There’s so much more to the New Orleans than Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. The city dates back 300 years and has a history that combines groups of people from all over the world, including the Acadians, the French, Spanish, and Africans. This melting pot of cultures created the city’s unique dishes. Deeply affected by Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent oil spill, the “Big Easy” is back on the rise, racking up awards for its restaurants. Surrounded by the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf of Mexico, there’s no shortage of activities and exploration by land and water.
The vast majority of visitors to New Orleans never make it outside of the French Quarter, especially Bourbon Street. But there’s so much more to the city than the tourist district. Hop aboard a streetcar to see neighborhoods that are funky, stunning, and everything in between.
The French Quarter, however, is unavoidable, home to the most iconic spots like Jackson Square and Bourbon Street. There are, however, still some gems to discover like under-the-radar bookstores and art galleries.
Nearby is the Warehouse District where the National World War II Museum, Mardi Gras World, and Ogden Museum of Southern Art are located. Former warehouses have been transformed into chic restaurants.
The Garden District is easily the city’s most photogenic, cut by the St. Charles streetcar. Divided into upper and lower districts, it’s easy to get lost in the tree-lined streets. Browse the shops on Magazine Street and pop into one of the restaurants. This area is home to the grandest homes.
Locals skip Bourbon Street and instead go to Frenchmen Street in Faubourg-Marigny for live music and a fun night out. While most of the area is residential, you’ll find a few bars and restaurants. Across town in the Bywater, another neighborhood relatively unharmed during Katrina, are public parks and local restaurants. Don’t forget about the Mid-City and the area around Tulane University.
Restaurants and Cafes
You’ll be hard pressed to find a bad meal in New Orleans and locals will constantly be offering you suggestions. Keep in mind that the much-praised restaurants like Shaya will require advance reservations and French Quarter restaurants will cost more than ones in other neighborhoods. But you can easily stick to smaller places to save money, especially when it comes to cheap eats like po boys and gumbo.
Compère Lapin– Run by Top Chef alum Nina Compton this restaurant combines Caribbean and Southern influences. The menu is seafood heavy and they have a raw bar where you can watch chefs prepare your oysters. Don’t miss the craft cocktails, either.
New Orleans Cake Café & Bakery– Head to the Bywater for delicious sandwiches, pastries, and their legendary King Cake. They’re only open for breakfast and lunch so try the boudin and eggs, crab sandwich, and Costa Rica breakfast.
Johnny’s Po-Boys– Ask any local for their favorite po boy spot and each will have a different answer. But Johnny’s is in the French Quarter and sells a vast menu of sandwich fillings all day. The po boys are large, so save half for later or share with a friend.
St Roch Market– New Orleans has embraced the food hall trend with this stylish building from 1875 that has already won countless awards. Vendors include an oyster bar, coffee roaster, and even Asian street food.
Juans Flying Burrito – CBD– They have four locations, but the Magazine Street outpost has an airy backyard patio. The burritos in question are loosely based on the Mission style and come with steak, shredded pork, and jerk chicken.
Sucre– Indulge your sweet tooth here with quirky ice cream flavors, macarons, tarts, and cakes, which all look almost too good to eat. The key word being almost… They have three boutiques around town and a full-service restaurant.
Superior Seafood & Oyster Bar– Tourists line up for Acme Oyster House, but this Garden District eatery offers all of the same classic New Orleans dishes, including the barbecue shrimp, without the wait. The interior feels old school, so belly up to the bar.
Antoine’s Restaurant– New Orleans is home to dozens of old restaurants, but this one has hosted celebrities and dignitaries for over a century. Order the dishes that were invented here, like Oysters Rockefeller.
Café du Monde– It’s certainly a tourist hotspot, but locals also come to the 24 hour coffee stand for beignets and chicory. Skip the line for a table in favor of the to go window around back. That way, you can take them with you and enjoy as you overlook the river from a park bench.
This list barely scratches the surface of recommended restaurants. Others that are frequently recommended include Jacques-Imo’s, Commander’s Palace Restaurant, Sac-a-Lait, Peche, Coop’s Place, and Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. For even more, check out Eater’s Essential 38, which is updated quarterly.
Bars and Nightlife
It’s easy to get carried away by the raucous vibes of Bourbon Street, especially when you learn that you can take your drink to go on the street. Skip the overpriced and wasteful souvenir glasses in favor of historic bars and those offering live music. It gives you a better sense of the city and you might actually rub elbows with the people who call the place home.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop– Named for the pirate that roamed the state, Lafitte’s is one of the city’s oldest watering holes. Order the “purple drink,” but don’t ask what’s in it.
Carousel Bar– Hotel Monteleone’s revolving bar can be difficult to find a seat, but watching from a nearby table is almost as fun. Order the Sazerac, a local favorite.
Maple Leaf Bar– Carrolton’s favorite spot for live music is this hangout since 1974. Catch live jazz, poetry readings, and other performances. Their menu has local beer and cocktails.
The Spotted Cat Music Club– There are a few great jazz clubs on Frenchmen Street and The Spotted Cat is just one of them. There’s also no cover, but the bar only takes cash.
NOLA Brewing Tap Room– New Orleans doesn’t have many breweries, but NOLA is the original. Check out their lineup of beers inspired by the city like the French Vanilla Cold Brew Stout.
Avenue Pub– This 24-hour beer bar has an impeccable lineup of brews from around the world. They also have a menu of bar food, including vegan options.
The Country Club– Cool off with lunch and drinks at this local hangout. Pool access is available for $15. Come by for cocktails and happy hour or for Sunday brunch before a Saints game.
Bacchanal Wine– The wine shop turned restaurant and bar is legendary, with a Mediterranean menu and an extensive wine lineup.
There truly is a bar for everyone in New Orleans. Check out this guide on Thrillist to see the best ones in the city.
Things to Do
While there are some attractions in New Orleans, including an aquarium and zoo, the best thing to do is explore. But if you’re a culture maven, check out some of our favorite museums that give you a look into what the city is all about.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art– The artwork by artists connected to the South from colonial times to the present is on display at the Ogden. Visit during Ogden After Hours for live music and drinks.
Southern Food and Beverage Museum & Museum of the American Cocktail– Learn about the legacy of Southern cuisine state by state at this interactive museum. They have special exhibits on American cocktails and absinthe. You can even walk around with a cocktail from the adjoining restaurant.
Mardi Gras World– Even if you’re not visiting during the springtime, you can see the workshop where most of the large-scale floats are made. There’s a free shuttle from the French Quarter and countless photo ops.
Celebration Distillation: Old New Orleans Rum– Tour the rum distillery in the Ninth Ward that dates back to 1995. Many of their barrels survived Katrina. Sample their varieties that use Louisiana sugar cane.
The National World War II Museum– Give yourself at least three hours at this impressive museum, which covers the lead up to the second World War as well as the city’s role, in particular the use of the Higgins boat on the beaches of Normandy. The facility also has films and a restaurant.
Tours– There are plenty of operators that showcase the best of the city, whether you’re interested in voodoo, ghosts, history, and more. Viator has some of the best deals on tours. Save 20%! New Orleans Cemetery and Ghost Tour by Bus.
Pick up unique souvenirs for yourself around the city from the local boutiques, all selling the best items showcasing their city pride. But if you’re looking for retail giants, you’ll find them as well.
Fleurty Girl– My favorite place for unique souvenirs is this shop, which has locations throughout the state, including on Magazine Street and in the French Quarter. Your friends back home don’t need any more souvenir shot glasses, but they might like a NOLA Soy Candle!
Dirty Coast– Another favorite is this clever printing company that has shops in the French Quarter and Uptown. Their clothing focuses on different elements of life in the Big Easy.
Trashy Diva Clothing Boutique– Now with locations in other cities, this New Orleans original sells vintage-inspired clothing for curvy ladies, including dresses and lingerie.
Armoire Boutique– Another company that sells clothing for real women is this Magazine Street boutique. Shop here for affordable options for all body types.
Faulkner House Books– There’s nowhere better for browsing the aisles of books than this store that focuses on the works of William Faulkner. But you can also find titles from modern authors as well.
French Market- Yes, it’s a touristy area, but there are some local vendors at this iconic market. Stop by for the flea market for some unique finds.
Where to Stay
New Orleans is one of those Holy Grail destinations for travelers because you can stay in some stylish boutique hotels for far less than in other American cities. Splurge on a place to stay or opt for one of the lesser known neighborhoods for a local experience. Note that these are only a few of the many, many great options.
*Pontchartrain Hotel*– My current favorite is this budget-friendly but impeccably stylish Garden District hotel. Check out their incredible Caribbean Room restaurant, pictured above, and the Hot Tin rooftop bar.
Bourbon Orleans Hotel– Part of the New Orleans Hotel Collection, this property is in the heart of the French Quarter and has a garden pool and balconies overlooking Bourbon Street.
Ace Hotel New Orleans– The city’s trendiest outpost of the well-known chain has a rooftop bar, multiple bars and restaurants, and the stylish rooms you’ve come to expect.
The Quisby– Hostels aren’t for everyone, but this one almost makes you forget that you’re sleeping in bunk beds. They have both private rooms and dorms and are right next to the streetcar line.
The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery– Set in the CBD, you could easily keep yourself entertained without leaving the hotel, thanks to its bars and restaurants and free Wifi. They’re pet-friendly and surrounded by art galleries!
Airbnb– I stayed in a rental on one of my previous visits and loved the local aspect of my stay. A friend and I stayed in a shotgun home in Marigny with a pedicab driver who told us about her favorite spots. Get a discount on your first stay with the above link! There are also some nearby campgrounds if you’re traveling with an RV or tent.
New Orleans is an extremely walkable city so you likely won’t need a car at unless you’re venturing out further in Louisiana. NO Airport Terminal Departures is around 30 minutes away from the city and services hundreds of domestic and international destinations. Both buses and Amtrak trains now arrive at the Union Passenger Terminal in the heart of the city and offer an affordable way to get there.
Once you’re there, use your own two feet to get around or rent a bike from one of the bike shops downtown. Alternatively, catch the buses and streetcars that wind their way through town. I also took Lyft while I was there to get between places at night or early in the morning. Get a discount on your first ride by using the code “CAROLINE868074”.
Keep in mind that you shouldn’t walk alone at night, so opt for a cab or rideshare. In the off chance that you find yourself having a bit too much fun in the Big Easy, Travel Insurance is a wise purchase. I recommend World Nomads.