New Orleans Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

One of the most eclectic cities in the United States of America, New Orleans attracts tourists from all over the world with its charming atmosphere, delicious cuisine and amazing music and festivals. Referred to one of the most unique cities in America, New Orleans is a melting pot for a number of cultural influences, including French, Spanish, Caribbean and Creole.
New Orleans Travel Guide
Table of Contents

With almost 400.000 inhabitants, New Orleans goes by many names including the popular nicknames Crescent City and the Big Easy.

The heart and soul of the city resides in the French Quarter where some of the most of the important touristic landmarks are in walking distance. Discover the amazing atmosphere of the Crescent City on Bourbon Street, where the party never ends and some of the most legendary jazz clubs welcome its patron with amazing music.

New Orleans is also worldwide famous for its eclectic cuisine. If you must choose one thing to try out while in New Orleans, then it should definitely be the delicious mouthwatering beignets. However, taking into account the plethora of amazing award winning restaurants spread throughout the city it will be difficult to just choose one dish.

The city also has some of the most exquisite architecture examples from the Colonial era. Most streets in the French Quarter are lined with historical houses, many of them turned into museums. Strolls through avenues like Bourbon Street, Royal Street and St. Charles Avenue are the best pass time and the best way to see every one of these beautiful buildings. Look for the iconic intricate cast iron balconies which have become a staple of the French Quarter.

Though the best way to explore the city is by foot, the streetcar is a great way to see New Orleans in a new and unique way. The most popular line is the one that goes along St Charles Avenue. The beautiful mansions, the ample parks and the pristine campuses of Loyola and Tulane Universities are best seen from these vintage streetcars.

Those in search of a quieter time can spend a day in City Park an enormous public park with several playgrounds, a botanical garden, an amusement park and even an art museum.

It is almost a rule that those who chose to visit New Orleans should definitely attend at least one jazz concert. The birthplace of this music genre, New Orleans has many music venues, but the most important ones are in the appropriately named Louis Armstrong Park. Here, Congo Square is a great place to rest and take in the vibe of Treme neighborhood. However, jazz fans are required to pay a visit to Preservation Hall, one of the most important landmarks in jazz history. Here visitors can either listen to performances or explore the vast and endlessly interesting archive.

New Orleans has a great fascination with the dead and voodoo practices. If you are in search of a different kind of touristic experience, then you should definitely take a tour of New Orleans’ over 40 cemeteries. Don’t miss the tomb of Marie Laveau, the infamous voodoo queen of New Orleans. If you believe in witchcraft and sorcery then leave some hoodoo money and maybe Marie Laveau will grant you a wish.

On the other hand, those who always wished to go on a safari won’t need the help of the Voodoo Queen. They can just take a trip to the Audubon Zoo and enjoy an amazing experience in the high tech Safari Simulator Ride. Or, if you want a more real life experience, the zoo houses over 2,000 animals, many from endangered or rare species, including white alligators with blue eyes.

All in all, New Orleans is an amazing travel destination for those who want to spend their vacation in one of the most eclectic and colorful cities in the world. The mix of cultural influences, combined with great architecture, amazing cuisine and welcoming locals is a sure recipe for a perfect vacation. And, if you happen to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras prepare yourself to experience an incredible facet of this already amazing city.

1. The French Quarter

The French Quarter is not only one of the most popular districts in the United States but it is also the heart and soul of New Orleans. This is the oldest place in the city and it’s known for its beautiful buildings, some of them 300 years old.

Here tourists will find the best coffee houses, restaurants and jazz clubs in the city. Though the district is animated every moment of the day and night, the beast way to experience the New Orleans atmosphere is in the evening, when people stroll the streets, the live jazz bands can be heard from outside, and every single corner of the French Quarter is invaded with delicious smells.

Also known by the locals as “Vieux Care”, this district stretches along the Mississippi River and it is 13 blocks long. Though it may seem large, the neighborhood is easy to explore on foot. It won’t even seem that large with all the souvenir shops and galleries that must be visited. There are so many things to do and see here, that you may risk spending your entire vacation in the French Quarter, between Esplanade Avenue and Canal Street.

Most buildings here have a unique design with iron latticework balconies, red tile roofs and gorgeous courtyards. Though every single one of these buildings is beautiful there are some that should not be missed. Beauregard-Keyes House, on Chartres Street, is an impressive museum and historical building dating back to 1826. Though the house was built for wealthy business man Joseph LeCarpentier, the building had several inhabitants throughout the centuries, including General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a confederate who ordered the first shots of the Civil War in South Carolina, and famous author Frances Parkinson Keyes. Thus the house was named after its two most famous inhabitants. Today, the building is a museum featuring more than 200 antique dolls and dozens of tea pots which used to belong to Frances Keyes, but the most interesting part is the house itself. This great architecture example boasts large staircases and a Tuscan portico, while the garden is a great place to spend a few moments away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the French Quarter.

Another great landmark is the Hermann-Grima House, a historic mansion built in 1831 as a Federal building. This is thought to be one of the first examples of American architecture. The mansion reflects the “Golden Age” of the city with elegant furniture and decorations popular among the wealthy Creole families during the 19th century.

The Old Ursuline Convent on Chartres Street is one of the oldest edifices in on the Mississippi River Valley and a great place to explore, at the edge of the French Quarter. Built during the middle of the 18th century, today the convent houses dozens of art works and, most importantly, the Archdiocesan archives. The interior garden is an amazing place for rest, prayer and reflection. Though the building always belonged to Ursuline nuns, throughout history, it was also an orphanage, a hospital and a residence for local bishops.

However, if you want to experience the true New Orleans flavor then you must pay a visit to the French Market. Spanning over 6 blocks in the French Quarter this is a melting pot for every single culture that has brought its influence on the streets of New Orleans. Though the rest of the Quarter boasts lavish restaurants this is the place where visitors can experience the real New Orleans cuisine. No matter what type of food you enjoy, one thing is a must here – the beignets, a delicious type of tiny doughnuts that are very popular among the locals. You should also make a point of trying a few Creole dishes and sweets, including freshly made pralines.

The French Market is the oldest opened air market in the United States. Dating back to before the European colonization, this spot was a trading hub for coffee, herbs and spices. Some say this is where the New Orleans’ culture was actually borne, thanks to the many immigrants who arrived here from all over the world. Tourists interested in high end shopping can rest assure that the French Quarter is chock full with shops, boutiques and other stores.

If that is still not enough excitement for you, then you should go on a tour of the Voodoo Houses of New Orleans, most of which are right here in the French Quarter. Whether you are a believer in black magic or not, a trip through these astonishing and a little terrifying places will likely entice your taste for the occult.

2. City Park

Covering over 1,300 acres of land, City Park is a true oasis, right in the heart of New Orleans. Boasting numerous attractions, including a Botanical Garden, a Carrousel Garden and even a Sculpture Garden, this exhilarating green space can keep a visitor busy for days.

Though it might seem small because of the large number of attractions spread throughout the area, City Park is actually a lot larger than Central Park in New York City. This park is also famous because it is one of the oldest ones in the United States, having been founded in 1853, but also because it houses the largest collection of mature oak trees, some of which are more than 600 years old.

The New Orleans Botanical Garden is one of the most popular highlights in City Park, in particular the Pavilion of the Two Sisters. This 12 acres garden houses over 2,000 plant species from around the world, including ornamental trees, roses, bamboos, palm trees, fragrant herbs and numerous native plants. The garden is divided into several themed areas, and arguably the most beautiful one is the Pavilion of the Two Sisters, right at the entrance of the garden. Here along the sides of a small area covered in grass, there are rows of plants with colorful flowers hanging from the branches making it a fairy tale like place.

If you love roses, then you mustn’t miss Lord & Taylor Rose Garden, covered in thousands of beautiful flowers including tea roses, many of them dating back to the 19th century. Another breathtaking spot in the Botanical Garden is the butterfly walk – a small garden house where flowering plants attract thousands of colorful butterflies.

Another interesting highlight in City Park is the New Orleans Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden. Perfect for art lovers, this museum is a true gem hidden in this the middle of this impressive park. This is New Orleans’ oldest museum and it features over 40,000 artefacts including American, French and Japanese art. Opened in 1911, the beautiful Beaux Arts-style building was a gift to the people of New Orleans from wealthy sugar broker Isaac Delgado. He was also the one who started this impressive collection, donating an extensive art collection to the museum, after his death.

Around the Museum of Art, a 5 acre gated garden houses over 60 sculptures spread among lagoons, bridges and beautiful walking trails lined with oaks, camellias and magnolias.

Families traveling with children should not miss the opportunity to spend some time at the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park. Here children will have their own fun at one of the sixteen attractions, including a large Ferris wheel, an antique carousel, a miniature train and a 40-foot fun slide.

3. Bourbon Street

The most famous street in the South is, without a doubt, Bourbon Street, in New Orleans. A 13 block avenue which extends from Esplanade Avenue to Canal Street in the French Quarter, this spot should be on the top of any must see list. Its name pays homage to a famous French ruling family, the House of Bourbon.

A stroll on the colorful Bourbon Street will instantly give you a sneak peek into the eclectic culture of New Orleans. Though it is mostly famous for its bars and burlesque clubs, Bourbon Street is lined with some of the best and oldest jazz clubs and traditional restaurants. The colorful facades are even brighter at night when thousands of lights illuminate the busy street. This is the most touristic spot in the entire New Orleans and for good reason. There are endless entertainment opportunities here, and joy riders have all night to experiment and explore this street from one end to another.

Just like most streets in the French Quarter, the beautiful buildings with intricate balconies and lush courtyards on Bourbon Street are a delight to explore during day time. Here are some of the oldest edifices in the entire city, since Bourbon Street dates back to the beginning of the 18th century, when New Orleans was founded by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville.

Almost every establishment on Bourbon Street has an interesting if not long history. The Old Absinthe House is a two centuries old bar where tourists and locals alike love to spend their time indulging in their favorite beverages and taking in the intoxicating atmosphere outside. This cooper toped wooden building used to be a saloon famous for a popular absinth based cocktail which was created here by a famous mixologist. Though absinth is an illegal substance in the United States, patrons can still order this drink, but the absinth has been replaced with Herbsaint.

One of the most luxurious hotels in Crescent City is also located on Bourbon Street. The Royal Sonesta Hotel was inaugurated in the 60’s, and it boasts a unique architectural style – the building looks like a row of 19th century houses rather than a 20th century hotel.

Another popular place among partygoers is also one of the oldest bars in the United States. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar was built in the early 18th century and it has been a staple of New Orleans ever since. Nowadays, the bar’s walls are covered in photos and artifacts showcasing the long and tumultuous history of this establishment.

Though there are famous bars on Bourbon Street, there is only one famous restaurant – Galatoire’s Restaurant. Founded at the beginning of the 20th century, this is also one of the oldest eatery in the city, and it is still run by the same family who first opened it – the Galatoires. The restaurant specializes in traditional French Creole cuisine, and its dishes are beloved by locals and sought after by tourists. If you are in the mood for some authentic Creole cuisine, this is the best spot for a delicious lunch. Make sure you try the oysters en brochette, Galatoire goute, duck and andouille gumbo or the shrimp remoulade.

The most important event of the year in New Orleans also takes place in the French Quarter. Crescent City’s favorite holiday is Mardi Gras, when large crowds of people swarm the streets of the Quarter celebrating this colorful holiday with floats and lively parades.

4. Jackson Square

Among the beautiful houses in the French Quarter, St. Louis Cathedral is a very distinctive building. Located in Jackson Square, right next to the equestrian statue of President Andrew Jackson, this is one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States and a symbol of New Orleans. The entire square was designed to mimic the popular Place des Vosges in Paris, and today it has become a popular place for tourists to spend some quiet time right in the heart of the bustling Quarter.

Originally known as Place d’Armes, Jackson Square is a beautiful plaza, the size of a city block, surrounded by old trees, and some of the most important buildings in New Orleans. Though the square is usually populated by street performers, this is also a popular concert venue in the evenings. During the day stylish cafés serve delicious beignets and chicory coffee to tired tourists in search for a quiet place to take a breath.

Jackson Square has been a cultural hub for centuries and because of that, the plaza is also a melting pot for different cultures and traditions, including such practices as tarot reading and palm reading.

The most distinguishing building in the square is, without a doubt, St. Louis Cathedral. Boasting an interesting mix of Spanish Colonial and Renaissance styles, this cathedral is also the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans. The church is opened for visitors after the morning mass and many tourists love to explore its beautiful interior, particularly since this cathedral is thought to be haunted. Legend says it is haunted by the ghost of Père Antoine, a former priest of the cathedral, who was buried on the grounds of the church.

Another popular landmark near Jackson Square is The Cabildo, which also happens to be one of the most important buildings in the country. The house was finished in 1799 and, at the beginning, it served as the seat of government of New Orleans. One of the rooms here, the Sala Capitular, is the place where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803. Since then The Cabildo was home to several institutions, including the Louisiana Supreme Court, until it was turned into a museum. Today visitors can peruse over 1,000 artifacts and art works and learn more about New Orleans’s incredible history.

Right next to Jackson Square, the 1850 House is one of the oldest apartment buildings in the United States. Built in 1850, by the daughter of a wealthy Spanish colonial landowner, this house, which was turned into a museum, depicts the life of a middle-class family during the Golden Age of New Orleans.

Opposite the St. Louis Cathedral, there is one of the most interesting museums in New Orleans – The Presbytere. Built around the same time as St. Louis Cathedral and the Cabildo, this building also has a very interesting history. Originally built on the site of the residence of Capuchin monks, also known as the presbytere, hence the name, this building had several purposes, including a commercial one. Today the Presbytere houses an eclectic collection dedicated to Mardi Gras, including a high tech exhibit which showcases the history of this magnificent celebration.

5. St. Charles Avenue

One of the most interesting ways to explore New Orleans is by taking the charming St. Charles Streetcar line, which runs alongside the avenue with the same name. This historic streetcar line is the busiest one in the city not only because of the large number of commuter but also because of the numerous tourists who love do experience the city in a unique new way.

The streetcar line runs from Canal Street to South Claiborne Avenue and operates 24-hours a day, every six minutes during the day and up to every half an hour during the night.

The grand opening of this streetcar line took place in 1835, with two locomotives, New Orleans and Carrollton. As the area alongside this line became more developed, the locomotives were replaced by cars, so that they wouldn’t affect the population living nearby. By 1893, the line was electrified and nowadays it is one of the most popular streetcar lines in the country. What is more, at the moment there is still one Ford, Bacon & Davis 1894 vintage car running on this line, while the rest of the cars date back from the early 20’s.

St Charles Avenue is also a great place to explore by foot. Though there aren’t many important touristic attractions, along the way, some of the most luxurious mansions line this beautiful avenue. Make sure you stop once in a while to admire the beautiful examples of Greek revival and Colonial designs.

The avenue passes through not only the French Quarter but through the Garden District, Downtown and the Arts District as well. Walk under centuries old oak trees with their branches intertwined creating a beautiful green canopy, while you admire the plethora of churches, art galleries and churches.

Don’t forget to make a stop at the lush Audubon Park and cool off in the shade. Across the street, two of the most famous universities in the South, Tulane and Loyola University are a great place to spend an after-noon. Their ginormous campuses are right next to each other and the eclectic mix of architecture attracts not only excited students, but also curious tourists in search for new attractions in the Crescent City.

6. New Orleans’ Cemeteries

In the city famous for voodoo practices, witchcraft and the occult, it’s no wonder that one of the most intriguing touristic attractions in New Orleans happens to be centuries old cemeteries spread throughout the city. Also known as the cities of the dead, there are over 40 cemeteries and all of them are quite distinctive thanks to their bright white vaults.

Since New Orleans lies in the middle of a swap, burying the dead is impossible. That is why the city‘s dead are buried in large vaults, some decorated with intricate symbols. The oldest surviving cemeteries date back to the late 18th century, many of which are believed to be haunted or connected with voodoo practice.

One of the most unusual cemeteries is St. Roch #1. The old chapel with the same name inside the cemetery is filled with crutches and prosthetics of people who have visited this site in order to ask Saint Roch to help with their deformities or diseases. In return, people would leave as offerings these prosthetics and crutches.

The oldest cemeteries are around the French Quarter and they are all called the same: St Louis Cemetery, number 1, 2 and 3. Politicians, pirates and even voodoo queens are buried here. Some tombs have votive candles, flowers and money on them. Usually these are the resting places of famous voodoo queen. The most popular one is Marie Laveau’s, the infamous voodoo queen of New Orleans. Here people also leave hoodoo money, coins in exchange for favors. It is said that there are still people who practice different rituals at her grave, and according to local legend, tourists should turn around three times, knock three times and make a wish.

New Orleans is a breeding ground for puzzling and sometimes scary stories of ghosts and witches, and these cemeteries are definitely the best place to explore if you want to experience the eerie atmosphere and imagine the fascinating rituals that have taken place among the shiny white tombs throughout the centuries.

7. Audubon Zoo

One of the most popular spots in New Orleans, particularly on weekends, is the Audubon Zoo. This Zoological Garden boasts over 2,000 animals, many of them from rare or endangered species.

The zoo is almost 60 acres of land and it is named in honor of famous naturalist John James Audubon. Among century old oak trees, visitors can admire white alligators with blue eyes, gorillas, orangutans, alligators, raccoons and many other interesting creatures.

Audubon Zoo’s most beautiful place is the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. Here visitors get to learn more about the Cajun culture in relationship with the Louisiana swamp and its ecosystem, while walking around a real swamp. Exhibits like Jaguar Jungle, Monkey Hill and World of Primates put tourists face to face with majestic creatures like jaguars, sloths, playful monkeys, orangutans and lemurs.

At the same time, visitors can explore the African and Asian wildlife and see up close zebras, giraffes, tigers, elephants, bears and many more. The African Savana exhibit also features a petting zoo. At the Watoto Walk, which is designed to resemble a Masai village, visitors can interact with goats and sheep roaming free.

Among the most famous residents of the Zoo is a komodo dragon. In fact the garden has hundreds of reptiles including rattlesnakes, caimans, anacondas, vipers and pythons.

If the humid air is too much, you can spend a few moments at the cool zoo, a great waterpark perfect for families with kids. Among the most popular highlights there’s a huge alligator water slide and the water spitting snakes.

Thrill seekers can actually take a safari ride with the help of a simulator. The high tech Safari Simulator Ride has images projected on a large screen while the actual simulator moves accordingly. It was inspired by the same simulators used by NASA in astronaut training.

8. Royal Street

Dating back to the French Colonial area, Royal Street is one of the oldest streets in Crescent City. Popular among tourists for its charming cafes, antiques stores and art galleries, this is a more quiet and elegant option to Bourbon Street. In fact these are two of the most popular avenues in the French Quarter.

Lined mostly with old historical buildings, Royal Street boasts great architectural examples with exquisite iron balconies. This is the place where tourists get the actual New Orleans experience without the flashy bars and restaurants.

The 13 block street also features renowned restaurants and art galleries with great pieces from local artists. What is more, street artists usually entertain passersby with jazz music, magic tricks, puppet and vaudeville shows.

Visitors with a penchant for shopping should not miss the opportunity to explore the treasures hidden in the plethora of antique stores lining Royal Street. In fact, artefacts from most historical houses in the city can be found in these shops, including gorgeous pieces of jewelry, hand carved furniture and art works.

Unlike Bourbon Street, Royal Street is a perfect daytime destination, especially since the street is closed to traffic until 4 pm, every day, in order to create a pedestrian mall.

Almost every single building is an historical one, and should definitely be admired accordingly. One of the most fascinating historical landmarks on Royal Street is the Gallier House, an exquisite building designed by the famed architects James Gallier and James Gallier Jr. After designing some of the most important and beautiful buildings in New Orleans, in 1857 they decided to create a house of their own, right in the heart of this incredible city. The architects envisioned an impressive home with a large balcony overlooking Royal Street. The interior is just as beautiful with intricate millwork and beautiful Victorian furniture.

9. Louis Armstrong Park

Tourists who want to explore a different side of New Orleans should venture out in the neighborhood of Treme at Louis Armstrong Park. Right in the heart of this eclectic district, Louis Armstrong Park features several highlights including a jazz historical park and beautiful theatres.

A short walk from the French Quarter, this incredible park is dedicated to one of New Orleans’ most famous features – jazz music. The public park was named after one of the most well-known jazz musician in the whole world, Louis Armstrong, and features many attractions including a duck filled pond, a beautiful square and many places perfect for some relaxation.

However, the most recognizable feature of Louis Armstrong Park is, actually, its entrance – a flashy portico with the singer’s name in neon lights. Inside the park, people usually spend time in Congo Square, a very important spot in New Orleans’ history. During the 18th century slaves were usually allowed a day off work on Sundays and they were allowed to gather in “Place des Nègres”, which today, after several other names, is called “Place Congo”. This tradition continued throughout the years and usually people would sing and dance and locals would gather around to watch the improvised shows. This practiced stopped a few years before the end of slavery in the United States.

By the 19th century Congo Square was a popular music venue for brass bands and, during the 70’s, Congo Square hosted the famous New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. However, after a few years, the festival became much too big and it was moved at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. However, Congo Square still remains a very important music venue in New Orleans.

The Municipal Auditorium, an almost 4,000 seat arena, and the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts are other important music venues inside Louis Armstrong Park. These halls have hosted not only iconic jazz concerts, but also ballet, opera and Broadway performances.

10. Preservation Hall

One of the most important landmarks in New Orleans is, without a doubt, the Preservation Hall. Established in 1961, this was meant to be a heaven for jazz musicians and jazz fans alike. Once you step inside this building, you’ll be transported back in time during the golden days of Jazz Age. Built by the Jaffe family, this place strives to preserve and protect the traditional New Orleans Jazz also known as Dixieland music.

This venue, located right in the heart of the French Quarter, has seen some of the most iconic concerts in the world, and even today, visitors can see talented bands performed in a unique space. Unlike most jazz clubs in New Orleans, Preservation Hall doesn’t serve food or drinks and the space is used solely for playing and listening to music.

The entrance fee is much lower than most jazz club in the city and the ticket is valid all night, as bands usually play several sets of half an hour each.

Jazz fans who want an inside scoop on this genre’s magnificent history can take time to peruse the extensive archive including presentations, multimedia projects, archival recordings and many other artifacts.

Whether you are a jazz fan or not, you should definitely pay a visit to this incredible landmark. Preservation Hall is much more than a music venue; it is an important piece of New Orleans’ history.