Located next to the twists of the mighty Mississippi River, New Orleans was originally a French outpost in 1718, making it one of the oldest cities in the United States. Although it is the largest city in Louisiana, NOLA is not the capital. That honor is reserved for Baton Rouge. The inhabitants of The Big Easy are the unique heart and soul that keep this metropolis beating and even during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 many of them refused to leave their home. New Orleans is more than just an ordinary holiday destination and the passion of the local people, together with the city’s unique history and culture, will enchant you.
The eleven best places to see in New Orleans
Garden District: The Hollywood of the South
Tradition, luxury and beauty are all words that can be used to describe the historic Garden District of New Orleans. Here you’ll find an excellent preserved collection of pre-war mansions, unspoiled gardens and southern charm. The Garden District is one of the most beautiful sights of New Orleans and even one of the nicest districts in the country.
This area was created after the Louisiana Purchase, where the Americans bought the state from the French. They didn’t want to mix the new American inhabitants with the European population that lived mainly in the French Quarter. These beautiful houses were built on enormous plots where a lot of attention was paid to the gardens. This immediately explains the name. The result is still breathtakingly beautiful: a fairytale district with picturesque houses in an enchanting environment.
Jackson Square and the French Quarter: Colonial charm
One of the nicest and even most timeless tourist attractions of New Orleans is a walk on Jackson Square. In the eighteenth century this was known as the “Place d’Armes” but later it was renamed to honor the hero of the Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson. The square is right on the Mississippi River and is surrounded by historic buildings such as St. Louis Cathedral, Presbytere and Cabildo (state museums) and the Lower and Upper Pontalba Apartments, the oldest apartment buildings in the United States. At Jackson Square, tourists, local people and artists come together and you’ll quickly understand why.
Furthermore, the French Quarter is also one of the nicest neighborhoods in the city with a very elegant architecture. This area lends itself perfectly for your first acquaintance with New Orleans.
Aquarium of the Americas: A collection of marine life like you’ve never seen before
In the United States you have an abundance of great aquariums such as in Atlanta, Georgia and Monterrey, California. Yet there is only one that belongs on top of that list, and it’s the one with the most appropriate name as well: ‘The Aquarium of the Americas’. Walk through a tunnel and see the colorful Caribbean reef or be enchanted by penguins and sea otters. Other beautiful sea animals are stingrays, giant sharks and sea turtles and of course many more. In addition, this is not only an aquarium but also a zoo where you can see jaguars, zebras, pumas, rhinos and the rare white alligator. If you can’t get enough of the animal kingdom after that, you can still visit the insectarium!
Mardi gras: Party time!
Every year in February, Bourbon Street bursts with people celebrating carnival. Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is the last day of the carnival season. These pagan festivities took place 5,000 years ago, but it was not until 1582 that Pope Gregory III made it a Christian holiday. In the nineteenth century, carnival was best known as an event that was characterized by parties and lavish drinking. In 1857, they almost decided to ban Mardi Gras, but luckily six residents of NOLA intervened. Carnival was no longer celebrated as a chaotic party, but now of a fun parade based on a theme with costumed riders and torchbearers. Even today there are numerous parades in the city with live music (and a lot of alcohol). There’s always huge crowds, and if drunken people aren’t really your thing, you’d perhaps better stay away from New Orleans. If, on the other hand, you like to party (and drink), this is one of the best places to visit!
The Bayou’s: A unique adventure
If you want to experience something unique you have to visit the Bayou’s. These are one of the most remarkable attractions of New Orleans and something you can only experience in the south of the United States. A Bayou is a swampy lake that is stuffed with wild animals. You visit this special landscape by boat and at first everything looks peaceful. The sun is shining and the ancient cypresses that are covered with Spanish moss seem to make you smile. Until suddenly a three-meter (10 feet) long alligator appears and you almost fall off the boat because you’re so in shock. While you still can’t believe your eyes, you suddenly see poisonous snakes or water birds waiting patiently for their food. Musk rats, raccoons and deer are also regularly spotted here. And even… Wild pigs!
To be honest, I might’ve scared you a little bit, but if I’m honest: everything is really safe on these boats. I promise you that this is one things that you absolutely can’t skip when visiting NOLA. You’ll love it!
You never know exactly what you’ll see beforehand and that is why every tour will become a unique adventure.
The plantations: Imposing architecture
The south of Louisiana is known for its majestic pre-war architecture and there are plenty of plantation houses that are less than an hour’s drive from New Orleans. The architecture and beauty of these houses is impressive, as is the history behind these buildings. Oak Alley is the most famous plantation of all and a tour of this area from 1839 is one of the nicest attractions of New Orleans. It’s as if you’re wandering out of an old, romantic novel.
Steam boats: Cruising on the Mississippi
Barely a century ago, one of the best ways to reach New Orleans was with the help of a steam boat. The Mississippi River and its tributaries make their way through more than 30 states and New Orleans was, as it were, the front door of this. The era of steamers was one of the most colorful periods in American history. Fortunately, you can still experience this and board an authentic steam boat from the nineteenth century. Many people call this the highlight of their visit to NOLA. There are “normal” cruises during the day, but also special round trips during the night, with swinging jazz music.
Cemetaries: Cities of the dead
Only in NOLA, cemeteries are one of the best sights. Because the city was built on a swamp, the deceased had to be buried above the ground in stone crypts and mausoleums. Over time, the cemeteries began to look like small villages with their carefully crafted statues and tombs. This earned them the nickname “Cities of the Dead”. The most famous cemetery is St. Louis Cemetery #1, where the legendary voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried.
You can visit all these cemeteries yourself, but the best way is undoubtedly a guided tour because of the great stories that the guides have to tell. Also Lafayette Cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery and The Gates of Prayer Cemetery are worth a visit (and tour).
Ghosts: Very amusing
When it comes to ghosts and ghouls, there are few cities that can compete with New Orleans. NOLA is considered the most haunted city in the United States and a Ghost Tour is an unforgettable experience. During this tour you’ll see all of the ghosts that make The Big Easy unsafe until today. Don’t forget to pack some clean underwear!
The food scene of New Orleans: eat until you drop
NOLA is a culinary hotspot where the kitchen consists of a unique combination of Creole, Cajun, French, Spanish and African elements. There are numerous famous dishes that you should try:
- Golf oysters (especially at the famous Casamento’s where you should try their oyster loaf sandwich)
- A po’boy sandwich (a baguette with either roast beef or fried seafood)
- Gumbo (a delicious stew)
- Jambalaya (a rice dish with Cajun and Creole ingredients)
- Muffuletta (a focaccia-like sandwich)
- And of course the world-famous fried chicken!
Furthermore, you can enjoy delicious sweets such as beignets (the tastiest ones you can find in the Cafe du Monde – although I still think the Belgian and Dutch beignets are a lot better). If you don’t mind going out of the city center for a bit, try looking into District Donuts. The best donuts I EVER had!!!
One of the best ways to experience all these delicacies is by arranging one of the many food tours. You also get a guide that explains everything that you’ll eat.
If you prefer to discover the best food places on your own, then you’ll need to go to the Central Business District and Bywater. These neighborhoods are known to have the best food.
For tasty crispy fried chicken you can go to Coop’s Place.
One of the best restaurants in New Orleans is without a doubt the Commanders Palace, located in the lush Garden District. This eatery has been in the hands of the same family for more than 100 years and here you’ll be pampered from the beginning to the end.
Don’t forget to experience the “Friday Lunch”, a local tradition. This special lunch can best be experienced in Galatoire’s.
You probably have already realized that you’ll never go to bed hungry in this city!
Music: Swinging nightlife
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music and jazz legend Louis Armstrong. To honor this living legend, there’s even a park named after him in NOLA: the Louis Armstrong Park. Be sure to visit the entrance with the iconic arch.
Every season there is also a music festival, where you can swing off the many calories that you undoubtedly stuffed yourself with. The best festivals are the Jazz & Heritage festival, the French Quarter festival and Satchmo Summerfest. In October you can’t miss the Voodoo Music and Arts Experience, just like the Crescent City Blues and BBQ festival where music and fantastic food are combined.
As far as live music is concerned, most people look no further than Bourbon Street which is a shame because there are more than 80 places across the city that offer an awesome (jazz) experience. Explore Frenchmen Street and the Arts / Warehouse district. You’ll not only find jazz but also blues, funk, R&B, country, rock and Cajun music. It is said that American music was born in New Orleans and after all these years it still continues to grow.
Tips for visiting New Orleans
- Don’t forget to tip. In the United States people are genuinely friendly and you’ll find that guides and waiters want to give you the best possible experience during your visit. Answering this kindness is considered a form of elementary politeness and reflects the work they did. Don’t forget to give at least 10% of your bill as a tip, even if you thought that the service wasn’t that good… Usually a tip of 15-25% is a respectful expression of appreciation.
- In the United States and especially in New Orleans, people will start talking to you spontaneously. Or they ask questions about you or they want to give you tips and compliments, even if they don’t know you. This is completely normal in American culture so don’t let this surprise you!
- Let things come to you in New Orleans. Around every corner you’ll find a nice bandstand or a fantastic eatery. The city is constantly changing so don’t limit yourself to an exact travel plan, because then you might miss the best foods, concerts or parties of your vacation!
- This unique metropolis has so much to offer and will soon conquer a place in your heart. Almost nowhere else in the United States you can find such diverse sights, and time seems to pass so quickly. Therefore also try to have sufficient time so you can fully enjoy NOLA.
Book tours or trips
Many must-see’s of New Orleans are just outside the city, so you have to take a tour or drive there on your own. Make sure you have already booked certain excursions during busy periods, because they sell out quickly. The ‘ghost’ and ‘voodoo’ tours are sold out incredibly quickly, for instance. Check out some tours online:
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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.