More than one cheesy movie set in New Orleans has given people the idea that it's a normal occurrence for our dogs to be eaten by alligators on our morning walks, or that the snapping crocodilians stalk the darkest corners of our preschool playgrounds. Or, in particularly dense rainstorms, they come out in grinning droves, snapping their way through crowds of confused tourists.
Thankfully, none of that is even vaguely true.
Once upon a time, a good part of what is now New Orleans was covered in dense, marshy wetlands, and as such, was most certainly populated by alligators. Nowadays, though, the swamp that once engulfed much of the city has been drained, and the alligators are mostly gone.
The only place within the New Orleans city limits that you have a good chance of seeing a gator is in City Park, where alligators can be seen lurking in the numerous lagoons and waterways. Generally, the gators here are on the smaller side, as the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries relocates larger ones.
If you'd like to see them, wander the lagoons for a bit (stick to the slightly wilder areas North of I-610) and keep your eyes open. Feel free to ask any fishermen along the banks if they've seen any; folks who fish in the lagoons regularly will be able to point out favorite sunning spots. There are definitely no guarantees, though: odds are actually pretty good that you won't see a gator, but it's still a gorgeous place to take a walk, so no real loss either way.
Out of Town
If you really want to see gators in the wild, your best bet is to get out of town for a bit and either take a swamp tour or visit a nature preserve.
There are a number of good swamp tour companies that offer pick-up service either from your hotel or from a centralized spot in or near the French Quarter.
Honey Island Swamp Tours, out of Slidell, is a good choice. They're an eco-tour company, founded by an ecologist, and they use low-wake boats which don't disrupt the wildlife. Guides are experienced at finding gators in the wild, so spotting some is, though not guaranteed, very likely.
If you'd rather see wildlife from a hiking trail, you can drive out to the Barataria Preserve at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. An extensive network of trails lets you get up (relatively) close and personal with gators and other cool local animals.
If you're really looking for a definite, guaranteed alligator sighting, or even if you just prefer the safety of a nice thick pane of glass between you and the closest snapping jaws (don't blame you), the Audubon Institute has you covered.
You can see alligators at both the Audubon Zoo and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. In fact, both locations currently house a pair of the Institute's famous white alligators, which are particularly cool and not likely to be seen in the wild. The Zoo has plenty of regular gators as well, including some impressively large ones that you can see (safely) from quite close up.