Sure, New Orleans has a reputation for debauchery, business conventions, and humidity, but the Big Easy is so much more than that. Its culinary scene rivals that of New York City and Las Vegas, and it’s home to one of the top museums in all of the U.S.
Best Things to Do in New Orleans
Whether you go for Mardi Gras, a family vacation, or a trip with friends or your partner, here are the 10 best things to do in New Orleans.
Explore the City’s Urban Parks
Not only does New Orleans have its own national park, the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, it also has City Park, which is more than 1.5 times bigger than Central Park. City Park consists of a whopping 1,300 acres, and has the world’s largest collection of live oaks, a golf course, an amusement park, a sculpture garden, a tennis center, and a botanical garden–just to name a few of its attractions. It’s one of the best outdoor things to do in New Orleans at any time of the year.
The jazz park is a unique national park in that it focuses on cultural dedication, coupled with outdoor spaces and gardens. It emphasizes the history and role of live outdoor music in gathering a diverse group of people together. The visitor center is in the old U.S. Mint building, and the park owns a few buildings in Louis Armstrong Park, which is home to the famous gathering place for African-American music in the 18th century, Congo Square.
Get Cultural at Museums
New Orleans has a thriving art scene, with one of the best museums in the country. The National WWII Museum is one of the best things to do in New Orleans, especially on a rainy day. The three-building complex can take up a whole day of activities, especially if you’re wondering what to do in New Orleans with kids.
Other noteworthy museums include the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Confederate Memorial Hall Museum, Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, and Louisiana Children’s Museum. Since the Southern heat and humidity can defeat you in the summer months, these museums are great indoor activities in New Orleans.
Walk Around the French Quarter and Bourbon Street
Whether you’re traveling with kids, colleagues, or friends, the French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans. Some of the best shopping, restaurants, and hotels in New Orleans are located in the French Quarter, so even if you come during the day, there’s plenty to do. Don’t miss Jackson Square and the St. Louis Cathedral, as well as popular beignet cafes, po-boy shops, and artists’ stands.
At night, it’s good fun to wander Bourbon Street with your drink in hand (there is no open container law), but do your best to be aware of your surroundings.
Go to New Orleans for a Festival
While New Orleans is most famous for Mardi Gras, there are a few other festivals worth noting and traveling for at other times of the year. Jazz Fest, held annually in the spring, is gaining notoriety as one of the best things to do in New Orleans. More and more tourists flock to the city each year to see incredible lineups. Past artists include Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, Neil Young, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Spring also brings the French Quarter Festival, celebrating live music in the heart of the city over the course of four days. The same company that hosts this event also puts on Satchmo Summer Fest and Christmas New Orleans Style.
Also in spring, don’t miss the BUKU Music & Art Project, a two-day music and arts festival held at Mardi Gras World. And if you want to experience Mardi Gras year-round, make sure to stop at Mardi Gras World, where you can visit the warehouse that’s home to parade floats and costumes of celebrations past.
See a Live Jazz Band in New Orleans
Jazz is a tradition long rooted in New Orleans, and no trip to the Big Easy would be complete without experiencing some live music of the genre. Going to Preservation Hall is one of the best things to do in New Orleans if you want to see an authentic, live jazz band. Founded in 1961, Preservation Hall consists of a music venue, touring band, and non-profit, committed to preserving traditional New Orleans jazz. It offers shows 350 days per year, each lasting around 45 minutes, and you can reserve tickets on the website in advance or stand in the general admission line. (Show up about 30 minutes before the show time you want to see.) For other traditional jazz, the New Orleans Jazz Park hosts live educational performances almost daily.
More options for live jazz include the famous jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace. The three-course meal, complete with live music at your table, is one of the best things to do in New Orleans. The restaurant opened in 1895 and upholds generations of New Orleans history and tradition.
Go on a New Orleans Bike Tour
Since New Orleans is divided into distinct areas, biking is one of the best ways to see the city and one of the best outdoor activities in New Orleans. And while the roads are a little bumpy, it’s easy to navigate New Orleans on a bike. Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours offers a variety of tours–in style and length–with its headquarters located in the French Quarter. Try the three-hour Creole & Crescent tour for an overview of the entire city.
Gamble on Land or a Riverboat
If you’re looking for some fun outside of the bustling bars on Bourbon or Frenchmen Street, New Orleans is also well known for its famed Harrah’s Casino and the riverboat casinos Treasure Chest and Boomtown. There’s also the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, which hosts a variety of events from a popular Thanksgiving Day celebration to exotic animal racing (think ostriches).
Visit the Historic Homes of New Orleans
The history and architecture of New Orleans differentiate it from most other U.S. cities. You’ll see Spanish and French influences throughout the city and even find yourself peeking into courtyards and windows while wandering around the Garden District and French Quarter.
While not for everyone, exploring the city’s historic homes is one of the best things to do in New Orleans if you’re interested in history and architecture. It’s also one of the best indoor activities in New Orleans during the summer heat. As many homes were destroyed in Hurricane Katrina, you’ll also learn a lot about rebuilding and renovation after the devastating natural disaster.
Discover the Amazing Culinary Scene
New Orleans has some of the best food in the U.S. From famous beignet cafes (try Cafe Beignet or Cafe du Monde) to traditional Creole food, you won’t be disappointed. Try Borgne and Peche for amazing seafood, Coquette for foodies, Commander’s Palace for jazz brunch, Dat Dog for late-night munchies, and Johnny’s Po-Boys for a quick pit-stop lunch. Eating your way through the city is one of the best things to do in New Orleans.
Check out the New Orleans School of Cooking if you want to learn how to make some of the tasty traditional dishes served at NOLA restaurants.
Voodoo has long been a tradition in New Orleans, and it’s a great thing to explore if you’re wondering what to do in New Orleans or want to learn more about the city’s culture. Check out Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo in the French Quarter, or take a voodoo-inspired tour.
More from SmarterTravel:
- New Orleans Travel Guide
- 11 Best Hotels in New Orleans
- 10 Best Cheap Hotels in New Orleans
- 9 Haunted Hotels in New Orleans
- 10 Must-See New Orleans Attractions
- 12 Places to Hear Incredible New Orleans Jazz
- 10 Things You Can Only Do in New Orleans
- 10 Best Restaurants in New Orleans
- 12 Best Spots for Cheap Eats in New Orleans
- Everything You Need to Know About New Orleans Food
- What to Pack for New Orleans
- What to Wear in New Orleans
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.