Some people are shocked that New Orleans is one of my favorite cities in the world. I know, I know, Bourbon Street makes people just think boobs and booze and barfing. But there are so many things to do in New Orleans and Bourbon Street is nowhere on my list. Unless you are on a bachelorette or bachelor party. If so, booze and barf it up. I’ve been to a bachelorette party in New Orleans and it was the best. You don’t have to plan much. Just go out to a bar and boom, hilarity and weirdness and drunkenness will ensue. Anyways, back to why New Orleans is awesome.
New Orleans is beautiful, easy to navigate, diverse, and has all my favorite things in a travel locale – good food, neighborhoods to walk, and an interesting history. I lived in the New Orleans area for three years growing up, and never thought much of it. Then, in college, I took a few courses on African American religion and it totally changed my view of New Orleans. When you learn about the city, you realize how saturated the city is with history and culture.
As everyone knows (or not…who knows!), New Orleans was originally a French city. This is evident in the AMAAAAZING food. Further, New Orleans had different laws than the rest of the U.S. when it came to slaves. Catholicism was declared the official religion of the territory and all slaves were required to convert. In order to conceal their traditional religions, African slaves blended them with Catholicism, leading to the creation of VooDoo. This amalgamation is reflected throughout the cities activities, architecture, cemeteries, festivals, etc. etc. Seriously. It’s everywhere. For example, go to a cemetery and you’ll see tons of crushed seashells. This is a VooDoo practice.
New Orleans is also a super artsy city, sometimes seeming to overflow with musicians, artists, and writers. Even more so than other cities I’ve been to such as Austin or Santa Fe. To name a few, Kate Chopin, Anne Rice, William Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams all wrote great works of literature during residencies in New Orleans. A million jazz and R&B artists called New Orleans home. Rappers such as Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne, and Queen of Bounce Big Freedia all call NOLA home. Don’t know who Big Freedia is? Google immediately. But not around children.
Here is a list of ten things you MUST do if/when you go to New Orleans. Grab yourself a guidebook. My favorite is Frommer’s. It’s got more guided tours and practical information than any other I’ve found. It has tons of information and tours for everything I suggest below!
(1) Go to a cemetery
New Orleans cemeteries are beautiful and creepy. The city is below sea level, which means that if you bury bodies below the ground, they just pop right back up. In addition, a few epidemics in the 1800s filled the cemeteries to capacity, leading to a ban on new burials except in already built graves. Thus, the tradition of mausoleums and above-ground tombs began. I’ve been to other above-ground cemeteries in other countries, and none compare to New Orleans. The majority of graves look like shrines with mementos left by families or VooDoo adornments. There are guided tours of cemeteries, but I think it’s sort of unnecessary unless you are REALLY interested in all the random dead people. I like just walking around them. My favorites are St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where Marie Laveau is buried, or the Hurricane Katrina Memorial Cemetery. The latter is a memorial that holds the bodies of 85 unidentified victims of the storm. It’s let up as a contemplative walk so it’s simultaneously depressing and healing.
(2) Go on a ghost or vampire tour
New Orleans is known as America’s Most Haunted City. Which means nearly every historic hotel and building has a haunting tale. It’s so imbued in the culture that apartments for sale in the French Quarter declare if it is haunted or not below the “For Rent” or “For Lease” sign. The ghost and vampire tours are mostly kitchy and for tourist show, but it is hard not to be terrified at 10 p.m. when an oddly tall and pale man named Lucius who displays his own certificate after he was pronounced medically dead tells you about a slave haunting or accounts of people being drained of 99% of their blood. French Quarter Phantoms does vampire tours and Haunted History Tours is great for those who enjoy hauntings.
(3) Walk the French Quarter during the day
Go during the day because there are way too many drunk people at night and tourists in New Orleans are awful drunks. It’s like your freshman year of college all over again where no one can hold their liquor, men think harassing women is sexy, and girls forget how to walk. I love walking up and down the streets, starting from Canal Street and making your way all the way over to French Market, stopping in Jackson Square to relax, eat a beignet, get a drink at Vacherie and/or the Carosel Bar at Monteleone Hotel. Don’t forget to stop at the VooDoo Museum! If you’re feeling super fancy, stop at eat at Galatorie’s or Broussard’s. Once you reach the French Market, browse the stands and then you can turn around and head towards Rampart Street to find Louis Armstrong Park and St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Louis Armstrong Park is extremely depressing given it’s historical importance. The historic park holds Congo Square, a vital part of the strong African American culture that holds up the city. During slavery, slave owners had to give slaves Sunday off to go to church. Slaves met in Congo Square and openly practiced VooDoo rituals. Here’s a map with a few other suggestions if freely roaming freaks you out.
(4) Walk around the Garden District and Uptown
Historic New Orleans Tours offers a thorough guided walking tour. Or you could just meander by yourself. Garden District and Uptown are super fancy. Like mansions and shit. I’ve walked around by myself and saw my fill. I walked by a few guided tours, and they were rambling about each gigantic mansion and talking about the owner, none of whom I’d ever heard of. Don’t expect tons of famous people’s homes and super exciting stories. If you’re really into the extremely detailed though, go on a guided tour. My Frommer’s book recommends starting at the Garden District Book Shop and walking the surrounding area. I agree with this recommendation and found the walk beautiful. I also suggest stopping into the book shop (it’s super cute!) and into Lafayette Cemetery.
(5) Go to the zoo and hang out at the Fly
When I was in middle school, I volunteered at the New Orleans zoo once a week. I prepared food for birds in the Aviary and held animals in the Discovery Walk. It was amazing. And New Orleans is still one of my favorite zoos I’ve ever been to. The Fly is located right next to the zoo, along the Mississippi River. It’s a large green space on the riverbank where people play frisbee, football, suntan, and smoke pot. Bring a blanket, have a picnic, and watch the boats pass.
(6) Walk Magazine Street
Magazine Street is lined with cute little shops, yummy restaurants, and places to explore. My favorite places to go are Stein’s Market and Deli (yummy sandwiches and LOTS of craft beer), Bulldog, Ruby Slipper, and Another Broken Egg Cafe. You can pick up a free map of the shops here.
(7) Take a walking tour.
Historic New Orleans Tours offers African American history tours of Treme, a post-Katrina tour, cemetery tours, and VooDoo tours. An African American Heritage Tour is available free online. You can also google for any TV show or movie that was filmed in New Orleans. My fave is American Horror Story tour. There are also great Anne Rice and the slightly related Interview with the Vampire tour.
- The Originals (for your inner teeny bopper)
- AHS: Coven
- Historic New Orleans Tours
- Anne Rice tour
- African American Heritage Tour
Eat anything and everything you see. Forget your diet resolutions and just constantly eat.You’re on vacation! Treat yo’self! Beignets, sno-cones (Pandora’s is my JAM), jambalaya, boudin, gumbo, crawfish etoufee, saltwater taffy. YUMMMMM. My mouth is watering already.
(9) Spend a night in the Marigny
After you walk around the French Quarter during the day, head to the Marigny for a fun night out! There are tons of great music clubs and amazing restaurants, especially along Frenchmen street. Some of note include the Spotted Cat Music Club and d.b.a. Praline Connection is a super famous restaurant in the area, but I did not think it lived up to the hype. However, it’s got a small seating area outside, which is great to sit and people watch.
(10) Go to City Park and Mid-City
Walking the trail around City Park is a great way to see the beautiful landscape and also work off some of the food and booze you’ve been eating. There are picnic areas, lagoons for boating and fishing, a miniature golf course, bike paths, a jogging trail, and beautiful gardens. If you go during Christmas, the park is filled with lights. During Halloween, the park hosts VooDoo Fest. Mid-City is a neighborhood adjacent to City Park. It’s a cute little neighborhood that is seen in the show Treme and hosts Jazz Fest. Walk along the bayou and have a picnic. Wander along the streets and say hello to the locals who hang out on their porches.
Other points of advice:
- Avoid the overpriced hotels and stay in an AirBnB. Seriously, the hotels are insanely expensive. You’re not going to be there very much anyways so do NOT pay $400 for a hotel room right on Bourbon or $300 for a shit-ass view of the disgusting Mississippi. Instead, look on AirBnb for a cute house in Mid-City, on Magazine Street, or in the Marigny. If you MUST stay in the French Quarter, the closer to Canal Street or towards French Market, the better. If you are really into to getting shit faced and don’t mind loud ass people, stay in the middle of the French Quarter. Who knows, maybe you’ll be too drunk to even notice when you pass out.
- Also, New Orleans is like any other major city where you need to be aware of your surroundings and act safely. If things look shady, don’t go there. Walk with a purpose. Don’t talk to random strangers. Stay where you see people. Don’t keep your iPhone in your back pocket or walk while staring at it the whole time. Make sure your bag is safe. I’ve seen a woman get her purse stolen in the middle of the day, on a busy street in the French Quarter. So, just don’t be an idiot.
Okay, SO GO! You won’t be disappointed. Unless you go in the summer. Because then it’s fucking hot. Like MIIIIISERABLE. And don’t go during Mardi Gras either. The WORST tourists come out and the French Quarter is insane.