From Jazz to Jambalaya: 13 Best Things To Do in New Orleans
New Orleans – the land of Creole food, jazz music, and out-of-this-world Mardi Gras celebrations – is one of the most popular places to visit in the United States. After all, there’s always something happening in this lively city.
With the help of some of our local Louisiana friends, we’ve compiled a list of the best things to do in New Orleans. We hope that it comes in handy on your next NOLA trip.
1. Spend Some Time in the French Quarter
So many of the best things to do in New Orleans are found in the French Quarter. While in this district, you can pop by the historic French Market, watch the street performers in Jackson Square, admire the St. Louis Cathedral, and take a stroll on the famous Bourbon Street – and all of that is just the beginning of an epic Southern getaway.
With all of the sights, smells, and sounds to experience, the French Quarter is a great place to take a New Orleans city tour. Tour Orleans and VIP City Tours are both great companies to book with.
And, if at the end of the day, you’re just not ready to leave the French Quarter, you don’t have to! Stay at Hotel Monteleone for luxurious rooms, a relaxing spa, and the famous Carousel Bar & Lounge. It’s also said to be haunted if you want to get your spook on.
2. Binge on Beignets
If there’s one sweet treat that you have to try in New Orleans, it’s a beignet. When made properly, these airy, powdered sugar-covered donuts will have your mouth watering before you even take a bite. As a matter of fact, don’t be surprised if you find yourself searching for beignets as your breakfast each morning.
By far, the most popular place to get beignets in New Orleans is Cafe du Monde. Opened in 1862, this historic cafe claims to have produced and sold the first-ever beignet – and you can still visit and try their creations today.
That said, there are so many other spectacular beignet spots in town. Criollo Restaurant, The Vintage, and Teddy’s Cafe in The Roosevelt New Orleans all serve up some of these fluffy, delicious donuts.
3. Take a Swamp Boat Ride Through the Bayou
While New Orleans is known for its downtown, there’s more to the area than just the city. Get out into nature with a swamp boat ride through the Louisiana Bayou.
Airboat Adventures offers some incredible swamp tours on both airboats and pontoon boats. As you sail along the water under Spanish moss-laden trees, your guide will share all sorts of fun facts about the bayou, New Orleans, and beyond. Plus, they’ll help you spot some of the most incredible creatures in the swamp, including turtles, cranes, owls, and of course ‘gators.
4. Tour Oak Alley Plantation
Swap nature for history with a visit to Oak Alley Plantation. This Louisiana attraction (an hour outside of New Orleans) dives into the history of the Antebellum’s thriving sugar cane industry – both from the plantation owner’s perspective and the enslaved persons’ perspectives.
There are a few different sections of Oak Alley Plantation. The most obvious part is the “Big House,” which is another name for the plantation mansion. Complete with columned sides and wrought iron balconies, this elaborate mansion is filled with historic artifacts from the 1800s.
The best way to learn about the “Big House” is on the guided Oak Alley Plantation tour, so be sure to secure your tickets in advance. We did the tour and got mint juleps afterward.
On the flip side, there are the historic slave quarters. While these buildings aren’t original, they’re still a way to get a glimpse into the harsh life of enslaved persons on the plantation. Learn the stories of individual enslaved people at Oak Alley and find out about how their lives turned a corner post-emancipation.
Last but certainly not least, Oak Alley Plantation is also home to beautiful outdoor areas. There are two separate gardens, filled to the brim with thriving plants. There’s also the stunning Alley of Oaks, a walkway lined with 28 towering oak trees that will take your breath away.
5. Explore the New Orleans Food Scene
If there’s one thing that New Orleans is known for, it’s the food. And even though we’ve already talked about beignets, there’s so much more to discover – from gumbo to jambalaya to muffulettas.
Brennan’s on Royal Street is a great spot for an authentic NOLA breakfast – from eggs sardou to shrimp remoulade. For a casual lunch, Central Grocery is the place to go for muffulettas, a popular New Orleans sandwich filled with cured meats, Swiss cheese, and a flavorful olive salad. But if you’re looking for a slightly fancier midday meal, the Original Pierre Maspero’s seafood pistolettes and crawfish etouffee won’t disappoint.
All of that said, dinner is where New Orleans cuisine really has its moment to shine. Antoine’s, Galatoire’s, and Arnaud’s are just the beginning of the divine dinner restaurants in the city. There, you’ll find elevated versions of all of the NOLA classics, including seafood gumbo, crab yvonne, and turtle soup (my favorite).
6. Experience a Réveillon Dinner
There are lots of great times to visit New Orleans. February is typically when Mardi Gras is in full swing, April is fantastic for jazz music (hello, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival), and October is absolutely perfect weather-wise. But there’s only one time of year when you can experience Réveillon, and that is in December.
What is Réveillon, you ask? Traditionally, these were elaborate dinners that took place either on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. But today, in New Orleans, these lavish dinners can happen any time during the holiday season.
The real question is where you can experience the best Réveillon dinner in NOLA. Other than being invited to a local friend’s celebration, of course, there are a handful of restaurants in the city that do Réveillon in style.
The Country Club serves up four courses of modern Creole cuisine, the Commander’s Palace highlights ingredients from the best local vendors, and The Bower masterfully crafts five tasty vegetarian courses for this holiday tradition.
7. Go Antiquing on Magazine Street
If you’re a collector of all things vintage or antique, Magazine Street is a must-visit destination. On this one road, there are dozens of antique shops selling everything from jewelry to furniture. And if you’re looking for specific shop recommendations, Wirthmore Antiques, Petricia Thompson Antiques, and Magazine Antique Mall are all local (and visitor) favorites.
8. Pay a Visit to The National WWII Museum
Calling all history buffs! One of the best things to do in New Orleans, Louisiana, is pay a visit to The National WWII Museum. This attraction takes visitors on a deep dive into World War II and the role of the U.S. in it, from Normandy, France, to Iwo Jima, Japan. Peruse everything from planes to newspaper articles to tanks from this world-changing war.
On top of all of that, the National WWII Museum’s main claim to fame is the fact that visitors can hitch a ride on a restored wartime PT-boat. After all, that’s as close to a first-hand World War II experience as you can get (while staying safe and sound, of course). It’s hailed as a museum travelers love from all around.
9. Hop on a Historic Trolley
Hitch a ride on a historic trolley during your time in NOLA. Officially known as the New Orleans streetcars, these adorable trolley cars might be the best way to navigate around the city.
First things first. Getting aboard a New Orleans streetcar can be a little tricky if you’re not familiar with the system. If you want to pay in cash, you’ll need exact change ($1.25 per ride per adult, $0.50 per ride per child, or $0.40 per ride per senior). To skip the cash together, use Le Pass, the official New Orleans Region Transit Authority app, to secure your tickets.
Once you have the tickets in hand (or on the app), you can take these cute trolleys all over New Orleans. While there are several different lines you can take, the St. Charles Line is the most popular one. Roll your way down this famous avenue, passing through the Live Oak tunnel, by Loyola University, and near dozens of restaurants and shops. Then, finish it all off with a visit to the lovely Audubon Park.
10. Party It up for Mardi Gras
If there’s one holiday that New Orleans is known for, it’s Mardi Gras. But before we get to how to party it up in this Southern city, we have to talk a little bit about the background of this special holiday.
Mardi Gras quite literally means “Fat Tuesday” in French. In other words, this is the final day of celebration before the long Catholic Lent – free of meat and dairy – commences, which means people often celebrate by gorging themselves on delicious food. Hence, Fat Tuesday.
As for how to actually celebrate Mardi Gras in New Orleans, elaborate parades and mouthwatering king cake are the way to go (and Mardi Gras balls, if you can snag an invite or a ticket).
Parades-wise, there’s something just about every day leading up to the famous Tuesday, including the Endymion, Bacchus, Proteus, Rex, and Zulu parades.
And cake-wise, Antoine’s Famous Cakes, Hi-Do Bakery, and Dong Phuong Bake Shop are all known for whipping up the best of this official Mardi Gras dessert. That sounds like a party to us!
11. Spend a Day at the Audubon Aquarium
If you’re visiting in the summer, one of the best things to do in New Orleans to escape the heat is to head to the Audubon Aquarium. Newly reopened in June 2023, this incredible aquarium is back and better than ever!
Now, the Audubon Aquarium is home to over 3,600 animals from about 250 different species, which means there are a whole bunch of new sea friends for you to make. Say hello to potbellied seahorses, white alligators, spiky lionfish, spotted leopoldi stingrays, and so much more during your visit.
12. Shop Until You Drop on Royal Street
Located in the French Quarter, Royal Street is home to some of the best clothing boutiques, antique shops, and art galleries. It’s the perfect place to find a little piece of New Orleans to take home with you.
While there are dozens of lovely shops on this one road, there are a few that stand out from the crowd. If you’re a collector of old-timey gems, Royal Antiques and M.S. Rau Antiques are two can’t-miss stops. If you’re more of a modern fashionista, Krewe du Optic, Trashy Diva, and 1 of 1 Blazers are where you’ll want to head. And if you’re looking for some eye-catching new artwork for your home, Elliott Gallery and Rodrigue Studio are sure to please.
13. Hop From One Live Jazz Spot to Another
As you likely already know, New Orleans is the place to listen to jazz music. It’s the birthplace of jazz music, after all! As for where exactly to listen to jazz in NOLA, you’ve got a few options.
Of all of the spots in town, Preservation Hall is undoubtedly the most iconic jazz music venue. Opened in 1961, this intimate locale has live music every night of the week. And considering old jazz legends like The Humphrey Brothers and George Lewis graced the stage once upon a time, who knows who you’ll see there today!
But Preservation Hall is just the first of many incredible NOLA jazz spots. The Spotted Cat is known as one of the best live music spots in the French Quarter, Maple Leaf puts a contemporary spin on its jazz performances, and Snug Harbor is a classic venue for all-around great jazz.
From Beignets to Bayous: Wrapping Up the Best Things To Do in New Orleans
From crave-worthy Creole cuisine, ghost tours, historic attractions, and vibing jazz music, New Orleans, Louisiana, is filled with incredible things to do. You can easily spend a long weekend – or even a full week – exploring everything this Gulf Coast city has to see.
I don’t know about you, but it sounds like it’s time to pack our bags again for another trip to NOLA.
Where indicated, images courtesy of Depositphotos.com.