Ask five different people what’s best about visiting New Orleans and you’re likely to get five different answers. With music, food, and a variety of entertainment venues, this small city, with less than half a million residents, offers something special for everyone.
The first thing associated with New Orleans is music. This is the birthplace of more than just jazz. The roots of many different musical styles grow right from its heart. New Orleans gave the world Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Louis Prima, Wynton Marsalis, Aaron Neville, Harry Connick jr, Big Freedia and many more. The city also offers many different ways to listen. There are big arenas like the Superdome and famous venues like Tippitina’s and the original House of Blues. There are also over 75 music clubs, lots of outdoor concerts (many of which are free), and buskers all over downtown making their living one listener at a time.
The second thing people think of is food. Many critics say New Orleans has the best food in the world. There are restaurants to fit a variety of tastes, budgets and schedules. The local cuisine is creole or Cajun but restaurateurs from all over the world have begun businesses here, with good reason. New Orleanians live to eat. One of the most common conversations overheard at restaurants is where to eat next. Join in those discussions and you will be gladly offered tips on finding the best meals of your life. Don’t do this if you’re in a hurry because New Orleanians love to share their city. You will leave with a list of places to go as well as possibly witness a lively discourse of things like “Whose gumbo is best?” and “Where do you get the best oysters?”
There is more to do in New Orleans than eat and listen to music, though that does cover much of a typical New Orleanian’s life. New Orleans is home to many family attractions. The Audubon Zoo has 2,000 animals which are often snubbed for the included water park, carousel, and ropes course. The Aquarium of the Americas is home to 530 different aquatic species as well as penguins, otters, and parakeets you can feed by hand. At the Insectarium the brave can sample chocolate chirp cricket cookies and meal worm egg rolls. There are also the Children’s Museum, riverboat cruises and enough festivals year round to keep any child entertained.
History buffs will love the World War II Museum which can keep a person occupied for days. When you’re done there visit the Civil War Museum right across the street or the Historic New Orleans Collection to get a glimpse of life in the past. Nearby Chalmette Battlefield has regular reenactments from the War of 1812. Other popular sites are the U S Mint, Preservation Hall, as well as lots of plantations just an hour’s drive away.
If you love the outdoors New Orleans features two beautiful parks. City Park is, at 1300 acres, one of the largest urban parks in America. More centrally located is the smaller Audubon Park. Between them you can find tennis courts, horseback riding, golf courses, canoes and paddle boats for rent, and jogging trails taking you past ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.
If shopping is what you are after, you can find it here. Downtown hosts many upscale shops, but spend time poking through the smaller places. There are tons of antique shops, the French Quarter flea market on weekends, and regularly scheduled farmer’s markets all around the city. Sample the fresh produce and then take with you locally sourced preserves, hot sauces and spices to make the folks at home jealous.
New Orleans has been called the City That Care Forgot. The people here often adopt a carefree attitude that can turn even the toughest times into happy days. When you visit New Orleans, be prepared to leave your cares behind and, as the Cajuns say, “laissez les bon temps rouler.” Let the good times roll.
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Be aware when planning your trip that many New Orleans businesses close on Mondays. If there is a place you particularly want to visit make sure you check when they are open.
Carnival is the most popular time of year to visit New Orleans. Mardi Gras day usually occurs sometime in February but it has been as late as March 9. (It moves around. Keeps you on your toes.) Carnival season officially begins on January 6 (Twelfth Night) but the main parades start about two weeks before Mardi Gras day. Some people think carnival time is primarily for grown ups. Not true. Children look forward all year to their favorite parades. School classes have king cake parties. The whole city becomes a festival ground for people of all ages.
Christmas is a great time of year to come, particularly if you live in the North. Flowers grow year round in this Caribbean outpost. Many holiday seasons have found locals wearing T shirts and sandals, but check the weather before you go. There is the occasional freeze, and it has even snowed a handful of times in the last century. New Orleans will add a festive spin to your holiday. Restaurants hold special reveillon dinners, lavish meals with many decadent courses. City Park is decked out in lights and hosts Papa Noel. There are bon fires along the levee and caroling in the French Quarter, and enough events to keep the children busy while they await Santa.
New Orleans hosts festivals year round, but peak festival season is April and May. During that time locals have their hands full, with calendars marked with overlapping entries. New Orleanians will use any excuse for a party. There are festivals celebrating types of music, food, neighborhoods, and even religious festivals. This city loves to have a good time, and loves even more to share that good time with others.
If you can’t take the heat stay out of New Orleans in the summer. Then again this can be a good time to avoid crowds. Restaurants and hotels are also more likely to offer discounts to draw people in during their slow period. Just be sure to carry water, wear sunscreen, and layer clothing. People overcompensate with air conditioning and it can be jarring to enter a 70 degree building on a 95 degree day.
The amount of time you should give yourself for your New Orleans vacation depends largely on when you come and what you want to do.
If you’re here for Mardi Gras remember there are more parades than you can possibly attend. During the week leading up to Mardi Gras day there are 21 parades inside the city. If you include the nearby suburbs that number increases to 34, and that doesn’t include the many marching clubs and second lines that tend to spring up everywhere. There is always something to do during carnival season. If you aren’t happy to go home at midnight on Mardi Gras day (when the city attempts to clear the streets in the French Quarter) then you did it wrong. Try not to cram everything into a weekend. To see carnival in New Orleans you need at least 4 or 5 days.
Otherwise you could spend a lifetime exploring this city. There are 1550 restaurants in the Greater New Orleans area and every one of them has its share of fans. There are at least a dozen concerts going on around the city on any given week. Add to that the many local attractions and an hour or two to sleep and you should plan on spending at least a week.
Visitors tend to come to New Orleans more often in the winter and early spring. This is the perfect place for snow birds to come to escape the cold as the weather rarely reaches below freezing. Things start heating up around May and it doesn’t reliably cool down until October or November. Add to this occasional days of 90 to 100% humidity and outsiders can get a bit uncomfortable. However, some of the best festivals and concerts occur during the summer, when locals are still likely to venture out for a good time.
The New Orleans climate is subtropical. Average temperatures in the winter range in the 60’s or 70’s (Fahrenheit.) Spring and fall temperatures tend to be 70’s or 80’s. Summer can see many 90 degree plus days and the humidity tends to be around 80% but can reach 100% at times. On particularly hot, humid days you may feel as if you are swimming instead of walking.
New Orleanians are known for taking any excuse for a party.
Upcoming events include:
On July 3rd there is a warm up show at City Park with a Marine Corps Band and a smaller fire works display. The event is free but bring money for concessions. There’s no seating so a blanket or a few folding chairs is a good idea, as well as bug spray and plenty to drink. People start gathering early so get there early for a good spot. Music starts at 7 p.m. and the fireworks are at 9 p.m.
On Independence Day there are fireworks displays in at least three different venues surrounding the city, with a big show on the Mississippi River. Dueling Barges shoot fireworks to the tune of patriotic music. There are lots of different places you can watch but the best free one is at Woldenburg Park. For a little money you can secure a place on the Riverboat Natchez and watch in style.
The weekend before Labor Day is the Southern Decadence festival. This is not for the faint of heart and not family friendly. Southern Decadence is a LGBTQ event that takes place primarily in the French Quarter. A lot of the festivities take place out of doors/in public. Plan your trip depending on whether this is something you want to see.
Labor Day is always the first Monday of the month. It is a day meant to commemorate the Labor Movement in America. There are not many big celebrations. August and September tends to be when the heat becomes the most oppressive. Be aware that many stores will be closed. This is a good day for a picnic.
Columbus Day is always the second Monday in October. This may be the only holiday that is not celebrated in New Orleans. Public offices will be closed but unless you go to the bank you may never know it happened.
Halloween is big in New Orleans, and not just for children.
The Voodoo Music and Arts Experience takes place the weekend before. This is a music festival that is a little expensive for local standards but has lots of famous bands and is popular with young adults.
Also leading up to Halloween Night are Boo at the Zoo and Ghosts in the Oaks. Both are paid events where children can trick or treat, listen to music, and play games. And a parade called the Krewe of Boo rolls through the French Quarter the Saturday before Halloween. There are also many haunted houses in New Orleans. Some are scarier than others and you should always call ahead to see if they are appropriate for your little ghoul.
Most neighborhoods in New Orleans have trick or treating. If you are staying in a rental on Halloween night make sure you either have candy or turn the porch light off. For grown ups there are lots of activities downtown. Some adults work all year on their Halloween ensemble, and you won’t see many of them wearing something purchased off the rack.
Thanksgiving is always the fourth Thursday in November. New Orleanians love to cook almost as much as they love to eat. Many restaurants will have special menus available. Some will close to feed their own loved ones so call ahead.
Christmas is a great time to visit New Orleans. The weather tends to be mild in comparison to most areas of the country. Restaurants hold special reveillon dinners that will stuff you like a Christmas turkey. There are bon fires on the levee and light displays around the city. There are also little festivals around the city as well as free caroling events.
Instead of a glass ball, New Orleans has Baby New Year drop from its perch at midnight. The event takes place at the old Jax Brewery in the French Quarter.
Mardi Gras moves around each year based on the phases of the moon. It can be anytime between February 3rd and March 9th. This year it falls early and therefore has a possibility to be chilly. The official start date of Carnival Season is always January 6th or “Twelfth Night.” There are scattered smaller parades throughout the following month. Bigger parades will begin February 2nd and the main parades will be February 7th to February 13th.
Valentine’s Day can be very different in New Orleans depending on Mardi Gras. This year it falls on Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras) so it may be somewhat quieter. Many restaurants have great Valentine’s menus so make reservations early.
New Orleans is a Catholic town so Easter can be a big deal. During the weeks leading up to Easter there are several egg hunts in the city. On Easter weekend there are many church services every day, restaurants with fabulous Easter brunches, and two different parades downtown.
Mother’s Day is always the second Sunday in May. This is one of the biggest restaurant days of the year so make reservations ahead of time. A better idea might be to pick up a picnic lunch and enjoy it in one of the many parks.
Memorial Day is always the last Monday in May. On Memorial Day weekend the festival season is warming up. There is lots to do around the city including Greek Fest and the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience.
Father’s Day is always held the third Sunday in June. Restaurants are not as crowded as on Mother’s Day but it still is a good idea to make reservations.
New Orleans is a very casual city. Most restaurants do not have a dress code and you are welcome to wear whatever is most comfortable. Assume you will be doing a lot of walking (and dancing). Comfortable shoes are a must. Bring clothes that breath well, preferably with pockets. Purses can be annoying when you are hitting the clubs at 1 in the morning. You will also want clothing that layers. New Orleanians are fond of their air conditioning and you will find yourself going from 90 degrees outside to a brisk 70 degrees inside. Likewise in the winter locals can overdo things with the heat and you will find yourself wanting to shed that heavy sweater or jacket.
Most places take credit cards. Even small vendors will often have a smart phone or tablet set up for this purpose. Try, however, to carry a few singles to drop in the hat of a street musician or give to the gentleman who parks your car.
It is wise to carry a water bottle during the day. The heat can catch up with you and it is not uncommon to see people carried out of festivals suffering from heat stroke. A handkerchief can also come in handy to wipe a sweaty brow or dust off a park bench for a well deserved rest. You can also use it if you come upon a second line.
New Orleans public transit is not as advanced or comprehensive as some cities. Building a city below sea level (some of which covers former swamp land) means no subways. There are currently three streetcar lines. You should plan on taking a streetcar ride during your trip if only for the novelty. There are also 30 different bus routes and if you want you can navigate them here:
Fares for streetcars and buses is $1.25.
Even if you plan on using public transportation you should expect to supplement with taxis and/or lyft or Uber. You can’t hail a cab in New Orleans. Taxis can be found at designated cab stands or you can request one by phone or by app.
Some hotels have shuttles that come from the airport. There is unfortunately no public transportation from the Louis Armstrong International. If your hotel doesn’t provide a bus, plan on taking a taxi or renting a car.
Driving is much easier in New Orleans than many cities. Parking is ample and traffic isn’t as bad as many metropolitan areas. Use GPS as many neighborhoods are not good at replacing street signs. Also smaller streets tend to twist around a lot, following the curve of the Mississippi river even miles away from it. Also watch for potholes. This is a city that is constantly sinking and the streets reflect that. Last be sure to follow all parking regulations, pay the meters, and watch for traffic cameras. Those tickets can add up.
Go ahead and load these up for a perfect soundtrack for your trip to New Orleans!
Bourbon Street Parade – Harry Connick, jr
Walking to New Orleans – Fats Domino
Way Down Yonder in New Orleans – Freddy Cannon
New Orleans Ladies – Louisiana Le Roux
When The Saints Go Marching In – Louis Armstrong
Johnny B. Goode – Chuck Berry
Baby, Please Don’t Go – Big Joe Williams
They All Asked For You – The Meters
Iko Iko – The Dixie Cups
Do Whatcha Wanna – The Rebirth Brass Band
Mr Bojangles – Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
The House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
Born on the Bayou – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Down in New Orleans – Dr John
Treme Song – John Boutte
Jock – A – Mo – Sugar Boy Crawford
Down at the Twist and Shout – Mary Chapin Carpenter
Finish up with Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans by Louis Armstrong because you will.
There are no Mardi Gras songs in this list because Carnival music is as seasonal as Christmas carols. Here is a separate list for your Mardi Gras visit:
Go to the Mardi Gras – Professor Longhair
Carnival Time – Al Johnson
Mardi Gras Mambo – The Meters
All On a Mardi Gras Day – The Wild Magnolias
Take Me To The Mardi Gras – Paul Simon
Big Chief – Professor Longhair
Indian Red – Danny Barker
Meet the Boys – The Wild Tchoupitoulas
Let’s Go Get ‘Em – Bo Dollis