New Orleans is one of the United States' most recognizable cities and popular vacation destinations. Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and other fairs and festivals draw visitors from around the world. Those who venture beyond Bourbon Street's endless party are rewarded with museums, natural wonders and world-class music. All attractions are easy to access from anywhere in the city.
Founded in 1718, the French Quarter is the oldest and best-known neighborhood in New Orleans. At only 13 blocks by seven blocks, the Quarter is pedestrian-friendly and filled with corner stores, tourist attractions and live music venues. Travelers can plan to spend at least two days exploring the Quarter on foot to see all the sites.
A short ride on the historic St. Charles Streetcar takes visitors and residents alike from the French Quarter to the Garden District. Home to wealthy Americans after the Louisiana Purchase, the Garden District today boasts a seemingly endless variety of plantation-style homes.
The Audubon Nature Institute (auduboninstitute.com) offers three family-friendly attractions in New Orleans. The zoo's most notable exhibit is the Louisiana Swamp, featuring rare leucistic white alligators. At the aquarium, don't miss Hurricane on the Bayou, an IMAX film that tells the story of Hurricane Katrina through the eyes of a 13-year-old violin prodigy. Morning is the best time to visit the insectarium, when you can sample a variety of cooked bugs.
Opened in 2000 as the D-Day Museum, the National World War II Museum (nationalww2museum.org) has expanded to more than 70,000 square feet. The museum uses a series of interactive exhibits to provide a detailed walk through both fronts of the war. "Beyond All Boundaries" is an immersive, high-tech 4-D film narrated by Tom Hanks.
At 1,300 acres, City Park (neworleanscitypark.com) is nearly twice as large as New York's Central Park. Housed on former plantation land, the park is filled with waterways and green space. Attractions include the New Orleans Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden (noma.org), the New Orleans Botanical Garden, the Storyland playground, the Carousel Gardens amusement park and NOLA Gondola (nolagondola.com), an authentic Venetian gondola ride through the park. Celebration in the Oaks is the park's massive drive-through Christmas light display.
Known as Cities of the Dead, New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries are noted for their architecture and haunting beauty. St. Louis Cemetery Number One, just outside the French Quarter, and Lafayette Cemetery Number One, in the Garden District, are among the oldest and best known. Take a tour with any of nearly a dozen tour operators or visit on your own. At the foot of Canal Street, the former Charity Hospital Cemetery now houses a memorial to Hurricane Katrina.
Just outside New Orleans, the wetlands play an important role in hurricane protection. Swamp tours are offered by many operators, and shuttle bus service is provided from major New Orleans hotels. Tours bring visitors face to face with local wildlife and provide a look at the culture of the Cajun people who still call the wetlands home.
In antebellum days, cotton was king and New Orleans was its most important port. Several plantations have been preserved along the Old River Road, approximately one hour from New Orleans. Oak Alley and Destrehan are among the best known. Tours are offered by a wide range of local operators, including transportation from New Orleans hotels.
Steamboats played a vital role in antebellum New Orleans, transporting both business and leisure travelers from cities along the Mississippi River. Today only one steam-powered paddle wheeler remains, the Steamboat Natchez (steamboatnatchez.com). Daytime harbor cruises are fully narrated, while evening cruises focus on dinner and dancing.
Founded by pirates and prostitutes and wracked by disasters including hurricanes and plagues, New Orleans is said to be quite haunted. Ghost tour operators, both the historically accurate and the fanciful, offer nightly walking tours of the French Quarter. Whether you believe in spirits or not, a ghost tour provides a peek at New Orleans' more sordid history.
"Laissez les bons temps rouler" (let the good times roll) is the motto of the and you could never find a more happenin' party town anywhere on the planet. Even when it's not Mardi Gras, the bars, restaurants, strip clubs, and streets themselves are crowded with revelers and tourists. With a happy hour that literally runs 24/7, the only problem is finding a quiet hotel in which to sleep! Author recommendations: Hotel St. Marie (a half block from the hubbub), Lafitte's Guest House, and the French Market Inn, which goes back to the days when Louisiana still belonged to the French. And don't worry if you forgot to pack your inhibitions on this trip. The locals will advise that you'll get along just fine without them.
Upon arrival, you'll see a line-up of decorated carriages and equally festooned donkeys waiting to whisk you off on a narrated tour of the French Quarter. The drivers, ribald and chatty, are as proud of the accomplishments of famous Louisianans such as Truman Capote, Dorothy Lamour, Louis Armstrong, Lillian Hellman and Jerry Lee Lewis as they are captivated by the dubious exploits of Huey Long, Jimmy Swaggart and David Duke. They're also quick to tell you that no less than Napoleon Bonaparte was once offered asylum in New Orleans, prompting one to wonder how history might have changed if he had ever taken the city up on its generous offer of free room and board for the rest of his exile. One of New Orleans' many nicknames, "The Paris of the Americas," reflects the city's strong kinship with its flirty French cousin. Jackson Square is the oldest part of the city, dating back to the early 1700's and the era of pirates.
THE GARDEN DISTRICT
Hop a St. Charles trolley car to the Garden District and take a step back in time for only $5. Antebellum mansions are de rigueur here, as are beautifully cultivated flower beds that recall an earlier era. (Interestingly, even the poorest homes in New Orleans are not without festive window boxes and fountains.) Although many of the mansions in the Garden District are closed to the public, their colorful stories and architectural history have been well documented in the walking tour guidebooks available through your concierge and the local office of tourism. Be sure not to miss a peek at 1239 First Street, home of Anne Rice, the author of the Vampire Lestat and Mayfair Witches novels.
If art galleries, estate jewelry and fine antiques are your idea of a perfect shopper's paradise, you've come to the right spot. The only challenge is in figuring out how you're going to get all of this fabulous stuff in the overhead rack on the plane trip home.
MADAM LAMOOSE & HER PSYCHIC POWERS
You won't have to travel far to find a fortune teller in the
French Quarter, especially when you consider how many people make their
living here through Tarot, crystal gazing, throwing bones, analyzing
auras and reading palms. No trip to New Orleans would be complete
without a detour into the world of the occult. Plan to part with at
least $20 for a full reading, a little more, of course, if it's
determined that someone has put a curse on you that needs to be lifted.
Fortune tellers can be found in the backrooms of many French Quarter
shops that feature Mardi Gras paraphernalia as well as out in the open
at the park at Jackson Square. Speaking of spooky stuff, here's
something else you might not know: New Orleans cemeteries are all above
ground, owing to the city's proximity to sea level.
It's standing room only and rather Spartan but well worth the visit if you want to see one of the places where jazz had its roots. Don't worry if you can't get in, though; the music is loud enough every night that a lot of it will spill into the streets and keep you entertained. Located at 726 St. Peter Street, this popular family-oriented establishment is open from 8 until midnight and has no minimum age requirement.
THE HISTORIC VOODOO MUSEUM
There are over 20,000 practitioners of the black arts in the French Quarter. See how they work their magic in a museum dedicated to voodoo dolls, juju bags, love potions and magical powders. Located on Rue Domaine between Bourbon and Royal Streets, this is believed to be the only museum in the world which is dedicated exclusively to the practice of voodoo.
Italianate and Greek Revival mansions are right around the corner from cheesy storefronts selling overpowering perfumes and neon dildos. This dividing line lane between Faubourg Marigny and the French Quarter is an intriguing place to people watch as well as to pick up an occasional bargain in antiques. You can also see the house where painter Edgar Degas did a bit of painting while visiting some of his relatives. Looking for a charming bed and breakfast inn? Esplanade Avenue is highly recommended as the first place you should look; many of them not only cater to families but also welcome family pets.
CAFÃ‰ DU MONDE
One of the things that New Orleans is famous for are the square, powdered sugar doughnuts called "beignets". This café precursor to Starbucks dates back to the 1860's and is the perfect spot for an evening cup of chicory coffee and relaxing after a day of sightseeing. Just one cautionary note: don't wear black. Beignets are melt-in-your-mouth delicious but messy and have a way of leaving their evidence all over one's clothing.
COURT OF THE TWO SISTERS
A longstanding N'awlins institution, this restaurant is as famous for its leisurely Sunday champagne brunches as it is for the caliber of Dixieland, blues, and jazz musical talent it rotates through its main dining room and outdoor courtyard during the course of one meal. Don't plan to get out in less than three hours. Afterwards, schedule a nap. You will definitely need it.