. Across town, City Park offers thousands of live oaks and miles of hike-and-bike trails, not to mention the New Orleans Museum of Art. Each Halloween, the Voodoo Music & Art Experience takes over the park; in December, they deck the oaks with lights.
Seasonal Festivals – Two Days (If Not Two Weeks!)
New Orleans is a town that needs no excuse to throw a party. From the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, to Mardi Gras, to French Quarter Fest, there are a couple of quintessential big-name celebrations held here every year that many visitors won’t want to miss. If you’re lucky enough to be around for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, you’ll want to stick around and soak it up for as long as you can. If you’re visiting outside high season, not to worry: there are still countless cultural, food, and music festivals that are well worth a day or two of your time.
The Garden District – Half Day
Elegant, upscale and oh-so-easy on the eyes, the Garden District is a great neighborhood to wander around without an agenda. Instagrammers, no filters needed here to capture great shots of the elaborate architecture. Just hop aboard the St. Charles Streetcar and jump off wherever looks fun. The Lafayette Cemetery #1 is a great place to wander – especially after having a couple $0.25 martinis at Commander’s Palace.
Magazine Street – Half Day
New Orleans’ best shopping boulevard has an independent spirit and tons of charm. You can spend hours wandering in and out of the shops and galleries along Magazine Street, a six-mile stretch from the CBD to Uptown. Best to explore it in chunks. Uptown, grab some NOLA-themed journals and party invites at Scriptura, or pick up t-shirts at Dirty Coast Press. In the Garden District, Trashy Diva Clothing Boutique is the spot for retro fashions. Happy hour already? It’s hard to beat the patio at The Bulldog, with 48 beers on tap.
National World War II Museum – Half Day
Profound and fascinating, the National WWII Museum puts you in the boots of GIs in the roads to Berlin and Tokyo. Take a break from NOLA’s constant revelry to explore the interactive exhibits and maps of events like D-Day and the Battle of Midway. Witness a bombing run over Western Europe and feel the tight spaces inside a submarine on the hunt. Rare films aside, the human stories throughout make the biggest impact.
Cemeteries – Half Day
They bury their dead above ground in New Orleans, where high water tables pose grave problems (no, literally: if coffins are buried underground here, water forces them up above ground). NOLA founders clued in quickly, and gothic cemeteries were here to stay. The oldest, maze-like St. Louis Cemetery #1, dates to 1789. Though tempting, steer clear of NOLA’s cemeteries after midnight. Take a tour instead with Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit dedicated to preserving the city’s historic “cities of the dead.”
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