Twenty Fun Things to Do in New Orleans
New Orleans is a city where magic happens. We can all be magicians here, even for just a day. The tricks we do are entirely up to us.
I’m lucky to have relatives in New Orleans. But most of my recent visits have been work-related. The World Series of Poker has hosted many events here since 2005.
By my estimate, I’ve spent around 200 days and nights in New Orleans since Katrina happened. That comes out to actually “living here” nearly 7 months. I’ve watched this special city and it’s wonderful people make an incredible comeback. Despite the challenges, they’ve managed to rebuild New Orleans — not just buildings but its spirit — while maintaining the old charm that set this place apart from anywhere else.
Some people don’t care for New Orleans. It’s easy to understand why. The city is filthy. The local government stinks. Crime is a serious problem. The weather sucks. Some of the touristy areas are packed with idiots. There’s also a heavy kitsch element here. But you just need to know places to avoid. More important, you need to know where to go and what to do.
With age (and hopefully wisdom), I tend to prefer nature and learning experiences rather than mingling in big crowds and craziness. Don’t misunderstand — I’ve done Bourbon Street many times and love the music scene. But to really enjoy all this city has to offer you have to get away and look at a side of New Orleans many visitors do not see.
That said, here are some interesting places and experiences you may try that will appeal to those who enjoy culture and history. My recommendations are also tailored for couples. Listed in no particular order, here are some of the fun things Marieta and I have done over the past ten years when visiting New Orleans:
1. Ride the Canal Street-Algiers Ferry — The ferry at the very end of Canal Street doesn’t go very far — only about a mile or so. And it takes you just to the other side of the Mississippi River (and back). In fact, there’s not much to see over in Algiers either, which is over the levy on the opposite side of the river from downtown and the French Quarter. But take this short boat ride anyway. It’s a fun quick getaway and great for taking pictures. Round trip takes less than an hour. Best of all, it’s free. That’s right — F-R-E-E.
2. Visit the New Orleans Zoo — I love visiting zoos and New Orleans has one of the very best in the country. Located within Audubon Park in the Garden District, the New Orleans Zoo has a wide variety of animals, which seem to enjoy plenty of open space and activity. Perhaps the warmer climate here allows for more animals to thrive. Not quite San Diego or Washington, but very close.
3. Visit City Park — Horticulture is extraordinary in New Orleans. The delta soil is rich which allows for more plants and flowers to grow. City Park is a ten-minute drive from the heart of the tourist district and well worth the trip. I recommend a quiet walk on a warm afternoon near the Art Museum (which is excellent — and free on Mondays, by the way). Also recommended is a visit to the New Orleans Botanical Garden, also located at City Park, which has an incredible display of plants.
4. Take a Cemetery Tour — This suggestion will creep out some people. But New Orleans’ geography being below sea level mandates above-ground tombs. Given the city’s mesmerizing history and colorful band of characters, many of these graves have amazing stories. Be sure and take a guided narrated tour, since you can hear about some of the history. By the way, New Orleans is stocked with cemeteries, especially uptown. You’d be surprised by their number and size.
5. Visit the “New Orleans School of Cooking” and Take a Two-Hour Class — Marieta and I have taken this class three times — always a treat. Local chefs offer courses which last about two hours. While the chef cooks a meal in front of the class, you’re told a history of New Orleans as well as hear many stories and fun facts about this region’s culture and love of food. Ice cold Abita Beer is served free of charge. After the chef makes the meal, lunch is served and tastes excellent. Total cost is about $25 a person — a steal for what amounts to a dinner and show. Great value and experience for the money. Classes almost every day, starting at 10 am (I believe).
6. Visit the Bayou and Take a Swap Tour — I’m terrified of swamps. I don’t like muddy water, wild dangerous animals, bugs, or humidity. I grew up in big cities. I’m a wimp. What would happen if my boat were to tip over — would I get eaten alive by an alligator? Well, Marieta and I finally took a swamp tour last year and it turned out to be incredible. Take the open air boat near Lafitte, a small town which is about a 30-40 minute drive from the heart of the city. The air boat races along the bayou and you can see amazing wildlife, including wild gators. Costs about $60 a person and well worth it. Some of the tours will pick you up and drop you off at your hotel.
7. Visit the IMAX Theater, Aquarium, and Insectarium — Within a five-minute walk of Harrah’s Casino are multiple attractions which can be visited individually or as part of a package. The IMAX Theater is a must see — especially the special feature on Hurricane Katrina. It’s not only awe-inspiring, but a highly-emotional experience. The aquarium is also worth visiting, particularly the huge butterfly atrium. One could spend hours inside the giant room filled with exotic plants and butterflies. Speaking of insects, the first and only ‘Insectarium” I’ve ever visited is located right across the street from the Harrah’s Casino. This museum is exactly what is sounds like — a place where you will see very type of bug imaginable. But even bug haters like me will marvel at how important these small creatures are to the ecosystem. Very fun. A great experience.
8. Walk Bourbon Street from End to End — Many visitors to Bourbon Street get lost in the madness, often forgetting how this famous street changes from storefront — to bar — to restaurant. It’s a wondrous experience to talk the roughly mile street from one end to the other, stopping along the way to sample the fun and music. An interesting alternative to walking Bourbon Street twice (the way back) is to venture two blocks over to Chartres instead, which is the heart of the arts district. Here, you’ll see many art and photo galleries that would take hours to visit in their entirety. Many of these shops stay open on Friday and Saturday nights.
9. Visit the French Market — Located at the far end of the French Quarter and the Riverside Streetcar Line is the covered French Market, which is a large flea market for vendors. Hundreds of goods are for sale here, which is open daily but gets really packed with vendors on weekends. There’s plenty to eat, see, and experience here. I’ve never been able to walk through the French Market without buying at least a few things and sampling the delicious jumbo corn on the cob on a stick, which is served fresh in the husk with melted butter and sea salt. That’s worth the trip alone.
10. Ride the Streetcar along St. Charles Avenue — New Orleans is a great place for walking and for mass transit. You don’t really need a car to get around, if you’re somewhat mobile. A ride absolutely not to be missed is taking the old streetcar line from the central business district at Canal and St. Charles and taking a ride through the Garden District all the way to one of the old cemeteries. The ride is perhaps 5-6 miles one-way and costs like $1.50 each way. The streetcars are from the 1930’s and are open air. Windows are raised up and you feel a gentle breeze while witnessing one of the most majestic neighborhoods in the country. This is one of the funnest things to do for couples. Do not miss this opportunity.
11. Take the New Orleans Rum Factory Tour — A few miles north of center city is an old warehouse area. There’s not much to look at here, especially an old building that you’d never guess makes some of the best rum in the world. The first time Marieta and I visited the New Orleans Rum Factory, we were so put off from the outside, we decided not to enter. But after reading some great reviews, we gave it a try the second time and were glad we did. Once inside, there’s a nice clean welcome shop and a 45-minute narrated tour with a guide that costs $10 per person (with rum tastings). You are shown how rum is made and aged, from start to finish. Educational and fun, not to mention “tasty.”
12. Visit Jackson Square and Step Inside the St. Louis Cathedral — Jackson Square is a true New Orleans landmark. The park isn’t really so much to see (Jackson’s statue), but the surrounding pathways filled with artists, musicians, and street performers is always captivating. Step inside the St. Louis Cathedral (Catholic Church), which is open for visitation during the daytime. Located steps away from Cafe du Monde (a perfect pairing).
13. Enjoy an Order of Biegnets and Coffee at Cafe du Monde — This world-famous cafe pretty much serves only one thing — the highly-addictive New Orleans biegnets along with chickory coffee. A glass of water is optional. Sinfully delicious. Sit outside under the ceiling fans and listen to the street musicians who perform jazz just steps away. A great $8 experience (coffee, biegnets, plus tip).
14. Play Cash Games at the Harrah’s New Orleans Poker Room — The cash games at Harrah’s New Orleans are about as good as it gets when it comes to great action. Perhaps it’s New Orleans and all its obvious influences which makes some people do some wild things, even at the poker table. Even since it opened nearly 15 years ago, poker action at Harrah’s New Orleans has been going strong. And yes — I do work for Caesars Entertainment (which owns Harrah’s New Orleans). But this poker room deserves special recognition for great action, especially on weekends.
15. Ride the City Bus Down Magazine Street Towards the Garden District — Magazine Street is famous for antique shops, cafes, restaurants, and family-run stores. The bus line runs from Poydras (near the Harrah’s Casino) down Magazine Street to Audubon Park (where the zoo is located). The bus ride takes about 30 minutes each way. Lots of good small eateries, bakeries, and other temptations along the way.
16. Ride one of the Steamboats on the Mississippi — There are two big steamboats docked near the French Quarter. Both give 90-minute tours up and down the Mississippi River. The boats head about 5-6 miles downstream and then return. Interesting scenery once away from the city. The narration also provides a wonderful sense of history about what this river meant to New Orleans and the entire South. The ride also passes alongside the battlefield of the Battle of New Orleans (War of 1812). Even if you’re not into history, this is a great ride.
17. Visit the World War II Museum — On the outer edge of the central business district close to the Superdome is the World War II Museum. Opened more recently than other attractions, the museum is exactly what is seems. The movie in advance is a surround-sound experience not to be missed. Anyone with even a remote interest in world history will get a lot out of this experience. The cafe at the museum is also exceptional.
18. Listen to Traditional Nightly Jazz Outdoors at the Courtyard Along Bourbon Street — My two favorite jazz listening spots are inside the Royal Sonesta Hotel (Bourbon Street) which is more upscale and has a dress code. The other place is a courtyard right off Bourbon Street which plays old style jazz. Completely different experiences — the Sonesta is brassy and expensive and worth it while the courtyard is more laid back and best enjoyed with a cup of coffee. Better yet, do them both on the same night. A perfect duo.
19. Visit Angelo Brocato’s — This is as close to a religious experience as a non-believer will have. Opened in 1905 by an Italian immigrant, the recipes and equipment are exactly the same that were used a century ago. No corners are cut here. Everything is fresh and delicious. Trouble is, you won’t be table to go back and enjoy regular desserts after setting foot in this place. You will also have an impossible time choosing just one dessert. So, bring an appetite and order two more more. Located along the City Park streetcar line on Carrollton. Maybe the best dessert place outside of Europe.
20. Try and Catch a Jazz Funeral — This is something you simply can’t plan for. They just happen. Most often, the occur late in the afternoon. When a beloved jazz musician dies, oftentimes there will be a parade of jazz players who take to the streets and randomly walk a parade route. They play (completely unrehearsed) as they stroll together. Some parades last up to an hour. If you hear the sound of jazz from the streets and see musicians lined up and walking, drop whatever you are doing and run out to the performance. There’s something magical in the music. It must be experienced. You haven’t lived a full life until you’ve witnessed a jazz funeral.