This post was originally published on A Globe Well Travelled in 2017. The content has been revised and updated with fresh information.
It’s impossible to feel anything but good while wandering through New Orleans.
You can stand practically anywhere in the city and hear upbeat music drifting through the streets. At any time of the day, you might have a jazz band spontaneously burst into tune beside you. Within 5 minutes, it’s likely that you’ll be surrounded by a hundred people dancing along to the beat.
New Orleans is one of those destinations that everybody raves about. I’ll admit that I was skeptical about just how good it was actually going to be, but even though I was overcoming a particularly nasty flu during our stay, I still thought it was a pretty awesome place.
We spent 2 days/3 nights in the city which was enough to get a taste of it, but the atmosphere is so contagious that you’ll definitely want to stay longer. Here’s the best New Orleans activities for a weekend city break + a fun video of our time there!
Where we stayed:
We stayed at the Creole Gardens in the Garden District. The accommodation was a super old house that had been converted into a B&B. We actually got an upgrade on arrival and were put in the biggest suite on the top floor which had a balcony. Score!
It was about a 25 minute walk into the French Quarter, but there is a tram only 5 minutes walk away that would have taken us most of the way in. I was actually glad that we were staying outside of town as it meant we didn’t have drunks walking by or loud music playing through the night. I totally recommend staying in this area on your trip to New Orleans!
The best things to do in New Orleans:
1. Explore the French Quarter
The French Quarter is the tourist center of New Orleans. As you might imagine from the name, this area has a huge influence from the time that it was a French colony. Strangely, most of the remaining historic buildings in the French Quarter are actually from when the city was under Spanish rule in the late 1700s.
Most tourists will start by walking along Bourbon Street, which is a party hotspot that seems to be pumping all day and night. Rob and I thought Bourbon Street was overly touristy, so we preferred the much quieter Royal Street which had the same charm without the trashiness.
2. Visit Jackson Square
Jackson Square is the centerpiece of New Orleans. This national historic landmark was the site of the Louisiana purchase in 1803, when most of the state was acquired by the United States. These days, it’s a lively spot lined with absolutely gorgeous architecture.
The main feature of Jackson Square is St. Louis Cathedral, which is the oldest cathedral in the United States. We didn’t go inside, but I was very impressed with the exterior (which I thought looked somewhat Disney-like) and I ended up taking many photos of it.
In front of the cathedral is a notable statue of Andrew Jackson (the namesake of the square), an American war hero who served as the seventh president of the United States and who founded the Democratic party.
3. Go to a music bar
New Orleans is all about the music. It is the birthplace of jazz, so you’ll hear those upbeat tunes emanating from all sorts of venues in and around the French Quarter. Blues and Piano are also both popular music styles in New Orleans.
You don’t need to be overly picky with which venue you enter to see live music, as there are literally thousands to choose from. We visited 21st Amendment Bar and Balcony Music Club to watch jazz/blues bands. I also heard that Pat O’Brien’s is a great Piano Bar.
4. Explore the Garden District
The Garden District is where we stayed in New Orleans. It was a good choice of location – this area is much quieter and less intense than the French Quarter.
The best thing to do in the Garden District is to take a look at all the old mansions. These 1800s homes are known to be some of the best preserved residential buildings in the south, and have been used in many movies. You might recognise 2707 Coliseum St which was featured as the childhood home in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
A totally Instagrammable thing to do is visit Commander’s Palace (pictured above). This iconic blue restaurant sits opposite Lafayette Cemetery, and is known for its Creole cuisines and Louisiana charm.
We did the Garden District on our own, but a walking tour would cover all the important things to see and give you a great narrative of the area’s history.
5. Visit a cemetery
This might seem like a weird sightseeing suggestion, but Louisiana cemeteries are truly fascinating.
As the water table sits just 6 feet beneath the surface, below-ground burials are not possible in many parts of Louisiana. This has resulted in large, above-ground tombs filling many of the state’s cemeteries.
6. Eat a po’boy
A Po’Boy is a Louisiana sandwich made with french bread (like a baguette) and overflowing with fillings of roast beef or fried seafood. You can try po’boys on a French Quarter food tour.
Eating a Po’Boy was somewhat of a challenge for us as the southern sandwich is generally not vegetarian, but we did succeed in finding a vegan cafe called Seed which served meat-free Po’Boys! Our sandwiches were filled with grilled eggplant and seitan, and were 100% delicious.
I also heard that Killer Po’Boys does a great Louisiana sandwich (they have both meat and veggie options).
7. Sample Creole and Cajun cuisines
Creoles are the descendants of the original French and Spanish Louisianans, and their European/Southern fusion of flavours is truly unique to this area. Creole cuisine is often spicy with citrus flavours and includes rice.
Cajun cuisine is similar to Creole, but instead it originates from the descendants of French colonists who were deported from Acadia (now Eastern Canada) to Louisiana in the 1700s.
Creole and Cajun food can be found all over New Orleans. Possibly the most well-known dish is jambalaya, which is a rice dish with sausage and vegetables. We didn’t attempt to try this non-vegetarian dish, but we did get to try some Cajun/Creole potatoes with breakfast at our B&B.
I’m not particularly fond of spicy foods, especially for breakfast, but I will admit that it was tasty and definitely worth a try. You can also try some of these local specialities on a French Quarter food tour.
8. Head out to see a plantation
There are historic sugar and cotton plantations all over Louisiana. We toured Evergreen Plantation, which I was super excited about as it was used as a filming location for some of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The tour was run by a lively woman who had a vast knowledge of the plantation’s history. I definitely recommend it.
The famous Oak Alley Plantation is also a popular choice for tourists. We drove to Oak Alley purely for the photo op of the oak trees lining the path to the main house (which we managed to get by casually ignoring a ‘No Stopping’ sign on the road in front of the plantation) but if you want to go inside then you can tour the property.
9. Visit Frenchmen Street
The south end of Frenchmen Street is kind of like Bourbon Street as it has loads of bars, restaurants, and live music, but it’s much calmer and not nearly as touristy.
Our favourite hangout was Dat Dog, which was a diner with veggie hot dogs and a bar upstairs from which you could sit on the balcony and watch the world go by. We even managed to be sitting here when a street band struck up a tune right outside the restaurant. It was a true New Orleans experience.
We also spent some time listening to a blues band in 30/90. There are honestly loads of music clubs around this area, so I’d suggest planning to bar hop for an entire evening on Frenchmen Street.
10. Try some beignets
Beignets are squares of fried dough covered in powdered sugar, and Cafe du Monde is the most famous place to try them. The line to this cafe was insane when we walked by mid-afternoon, so maybe try visiting first thing in the morning if you don’t want to line up for hours.