New Orleans is, of course, a place known for taking its celebrations to the streets, both in the famed French Quarter section of the 300-year-old American city and well beyond. And while hitting the streets wearing costumes and carrying "go-cups" filled with adult beverages is definitely one of the most amusing parts of that venerable town, the Crescent City is also a place steeped in storied histories. It boasts some of the world's greatest museums, ranging from chronicles of war to celebrations of jazz, art, costumes and food — with a little bit of voodoo thrown in, too. These are the don't-miss places that are certain to enhance your visit to the Big Easy.
Considered by most experts and visitors alike as one of the top museums on the planet, the National World War II Museum tells the story of that terrible war from the perspective of America and her Allies in the fight against both the German and Japanese war machines during the war that lasted from 1939 to 1945 (the U.S. entered on Dec. 7, 1941). This massive museum is located in New Orleans for an important reason, as the Higgins boats were invented and manufactured here, by Andrew Jackson Higgins. Those shallow-draft, amphibious boats originally designed to use in Louisiana swamps became a key element in American landings both in the Pacific and European theaters of the war. The masterful permanent exhibits move you through those two fronts of the war, filled with interactive visuals and fascinating stories. Don't miss "Beyond All Boundaries," the 4D film that puts you right into the war itself. World War II veterans get in free; everyone else pays from $18-28 for admission to visit daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The New Orleans Museum of Art dates back to 1911. A massive stone edifice in City Park, the museum encompasses a huge collection of works primarily by American and French artists, as well as international pieces from Asia, Africa, and South America. Key items found in this important museum include a group of paintings by Edgar Degas, which the French Impressionist created while visiting New Orleans in the 1870s. Those are joined by pieces created by Picasso, Braque, Dufy, and Miro, as well as many other well-known artists. Be sure to visit the rooms devoted to furniture and decorative arts from the 18th and 19th centuries to get a feel for what gentrified living was like in New Orleans during those eras. And don't miss having a stroll in the 5-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, where the park's massive live oak trees date back to the beginning of the city's history.
Found right in the heart of the French Quarter, The Cabildo is part of the Louisiana State Museum system and worth a visit for the storied building alone. The Spanish completed construction of it in 1799; later on, under French rule in 1803, this is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed, ceding a vast swath of land including New Orleans to the United States. A museum since 1908, you'll find all sorts of permanent exhibitions, including one that explores the famed Battle of New Orleans as well as the history of Mardi Gras. Temporary exhibits celebrate jazz legends like Louis Prima, delve into the storied history of Jackson Square (where the Cabildo sits directly next to St. Louis Cathedral, with both structures designed by French architect Gilberto Guillemard) and give insight into the lives of New Orleanians over the past 300 years.
You'll find the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in a modern building located in the Warehouse District, which is home to the largest collection of art created in the American South. Beginning with the collection of Roger H. Ogden (with more than 600 works), the museum now features upwards of 4,000 pieces from artists ranging from Kendall Shaw and George Ohr to Clementine Hunter and Ida Kohlmeyer. But there's much more to the Ogden than its fine collection, as the museum offers children's programs designed to encourage creativity all year round, as well as presenting the Ogden After Hours live music shows every week on Thursday evenings.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz music, so it's only natural that there's a museum dedicated to it right in the heart of the city. Located in the Old Mint building on Esplanade at the edge of the French Quarter and the Marigny, the New Orleans Jazz Museums hosts lots of live music (over 365 concerts a year happen here), as well as thousands of musical artifacts that trace the earliest days of jazz right to the present. Think instruments, song manuscripts, sheet music, photographs and even the first jazz recording ever made, circa 1917. Naturally, there's a whole exhibit dedicated to the city's native son, Louis Armstrong, who almost single handedly brought the jazz musical genre to the world. As an added bonus, once you've explored the museum, wander over a block to Frenchmen Street in the Marigny, where today's best jazz performers are found at The Spotted Cat, dba, and other famous clubs.
The New Orleans African American Museum originally opened in 2000 in the Tremé section of the city, but struggled to keep its doors open, recently closing for nearly five years. All that changed in April 2019, when the museum reopened in the neighborhood that, as they say, "was once home to the nation's largest, most prosperous and politically progressive community of Blacks by the mid-1850s." You'll find exhibits chronicling that history as well as others dedicated to historical artifacts and to works created by contemporary African American artists and designers. Located in a beautiful, six-pillared, completely restored historic home on Governor Nicholls Street, the museum is open Thursdays to Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and also by appointment.
The story of voodoo in New Orleans is also intertwined with the state's dark slave-holding past. New Orleans was home to the largest slave market in America during the Antebellum period, and many West African slaves brought versions of the religion to the South. Eventually, it melded with elements of the Catholicism that define the city to become its own New Orleans-specific hybrid. This weird and wonderful museum celebrates everything about New Orleans voodoo, with special emphasis on Marie Laveau, the undisputed queen of voodoo in New Orleans throughout most of the 19th century. The museum is located right in the center of the French Quarter and is designed to fascinate — and maybe scare — visitors with its often-creepy exhibits. Be sure to head into to the dungeon section for some real thrills and chills!
At the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, food lovers can indulge in every aspect of Southern cooking and imbibing. Dedicated to exploring the influence of the world's food cultures on Southern dishes, this museum presents truly fascinating permanent exhibits including "Gallery of the South: States of Taste," which explores the unique foods of every state in the South, as well as temporary exhibits, lectures and even kids' cooking classes. Be sure to plan to stay for a meal at Toups South, the museum's restaurant run by Chef Isaac Toups of "Top Chef" fame, which is open for both lunch and dinner every day except Tuesday. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day but Tuesday.
Mardi Gras is at the heart of the New Orleans' experience, as this Catholic celebration season goes from Three Kings Day in January to Ash Wednesday (with the advent of Lent) every year. The incredible costumes that accompany the parades, balls, and massive promenade of costumed revelers through the French Quarter and the Marigny on Mardi Gras Day (Fat Tuesday) have to be seen to be believed, but if you're not fortunate enough to visit during those epic revelries, head to the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture to get a taste of what you're missing. The Mardi Gras Museum is a cornucopia of incredible costumes, including ones worn by the "royalty" of each Carnival krewe, which are the groups that have been running the legendary parades since Mardi Gras street parades began in New Orleans in 1857. Think Rex and Proteus (both still have parades today) and more modern krewes like Zulu, Bacchus, Orpheus, Muses and more; each has their own annual king and queen and courts, too, with elaborate costumes. Marching krewes and walking clubs are represented at this fascinating museum as well and you can even try on a costume or two. If you just can't get enough, head to the House of Dance and Feathers, a celebration of the Mardi Gras Indians, which are special krewes made up of descendants of a mix of Native Americans and African Americans. Their incredible beaded "suits" take them a full year to create, complete with massive feathered and beaded headdresses right down to matching moccasins. This authentic museum is located in the heart of the Ninth Ward, and also celebrates the costumes of the Second Line culture, those worn during funeral processions and post-funeral celebrations.
To see the other key element of every annual Mardi Gras celebration, plan a visit to Mardi Gras World to witness the parade floats. Blaine Kern has spearheaded the construction of most of the krewes' huge floats for generations and at Mardi Gras World, you'll see past and present versions of those floats, many with unique constructions that change every year. The museum-meets-working studio covers 300,000 square feet and is truly a place that you'll not tire of exploring, for these floats and their special elements are a sight to behold. Tours last about an hour and include the chance to try on a few krewe costumes. Mardi Gras World is located in the Central Business District on the Mississippi River near the Convention Center; the company offers a free shuttle from numerous stops in the French Quarter every day. It's open most days (except Mardi Gras Day) from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.