New Orleans is such a unique city in the United States, with its French and Southern influence. Known for its Mardi Gras festival and po’ boy sandwiches, the city is bustling with culture, music, and activities for the whole family. It’s a unique city that’s all about the spirit, and you get a feeling here that you won’t be able to find elsewhere. It’s tough to figure out what would be the most important events or places to see first, especially if you’re a newbie in the city. So we’ve put together a list of fifteen must do activities when visiting New Orleans (or NOLA) for the first time.
Listen to Street Musicians
Stop and listen to street musicians in the French Quarters. Listening to the musicians isn’t too difficult because they set up shop everywhere! The good thing about street musicians is you can get as close or as far away as you’d like to be able to enjoy the music. Remember: these are tomorrow’s artists, with everything from jazz to R&B to reggae or calypso. Check out these spots for the best street music: Royal Street in the French Quarter, Frenchmen Street in the Marigny, Jackson Square, or along the Mississippi River banks.
Try the Gumbo
This delicious stew was created in Louisiana in the 18th century, and consists of a meat broth, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and celery, bell peppers, and onion. Gumbo is traditionally served over rice. There are several different varieties, including chicken, sausage, shrimp, okra, and can vary in how spicy it is. A quick online search on apps like TripAdvisor and Yelp will give you some great recommendations for where to try to best gumbo in town!
Enjoy Freshly Baked Beignets
Beignets are literally “fritters,” and are deep fried pastries served with powdered sugar on top. You can get them just about anywhere, and they are the closest you can get to heaven on this earth. You can also get them stuffed with delicious custard, which might remind you more of a donut than anything else! Take your kids to Cafe Du Monde to watch through the glass windows in the back how they make beignets.
Take a Ghost Tour
New Orleans is a city with a broad range of cultures, incorporating French, Southern America, and African belief systems. Put that with the longstanding history of the city, and you are bound to end up with some tall tales of haunted mansions and haunted land. Many ghost hunter circles call this America’s most haunted city, so if you are in the mood to be scared, you should take a ghost tour. If you decide to do the night ghost tour on your own, then stop by the LaLaurie House. Be sure to read about the house on Wikipedia ahead of time.
Visit the Cemetery
If something a bit milder than a ghost tour is more your style, visit a New Orleans cemetery. The cemeteries are unique here because the coffins sit above ground due to the regular flooding. Many cemeteries have memorials for unknown victims and soldiers, such as those who died in Hurricane Katrina or the Civil War. The best visit is the Number Three cemetery that features family mausoleums with elaborate marble statues and multiple family member burial sites.
Visit the Ninth Ward
The Lower Ninth Ward is known as the area where Hurricane Katrina hit the hardest in 2005. There are some historical buildings as well as a look at how things have gone since Katrina hit. Visitors can still see some of the damage inflicted by the massive hurricane and understand to what levels the water rose on the building walls. It’s a very moving place to visit and somewhat explain to kids what nature can inflict on human life.
Attend a Jazz Concert
If there is one kind of music to associate with New Orleans, it is jazz. During the summer, it’s pretty easy to find an outdoor concert, or you can always watch street performers. If you are looking to head indoors, you have to attend a concert at Preservation Hall. There other are clubs and festivals year round, as well as the symphony, but Preservation Hall is the most famous spot to enjoy music and see up and coming musicians. A second best, after the Preservation Hall, is to attend a New Orleans style funeral filled with music and joy to celebrate one’s life instead of mourning their death. This type of funeral comes from the West African tradition of expressing joy at the fact of mortality with music.
Look for Antiques in the Garden District
A place with so much fascinating history has some interesting antiques if you want to rummage through the shops in the Garden District. Just like any other city, there is also a lot of junk. However, treasure hunters from around the United States visit the antique shops here for their next spectacular find. If you look hard enough, you can find some great, one-of-a-kind deals at decent prices. Before purchasing anything, make sure you Google the item and verify its real value, so you don’t overpay or feel cheated when you bring it home.
Gawk at the Mansions
The Southern United States is known for its grand mansions, and New Orleans is no different. Rathbone Mansions are two mansions on the Esplanade that are open as hotels and are worth a walk around. You can find historic homes from the 1800s all around the city and beyond if you know where to look. The best place to explore if you want to walk around by foot is the Garden District. You can reach the area by the famous trolly from Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire. There are also some incredible opportunities for photographs.
Get your Palm Read
Remember earlier how I mentioned that there is a range of belief systems here? Well, here is a perfect example. Palm reading is a pretty popular activity here, and visitors can get their palm read everywhere from a voodoo shop to a teashop. The best places to go for this experience are around Jackson Square. Make sure that you agree on a price before the reading to avoid any unpleasant misunderstandings.
Carriage Rides around Jackson Square
A carriage ride is a unique way to tour the area and learn about the history of New Orleans. In the past, it was the only way to get around town, so it can be fun to experience the city as some of the original inhabitants did. There are several tours available around Jackson Square and the French Quarter, depending on what you are looking for and the timing of your trip.
Check out the Cathedral
Whether you are a practicing Catholic or not, the St. Louis Cathedral is a sight to behold! As one of New Orlean’s most notable landmarks, it is the oldest Catholic Cathedral still in use in the United States. You can attend mass (if you are Catholic), take a tour, or just look around on your own and marvel at the beautiful glass windows. The stunning artwork is sure to impress visitors of all ages!
Buy a Voodoo Doll and Beads at the French Market
Voodoo is a cultural system based on African religions developed by African-born slaves during this time in America. It is still alive in the city today but is also a symbol of Louisiana, which makes a voodoo doll/beads a super unique souvenir that will always remind you or the recipient of the gift of this particular city. Some of the dolls can be a bit creepy with screaming faces or even visible wounds, but others are cute. The French Market is known as the best place to find this kind of souvenir, but make sure to haggle over the price if you decide to buy one.
Cruise on the Mississippi
A little fancier that Tom Sawyer’s adventure boat on the Mississippi, visitors should take a paddle boat mini cruise. These grand white ships with red paddles in the back will transport you back in time as you sip a drink on the deck. We took the Natchez Mississippi cruise boat on a Sunday. We got to not only take in the views up and down the mud brown Mississippi river but enjoy a scrumptious southern hospitality filled brunch.
Armstrong Musician Park
The best place to hear jazz outdoors when the weather is still beautiful is the Armstrong Musician Park just outside the French Quarter. The park features free live music and concerts in September and October. You can listen to local musicians at the park on a regular basis throughout the year. Here, you can bring your family for a few hours and have a picnic on one of the benches. Located at 701 N. Rampart Street, the park is considered a National Historical Park.
Autism Travel Tips:
- Some supernatural activities in New Orleans, from the haunted house tours to the voodoo dolls, might either fascinate or frighten your kids. Think carefully about which category your child falls in before taking them on any of these excursions.
- The ghost tours are definitely for older kids. They take place in the dark, and they are fascinating, but might be too much for younger children to bear.
- While the Armstrong Musician Park is quiet on an average day, during festivals and concerts it can get crowded and loud. If your family does go to a music festival, pack earplugs or noise canceling headphones.
- Many people with autism suffer from digestive issues. Pack heartburn medication and watch the fat content of foods like gumbo.
- Some of the stuff sold in the French Market might be dangerous for kids that put things in their mouths. I found my son putting the pins from the voodoo doll in his mouth.