The Best Things to Do in New Orleans

New Orleans is a little different than everywhere else. Culture here comes in the form of sequined and feathered Mardi Gras capes and brass bands in a second line parade, as well as stately historic houses, and live music nearly everywhere you turn. Y’all come.

533 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
Anyone interested in the city’s complex and vivid past—and if you’re still breathing, that should include you—would do well to make a stop at the Historic New Orleans Collection. This is a private entity with a public purpose: It was founded to both preserve French Quarter buildings and to amass and display some of the key documents and artifacts covering the city’s three centuries of history. The collection is housed in the impressive Merieult House, which dates back to 1792 and which underwent a Greek Revival makeover in the 1830s. Self-guided tours of the Williams Gallery downstairs and the Louisiana History Galleries upstairs are free; be sure to check out their exhibits on Louisiana’s culture and legacy.
French Quarter, New Orleans, LA, USA
You don’t need to work hard to explore New Orleans’ diverse architecture. Take a walk around the French Quarter and you’ll see Creole cottages and pre-Civil War townhouses with wrought-iron balconies. Hop on a street car and take in the antebellum mansions that line St. Charles Avenue, then wander along the side streets to catch examples of shotgun homes that can be found throughout the city. In the Garden District, you can find urban versions of French Colonial plantations (known as Centerhall houses) and double gallery homes (similar to townhouses, but with deeper porches and more space between the house and the sidewalk). Lace up your most comfortable shoes and get walking...
3016 S Carrollton Ave, New Orleans, LA 70118, USA
Rock ’n’ Bowl is where to go to find sharps, flats, spares, and strikes all hanging out together. 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. Either way, it’s a very New Orleans destination, located near the upriver edge of the city. (It’s about a $15 cab ride from downtown.) After Katrina and a parting of the ways with his earlier landlord, the owner moved a few blocks down to this former paint store, installed new lanes, added a bigger stage, and hauled much of his original funky decor to the new spot. Check the website for forthcoming shows—there’s always plenty of space for dancing, which is especially fun during Thursday zydeco nights.
City Park, New Orleans, LA, USA
New Orleans’ green spaces run the gamut from City Park, which spans 1,300 acres and is the 6th largest urban park in the United States, to the city block-sized Jackson Square, a French Quarter gathering point for artists, musicians, and street performers. The former has walking trails, botanical gardens, and an open-air sculpture garden, plus tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, and a mini-golf course, but most come to see the world’s oldest grove of mature live oaks. Uptown’s Audubon Park is frequented by walkers, joggers, and cyclists who make their way around the park’s 1.8 mile loop—and it’s also home to the Audubon Zoo.
945 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
Plan on spending the better part of a day at the National World War II Museum, even if you profess limited interest in history. This fine, sprawling museum—formerly the D-Day Museum—is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, and was established here because of the role the locally made Higgins landing craft played on D-day. Don’t expect the usual repository of static artifacts, like machine guns and airplanes—although you will find those on display. It’s more about gathering stories, from film and oral histories, and from all sides of the conflict. The museum was the idea of Stephen Ambrose, noted author of books about WWII, who wanted to share with the public the interviews that didn’t make it into his books. It’s grown massively since its humble beginnings, and does a remarkable job of capturing the era through both a microscope and wide-angle lens.
1113 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70116, USA
The Beauregard-Keyes House stands out in a neighborhood—the French Quarter—already filled with standout buildings. Built in 1826, it’s a superb example of the then-newly-popular Greek Revival style, with its bossy pediment and sweeping granite stairs, which displaced the more austere Creole style. It’s been home to an illustrious roster of residents, including legendary 19th-century chess player Paul Morphy (born here in 1837 and world champion before he turned 20) and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard after the Civil War. Next door and visible even if you don’t take the guided tour is a small, walled parterre garden, restored to the formal style of the middle 19th century.
1332 Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
The Garden District was developed in the middle 19th century, and is where the mercantile elite built their in-town estates. Unlike the narrow parcels of the French Quarter or surrounding neighborhoods, house lots here were divided up with just four houses per city block, allowing plenty of room for landscaping and greenery. (Hence the name.) While many of the original lots have been further subdivided and built upon, the Garden District—basically bounded by St. Charles Avenue, Magazine Street, Louisiana Avenue, and Jackson Avenue—is still possessed of an eerie, shady charm, ripe with examples of 19th-century architectural styles like Gothic and Greek Revival. It’s an easy excursion from downtown by hopping the St. Charles Streetcar, then disembarking around Washington Street and walking toward the river.
1 Collins Diboll Cir, New Orleans, LA 70124, USA
This is the oldest and grandest art institute in a city that’s long captivated artists. The Neoclassical building sits amid the greenery of massive City Park (conveniently at the end of the Canal Streetcar Line). It’s an especially good destination for admirers of Edgar Degas, who spent an extended vacation in New Orleans visiting relatives in 1872; a number of his works are displayed here. Just outside the museum is the beautifully landscaped and well-curated five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which perfectly melds the old and new. Some 60 sculptures are arrayed amid reflecting lagoons and 200-year-old live oaks.
6500 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70118, USA
Audubon Park sits on the site of a former sugar plantation—the only plantation in the city that wasn’t subsequently developed for homes or businesses. It’s about 25 minutes via streetcar from downtown, but feels a world apart, with its spreading live oaks hung with Spanish moss and its lagoons that serve as sanctuary—appropriate given the park’s name—to egrets (great, cattle, snowy), herons (green, blue, night), ibises, and the black-bellied whistling ducks. A loop around the paved walkway/bikeway, which boasts a public golf course at its center, runs 1.75 miles; alternatively, trek to Magazine Street for a visit to the Audubon Zoo, then catch a bus downtown along the city’s best shopping thoroughfare.
Bourbon St, New Orleans, LA, USA
Some find this narrow, neon-lit French Quarter street appealing, others appalling. But it’s worth a stroll either way. It’s as if all the sins of mankind and then some were rounded up and corralled here—tawdry strip shows, cheap and potent drinks, the coveting of neighbors’ wives, petty larceny, big-ass beers, bad cover bands, and so on. (Bad cover bands were not technically mentioned in the Old Testament, but to many they’re the street’s most shameful sin.) The heart of the party zone stretches eight blocks from Iberville Street to St. Philip Street, with the thickest concentration of bars on the Iberville end. New Orleans allows alcoholic drinks outside, as long as they’re in plastic cups, or “go-cups"—meaning you can roam the length of Bourbon Street with your beer or hurricane in hand.
1116 Henriette Delille Street
The Mardi Gras American Indian culture is one of the lesser-known elements of New Orleans life, but it’s been part of the African American experience in the city for well over a century. How it began remains the subject of debate. (“Masking” as an American Indian was said to honor them both for their assistance to runaway slaves, and for their fierce resistance to European settlement.) The astounding feathered and beaded costumes are each painstakingly handmade by those who wear them only two or three times a year—usually on Mardi Gras Day and often on Super Sunday, which is the Sunday closest to St. Joseph’s Day. Ever year Indian chiefs make a new suit; some of the once-used suits end up at the Backstreet Museum in the heart of Treme. Stepping through the door is a bit like walking into a Technicolor Oz, with education.
726 St Peter, New Orleans, LA 70116, USA
Preservation Hall occupies a worn Creole town house that was originally built as a home in the early 19th century, and that had evolved into an art gallery and performance space by 1961. (It was founded by a man of philanthropic bent who fretted that the great, aging New Orleans musicians no longer had a place to play.) It hasn’t changed much since the ‘60s—audiences cluster on benches or stand along the back wall to hear whomever is playing that night. Among the glories of New Orleans is traditional jazz, which is still very much alive here and never feels as if it belongs in a morgue—or even an intensive care unit. Check the schedule for upcoming acts, but don’t get hung up on specific performers; every night offers something worth stopping by for, and everyone leaves in a better mood than when they arrived.
Crescent Park Trail, New Orleans, LA 70117, USA
New Orleans’s newest public park lies along about a mile and a half of the Mississippi River—a lovely retreat reclaimed from industrial squalor. The main entrance is near the foot of Esplanade Avenue, marked by a boxy footbridge (with elevator) over the railroad tracks, which divide the park from nearby low-slung neighborhoods. While walking along the water, note how the powerful Mississippi’s twists and currents require dexterity from a river pilot, as the huge passing barges slide past sideways angling for the bends. At Piety Wharf—a former warehouse location converted into a massive sculpture that invites contemplation—you can cross a steeply arched span (designed by noted architect David Adjaye, and locally dubbed the Rusty Rainbow) into the Bywater neighborhood for a walk back to the French Quarter.
New Orleans, LA, USA
Frenchmen Street is, more or less, the local-music version of Bourbon Street. It also has its share of tourists trundling about with go-cups in hand, but they’re drawn more by the music than the drink. Plan to spend an evening (things start to pick up around 8 p.m., earlier on weekends) along a three-block stretch of small, informal clubs where there’s often no cover (give generously and give often when the bucket comes around), or at most $5 or $10. Notable clubs include the Spotted Cat, the Maison, Blue Nile, D.B.A., the Apple Barrel, and Snug Harbor. Earlier in the evenings, there’s often an impromptu brass band at the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen. Between sets, take a moment to browse the night art markets, the largest of which is next to the Spotted Cat.
2438 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70117, USA
Royal Street is to antiques and fine art what Bourbon Street is to booze. This elegant urban thoroughfare is not only home to some of the best examples of the city’s early-19th-century Creole town houses, but is also loaded with high-end antiques retailers. These feature mostly ornate 18th- and 19th-century European sculptures and paintings, early furniture, chandeliers, and dinnerware used by the upper crust. Most of the inventory has a decidedly Continental air to it. Among the better-known shops are Waldhorn and Adler (343 Royal St.); Ida Manheim Antiques (409 Royal St.), run by the same family since 1919; and haute-upscale M.S. Rau (630 Royal St.), with its warren of hidden back rooms open only to serious customers.
514 Chartres St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
Little-known fact: New Orleans was the first place in North America to license pharmacists (starting in 1769, when the city was still under Spanish rule). After Louisiana became a territory, the U.S. governor extended the requirement, also decreeing that pharmacists take a three-hour licensing exam in order to practice. And no wonder illness got such attention—the city was arguably the least healthy place to live on the continent; it was riddled with yellow fever, malaria, and dysentery. This dark but fascinating history is explored in this atmospheric 1822 town house, which was once the home and shop of Louis J. Dufilho, the first licensed pharmacist in the city—and hence in the country. Exhibits include apothecary jars, tools of the trade, and leeches. (Yes. Leeches.)
1400 Washington Ave, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
New Orleans’ cemeteries are part of the city’s culture as well as its landscape—and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest and most famous. Opened in 1789 on the edge of the French Quarter, the cemetery is home to the tomb of Marie Laveau, a free woman of color who earned a reputation as the city’s most powerful voodoo queen in the 1800s. Her tomb is littered with tributes (money, alcohol, candy, trinkets) left by those who hope the queen will grant their desires from beyond the grave. In the Garden District, Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 made a cameo in several movies, including Interview with a Vampire and Double Jeopardy. Save Our Cemeteries, a non-profit dedicated to cemetery restoration and preservation, runs tours of both St. Louis No. 1 and Lafayette No. 1.
925 Camp St, New Orleans, LA 70130, USA
The three floors of art on display at the Ogden, one of a handful of museums in the city’s off-the-radar museum district near Lee Circle, run the gamut from Clementine Hunter’s paintings of plantation life to Shelby Lee Adam’s photographs of Appalachia. The medium varies, but everything on display has some tie to the South.
More From AFAR