Your Trip to New Orleans: The Complete Guide

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Even to those already familiar with the lore that surrounds New Orleans—the music, the food, the revelers—this small city is full of unexpected delights. Creole and Cajun culture make it different than any other city in the United States, and those that are only expecting the mania of Bourbon Street will find joy and respite in the city’s unique history lessons, opulent Garden District mansions, Royal Street art galleries, and Bywater cafes and shops.

As the birthplace of jazz, there is fantastic live music to be found pretty much any time of day in the Big Easy, and plentiful, unique food and drink to leave you full and happy. With the nation’s official World War II Museum, swamps full of alligators, and city parks of 100-year-old live oaks, there’s something for everyone in this crescent-shaped city of wonder.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: With Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, and other local festivals taking place February through May, spring is definitely the most popular time to visit New Orleans—but fun events and temperate weather begin as early as October. Most avoid the summer for its imposing heat and humidity.

Language: English (with sprinklings of French)

Getting Around: The historic New Orleans streetcar is a fun way to get around to most popular destinations and neighborhoods. Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, organized tours, and public buses are also easy, and there’s no need to rent a car in New Orleans unless you plan to make side trips out of town.

Travel Tip: Those who just stick to the French Quarter and main attractions are missing out on all New Orleans has to offer. Some of the best music, food, art, and scenic strolls take place in areas like the Bywater, Irish Channel, and Bayou St. John around City Park. Explore the best neighborhoods in New Orleans before you plan a visit. 

Things to Do

Plan to spend a good portion of your time in New Orleans eating and drinking plentifully. When you’re ready to walk off all the beignets and po boys, enjoy Spanish moss and floral-framed avenues like St. Charles, the above-ground cemeteries, and the cobblestone streets full of home gardens and old French and Spanish architecture in the French Quarter and elsewhere. New Orleans is truly a nightlife-lovers city (though there are plenty of kid and family-friendly options), and live music, from jazz and brass bands to contemporary rock are there to entertain until the wee hours of the morning.

 

The French Quarter: The oldest neighborhood in New Orleans also has the most historic sites, shops, and restaurants per capita of any other area in the city. The architecture in itself--the wrought-iron balconies and Creole cottages of the Spanish colonial era, and a few remaining remnants of the city’s French founding--make it worth just strolling its streets, visiting the St. Louis Cathedral, Cabildo and Pontalba buildings, and Jackson Square, and absorbing all the wonderful sights and sounds of its modern day.

Make at least one jaunt through rowdy Bourbon Street, the art galleries on Royal Street, and the French Market (with a stop for beignets at Cafe Du Monde, of course).

New Orleans Cemeteries: Above-ground graves are a hallmark of New Orleans, where the ctiy’s below sea-level status necessitates burials above ground, and makes way for ornate gravestones and mausoleums surrounded by lush greenery, spooky lore, and famous interred legends. Most neighborhoods you visit include a nearby famous cemetery to tour: St. Louis No. and No. 2 in the French Quarter, Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, and Metairie Cemetery and the Katrina Memorial in Mid City.

Swamp Tours: The waterways, flora and fauna of Southeast Louisiana add to the area’s urban appeals, making New Orleans an even more fascinating and unique place to visit. There are a variety of options for touring nearby swamps, all filled with the likes of mangroves, cypress, alligators, and birds: enjoy a walk through the Barataria Preserve on the Mississippi’s West Bank, a canoe or kayak adventure on the North Shore or in Bayou St. John, or an airboat tour in further swamps.

What to Eat and Drink

New Orleans is known for its Creole and Cajun dishes, overlapping cuisines influenced mostly by Spanish, French, and West African cultures, and including must-try dishes like gumbo, etouffee, jambalaya, seafood, and crawfish, all usually flavored with the holy trinity (pepper, onion, celery) and plenty of spice. Many visitors like to indulge in at least one high-end creole meal at opulent old school restaurants like Galatoire’s and Commander’s Palace, but low budget favorites like po boys and beignets should not be missed.

In the decade following Hurricane Katrina and an influx of change and rebuild, a new type of dining has entered the scene, with young, hip restaurants like Turkey and the Wolf, Compere Lapin, and Saba featuring a modern fusion of flavors.

Like the food, good drinking options in New Orleans also range from high brow (expertly crafted cocktails and craft brews) to low brow (frozen daiquiris and big go-beers). There’s no open container law in New Orleans, which is only partially responsible for its reputation as a drinker’s city. Feel free to enjoy a beer or cocktail while strolling the river or walking from club to club on the musical Frenchmen Street in the Marigny. Abita Beer has long been the best known Louisiana beer, but other options from newer craft breweries like Urban South, Gnarly Barley, and NOLA Brewery, are taking over the scene.

If you like cocktails, you must have at least one of each of the following specialties: a Sazerac, a Ramos Gin Fizz, frozen daiquiri, and Hurricane. 

Where to Stay

Hotels in the French Quarter and Central Business District provide convenient access to main sites, and range from charmingly historical to reliable corporate chains. A few luxury options, like the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel, The Ritz Carlton, and the Windsor Hotel provide relaxing oases amidst the chaos. Stay in smaller inns and airbnbs in Mid City, the Bywater, and Garden District for a quieter, locals’ glimpse of the city. Chic new boutique hotels like the Ace Hotel, The Catahoula, Pontchartrain Hotel and Peter and Paul are ideal for those wishing to be immersed in art and culture throughout their stay.

Getting There

With a massive new airport terminal set to arrive in 2019, New Orleans is about to get easier (and more comfortable) to reach than ever before. For now, MSY is a small, manageable airport with many direct flights throughout the continental United States. The regional bus and Amtrak train station is conveniently located in the Central Business District, with a few train routes connecting New Orleans to the rest of the country. 

Culture and Customs

Music club guide and etiquette: Most clubs require a minimum drink purchase or small door fee to enter. The WWOZ (local radio station) livewire is a reliable way to track music goings-on daily around the city. Most clubs at night, like those on Frenchmen Street, require visitors to be over 21; afternoon sets and outdoor festival shows are the best bet for catching live jazz with kids in tow.

Safety: With some of the highest murder rates in the country, New Orleans gets a bad rap for crime that isn’t totally undeserved. Still, tourists need not be deterred from spending time in this desirable location. Most crimes around busy tourist areas like the French Quarter come in the forms of pickpockets and petty scammers--and especially target clearly inebriated tourists, out late at night in less populated (or more dangerous) neighborhoods. Abide to basic common sense: travel in groups and by taxi or rideshare late at night (foot and public transportation is safe at other times), keep your wits about you and travel smart, as you would in any city.

 

Money Saving Tips

Visiting New Orleans during a big festival like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but will no doubt cost you the most on a trip to the city, in terms of flights, hotel rates, and the whole package. There is plenty to do other times of year, with smaller local festivals and enough live music and culture to fill your days. If you’re especially immune to high temperatures and sticky weather, summer is a great time to find cheap flights, hotel discounts, and other special rates.

New Orleans prides itself on offering free or affordable entertainment and music, and there are many ways to access great thrills of the city on a budget. Follow this guide for more tips.

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