Renowned for its mix of cultures, cuisines and music scenes, New Orleans is one of the most rewarding and unique cities to visit in the States. Set in southeast Louisiana and surrounded by swamps, it boasts interesting historic tourist attractions, attractive architecture, incredible live music, nightlife and street celebrations.
Lying alongside the Mississippi River, the ‘Big Easy’ has a rich history and heritage to delve into with its French, Spanish, Caribbean and Creole cultural influences. Due to its amazing multicultural makeup and lively ambience, the city is a treat to explore with enticing things to do in New Orleans itself and its surroundings.
With delicious local dishes, picturesque plantations to visit and fun-filled festivals, like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, one could spend weeks if not months getting to grips with New Orleans’ unique identity.
In this post, we'll cover:
17. Longue Vue House and Gardens
Just ten minutes drive northwest of the center you can find lovely Longue Vue House and its gorgeous gardens. Now protected as part of a museum, the historic house exhibits exquisite architecture and its surrounding grounds are equally delightful to explore.
Built in 1939 for Edith and Edgar Stern, the massive four-story mansion has twenty finely decorated rooms full of English and American antiques. A stroll around the estate’s lush gardens is a must to view the fetching fountains and flowerbeds.
16. New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
The New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is right in the heart of the French Quarter. Wonderfully well-preserved, the historic apothecary shop is laden with intriguing jars, bottles, instruments and antiques.
Now a museum, the Creole townhouse was formerly the home and shop of Louis J. Dufilho Jr. – the first licensed pharmacist in the States – who started the business in 1823. Besides seeing surgical instruments, voodoo potions and perfumes, you can also learn about questionable medical practices from the past and spend some time in its attractive old courtyard.
15. Preservation Hall
One of the most popular live-music venues in the city, historic Preservation Hall hosts unforgettable jazz performances almost every night of the year.
Formerly an art gallery, it began to host local jazz concerts in the fifties with its talented performers soon drawing great acclaim for their pure jam sessions. Nowadays, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band tours all around the world.
14. Audubon Zoo
Audubon Zoo is situated just twenty minutes drive southwest of the center. It houses a staggering array of animals, with everything from tigers and gorillas to alligators, elephants and orangutans on show.
While the site has housed animals since the 1884 World’s Fair, the zoo only opened in 1914. Its world-class exhibits now include animals and ecosystems from Africa, Asia and South America. Particularly popular are its superb Louisiana Swamp and Reptile Encounter exhibits.
13. Steamboat Natchez
A lovely way to see as much of the city and its surroundings as possible is to take a scenic cruise along the Mississippi River aboard Steamboat Natchez. From the decks of the pretty old paddle steamer you can learn about the history of New Orleans as you bask in views over the city and river.
While the Natchez has been transporting people and goods up and down the Mississippi since 1823, the current steamboat with its bright red paddle dates to 1975. The Natchez offers brunch, dinner and jazz cruise options.
12. Oak Alley Plantation
Named for the beautiful double row of trees that welcome you to the property, Oak Alley Plantation is a popular place to visit on the outskirts of New Orleans. Located around an hour’s drive west of the center, it is well worth visiting for its attractive antebellum architecture, interesting past and gorgeous grounds.
Lying alongside the Mississippi River, Oak Alley was founded in 1837 with the mansion exhibiting delightful Greek Revival features. While exploring the estate you’ll learn all about the enslaved people who worked on the plantation and be able to snap photos of its incredible oak-lined avenue and historic house.
11. New Orleans Museum of Art
The outstanding New Orleans Museum of Art can be found at the southern end of City Park. Regularly ranked among the best art institutions in the country, it occupies an elegant and imposing building with a stupendous sculpture garden lying alongside it.
Founded in 1911, its collection now encompasses over 40,000 artworks including photos, ceramics and sculptures. European masterpieces and local Louisiana artists are displayed next to African, Asian and Oceanic art. With big names such as Monet, Renoir and Picassos, the museum is certainly well worth checking out if you have the chance.
10. St. Louis Cathedral
The striking St. Louis Cathedral and its three soaring spires overlook the historic Jackson Square, in the center of the French Quarter. Dedicated to King Louis IX of France, it is the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the States, having been built in 1789.
The third cathedral to be set on the same site, it boasts a beautiful facade with stained glass windows lining the sides of the Spanish Colonial structure. Inside is just as alluring with fine religious artworks, a huge altar and an organ. The historic cathedral still hosts important masses, gatherings and celebrations.
9. New Orleans Cemeteries
New Orleans is famed for its historic cemeteries, so you should make time to explore at least a couple of its atmospheric and eerie graveyards. More than forty of them are dotted about with Lafayette Cemetery No 1 and Saint Louis No 1 counting among its most popular, important and impressive.
Due to their distinctive above-ground tombs and ornate and elaborate mausoleums, the cemeteries are architecturally very interesting to walk around. In addition, they also contain influential figures from the city’s past and the overgrown grounds and weathered graves only adding to their appealing aesthetic. Having also featured in numerous films, the centuries-old ‘cities of the dead’ and their crumbling crypts and majestic mausoleums are definitely not to be missed.
8. Mardi Gras World
Lying right next to the Port of New Orleans is the massive working warehouse of Mardi Gras World, where flamboyant floats are made for the famous parade. On tours of the complex, you can see how the gigantic figures, floats and props are produced. There are thousands of colorful costumes and old floats decorating the interior.
As you wander around the warehouse you’ll get to see painters and sculptors working on their latest creations and learn all about the history of Mardi Gras. Besides getting a feel for the festival, guests can also snap photos of the amazing figures and floats, and even dress up in some carnival costumes.
7. Take a Swamp Tour
Since the city is literally surrounded by swamps, it is well worth taking a tour to see the beautiful bayous that are synonymous with southern Louisiana. Sprawled across a huge area, the wetlands are a treat to explore, with stunning landscapes, scenery and nature wherever you look.
Numerous companies run excursions out to the swamps and the gorgeous Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve being a particularly popular destination. Aside from guided hiking and kayaking trips, you can also arrange exciting airboat tours where you stand a great chance of seeing submerged alligators amidst the murky waters of the swamp.
6. Frenchmen Street
Vibrant Frenchmen Street is lined by some of the best live music venues in the city. Set a short stroll from the French Quarter, it stretches several blocks with countless restaurants and art galleries, bars and boutiques.
The laid back street attracts people with its excellent, authentic and unpretentious live music venues. These include not only The Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor, but Favela Chic too, with the charming Creole cottages that line the street adding to the area’s appealing ambience.
5. National WWII Museum
A fascinating place to visit, the magnificent National WWII Museum boasts a staggering array of artifacts and exhibits. Mainly focusing on America’s contribution to the Allied victory in WWII, its captivating collection occupies a state-of-the-art campus in New Orleans’ Warehouse District.
Opened in 2000, its extensive galleries and exhibitions are wonderfully well-presented. Artifacts and displays on show include photos, films and other immersive multimedia. Its 250,000 or so objects, vehicles and aircraft tell the story of not only America’s amphibious invasions of the Pacific, but hard fought battles on the D-Day beaches, in the trenches and skies too. A must for anyone interested in history, the moving museum is certainly one of the top things to see in the city.
4. City Park
Sure to delight nature lovers and outdoor aficionados alike, City Park sprawls across a huge part of New Orleans and is larger than Central Park in New York City. Besides its lush green spaces and waterways, the park has countless attractions, such as the New Orleans Museum of Art and Louisiana Children’s Museum.
Protected since 1854, it contains the world’s largest collection of mature live oaks and these towering moss-coated trees make the park atmospheric to wander around. In addition to plenty of paths, picnic areas and playing fields, there are botanical gardens and sculpture gardens to enjoy as well as several small theme parks.
3. Jackson Square
One of the most popular places to visit in New Orleans, Jackson Square lies right at the historic heart of the French Quarter. Lined by beautiful buildings, such as the Saint Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo and Pontalba Buildings, the historic park marks the spot where the famous Louisiana Purchase took place.
This is widely considered to be one of the greatest public spaces in the States and was even declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960. Lying at the center of its pristine lawns is a striking statue of the seventh US president, Andrew Jackson, with numerous street artists, musicians and fortune tellers adding to its lively atmosphere.
2. French Quarter
The undoubted highlight of any trip to New Orleans is exploring the vibrant French Quarter. The city’s oldest and most famous neighborhood. It is packed with interesting historic sights, live music venues and bustling businesses, with something for everyone.
Founded in 1718, the Quarter’s compact cobbled streets are lined by attractive old buildings that are now home to innumerable shops, restaurants, bars, and music clubs. Infamous Bourbon Street is not to be missed for its pulsating nightlife, wealth of street performers and fortune tellers.
1. Mardi Gras
A colorful and chaotic celebration like no other, Mardi Gras is held every February or early March throughout the whole of Louisiana. Nowhere is the carnival more widely and wildly celebrated than in New Orleans with fun festivities, float-filled parades and costumed balls taking over the center.
While ‘Fat Tuesday’ is actually only the climax of the carnival, raucous street parties and wild and free celebrations are held over the course of two weeks in the run up to Lent. Due to the intoxicating atmosphere and unfettered revelry, attending Mardi Gras is an unforgettable experience with brightly colored costumes, elaborate floats, amazing music and performers wherever you go.