I just got back from a fabulous long weekend in New Orleans and am so excited to cover it for you all today. New Orleans has been on the top of my US bucket list for years, so I’m overjoyed that I finally made it! My girls trip to New Orleans was 4 days long, so we even had time to rent a car for a day and get out of the city for a bit. I’m proud to say that aside from Louisiana, we crossed off Mississippi and Alabama this weekend too – bringing me up to 41 states on my 50 states challenge! I’ll recap those states soon, but for now, let’s dive into the top things to do in New Orleans, including where to eat, stay, and of course – drink.
Disclaimer: This blog post is in partnership with the voco St. James Hotel, an IHG Hotel located just outside of the French Quarter in New Orleans. The hotel hosted my friends and I for our 4-night trip in exchange for content and coverage on my blog. Thank you to Visit New Orleans as well for sponsoring visits to Mardi Gras World and a ghost tour, which I’ll cover in detail below. As always, all opinions written are my own.
How To Get To New Orleans
New Orleans is fairly accessible from most other major cities in the US and abroad via the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. This airport is located about 20 minutes from the French Quarter and was easy and affordable to fly into. If you can, look into Breeze Airways for your flight to NOLA! Breeze is a new, US-based, budget airline that operates from some smaller cities around the country, including Hartford, Oklahoma City, Louisville, Charleston, and Norfolk. We flew Breeze from Charleston to New Orleans for less than $100 round trip and loved it! I’ll definitely be using them again.
New Orleans is also easy to drive into from nearby southern cities and universities. We were surrounded by college students from Auburn and Alabama who drove 4-5 hours into the city for the weekend. Once you’re in New Orleans, you really don’t need a car as the French Quarter and most of downtown is extremely walkable. If you want to explore some other neighborhoods (which you definitely should!), they city has wonderful public bus and cable car systems. If you do want to rent a car for a day trip, I recommend the Enterprise Rent-A-Car on Baronne Street. It’s walkable from the French Quarter and the staff was wonderful.
Where To Stay In New Orleans
Before I hop into exactly where to stay in New Orleans, I wanted to briefly cover when to visit. Most tourists flock to the French Quarter for Mardi Gras in late February / early March, but it’s PACKED during this time! Although the floats are stunning, and the parades are one giant block party, prepare to be overwhelmed. Locals told us that during these two weeks, it’s extremely difficult to find any sort of reservation, all the streets are blocked off so it’s hard to grab an Uber, and above all – flights skyrocket. I think they’re pushing $600 round trip from Charleston right now.
Did You Know?
Mardi Gras season actually lasts from January 6 – late February / early March, or the day before the Lent season begins on Ash Wednesday. Mardi Gras stands for “Fat Tuesday” and is actually a Catholic holiday to commemorate feasting and celebrating before Lent fasting begins. The city is decorated in purple, green, and gold for the entire season and festive King Cake is served, but be aware that the parades are usually just during the last few weeks of February. The parades are the main draw for tourists during Mardi Gras season so keep this in mind if you plan on visiting.
Aside from Mardi Gras, the best time to visit New Orleans is during the shoulder seasons, or February – April and September – November. This time of year will be warm and enjoyable. Stay away from New Orleans during the summer months unless you want to experience Louisiana’s extreme humidity first-hand.
Staying At The St. James Hotel
Thank you to the voco St. James Hotel for sponsoring this blog post! My friends and I stayed at the St. James just outside of the French Quarter during our duration in New Orleans and absolutely loved it. This hotel has rich history, which we really appreciated as first-timers in the city, and was just newly renovated, so it’s very up-to-date. This hotel is pet-friendly, has cozy rooms, and even has an intimate courtyard with an outdoor pool to be enjoyed during the warmer months.
The St. James Hotel is located on Magazine Street and is very walkable from the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. It’s also only about 0.2 miles from Canal Street, which is one the main streets in New Orleans that can bring you to other parts of the city via cable car. This boutique hotel is the perfect option for business travelers and leisure explorers alike, so check it out for your stay!
Where To Eat In New Orleans
Now for the fun part! New Orleans is known for its Creole-inspired, Cajun cuisine and is such a treat! Every meal we had was super filling, flavorful, and unique to the area. Try to eat local meals as much as you can, as you’ll struggle to find chains throughout the French Quarter anyways. Also, you may notice there are no lunch recommendations on this list. We opted for a bigger breakfast / brunch each morning and a local dinner each night instead of lunch. Plus a mid-day beignet break mixed in. You should do the same!
Brunch / Cafes
This restaurant opened in the French Quarter in 1946 and is run by the Brennan family, a very well-known family of restaurateurs in the southeast. I highly recommend coming here for brunch and booking a reservation way in advance. You can also try to show up right when they open to get a table if you didn’t book a reservation. We had luck with this at 9:15 am on a Saturday. Be sure to try their Bananas Foster!
PS. This family also owns the Commanders Palace, another one of the most famous restaurants in New Orleans.
The courtyard at this place is a true gem – there’s string lights and a fountain! They’re known for their daily jazz brunch. For ~$30 you can enjoy an all-you-can-eat American + Creole inspired buffet while listening to a live jazz band. Jazz brunch is definitely one of the top things to do in New Orleans, so plan in advance!
Located throughout New Orleans, French Truck Coffee should be your go-to cafe during your time in New Orleans. They don’t serve much food, so just swing through here for a pick-me-up during your trip.
Pro-tip: New Orleans is known for its coffee. You’ll find Cafe Au Lait is almost every shop – an equal mix of coffee and hot milk. Most coffee shops in NOLA roast their coffee with chicory – give it a try!
Located near the French Market and Jackson Square, Cafe du Monde is a MUST! This iconic New Orleans cafe opened in 1862 and is known for its cafe au laits, chicory coffee, and of course – beignets! Although small, these fried dough / donut-like desserts are quite filling, so I recommend buying the pack of 3 and splitting them with a friend. We were all full from one each.
Pro-tip: This place gets PACKED. I recommend visiting during a week day if you can or during off-peak times. We had no wait on a Monday morning, and heard there was a 2 hour line on Saturday afternoon. And note – Cafe du Monde is CASH ONLY!
Known for the tag line, “Beignet There, Done That”, this is the second most popular spot to try beignets in New Orleans. Cafe Beignet is a local chain, so there are quite a few locations around the city. The most quaint location is the one located on Royal Street, right behind the Bourbon Street location. It’s quite small inside, but super charming! In my humble opinion, the beignets here weren’t as good as Cafe du Monde, but still delicious and absolutely worth the try!
Located a block from Jackson Square, this elegant gastropub serves amazing cocktails and American pub food. The best part? The restaurant used to be a historic carriage house and has a stunning courtyard attached complete with heat lamps and string lights. Try their burgers for dinner and a mule – they make their own ginger beer in-house.
One of the oldest, most popular restaurants in the French Quarter. For over 160 years, this dinner spot has been serving a traditional Creole menu. Book in advance, especially during Mardi Gras season!
Located about 30 minutes outside of downtown New Orleans, we checked out the Slidell location for dinner one night. Middendorf’s is a well-known Louisiana restaurant known for its thin-cut fried catfish (it’s actually world famous!). This place is popular among locals and has a lot of history at the Akers location.
Where To Drink In New Orleans
This section is even more fun than the last one! Drinking is without a doubt one of the top things to do in New Orleans. NOLA has some of the best nightlife in the US, most of which surrounds Bourbon Street. Bourbon is a a historic street that runs laterally through the French Quarter for 13 blocks. It’s famous for its multitude of bars and strip clubs. Most people probably think of Bourbon Street when it comes to nightlife, but here are a few more recommendations to try.
Pro-tip: New Orleans is an open container city meaning you can drink however much you want, wherever you want downtown without consequence (within reason of course). You can also take drinks to go between bars!
One of the top things to do in New Orleans is to drink at the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter. First, this haunted, historic hotel is a landmark of New Orleans and should be a must on your list whether you’re staying there or not. Second, the carousel bar is located right in the lobby bar so it’s accessible to the public and free to visit. The cocktails here are quite pricey, but where else in the world can you slowly spin on a merry-go-round while listening to jazz and sipping a cosmo?!
Pro-tip: Don’t feel like spinning? There are tables all throughout this bar as well, but we fought for a spot at the carousel bar and loved it.
Pat O’Brien’s or Pat O’s is a NOLA staple. Located on St. Peter Street, just off Bourbon, this bar deserves a visit. They’re known for their “Hurricane” which is basically a giant mixed drink consisting of rum / fruit juice. Although the drink was good, it’s the atmosphere that’s the real treat. This bar has a huge back courtyard that is super fun to hangout in, along with multiple bars inside, and a dueling piano bar! We came here 3x during our weekend trip and loved every second.
PS. If you visit and see an older man named Alvin playing the tray (he literally plays a steel tray with his nails), please say hi and tip him. That man is an icon.
This bar is the second oldest in the US, behind Bell In Hand in Boston! We learned all about this place on our ghost tour (more about that below) and loved it. It’s located on Bourbon, but all the way down near the residential part, so it’s a bit isolated, but worth the visit! Look out for a pirate-looking man at the bar… he’s a ghost!
This is one of the several bars located inside of the Roosevelt Hotel in the French Quarter. We wanted to go to their rooftop bar, but it’s only open seasonally (aka not during Mardi Gras season), so we opted for the Sazerac Bar instead. This posh bar is home to the country’s first mixed drink, the Sazerac, and was a fun place to hangout before dinner.
Lastly, a speakeasy recommendation! Which is a bit counterintuative since New Orleans is an open container city, but the history of this place makes it a real treat. Located under the historic Orpheum Theater, this speakeasy is behind one of the backstage doors and opens up to a chic, dimly lit room full of velvet couches, 1920s costume wear, and a small stage. The best part? This bar commemorates its theater inspiration with fun cocktails, popcorn for guests, and live jazz!
Things To Do In New Orleans
This last section covers a list of the top things to do in New Orleans in terms of activities and sightseeing. This list isn’t comprehensive, but does include the main highlights from our trip in the Crescent City.
Fun fact: New Orleans is known as the Crescent City for the way the Mississippi River bends like a crescent at the bay of the city. It’s also known as the “Big Easy” because of its laid-back culture.
Wander The French Quarter
This one doesn’t need much explanation. The French Quarter is a sight within itself. I highly recommend spending multiple afternoons wandering the charming streets here, poking in the various galleries (there’s so many in New Orleans), and letting yourself get lost.
Bar Hop On Bourbon Street
I covered this in detail above, but bar hopping on Bourbon is a NOLA must. It has to be done once, especially for first time visitors. The best bars are located off this road, but hopping from bar to bar with a drink in your hand and some beads around your neck is an experience you can’t get elsewhere.
Do A Ghost Tour
New Orleans is one of the most haunted cities in the United States, behind Savannah and Charleston, so a ghost tour here is a must. There are dozens of companies that operate nightly walking tours of the French Quarter, covering graveyards, American Horror Story filming locations, and churches. We did the City Ghost Tour with Exploring Nola and loved her!
Pro-tip: Grab a Hurricane to-go at Pat O’s before the tour and drink while you walk. You’re more likely to see something spooky…
Explore Jackson Square + St. Louis Cathedral
This is probably New Orlean’s most iconic landmark. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase was conducted here. This square is also extremely haunted as it was used for public executions and torture throughout time. St. Louis Cathedral sits in the square and is the oldest Cathedral in North America.
Browse The French Market
The French Market is a market and series of commercial buildings spanning six blocks in the French Quarter. Founded as a Native American trading post predating European colonization, the market is the oldest of its kind in the United States.
See A Jazz Show At Preservation Hall
Watching a jazz show at Preservation Hall is one of the top things to do in New Orleans! New Orleans is the home of jazz music, and although it can be heard throughout the entire city, this music venue is a must. Located right next to Pat O’s, this music hall was founded in the 1960s and puts on over 300 performances a year. The hall sells tickets for as cheap as $25 for standing General Admission, and can get quite pricey if you choose to sit front row. The hall only holds about 30 people and doesn’t allow phones or even drinks, so it’s a super authentic and unique experience.
Pro-tip: We paid $25 for standing room only, but quite a few people ended up not showing up so we were able to sit fairly close to the front for no additional charge. I wouldn’t spend too much here, you will be close to the front no matter where you sit. Make sure you book tickets online and in advance for this activity.
Visit Lafayette Cemetery
Lafayette Cemetery #1 is New Orlean’s most well-known above ground cemetery. New Orleans is a below sea level city and experiences floods (and devastating hurricanes) often, so the cemeteries here are above ground to prevent coffins from breaking through the soil when inundated with water. This cemetery has been a popular filming location for movies and TV shows such as the Original’s – a spin-off of the Vampire Diaries and one of my favorites!
Walk Magazine Street In Garden District
Take a cable car from Canal Street and step outside of the French Quarter for the day to the Garden District. The Garden District got it name from the Civil War era homes located here. Magazine Street is the main commercial street that runs through this area and has some fun thrift stores, coffee shops, and bars to explore. It’s located about 0.2 miles from Lafayette Cemetery.
Go To Mardi Gras World
The last activity I recommend on this list of the top things to do in New Orleans is to visit Mardi Gras World! Mardi Gras World is a museum, warehouse, and interactive experience showcasing all the Mardi Gras floats used in parades. The experience provides you with beads, King Cake, and an informational film followed by a walk through the warehouse. Aside from seeing floats from years past, be prepared to watch talented artists work on the floats to be used in upcoming parades. These floats require a full year of work and planning, so I’m sure you’ll see artists busy at work no matter when you visit. We saw artists carving the floats out of styrofoam, creating papier-mâché, and painting.
Fun fact: I’ve mentioned King Cake quite a few times in this post. Mardi Gras World is an excellent place to try a piece, although most cafes serve it during Mardi Gras season. King Cake is a delicious New Orleans tradition that involves a pastry cake, a small plastic baby, and a celebration. The King Cake is baked with a small plastic baby hidden inside, and tradition says that whoever finds the baby in their slice must host the next party!
That covers my top things to do in New Orleans blog post! I hope you have a wonderful trip to the Big Easy, and leave any questions in the comments below! Also, let me know if you use this blog post to help you plan your trip. These are my favorite DMs to receive each week!
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