Louisiana is renowned for having more European culture than any other American state, and locals are proud of having a unique way of life. The population is a mix of African, American Indian, and European settlers all blending and sharing their experiences like no other place in the country. Indeed, the city has a peculiar history. Founded and settled by the French in 1718, New Orleans was first a French settlement. Then it became a Spanish settlement and then back to French. In 1803, Napoleon sold it to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Although the connection with France was terminated, the city retained the customs and traditions.
New Orleans, known for Mardi Gras and late-night jazz concerts, has the reputation as the ultimate grown-up party destination. Although many people don’t think of “The Big Easy” as a first choice when traveling with kids, it is certainly a family-friendly city. After our first visit in 2017, we have been back a couple of times. Each visit brings a new discovery. We have appreciated the centennial architecture in the French Quarter and in the Garden District, tasted the appealing Creole cuisine, visited museums, rode streetcars, enjoyed lively music, and visited parks. The three of us love our time there.
After being in the Crescent City a few times, we’ve had a chance to experience the best that the city has to offer. I’m excited to tell you what we have discovered in New Orleans as a family.
Best things to do in New Orleans
1. Ride the streetcars
When in New Orleans, we mostly walk or take the streetcars everywhere. Streetcars are not only convenient but also so much fun to ride. Our favorite ride was on St. Charles when we rode it from one end to the other and back. The open windows, wooden chairs, and old-style, exposed gears combined with the remarkable architecture seen on each side of the street made us feel like we were traveling back in time. In fact, the streetcars in New Orleans are the oldest, active—now electric—streetcars in the world. It was definitely a one-of-a-kind experience for our family. Find streetcar tickets information here.
2. Wander in the vibrant neighborhood of the French Quarter
The French Quarter is a vibrant neighborhood. The exceptional architecture, with iron balconies, columns, brick exteriors, and vibrant doors accommodates hotels, restaurants, shops, antique stores, boutiques, and bars. On the streets, local artists display their artwork and music. While walking around, we could hear jazz pulsating from all directions. The music was fantastic! The city center was cheerful both day and night with bars and restaurants staying open long hours. In spite of loving it all, we thought that the famous Bourbon Street is overrated. It was filthy and smelled terrible in some areas.
3. Stroll through Jackson Square
Jackson Square, called the heart of New Orleans, is a good place to start enjoying the city’s culture and traditions. After visiting the oldest cathedral in the United States, St. Louis Cathedral, we strolled through manicured gardens and promenades. Then, we reached the west side of Jackson Square and had an expansive view of the Mississippi River which flows from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.
After cherishing our time in Jackson Square, we checked out the levees. New Orleans is located below sea-level, and new, massive levees have been built to prevent the city from turning into a swamp, and also to prevent a repeat of the tragic devastation which occurred during Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. The original levees had been designed for Category 3 hurricanes, but Katrina attacked as a Category 5 with 175 mph winds and a 20-ft storm surge which crashed through the levees, burying New Orleans in total devastation. During this horrific New Orleans catastrophe, a total of 1,836 people lost their lives (1,577 in Louisiana and 238 in Mississippi).
4. Taste beignets at Cafe du Monde
The signature pastry of New Orleans, the beignets from Café du Monde is something not to be missed. Sure, it is touristy, but why not? The line was long but moved very quickly. We ordered and paid at the table. It was almost immediately that our order with three beignets, hot chocolate, and chicory coffee came out. After tasting the puffy, fried dough, covered in powdered sugar, we understood why this place is on every attraction list in New Orleans. They are delicious! Interestingly, I’m pretty sure Cafe du Monde’s menu is limited to these three items.
After getting our sugar levels up, we had plenty of energy to stay on our feet. We walked to the French Market which is an open-air flea market with lots of vendors. There is nothing special about it, just a place to buy souvenirs and novelties. Even though most of the merchandise was cheap looking, it was still entertaining to look around.
5. Enjoy the Cajun cuisine at Commander’s Palace Restaurant
Dinner at Commander’s Palace is a must. Highly recommended by a friend, it exceeded our expectations. Boy, oh boy! First, the restaurant radiated old-fashioned charm, southern hospitality, and impeccable style. Then, our table was in the Garden Room, a beautiful space upstairs with views of trees through the windows. The upscale dining experience was completed with Cajun cuisine and drinks that were to die for. The service was unbeatable.
On a side note, Creoles are descendants of the early French and Spanish who settled in Louisiana. They often intermarried with other European immigrants, free people of color, and Native Americans. In a similar fashion, the Creole food is a blend of various cultures with a combination of spices from different lands, creamy soups, and sauces. Meanwhile, Cajuns are the French colonists who settled the Canadian maritime provinces. As these settlers named their region “Acadia,” and were known as Acadians, they were later called “Cajuns.” Admittedly, Creole and Cajun food have a lot in common. However, Creole cuisine is pointed out as “city food” while Cajun cuisine is often referred to as “country food.”
6. Go on a walking tour in the Garden District
Trying to explore other parts of the city, we attempted to take the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District where we would go for a walking tour through the neighborhood. The first part of the plan fell apart because a 10K run was routed near us, and the streetcar got blocked. Walking instead, the stretch through St. Charles Street was pleasant. It had a lively atmosphere with tourists strolling around, checking out the beautiful houses, enjoying the cafes and restaurants, and riding the charming streetcars. Although busy, it had a more laid-back feel than the French Quarter.
The 19th-century buildings in the Garden District were built on large pieces of land, allowing the owners to cultivate magnificent gardens; hence, the name of the neighborhood. The elegant Victorian-style houses date from the times when wealthy Americans hired influential architects to design their residences. Some of these homes are still known by the names of the families that built them over a century ago. It was fascinating to walk down the streets and see the well-preserved mansions that define the city’s architecture and history. To better understand the area’s history, we used this free walking tour which I highly recommend.
7. Visit the Mardi Gras World Museum
Mardi Gras World Museum houses Blaine Kern Studios, which has been creating Carnival floats since 1947. Beginning with an interesting 20-minute video explaining the history of Mardi Gras, the tour was followed by visitors trying on some Mardi Gras costumes available on site. During the guided tour through the warehouse, we saw how the incredibly detailed floats are created, from beginning to end. Many floats and props that have been used during previous parades were displayed all over the building. Beautiful pieces! After the tour was over, guests were free to wander around as long as they wanted.
8. Dine at Cochon Restaurant
Planning on dining at Cochon Butcher, we took, by mistake, an Uber to Cochon, another popular Cajun restaurant. We were already seated when we realized they were two different establishments. We stayed, and I have never been as happy as that day for making such an error. Learning that wood-fired, chargrilled oysters were one of the local specialties, we requested a dozen with chili garlic butter. WOW! They were so incredibly tasty. Next time, I will be sure to get my own order. We also had pork cheek with corn, oven-roasted Gulf fish fisherman style, and Louisiana cochon (piglet) with cabbage, cracklings, and pickled turnips. If you want to try real southern-style flavors, this is definitely a place to stop.
9. Spot wildlife at Jean Lafitte National Park
Before heading home, we drove through the Jean Lafitte National Park, just to see if it was worth a visit on our next trip to New Orleans. The verdict? Absolutely! Near the ranger station, we started on a short hike on a trail built above the swamp, and in less than an hour, we saw owls, snakes, alligators, lizards, crayfish, and spiders. We will definitely be back to explore this place a bit more. I’d love to walk to the very end of the wooden boardwalk, as well as travel through the waterways of the park on the swamp-boat tour that we had to postpone this time.