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10 Things You Can Only Do in New Orleans

SmarterTravel

New Orleans is unlike any other city in the world. Only in New Orleans can you learn about voodoo culture, cruise on a mighty river, and dance to live music until you can’t feel your feet—all the while holding a go-up of your favorite beverage? New Orleans is a state of mind that stays with you long after your trip ends.

The Top Only in New Orleans Attractions

To help, here’s a list of ten attractions you won’t experience anywhere else in the world, only in New Orleans.

Discover the Truth about Voodoo Dolls

Voodoo tour
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Skip the kitschy voodoo experiences—there are plenty to be found—and opt for a historian-led tour combining education and entertainment. Free Tours by Foot offers a fascinating “New Orleans Voodoo Tour” designed to dispel myths surrounding the deeply-rooted religious practice and explore its West Africa heritage and infusion of Catholicism. This only in New Orleans tour also offers a peek into modern day rituals and belief.

Stops include Louis Armstrong Park, Congo Square, and the heart of the French Quarter. There’s no set fee for tours; you just pay what you think it’s worth.

Take a Stroll in a Centuries-Old Cemetery

St. louis cemetery number 1, new orleans, louisiana
St. Louis Cemetery Number 1, New Orleans, Louisiana(Photo: gruntzooki via flickr/CC Attribution/Share Alike)

Visiting a cemetery may not make your “must-see” list in many cities, but New Orleans’ unique above-ground tombs are one of the city’s greatest treasures. St. Louis Cemetery #1, founded in the late 18th century, is the city’s oldest still active burial ground. The non-profit Save Our Cemeteries leads walks through the labyrinth of ornate tombs, originally designed as a practical response to flooding.

Today the elaborate family and community tombs serve as historical monuments as well as works of art. You’ll see the resting place of many New Orleans luminaries including the spot believed to house Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. A portion of ticket sales benefit restoration efforts.

Pub Crawl with Spirits

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With 300 years of history and revelry, the French Quarter is alive with spirits, both intoxicating and paranormal in nature. Why not combine the two? Ghost City Tours offers an only in New Orleans Haunted Pub Crawl that’s equal parts scary fun and boozy theatre. Expert storytellers share tales of ghosts—some nice, some naughty—while visiting the French Quarter’s most haunted bars.

For those who prefer ghosts straight up, Unique NOLA Tours lets you choose your fear factor, with the kid-friendly “Spooky Family” Ghost Tour or the “Lewd Spirits” adults-only haunter.

March in Mardi Gras

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It’s no secret that krewe members pay large sums for the privilege and fun of riding on famed floats during Mardi Gras, but visitors-in-the-know can get in on the action for free.

Everyone is welcome to join the raucous, brass-band-led St. Anne Parade on Mardi Gras morning. You don’t need to sign up, just bring your Carnival spirit and dress the part. Go all out creating a costume and mask, for an only in New Orleans experience you’ll always remember. The parade begins in Bywater, near Mimi’s, around 10 a.m., marches through the Marigny and French Quarter, and then to Canal Street just in time to watch the Rex parade.  

Float Through the Bayou

Breaux bridge, louisiana
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana(Photo: Louisiana Office of Tourism)

Spend an afternoon beyond city limits to experience the beauty and calm of the bayou. Just a 40-minute drive from New Orleans, you can experience the full flavor of Louisiana’s wetlands. Since 1972, Canoe & Trail Adventures has introduced outdoor lovers, hikers, kayakers, and birders to the area’s rich ecology.

Master naturalist guides lead small group paddle trips through swamps where you might spot egrets, alligators, turtles, and more. Guides even outfit you with handy waterproof bags.

Explore America’s Hidden History

Louisiana museum of african american history
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It’s impossible to understand New Orleans without examining the history and legacy of the slave trade. Historian Leon Waters, a founding member of Louisiana Museum of African American History, created Hidden History Tours to illuminate the African American experience in New Orleans and explore how the past frames the present. The “1811 Slave Revolt Walking Tour” explores the significance of the historic uprising and shares tales of courage and hope.

Bowl a Strike, Then Dance a Jig

Rock ‘n’ bowl
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Live music is so intertwined with daily life in New Orleans, it even takes over the bowling alley. A good time is always had by locals and visitors alike at distinctively-New Orleans Rock ‘N’ Bowl.  Reasonably priced drinks and tasty bar food are a bonus. People watching is the gem. Don’t miss, the lively Thursday Zydeco Nights.

Explore Old Time Potions and Concoctions

New orleans pharmacy museum
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New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is housed in a historic apothecary shop, opened in 1823 by America’s first licensed pharmacist. Visitors are treated to a quirky and fascinating look into medical and social history. Surgical instruments, potions, and oddities fill original display cases; and patient histories reveal early treatments for yellow fever, malaria, and other diseases.

Be sure to stop at the visitor-favorite original soda fountain to discover its early role in medical treatment.

Hear a House That Makes Music

Music box village
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In musically-infused New Orleans, creating sweet sounds comes naturally, even for normally inanimate objects. A collective of over 80 artists, led by the vision of arts organization New Orleans Airlift, created Music Box Village, where doors, windows and floors come to life sonically. This creative only-in-New-Orleans sound installation is joyfully interactive, so get ready to play your own tune. You’ll never think of structure the same way.

Work Up a Sweat

Tours by steven
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Work off those beignets and po-boys while seeing the city from a different perspective—on a small group cycling or running tour.

Tours by Steven offers customized running circuits that take in celebrity homes and architectural gems while pounding pavement through French Quarter, Marigny, and Tremé. City Park routes are also available.

Confederacy of Cruisers offers a fun history lesson on wheels. Soak up local color from your seat on a fat-tire cruiser while pedaling through Marigny, Tremé, and Bywater. Whichever method of movement you choose, the guides’ passion for the city shines through the glistening sweat.

Shop ‘Til You Drop, NOLA-style

French market
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At first site, the historic French Market comes across more tourist-trap than hidden-gem-purveyor, but dig below the surface and America’s oldest continuously-operating open-air market delivers both surprises and treasures.

Stroll through on a Saturdays when local artisans and chefs come out in full force. Taste pralines and crepes, and cheese straws too. Skip the cheap plastic trinkets and opt for locally handcrafted art and jewelry, instead.

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-Original reporting by Jess Simpson

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