Come for Mardi Gras or stroll down Bourbon Street and you’ll see how much the Big Easy loves to have a good time. But there’s so much more to the city than its celebrations. History museums, gorgeous neighborhoods, and spacious parks offer worthwhile reasons for a detour from the French Quarter.
Whether you’re a history buff exploring the city’s 300-year past or a foodie hoping to find the best spot to score some po’boys, here are the 12 best things to do in New Orleans.
1. Visit the Backstreet Cultural Museum
AFAR writer Lavinia Spalding describes the Backstreet Cultural Museum as a venerated institution and community touchstone, calling it “an expression of the deep devotion New Orleanians have to preserving their arts and traditions.” This off-the-beaten-path museum, which moved into a new space in the Tremé last year, houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of items related to the city’s African American community–based masking and processional traditions, including second-line parade outfits and jazz funeral photos.
2. Check out the houses of the Garden District
Established in the 19th century, the Garden District is where the city’s elite built their in-town estates. Take a walk through the 19-block area—bounded by St. Charles Avenue, Magazine Street, Toledano Street, and Jackson Avenue—and admire the live oak–lined streets. AFAR’s Lyndsey Matthews notes that architecture aficionados may recognize Greek revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne Victorians as they walk through the neighborhood. You may even recognize houses like the 1856 Buckner Mansion, which was featured in American Horror Story.
3. Explore the French Quarter
Arguably the most famous neighborhood in the city, the French Quarter is home to the party-filled Bourbon Street (check out bars like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar and Black Penny while you’re there), Creole cottages, and pre–Civil War townhouses. This area is also where you can find ghost tours; AFAR contributor Sara Button recommends French Quarter Phantoms, but visitors can also visit Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo for spell kits and tarot cards.
4. Honor American heroes at the National World War II Museum
Located in the Central Business District, the Smithsonian-affiliated National World War II Museum was established here in New Orleans because of the role the city’s Higgins Industries had in building more than 20,000 boats for the U.S. war effort. Visitors can see the “Higgins boat” up close at the Louisiana Memorial Pavilion, which focuses on the D-Day Invasion of Normandy as well as contributions from the home front during the war.
5. Enjoy a drink at the Sazerac House
One of the city’s most popular cocktails, the Sazerac consists of rye whiskey, absinthe (or an anise-flavored liqueur), sugar, and bitters. In 2019, the city welcomed this three-story museum, tasting room, cocktail bar, and distillery, where guests can book tastings or a free self-guided tour featuring samples along the way. And, of course, there’s a shop where you can buy the ingredients to make your own Sazeracs at home, including Peychaud’s Bitters, which are produced on site.
6. Catch some music and art on Frenchmen Street
While Bourbon Street gets all the attention for its Hurricane-fueled revelry, nearby Frenchmen Street—especially a compact stretch in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood—is the go-to spot for such jazz clubs as the Spotted Cat, d.b.a., Blue Nile, and Café Negril. While you’re in the neighborhood, keep an eye out for other nighttime events like the Frenchmen Art Bazaar, where local artisans sell unique jewelry and gifts.
7. Go bowling (and dancing) at Mid City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl
“It’s a bit unclear whether this is a nightclub hiding out in a full-size bowling alley, or a bowling alley out enjoying a secret nightlife,” AFAR contributor Wayne Curtis says of this destination near the Upriver edge of the city. With plenty of space for dancing, this bowling alley sometimes hosts live music performances. Genres span from Latin and “swamp pop” to zydeco—a local style that combines influences from the blues, Louisiana Creoles, and the state’s Native Americans.
8. Try the city’s many types of sandwiches
The meat-filled sandwiches on french bread known as po’boys are intrinsically linked with the New Orleans culinary scene, and Killer Poboys is a longtime local favorite. But there are other notable sandwiches to try on your visit, including the muffuletta, created by Italian immigrants in Louisiana. Head to Central Grocery to try the winning combination of cured meats, cheeses, and a signature olive salad on a round sesame-seed roll. Or opt for a taste of the city’s Vietnamese influence with a classic banh mi from St. Roch Market.
9. Visit the dead at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans. Opened in 1789 on the edge of the French Quarter, it’s considered one of the most haunted cemeteries in the country. Case in point: Here lies the tomb of Marie Laveau, a free woman of color who was a voodoo practitioner in the 1800s. Travelers can visit her tomb today, and many people even offer gifts like money, alcohol, and candy in the hopes of having their wishes granted. Beyond Laveau, more than 1,000 family tombs and nearly 500 wall vaults can be found here.
10. Explore New Orleans’s green spaces
The city isn’t all just music-filled streets—New Orleans’s draws also include natural havens like the 1,300-acre City Park. Spend time in the 11-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, picnic, or stroll through the park’s botanical garden and enjoy a beat of calm. Travel to the Audubon neighborhood and enjoy Uptown’s Audubon Park, beside the Mississippi River. Not only does the park offer a 1.8-mile loop that visitors can walk or cycle through, but it’s also home to the Audubon Zoo.
11. Dine in style at Brennan’s New Orleans
Brennan’s New Orleans has been a part of the city’s dining since 1946, when the proprietor of another restaurant teased that “an Irishman’s culinary skills ended with boiled potatoes.” Owen Brennan set out to prove him wrong, opening a French-and-Creole restaurant (then called Owen Brennan’s Vieux Carre Restaurant on Bourbon Street) in a pink 1795 Spanish-era structure that’s become iconic. While the restaurant is now located on Royal Street instead of Bourbon, famous dishes like its Bananas Foster remain.
AFAR contributor Wayne Curtis offers a pro tip for visitors: “It’s more famous for breakfast than dinner. Among the more noted dishes is eggs Hussarde, involving poached eggs and Canadian bacon served with both Marchand de Vin and hollandaise sauces.”
12. Find antiques on Royal Street
“Royal Street is to antiques and fine art what Bourbon Street is to booze,” Wayne Curtis writes about this street in the city’s Garden District. Here visitors can find plenty of high-end antiques retailers, selling everything from 18th- and 19th-century European sculptures and paintings to dinnerware. Among the better-known shops on this 13-block stretch are Ida Manheim Antiques and M.S. Rau. For a break between all of that shopping, grab a quick snack at Café Beignet at 334 Royal Street.