15 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in New Orleans
New Orleans is one of America's most unique cities, with a vibe you simply can't find anywhere else. Known the world over for jazz music, Cajun cuisine, and outrageous Mardi Gras celebrations, the city is a melting pot of cultures with a diversity that is reflected in everything from the music and food to the language and architecture.
Most of the action for tourists is centered around the French Quarter, with the infamous Bourbon Street at the heart of the district. Along the Mississippi River, which borders the French Quarter to the south, are horse-drawn carriages waiting to take visitors on a tour, the Steamboat Natchez docked along the shore, and tourists lined up to buy beignets. Beyond the French Quarter, the city has many quaint areas worth exploring, from the trendy Warehouse District to the posh Garden District.
New Orleans is a great walking city, with many attractions located in or near the French Quarter, but to explore the Garden District, you may want to hop on a historic street car. Buses are also a great way to get around, particularly for visiting attractions like the zoo that are further afield.
See also: Where to Stay in New Orleans
1 French Quarter
The French Quarter of New Orleans is what most tourists come to see when they visit the city. Set along a bend on the Mississippi River, the main attraction here is the architecture, but it is also a great area for dining and entertainment. The old buildings, some of which date back 300 years, show French influences, with arcades, wrought iron balconies, red-tiled roofs, and picturesque courtyards. Many of these buildings now contain hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, galleries, and a profusion of jazz spots with entertainment of varying quality.
The most famous street in the French Quarter is Bourbon Street, but it is not necessarily the highlight of the area. This street is relatively benign by day but at night transforms into a loud and boisterous pedestrian area that may not always feel safe. Royal Street offers a great mix of history, fine cuisine, and unique shopping opportunities, with some higher end stores, galleries, and hotels. One of the notable buildings on Royal Street is the Court of Two Sisters (1832), now a restaurant known for its jazz brunch. To hear some quality musicians playing traditional jazz music, Frenchmen Street is the place to go. Good restaurants can also be found along here, and artists frequent the area.
Also not to be missed in the French Quarter are Jackson Square and St Louis Cathedral, located just off the waterfront. Buskers, musicians, and artists set up around the square.
2 Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras is New Orleans' signature event, with celebrations that span a two-week period, ending with the finale on shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Celebrations include almost daily parades and all kinds of entertainment and festivities that increase in intensity as the event draws closer to the end. Onlookers crowd the balconies and sidewalks to watch the parades and catch strings of beaded necklaces tossed from the outrageously decorated floats. Bourbon Street is one of the main areas where people congregate, but the whole French Quarter is generally packed. The tradition was introduced to the city by French settlers and became particularly popular by the end of the 19th century.
3 National WWII Museum
The National WWII Museum is an outstanding museum with engaging exhibits and documentary snippets that tell the history of WWII as it was fought in Europe and in the Pacific. The museum is divided into three sections, with one section devoted to the war in the Pacific, another devoted to the war in Europe, and a third building that houses WWII aircraft. A film entitled Beyond All Boundaries, produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, is shown in the 4D Theater, with chairs that rumble as tanks go by on the screen, and stage props that turn the film into a full on sensory experience. As visitors move from room to room through the exhibits, short black-and-white documentary style film segments give a real life look at how the items on display were involved in the war. Oral histories add to the impact. Each visitor is assigned a profile of someone who was in the war, and oral updates are available at stations throughout the complex to follow the soldier's progression through war time. Also part of the complex is the Stage Door Canteen, featuring entertainment from the 1940s, with matinees and dinner shows.
Address: 945 Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
4 Jackson Square
Jackson Square is the main square in the heart of the French Quarter, originally known as Place d'Armes. In the center of the square, surrounded by trees and greenery, is an equestrian statue (1856) of General Andrew Jackson. Standing prominently at one end of the square is the landmark St. Louis Cathedral, with its white façade and cone shaped spires. Also in the vicinity of the cathedral are the Presbytere and Cabildo, both Louisiana State Museums. The area in front of the cathedral, along the iron fence that surrounds the square, has long been an artist's hang out, and nearby are shops and restaurants, making it a popular spot for tourists.
The whole area is very attractively laid out along the banks of the Mississippi, with the Riverboat Docks, the promenade known as the Moon Walk, and the Millhouse, as well as a variety of stores.
5 Preservation Hall
Preservation Hall is an unassuming old building that has long been an institution in New Orleans known for jazz music. The historic hall still features traditional jazz by local artists. The building is small, creating an intimate setting, and seating is limited. Opening times and events are listed on the door each day, so if you are walking past in the afternoon you can see what's happening in the evening.
Address: 726 St Peter Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
6 St Louis Cathedral
On the north side of Jackson Square is the St Louis Cathedral, a landmark structure in New Orleans. It was built in 1794 on the site of two earlier churches and is known for being the United States' oldest cathedral in continuous use. Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1987.
The church was built through contributions from Don Andres Almonester de Roxas, a Frenchman who spent money from his fortune to rebuild New Orleans after the second great fire.
Address: Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana
7 City Park
New Orleans City Park covers more than 1,300 acres and contains numerous attractions, including the New Orleans Botanical Garden and the New Orleans Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden. Of Particular interest to kids and families are the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, Storyland, and the newly added City Splash water park, which is still a work in progress. Also on site are tennis courts and an 18-hole golf course, as well as beautiful areas for walking. The park claims to have one of the world's largest stands of mature live oak trees, with one that is almost 800 years old.
8 Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo
The Cabildo, to the left of St. Louis Cathedral, was built in 1795 as the residence of the Spanish governor. It is noteworthy both as a historic building and for the museum and its outstanding collection. The first town council met here in 1799, and the Louisiana Purchase was agreed to here in 1803. It was at one time the Louisiana Supreme Court, but today the Cabildo houses the Louisiana State Museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum's collections focus largely on the history of New Orleans and Louisiana, particularly the people of Louisiana and the many ethnic groups that make up the population today.
Address: 701 Charles Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
9 Garden District
The Garden District is a prosperous residential area with lovely mansions, mature trees, and lush gardens, and is probably, in some respects, the stereotypical image many foreigners have of the Deep South. The area can be easily explored on foot and some companies offer guided tours, which can be a good way to learn the history and see the sights. First Street, Camp Street, and Prytania Street are some good places to see large, elegant 19th-century houses with extensive grounds. Some famous celebrities have homes in this area. Most visitors come to enjoy the tranquil environment and see the houses, but there are also boutiques and coffee shops in the area, although they are spread out, and finding a lunch spot may be more difficult than expected.
Southwest of the Garden District is Audubon Park, named in 1886. It was established on the grounds of what had been the site of the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884. Within the park are fine stands of oaks, the Audubon Zoo, hothouses, the Audubon Golf Club, a number of small lakes, and plenty of open green space.
10 Steamboat Natchez
A cruise on the paddle steamer Steamboat Natchez is a wonderful way to experience the Mississippi River and a unique way to see and learn about the city. The harbor cruises take about two hours and provide narration on the sites, with an optional lunch of creole cuisine. The dinner cruise features a live jazz band, buffet-style dinner, and of course, wonderful views of New Orleans.
Special events cruises are also available seasonally, with special cruises offered for such occasions as Easter, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Christmas, and other holidays.
It's a good idea, particularly during high season, to book a Steamboat Natchez Harbor Cruise in advance. This tour guarantees your spot on the boat and also the lowest prices.
11 Mardi Gras World
New Orleans is world famous for its elaborate Mardi Gras celebrations, drawing people from all over the world who come to enjoy the festivities that consume the city during this time period. For a glimpse of what's involved behind the scenes in this huge event, visitors can take a Mardi Gras World tour to see working studios. The Blaine Kern Studios is one of the leading producers of floats in the world and is highly involved in the Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans each year. Visitors can see sculptured props, huge floats, outrageous costumes, and all kinds of figures. This is a great way to gain a good sense of the size, color, and imagination that goes into the floats and the parade. Guided tours are offered regularly each day through the workshops where artists and sculptors work.
Address: 1380 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, Louisiana
12 New Orleans Museum of Art
In the south part of City Park is the New Orleans Museum of Art, one of the finest of its kind in the South. The museum features an excellent collection of French and American art, as well as African and Japanese pieces. Also, check the museum's calendar for temporary exhibitions and a variety of themes. On site and another of the institutions highlights is the outdoor Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, with more than 60 sculptures, as well as walking paths, lagoons, and mature live oak trees.
Address: One Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park, New Orleans, Louisiana
13 Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
Along the waterfront in downtown New Orleans, within walking distance of the French Quarter, the aquarium focuses on species found in North, Central, and South America. Beginning in the north, visitors can learn about creatures that lurk below the surface of the nearby surrounding waters, with exhibits that highlight freshwater fish of the Mississippi River and marine life from the Gulf of Mexico. This includes everything from sharks and stingrays to sea turtles. The Great Maya Reef can be viewed from a 30-foot-long walk-through tunnel and is designed to look like a sunken Maya city, with fish swimming among the ruins. The Amazon Rainforest offers a look at the colorful birds, exotic fish, and even the snakes of this region of South America. Always popular are the sea otters and penguins, as well as the wildlife encounter programs. Available as optional extras are hands-on experiences with the African penguins and a chance to SCUBA dive or snorkel the Great Maya Reef.
Address: 1 Canal Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
14 Audubon Zoo
The Audubon Zoo is a fun escape from the busy city, with lush grounds and a good selection of domestic and exotic animals. Located in Uptown New Orleans, the zoo is a fair distance from the French Quarter but provides a good excuse to see this part of the city. Some of the most popular residents of the zoo are the giraffes, jaguars, leopards, orangutans, elephants, rhinos, lemurs, and alligators (including the rare white alligator) just to name a few..During the summer months, the zoo offers a chance to cool off in the splash park, known as the Cool Zoo.
Address: 6500 Magazine Street, New Orleans, Louisiana
15 Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
The Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve consists of six physically separate sites in southeastern Louisiana. Two of these sites are in the New Orleans area and are well worth a visit. The Barataria Preserve offers a chance to see some of Louisiana's natural treasures. The preserve consists of natural levee forests, bayous, swamps, and marshes. Archeological sites here have been found to contain remnants of the ancient Troyville, Marksville, and Tchefuncte cultures. For a more historical experience, the Chalmette Battlefield preserves the site of the January 8, 1815 Battle of New Orleans, which was a decisive American victory over the British at the end of the War of 1812.
Where to Stay in New Orleans for Sightseeing
To experience the real charm of New Orleans, the best place to stay is in the famous French Quarter. Many of the hotels here are housed in historic buildings and exude their own unique character. Below are some highly-rated hotels in or near the French Quarter.
- Luxury Hotels: In a great location at the foot of Royal Street is the historic Hotel Monteleone, a landmark building in the French Quarter, built in 1886. This high-end luxury hotel offers a variety of rooms and suites and a rooftop heated pool. The recently renovated Omni Royal Orleans is another elegant top-end hotel with a fabulous location in the French Quarter. With a more contemporary feel, the Hyatt French Quarter is located in the heart of the action, just off Bourbon Street, and within easy walking distance of the city's major attractions.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In the heart of the French Quarter but offering a peaceful and quiet experience is the Hotel Mazarin. With a quaint courtyard; an outstanding complimentary breakfast; and large, luxurious rooms; this hotel is perfect if you don't need a pool. Also well positioned in the French Quarter and offering a free breakfast is the Hotel Le Marais, with a beautiful courtyard; small pool; and secure, quiet rooms. One block north of Bourbon Street Grenoble House has only 17 suites but offers a charming atmosphere, with exposed brick walls, tasteful decor, and an outdoor pool.
- Budget Hotels: At the high end of the budget range but well positioned in the French Quarter is the Inn on St. Ann, with classic New Orleans style architecture featuring wrought iron balconies, exposed brick walls, and antique decor. In a similar style and with a convenient location on the edge of the French Quarter is the Inn on St. Peter. Outside the French Quarter but only a five-minute drive away is The Treme Hotel, with basic but comfortable rooms.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to New Orleans
- Sightseeing: To see the sites at your own pace and learn a little of the city's fascinating history, the best option is to take a Hop-on Hop-off Tour on an open-top, double-decker sightseeing bus. This tour stops at 18 locations around the city and gives you the option to get off wherever you like, or you can choose to stay on the bus for the full two-hour loop. Also part of this tour is a guided walking tour of the Garden District.
- Bayou Tours: Getting out into bayou country is one of the most popular things to do around New Orleans. The Swamp and Bayou Sightseeing Tour with Boat Ride from New Orleans is the easiest way to experience the beauty of the bayou, with transportation right from the French Quarter to the wetlands. Visitors are then taken on a two-hour wildlife-viewing boat ride through the swamps, with opportunities to see alligators, snakes, birds, and other animals. Total tour time is about four hours. Another option, if you are looking for more of a thrill ride, is a New Orleans Airboat Ride. This two-hour fast-paced ride takes guests through the cypress swampland, not far from Jean Lafitte National Historical Park. Tours are offered in the morning or afternoon, and visitors can choose a small or large-boat tour (eight person or 25 person tours).