Famous for its great music, delicious food, beautiful architecture, and friendly faces New Orleans is a must visit for anyone traveling or living in the United States. There’s no wonder why so many have rated it as one of the best destinations to visit in the US. With Spanish, French, West African, Caribbean, Native American, and Southern influences this city has developed a personality and culture of its own unlike anywhere else in the world. If this is your inaugural trip to the city you’re in for a treat. Here are our picks for best things to do in New Orleans for a first time visitor.
And as the locals say, “laissez les bon temps rouler.” (Let the good times roll!)
Extensively explore the French Quarter
The oldest neighborhood in New Orleans is the French Quarter, aka Vieux Carre and one of the best things to do in New Orleans. This is where we recommend staying near because much of the city is walkable from the historic district. Not only is it convenient but it’s beautiful. Each street is lined with beautiful buildings, shops, restaurants, hotels, and bars.
We loved walking up and down every street in the French Quarter, ooohing and ahhing at each building.
Points of Interest
Preservation Hall – One of the best things to do in New Orleans and a must for any first time visitor! Every night there are intimate, acoustic New Orleans jazz concerts held by some of the best musicians in the city. Be sure to get in line early if you want a seat unless you book ahead and pay extra for Big Shot tickets.
Royal Street – This is one of the most beautiful streets in the French Quarter filled with incredible antique shops, art galleries, boutiques, and hotels. It’s also incredibly photogenic!
Jackson Square – This historical and well-manicured park is a must, located right next to the river you can get an incredible view and photo of the square from the platform across the street. The Andrew Jackson statue may be taken down with the recent mayor’s efforts to remove anything symbolizing the Confederacy but the entire park is worth taking a stroll through and checking out as it was also the spot where the final version Louisiana Purchase was signed.
Bourbon Street – Once where all the jazz and bars were is now a spring break college frat boy street lined with neon signs and bars selling giant drinks to go and where people go to let loose. It does have sort of a slimy vibe going on but is an experience you can’t miss, if this is not your scene be sure to walk down Bourbon Street at least once!
Cafe du Monde – One of the best things to do in New Orleans is to try one of the famous beignets and the place to do it is Cafe du Monde. We won’t go too much into food on this post as I can write a whole book dedicated to the food of New Orleans, but the beignet is a “thing to do in New Orleans.” Each order comes with three of these tasty powdery sugar goodness french donuts and once you try them you will be back for more!
Wander through the Garden District
Another beautiful neighborhood and one of the best things to do in New Orleans is visiting the Garden District. The beautiful tree lined streets build a canopy of lush green lined with gorgeous antebellum mansions and homes. You almost feel like you’re in a movie walking down the streets, probably because many big Hollywood movies have been shot here!
Points of Interest
Buckner Mansion – This famous mansion is not only popular because of how beautiful it is but because this was the star in the tv series, “American Horror Story Coven.” Even if this beautiful home wasn’t in the show you’d probably find yourself stopping here to take a photo in front of it, it’s that alluring!
Commander’s Palace – This famous restaurant is where you can go for an authentic southern dining experience. Serving up fine Creole dishes you have to be dressed up according to the dress code to dine here with a reservation. We recommend coming at lunch for their famous $.25 martinis. It’s an unforgettable experience!
Lafayette Cemetery – Right across from the Commander’s Palace is the famous Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 where you can stroll through the famous maze of above ground tombs being reclaimed by nature with trees and plants growing out of the cracks of the stones. You don’t need a guide to enter this cemetery, check out this self-guided tour as you enter.
Magazine Street – Stroll up and down this historic street’s shops, boutiques, and restaurants. Plan your appetite right for a quick stop into District Donuts for unique flavors like ginger mint julep and brewed coffee on tap!
Enojy the Music Scene on Frenchmen Street
Experiencing the local music scene is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in New Orleans. Frenchmen Street is the spot all the locals love and it’s no wonder why, on either side of the entire street there is jazz club after jazz club playing live music nightly. We were told by a local this is what Bourbon Street used to be like before it became mainstream and now party central for visitors.
You can’t help but fall in love with this area or the live music performances, you may even want to come back every night thanks to its close proximity and walking distance to the French Quarter.
Points of Interest
The Spotted Cat – One of the best jazz clubs in the city with a tiny stage and nightly performances.
d.b.a. – This New York City inspired cool club is known for serving up craft beers and it’s nightly live musical performances.
The Maison – This club offers three different stages with nightly performances where you can get a great mix of music and drinks.
Check out at least one Cemetery
Since New Orleans is below sea level they are unable to bury their remains underground, so the only other option is to have above ground tombs and mausoleums making the cemeteries in New Orleans not only unique but a rich part of their history and one of the most iconic things to do in New Orleans.
If you want to do more than wandering through and snap photos be sure to check out one of the many tours through the cemeteries. You will learn about the famous people who remain are there as well as the burial rituals and techniques of the local cemeteries. We did our tour with Tour New Orleans through St. Louis Cemetery no. 1 and it was one of the most interesting things we did during out visit.
Points of Interest
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – This is the city’s oldest cemetery and one of the most famous being the final resting spot for Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and home to the odd future pyramid tomb to actor Nicholas Cage. Located right outside the French Quarter this Catholic cemetery only allows certain people in, so it’s best to come with a tour.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 – Located in the Garden District and easily able to self-guide your way through this eerily beautiful cemetery you may find yourself feeling like this place is oddly familiar looking. That is because Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 was also featured in Hollywood films like, “Double Jeopardy.” This cemetery is also home to The Mayfair Witches and Lestat the vampire’s tombs.
St. Roch Cemetery No. 1 – Unusual and creepy this cemetery is different from the others because it has a room full of the deceased prosthetic limbs making it a bit unique compared to the other cemeteries in the city.
Get off the tourist trail in Faubourg Marigny and Bywater
Located not too far from the French Quarter the neighborhoods of Faubourg Marigny and Bywater are some of the best-kept secrets and one of the best things to do in New Orleans that not too many others explore as well. Filled with streets of colorful shotgun homes and off the beaten path restaurants and bars this is the next up and coming part of the city. Another bonus would be some of these under the radar spots are significantly less expensive than anywhere you would go in the French Quarter!
Points of Interest
St. Roch Market – This newer food hall was one of our favorite things to do in New Orleans and introduced to us by a friend. This is the place to go if you want to sample all kinds of dishes and enjoy premium $5 sazeracs during happy hour. Sample around each stall as they serve up different types of food including everything from Haitian, Cajun, to Mexican food.
Frenchmen Street – As mentioned before, this famous jazz club street is located in the area!
Fry and Pie – We had some of the best-loaded fries we have ever had in our life with BBQ beef brisket and gooey cheesy goodness. Not to mention the incredibly reasonable drink menu, it’s no wonder why it has such rave reviews.
Bacchanal Wine & Spirits – Another incredible under the radar spot, this wine bar in Bywater was one of the most chill places to hang out for late night cheese and meat boards, wine, and live music performances. Pick out your wine, pull which cheese and meats you want from the fridge and find a spot upstairs where a waiter will deliver everything to you on a cutting board while you enjoy the dark ambient setting and chill music. This is a great place for a more intimate experience.
Experience a Streetcar Ride
There aren’t too many places left in the world where you can ride an old-fashioned streetcar to get around the city. In New Orleans, one of the best ways to transport around the city would be by the local streetcar routes. The historical cars only cost $1.25 per ride, be sure to have exact change or $3 for an all-day pass! We recommend taking the street car to get from the French Quarter to the Garden District and vice versa, be sure to schedule more time as the street cars do take a little more time.
Points of Interest
St. Charles Streetcar – Ride along this famous route looking at the beautiful mansions and tree-lined streets of St. Charles in the Garden District. You can take it all the way to Canal Street where it ends its route in one direction right at the French Quarter.
Rampart & St. Claude Streetcar – Rampart St. gets its name from being the outside walls of the historic French Quarter. This new streetcar route just opened up in November of 2016 and is a great addition connecting Central City, through the outside of French Quarter, to Faubourg Marigny.
Visit a Swamp
Check out the famous swamps of Louisana and it’s biodiversity and wildlife by doing a tour of the swamps. Experience narrow slews, Cajun villages on the water, and all the wildlife including tons of alligator sightings, birds, insects, and even wild pigs! This ended up being one of our favorite things to do in New Orleans because the swamps were somehow calmingly beautiful and all the wildlife we encountered was thrilling!
Points of Interest
Honey Island Swamp Tour – We highly recommend the tour we did with Cajun Encounters through the Honey Island Swamp. They had great guides and took us through some of the most beautiful swamps we could have ever imagined, also we saw at leats two dozen alligators, wild pigs, hawks, cranes, and even turtles!
New Orleans is so much more than the parties on Bourbon Street. No matter what you do, even if it’s just partying, you will have a great first visit to the city. We recommend checking out at least some if not all of our picks for the best things to do in New Orleans. We tried our best to see it all, but of course, that’s impossible in a few short days. We have already decided we have to come back, there’s a magic to this place and the fusion of all different influences that make the culture and vibe here unique and incredibly alluring.
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