Everyone who’s ever been to New Orleans has had their quintessential “New Orleans Experience” — frankly, it’s hard to not to! The city oozes with culture and vibrance. The people own their town and you can feel the energy and love of the locals even just driving around. But that “New Orleans Experience” is different for different people. Some head down south for a crazy weekend on Bourbon Street, celebrating the last days of their friends’ single lives or in search of a weekend away from real life. Others explore for the food and jazz. And some just go because they know, regardless of what they do, they’ll find something new and different.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from New Orleans. I had my camera. I packed for warm weather. And I was hungry for some local foods. Whatever happened next…I was just along for the ride.
It turns out Bourbon Street, while an experience in and of itself, is not really my cup of tea. To each their own, but the general vibe of the French Quarter on a Friday or Saturday night doesn’t really suit me. That being said, we still found plenty to do and see around town! So if a raucous night of sweet drinks and debauchery aren’t your style, don’t fret! There are still plenty of things to do in New Orleans that are not Bourbon Street.
1. City Park
I love a good park. Especially one that helps bring an entire city together, which is exactly what City Park does. Our first stop was for some Irish coffee and beignets from the Morning Call Coffee Stand, a 140-year-old new Orleans breakfast tradition. Classic (and cash only), this diner-style dining spot is a great spot to grab your sugary “breakfast” and relax in the park. Sitting at picnic table by the pond, we saw wedding pictures being taken and family BBQs celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. We waved to the tiny train of kids and their parents each time it passed by and admired the picturesque Oak trees that made it feel like another world. You can rent bikes to explore the park, admire the statues as you walk through the art garden and even check out the New Orleans Museum of Art. There’s also a small amusement park for kids, featuring rides, playgrounds and fun characters. Definitely something for everyone who wants to take advantage of the warm weather and spend the day outside.
2. Graveyard Tours
Part of New Orlean’s uniqueness comes from a mix of the French influences and their proximity to water. Being so close to the coast, cemeteries are almost exclusively above-ground mausoleums, and because of the the area’s rich history, these areas often feature entire family lines and even a few famous names. Haunting and beautiful, if you can catch a cemetery open (some have pretty odd hours) then you can take a guided tour or walk around at your leisure. We explored Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District and it felt like walking through history! Remember: be respectful — these cemeteries, while open to the public, are still where many locals buried their families. Also, be warned — according to a local I talked to, not all of the guided tours are 100% accurate. Always be a discerning tourist and fact check! 😉
3. Eating Tour
If you’re not eating 4-5 times a day in New Orleans, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying you’ll feel good about it, but it’s the only way to make sure you enjoy everything you possibly can about the food. Because oh my god, the food. Some classic foods I encourage you to seek out include: red beans & rice (my personal favorite), gumbo, etouffe, oysters (chargrilled or raw!), and a good old fashioned crawfish boil, if you can manage. There’s a reason New Orleans is a food capital and it’s worth it to try everything you can. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to too many places, but based on where we did eat, I wholeheartedly suggest District Donuts & Sliders, Basin Seafood and Spirits, and Commander’s Palace (note: they require reservations and enforce a dress code.) But anywhere in the Garden District or Irish Channel neighborhoods are a good bet, making for a great excuse to explore these beautiful neighborhoods. And don’t forget to ask around for a good local joint! One of my travel buddies scored an amazing made-to-order Po’boy sandwich from a convenience store somewhere in the French District.
4. Live Jazz!
What would a trip to New Orleans be without some live jazz? In truth, it’s not hard to just come across, especially if you’re walking around the French Quarter. Local artists will gather and play for tips, keeping the streets lively and fun. There’s also a decent chance that you’ll be in town during one of their music festivals. While it wasn’t specifically jazz, we happened to be in town for the French Quarter Festival. Stages were set up all over the district, but we headed down to the main stage by the water to catch local band, Flow Tribe, perform for a huge group. It. was. awesome. But if big crowds aren’t your scene, there of plenty of bars and restaurants that will give you a New Orleans style jazz session. We spent a quieter night at Bacchanal Wine, an intimate backyard venue where you can buy a bottle of wine from their shop or a drink at the bar, and relax. We caught a show by The Roamin’ Jasmine and had a wonderful night under the stars.
5. Explore the French Quarter in the Daytime
While the French Quarter is sort of a sloppy mess at night, during the day it’s a beautiful and quaint part of town with colorful homes and the famous french-inspired architecture that we all think of when we think New Orleans. There are plenty of shops to explore, local art galleries to browse and restaurants to stop in, including bars where you can grab an Irish Coffee to go. Did I mention how much I love New Orlean’s open container laws? Because they are the best. Local musicians create an lively ambiance as explore, making it a wonderful way to walk around the quieter parts of the quarter and take it all in. Just avoid Bourbon Street if you’re not looking for that kind of vibe. Don’t worry, you’ll know you’re getting close by the smell.
New Orleans was an incredible few days, filled with outstanding food and culture. You’ll definitely find something to do, even if you’re not in town for a party. I encourage you to add it to your to-visit list, if for no other reason than to explore a place that embodies local resilience and love.