More insider guides for planning a trip to New Orleans
New Orleans is an experience-driven city with plenty of amazing things to do, and its reputation for celebrations is well founded – the annual rowdy observance of Mardi Gras being the most famous example. History and tradition are held in equally high reverence, though, and there’s an entire industry of tours that can connect you to the city’s fascinating past. Culture and art are always a bubbling undercurrent, and the city’s museums pay testament to the talent here. It’s also a city that’s well aware of its relationship to nature, the Mississippi River and its parks there as a tranquil escape from the clamour.
Central Business District/Downtown
Explore the history of the Second World War
The National World War II Museum succeeds in a challenging task – that of contextualising a huge historical event. Themed wings (eg. The Home Front, The Pacific and European Theatres, etc) utilise multimedia exhibits to give overall pictures as well as intimate minutiae, from interactive maps to oral histories from people that lived through it. It’s impressive in both its ambition and execution.
Insider tip: The cinematic presentation ‘Beyond All Boundaries’ airs hourly from 10am until close. It’s a truly awe-inspiring production illustrating the United States’ involvement in the war and narrated by Tom Hanks. Buy tickets early as peak shows are very popular.
Contact: 00 1 504 528 1944; nationalww2museum.org
Opening times: Daily, 9am-5pm
See world-class jazz up close
Inside a scruffy-looking building on St Peter Street in the French Quarter lies the spiritual home of traditional New Orleans Jazz. Preservation Hall lives up to its name in preserving the city’s musical legacy. Five times a day, they play to the 100 or so people that can cram inside, and it’s a magical, intimate experience.
Insider tip: You can’t buy advance tickets, so line up at least thirty minutes before each show. Thanks to New Orleans’ lax drinking laws, you can do this with a cocktail bought from any nearby bar.
Opening times: Daily; shows at 5pm, 6pm, 8pm, 9pm and 10pm
Meet the Mississippi on a steamboat cruise
The image of the old-fashioned steamboat is indelibly intertwined with New Orleans, and the Mississippi river influences everything from the city’s commerce to its irregular shape. Steamboats these days are only used for scenic cruises – try Steamboat Natchez – but it’s still a thrill to board and slowly paddle down the river to the sound of the steam calliope organ.
Insider tip:Be sure to move around the boat if you take a cruise. There are some of the best views of the city skyline looking back as you move away from the port, but inside, there’s also a fascinating museum that explains the significance of the boats.
Opening times: Various
Lose yourself in beauty
The alabaster walls and Greco-Roman columns that appear as you make the approach through City Park hint at the grandeur to come. There are some 40,000 artworks in the New Orleans Museum of Art's collection, including French and American art, African and Japanese works, photography and a striking glasswork exhibit. Works by Degas, Monet, Renoir and Picasso elevate this to a nationally important fine art museum.
Insider tip: Wednesdays are free entry days for Louisiana residents and a guest, so make friends with a cultured local. Your visit should also leave time to explore the museum’s extensive sculpture garden.
Contact: 00 1 504 568 4100; noma.org
Opening times: Tues-Fri, 10am-6pm; Sat, 10am-5pm; Sun, 11am-5pm; closed Mondays
Bask in greenery
City Park shares a designer with New York’s Central Park and is half as big again. Simple walks through the Couterie Forest, with its eight distinct ecosystems, are a bucolic delight, and there are huge lawns to stretch out and picnic on. Find shade under one of the ancient live oak trees or if you’re feeling energetic, there’s golf and kayaking.
Insider tip: Children will love the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, with its retro fairground rides, or Storyland, where their favourite fairy tales come to life thanks to life-size storybook sculptures.
Indulge your inner fan at a music festival
New Orleans may be famous for introducing jazz to the world, but there’s much more to the city’s musical life these days. Two huge music festivals take place every year – Jazz Fest in the spring and Voodoo Fest in the autumn. Globally famous acts take to the stages and hundreds of thousands of music lovers converge to pay homage.
Insider tip: Watch the local listings around the time of these music festivals as many bands play local shows away from the festival stages too. If you’re extra lucky, a famous musician will drop in unannounced to a local show, so it’s worth hanging around Frenchmen Street.
Experience music differently
What looks like a post-apocalyptic wooden fortress on the outskirts of the Bywater in fact houses a village of small houses: the Music Box Village. Built into each one are various ingenious ways to make music, with hidden percussion instruments, bells or electronic devices. Children can run around freely and there’s a definite playground element to the design, and of course everyone is encouraged to make as much noise as possible.
Insider tip: The Village also hosts regular evening concerts. These tend to be one-off experiences as bands and artists use the various on-site instruments to augment or tweak their sound, so even familiar performers will likely end up presenting something unique.
Opening times: Sat-Sun, 10am-7pm; for concerts check the website
Join the world’s biggest free party
Taking place in either February or March depending on the calendar, Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, is an explosion of parades, colour, music and over-indulgence that has become world famous. People costume and party across the entire city in a decadent celebration of the city’s many cultures, and anyone in the party spirit is welcome to join in.
Insider tip: The schedule of the larger parades can start up to four weeks before Mardi Gras Day, and many of them have specific themes (satire, costumed dogs, etc), so check the Mardi Gras parade schedule to see which ones most appeal.
Commune with the dead on a cemetery tour
The city has a special relationship with death – see its tradition of quasi-celebratory jazz funerals. Its cemeteries are suitably noteworthy, with above-ground marble tombs due to the water levels in the soil. These chambers can be elaborate, especially those of rich families, and with many historical figures buried across the city’s cemeteries, most of them are well worth touring.
Insider tip: Due to vandalism, the bigger cemeteries (such as St Louis Cemetery No. 1) no longer allow self-guided tours, but there are plenty of tour companies that have entertaining and competent guides, such as French Quarter Phantoms, to show you the must-see tombs. Ask to see actor Nicholas Cage’s future tomb – a huge pyramid in St Louis No. 1.
Dance to brass bands and catch a Second Line
New Orleans is a city of parades, one of the most prevalent being the Second Line, a brass band parade that’s typically a celebration of a local benevolent society. The band being the first line, the second line is revellers dancing behind them, twirling parasols or handkerchiefs. The society members usually wear brightly coloured suits or dresses, and the parades are joyous, exuberant affairs.
Insider tip: Although many second lines are public, they are celebrations by specific societies, mostly born of Africa-American communities. It’s perfectly fine to watch and dance on the sidelines, but don’t insert yourself into the parades unless invited.