Top 10 Things To Do in New Orleans:
From bar hopping on historic Bourbon Street, to gliding alongside gators in the Bayou, and touring the city’s haunted sites, there are many awesome things to do in New Orleans. With so many attractions to choose from, knowing the top 10 things to do in New Orleans will help you prioritize and better plan out your time.
With a mixture of French, Spanish, Cajun, and American cultures, there are dozens of amazing experiences you can only have in New Orleans. The sound of Blues & Jazz music engulfs your soul, old European architecture confronts your imagination, and the local dishes warm your heart in a uniquely New Orleans way. Narrowing down the top ten things to do in New Orleans was so difficult that we had to give you a couple extra to see. We hope you enjoy!
1. Mardi Gras Festival:
About Mardi Gras: It’s hard not to think of Mardi Gras when you hear New Orleans, but what is this once in a life time experience really all about? Celebrated in New Orleans since 1856, the basics of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) are very similar to Carnival in places like Brazil. The main party time of the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans is the 14 days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Fat Tuesday is considered the last day Christians can eat and drink whatever they want each year before 30 days of Lent start on Ash Wednesday. While you may have images in your head of girls showing their boobs to get beads tossed down from the balconies of Bourbon Street, many of the official events actually happen away from the madness of the bars. Expect numerous parades with large floats mainly focused on the West side of the French Quarter and near the Garden District. Over the top costumes and music fill every inch of your senses as Madri Gras royalty toss beads and tokens from their elaborate floats. Mardi Gras literally is the best time to eat, drink, and be merry.
Read More: Mardi Gras Tips.
2. Bourbon Street:
About Bourbon Street: Named after the royal Bourbon Family of France, Bourbon Street is the most fun bar street in all of America. In a city ruled by the French and Spanish prior to joining the United States, the architecture of Bourbon Street is uniquely New Orleans. Many of the bars were private homes before being turned into taverns in the late 1800’s and the old world feel has carried over nicely. You can sip whiskey in a candle-lit cottage that used to be a pirates’ hideaway, try absinthe where Thomas Jefferson made battle plans, catch a taste of some live Blues music, and sing your lungs out at one of the best karaoke bars on the planet, all in one night. It may be gritty around the edges, but Bourbon Street is one of those magical places you just can’t find anywhere other than New Orleans. The street really comes alive after dark and stays open until the morning hours, but it has far more to offer than just beads tossed from the bar balconies. You will come to love the experience of Bourbon Street, flaws and all, which will call you back again and again. Bourbon Street is the one attraction in our top ten things to do in New Orleans that is bound to end up on your itinerary almost every day of your visit.
Featured On: Free French Quarter Walking Tour.
3. Swamp & Gator Tours:
About The Swamp & Gator Tours: No trip to New Orleans would be complete without joining an exciting swamp and alligator tour. With the city born so close to the soggy bayou, the swamp is deeply entrenched into the culture of New Orleans. Year round tour companies are able to take you into a watery wonderland of hanging Spanish moss and cypress trees to pepper you with some spice of the back country lifestyle. While the huge gators you see on TV shows like Swamp People are rare, expect to see a lot of them popping up from the green algae even in the non-peak Winter months. A visit to the swamp with a local guide is quite educational as they point out tons of other wildlife along the way and give you an idea of what life on the water is like. Most tour companies will even let you handle a baby gator toward the end of your visit which is an extra reward. For many visitors, a swamp tour will rightfully be their most memorable experience of our top ten things to do in New Orleans. If you are looking for an extra thrill, trade in the standard pontoon-style tour for a high speed airboat that glides you across the open water with the power of a mega-sized fan. While there are six pretty good tour companies near New Orleans, we prefer using Jean Lafitte Tours (website) located just South of town. Either way you do it, make sure to take a swamp your while in New Orleans.
Read More: Best Swamp Tours From New Orleans.
About Jackson Square: Originally called the Place d’ Armes (meaning Weapons’ Square) when New Orleans was founded in 1718, Jackson Square is still the heart of New Orleans today. The lush square, lined with colorful horse carriages, was model after the famous Place de Voeges in Paris and is dominated by the iconic Saint Louis Cathedral. As the 3rd church on this site, the current Cathedral has been visited by 2 popes since it opened in 1794. The historic buildings surrounding the Cathedral now house delightful museums including the old Spanish town hall and an elegant townhome from the 1850’s, which was the city’s golden age. Make sure to inspect the large central statue of General Andrew Jackson, whom the square was renamed after, triumphantly riding a horse. Before becoming President of the United States, Jackson made secret war plans with local pirates and won the critical Battle of New Orleans against the British in 1815. The square is extra lively on weekend afternoons as local artists and street musicians flock to entertain hoards of tourists. On the Southeastern end of Jackson Square make sure to also stop by the popular Cafe du Monde. There you can an order of famous, powdered sugar covered beignets donuts along with a chicory root coffee served au lait.
Featured On: Free French Quarter Walking Tour.
About Local New Orleans Cuisine: Like fish ‘n chips in London or pizza in Chicago (sorry New York), many great cities have signature dishes, but New Orleans seems to have a dozen of them. From hearty Creole gumbo, to spicy Cajun jambalaya, and sweet beignet doughnuts drowned in powered sugar, the unique dishes of New Orleans offer something for everyone. If you are on a budget you can cheaply get your fill with a muffaletta or po’boy sandwich giving you flexibility to splurge on plates of oysters and crawdads. No matter which culinary path you take, you’ll taste elements of the melting pot that is New Orleans in every bite.
More Info: 10 Must Eat New Orleans Foods.
About The Plantation Mansion Tours: The best collection of huge Antebellum Mansions in America lies in Plantation Alley along the Mississippi River just West of New Orleans. During your visit you will get an amazing history lesson on Southern Plantation life from the tiny slave quarters to the grand mansions themselves. While the slavery side of a visit can be emotional and somber, it is balanced with the grandeur and romance of a Gone With the Wind-style experience. Overall, we highly suggest a visit, even if you have to extend your trip a day. If you rent a car you can even stay overnight in the biggest Antebellum mansion in America called Nottoway. Because the huge estates are all easily accessible, it is not problem to visit 3-4 of them all in one long day trip from New Orleans. We often like to visit on our last day as it is easy to go right to the airport from the mansions.
More Info: New Orleans Plantation Mansions Tours.
About The Garden District: For an easy escape from the bustle of Bourbon Street, take part of a day to visit the peaceful oasis of the Garden District. When it was first formed out of the Livaudais Plantation (Lee-Voo-Day) in the early 1880’s, this new neighborhood was meant to be the American answer to the French & Creole dominated Vieux Carré (Vue Ca-Ray), know today as the French Quarter. Wealthy Americans, who started arriving after the Louisiana Purchase, flocked to the Garden District to urban mansion estates with block long lawns and gardens. Today, many of the unique properties still stand, giving us one of the best preserved neighborhoods in American of mansions from the 1800’s. As you walk among the magnolia and oak lined streets, you’re bound to recognize some of the impressive mansions from a movie or two. Home to authors, professional athletes, and actors the stately homes have even inspired famous novels of ghosts and vampires. Adding to the appeal of the Garden District, you can take a stroll through Lafayette Cemetery #1 with its above ground tombs known as a ‘City of the Dead’. The decorative tombs were once built this way in New Orleans because of the soggy soil and this is one of the only places you can safely visit one without a tour guide. Combing the mansion walk and cemetery is like getting two of the top ten things to do in New Orleans at once.
Read More: Free Garden District Walking Tour.
About Frenchmen Street: They say when you travel you should seek out places where the locals eat and where the locals shop. Frenchmen Street is where the locals go to drink and hear amazing live music. From the Spotted Cat and DBA, and our favorite Frenchmen Street bar the Apple Barrel, you’re bound to see a lot of great acts playing live Jazz, Blues, and Funk. One of our best nights ever in New Orleans was on Frenchmen and we known you’ll enjoy the contrast to Bourbon Street, especially if you’re visiting for a few days. The street food is also some of the best in New Orleans. Always consider the riverfront trolley or cab when visiting Frenchmen as straying off of it after dark is shady, especially in the area between it and the French Quarter. Don’t let that deter you as Frenchmen is amazing, it is just a reminder to be aware of your surroundings every time your travel.
More Info: Frenchmen Street Live Music Guide.
9. Ghost & Vampire Tours:
About New Orleans Ghost & Vampire Tours: There are almost as many ghost and vampire tours to choose from in New Orleans as there are bars to choose from on Bourbon Street. This is all for good reason as New Orleans is often considered the most haunted city in America. With superstitious locals, legends of vampires, a history of Voodoo, and numerous real life horrific events, the folklore in New Orleans is bursting at the seams. These tales lead hometown author Anne Rice to write famous horror novels based in New Orleans and even made the city the setting for a season of the hit TV show American Horror Story.
On your tour, prepare to walk the eerie cobblestone streets lead by a costumed guide as you dive deep into the freaky tales. When choosing between tours, the best thing we can tell you is that the ghost tours are going to be more based on documented historical events and murders while the vampire tours will bring in a little more legend and local folklore. Really depends on if you are more into the history or the fantasy. While we highly recommend an official tour as the theatrical guides bring the stories to life very well, we also included many of the haunted locations in our free French Quarter walking tour. If you are lucky you may even hear a ghostly scream or catch a floating phantom in your photos!
About Global Wildlife Safari: Who doesn’t love touring a 900 acre property while handing feeding free range herds of giraffes and zebras? You can live that dream just one hour North of New Orleans at the Global Wildlife Safari. At first we held back at putting another day trip outside of town into our top ten things to do in New Orleans, but looking back on past visits the safari was just too much fun to leave out. You serious get to kiss giraffes on their heads as they peak in to say hello. They also have kangaroos, very delightful camels, and many other exotic animals across their property you’ll see on your visit. Have we mentioned how cool this place is? Go visit now, you’ll be happy you did.
More Info: Top Day Trips From New Orleans.
About New Orleans’ Signature Drinks: To help prepare you to drink like a local, there are 10 signature drinks you need to try during your visit to New Orleans. The most common drinks today are fruity ones that date back to the days of pirates who needed Vitamin C from limes as a way to prevent scurvy. With this theme in mind, expect to see daiquiris everywhere and plenty of neon green mixtures known as Hand Grenades. If you like your fruity with a little bit of class, try a Hurricane in the dimly lit Pat O’Brien’s piano bar. Other cocktails are a little more refined like a Sazerac or Vieux Carré, both born right here in New Orleans. Our favorite drinks are the ones that have a uniquely New Orleans twist, like the crawdad bloody marys served with a chilled crawdad peaking over the rim of your glass.
Outside of the amazing drinks themselves, are the unreal locations that make the New Orleans experience like no other. You can sip your cocktail in a classy rotating carousel, drink something timeless in the candle light of a former pirates hideaway, or dabble with a once illegal Absinthe where a future US President made secret battle plans. And yes expect to get to-go cups every place you visit as it is legal to drink in the public in New Orleans. They have drive through daiquiri shops! Any way you slice it, tackling the local signature drinks will be one of the top things you do in New Orleans.
Read More: Top 10 New Orleans Signature Cocktails.
12. Cemetery Tours:
About New Orleans Cemetery Tours: Whether you are into the supernatural, photography, or are just a history buff, the above ground cemeteries of New Orleans are bound to excite. It is kind of weird when you think about it as outside of New Orleans, Paris, and Washington DC, there aren’t many other large cities where the cemeteries are a main tourist attraction. The cemeteries have been called “Cities of the Dead” for their elaborate above ground tombs organized in perfect rows. This Spanish-style of burial was needed because of the soggy bayou soil that would push coffins back up to the surface. The unique tombs also helped in decomposition which allowed entire families to share one plot over time. While there are plenty of famous people buried in New Orleans, it’s the tales of real life VooDoo queens and movie star vampires that spark the most intrigue.
If you are following our free New Orleans Garden District walking tour listed above it’ll put you right at Lafayette Cemetery #1 without needed a special trip to see one. This is also one of the only cemeteries safe enough to visit by yourself as the other can be dangerous without a tour group. Even for this one we still prefer to take the daily 10:30am tour run by Save Our Cemeteries as it is run very well. To see even more famous graves, join a tour of the Saint Louis Cemetery #1 which is New Orleans’ oldest dating back to 1789. For safety you will want to join a tour group, but it is located just North of the French Quarter and well wort paying for.
13. Mississippi Riverboat Ride:
About The Riverboat Ride: From songs by Tina Turner and CRR to scenes in classic novels, the Mississippi Riverboats in New Orleans will forever be ingrained into the local culture. To really feel like you are in Dixieland you need to take short cruise on board one of these steam powered paddle boats complete with live Jazz music. From the Natchez Steamboat to the Creole Queen there are plenty of tour options both day and night. The evening cruises often include cocktails and dinner with live music while the day time ones get a little more into a history and sightseeing tour.
We prefer the day tours (website) where a costumed guide will cover the Louisiana Purchase, life on the Mississippi River and the War of 1812. To further explore the War you will stop at the Chalmette Battlefield where Thomas Jefferson defeated the British in the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Also on the grounds is the impressive Rene Beauregard Plantation Mansion which was built in the 1830’s and overlooks the battlefield.
14. National WW2 Museum:
About The National WW2 Museum: The WW2 Museum is our favorite museum in New Orleans, because of the immersive experience it gives you with amazing displays. The exhibits are like movie sets making you feel as if you are walking out onto a European battlefield or into a wartime home in Asia. They have tree-lined paths complete with artillery and recreated villages to really bring the stories to life. Although it started as a D-Day museum, this excellent venue has grown to become the official WW2 museum of the United States. With a great theater, exhibits, more than 100,000 artifacts, as well as planes and tanks, we know you will love this museum. It is located right off of the Saint Charles Streetcar line halfway between the French Quarter and Garden District making the museum very easy to get to even if you don’t have a car.