Utterly unique, New Orleans is famed for its historic districts, fabulous food, Creole culture, music traditions from zydeco to blues, not to mention Mardi Gras. The good times in NOLA include plenty for kids - such as the Zoo, Aquarium, and Insectarium, for starters. (See below).
Combine New Orleans with a side trip to Acadiana, aka Cajun Country, with bayous, small towns, unique music and French-speaking history, and many festivals.
New Orleans' oldest area was founded by the French in 1718, but much of the wonderful architecture dates from a period as a Spanish colony. Stroll and enjoy the historic buildings and free entertainment: five-piece bands play in the street and you can buy their CD's for a song, nearly. Be sure to hit the Jackson Square area.
This National Historic Landmark at Jackson Square has a museum inside. Kids will like the section on Mardi Gras: pretend you're riding on a Mardi Gras float. The place to see dazzling parade costumes, too. The Museum also has special exhibits, such as "100 Years of Zulu", about the famous Krewe of Zulu African-American Mardi Gras parade krewe.
Heavenly treats: continue across Decatur Street to this casual outdoor cafe, for scrumptious "beignets" -- a type of doughnut covered copiously with powdered sugar. Grownups can get a chicory coffee, too, for more local flavor. Sit and eat at the Café, and listen to a band; or head to a nearby park bench where kids will leave puddles of white sugar as they eat their beignets.
The 340-acre Audubon Park-- uptown, between the Mississippi River and St. Charles Avenue -- is home to the well-regarded Audubon Zoo, which has many animals in natural habitats, including a Louisiana Swamp Exhibit. In November, the Audubon Zoo hosts the Lousiana Swamp Festival, a salute to Cajun music, food, culture-- and to swamp animals.
The Audubon Zoo and Park (above) are under the umbrella of the Audubon Nature Institute, which has other family attractions in New Orleans too. The Aquarium of the Americas is a major aquarium with an IMAX Theatre, on the River and on the edge of the French Quarter at Canal Street. Nearby is the Audubon Insectarium, the newest of the Audubon museums. Sightseers can get package tix for the Zoo, Aquarium, IMAX, and Insectarium.
Family-Friendly Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Mardi Gras" has come to be synonymous with "crazy partying" in adult-rated Bourbon Street-- but sections of the Mardi Gras parade routes are all about families. Kids might also be interested in the costumed Pet Parade, (called Barkus, a play on New Orleans parade krewe, Bacchus).
A hands-on type of place, with plenty of opportunities: "learning has never been more fun". Adults must accompany kids under 16. Plan on at least a two-hour visit; check the calendar for special activities such as book readings, art projects, Toddler Time.
In late April and early May, get ready for two weekends of the massive -- and family-friendly-- New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, with multiple stages playing zydeco, Cajun music, gospel music, blues, pop, jazz and music from around the world. Food stalls with Louisiana specialties are a highlight! Kids are all over: they even have their own area, a large Kids Tent, with a small performance stage; mommies, daddies, and kids can all get up and dance.
Billed as New Orlean's only authentic steamboat, the Steamboat Natchez takes visitors out on the Mississippi River for various types of cruises: harbor cruises, dinner cruises... Check for the return of the Aquarium Zoo Cruise; and at Christmas-time, families can take a Caroling Cruise.
Day Trip: Swamp Tour
Visitors to New Orleans have several choices for seeing 'gators in a Louisiana swamp (which most kids will surely want to do.) A family could take a nature tour in the 250 square mile Honey Island Swamp, less than an hour from New Orleans; or they could take a high-speed airboat trip-- lots of fun, but be prepared for LOUD.
At least one company -- Gray Line New Orleans -- offers a guided "Hurricane Katrina Tour" with extensive background about the city; at the time of writing TripAdvisor reviews praise this tour. As one commentor writes: "we had mixed feelings about this tour because we did not want to sensationalize the tragedy others experienced. We ultimately were extremely glad we took the tour, led by a New Orleans native." Think twice, though, about driving around on your own through devastated neighborhoods: these are people's homes and viewing them is very personal.
When to Visit Louisiana
April and October are prime months, with good weather and a flurry of festivals. For families with schoolkids, March Break and Christmas vacation are also good bets; but the summer vacation months will be are hot and humid. If you do visit in summer, cool down your day with some indoor sightseeing such as an air-conditioned museum; or maybe do a driving tour in an air-conditioned car.
Christmas can be a wonderful time to visit.