What to do in New Orleans for First-Time Visitors

by Madam ZoZo

New Orleans, aka NOLA, The Big Easy, Crescent City, is undoubtedly one of my favourite cities in North America. When you touch down in Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport, it almost feels like you’ve arrived in another country. The culture and history of NOLA is unfathomably unique and cannot be compared to anywhere else I’ve been in the world. Now if you are just going down to The Big Easy to party (and there is nothing wrong with that), read no further. This post is for first-time visitors who really want to dive deep into the remarkable history, architecture, food and music of this great city. There is so much on offer, it can be overwhelming especially on a short timeframe, so here is my guide on what to do in New Orleans for NOLA neophytes.

Disclosure: I may earn compensation from the purchase of any product or service linked on this website, at no extra cost to you. I only link to products I use and love, therefore feel comfortable recommending.

Begin in the French Quarter

There is no better place to begin than New Orleans’ vieux carré (“old square” in French). Of course, this is the home of infamous Bourbon Street and you will want to take a look at that even just out of morbid curiosity. You need to do nothing more than walk Bourbon and its surrounding streets to find entertainment. Not only is the architecture and urban landscape a spectacle, but the people it attracts are a diverse bunch of revellers, entertainers and scoundrels. You will find great musicians busking on the sidewalk, party animals stumbling between bars, people in strange costumes and more often than not, some sort of parade or festival. Make sure you check out Jackson Square, window shop the gorgeous antique stores and recharge with some beignets and a café au lait at Café Du Monde.

Quiet French Quarter streetscape
French Quarter architecture
Black car driving up busy Bourbon St with lady in Easter Bonnet and holding a parasol
Always an excuse for a parade... Easter Sunday in Bourbon St
St Louis Cathedral with Jackson statue in foreground
St Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square

Taste the melting pot

Dive head first into the local food scene! Louisiana’s history has seen many different cultural influences and New Orleans is the centre of the melting pot. As a result, there are many unique dishes that have been born in the region, and that are rarely found anywhere else in North America or the world for that matter. Take this opportunity to try as much of the local fare as you can. Fill up on dishes like gumbo, jambalaya and po’boys. Don’t know where to start? See my recommendation in this list of must-eat New Orleans foods.

Bowl of Gumbo with bread on the side and slice of pecan pie in the background
Gumbo at Mother's Restaurant, New Orleans
White plate piled high with beignets and two disposable coffee cups reading Cafe Du Monde
Beignets at Cafe du Monde

Sip and sightsee

Some insist New Orleans is the birthplace of the cocktail. That has been proven false, but it is the origin of some really great mixed drinks that you should absolutely investigate while in town. Try these classic New Orleans cocktails while out and about in The Big Easy. If you are short on time, you might even like to combine your drinking with a historic tour of the French Quarter. There are several walking tours that offer a chance to sip your way around the historic district and learn some its heritage along the way.

Woman holding cocktail at bar with carousel canopy
Cheers to Vieux Carrés at the Carousel Bar!
Vieux Carré in glass on napkin
Vieux Carré

Music! Music! Music!

Less disputed is that New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and nowhere is it easier to find great live music than The Big Easy. Make your way to one of the nightly shows at Preservation Hall where the house Jazz Band preserve and perform traditional New Orleans Jazz (also referred to as Dixieland Jazz). Then move on to Frenchmen Street where you’ll find wonderful live performances in a number of styles throughout the restaurants and bars.

8-piece band playing in a French Quarter street
Eight Dice Cloth performing in Royal St
Jazz band playing in corner of restaurant with copper ceiling
Lunchtime jazz at Bamboula's on Frenchmen St
Large scale painting of an upside down clarinet running up the side of multi-story building
Holiday Inn's ode to the birthplace of jazz with this giant clarinet mural

Take a breather in the Garden District

Take a couple of hours to explore beyond the French Quarter by taking the trolley down to the Garden District. The largely residential area is a peaceful place to take a breather after a couple of days spent in the French Quarter flurry. Wander through Lafayette Cemetery and take in the unbelievable architecture along oak-lined streets. Magazine Street is a great place to shop and dine.

Brown sign explaining Garden District historic status
Oak-lined Garden District street
Oak-lined Garden District street
Woman in blue standing against black iron fence with revival mansion in background
Exploring Garden District architecture

Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’ on the River

If you still have time in your itinerary, make your way down to the banks of the Mississippi River and even take a ride on the Steamboat Natchez. Unfortunately, our schedule didn’t line up with the cruise timetable so we missed out, but I’m longing to go out on the Mississippi and sing “left a good job in the city…” Do it for me, will you?

An empty, red cargo ship approaches a large bridge across the Mississippi River
A cargo ship approaches the Crescent City Connection on the Mississippi River

Additional notes on what to do (or not do) in New Orleans

When to visit New Orleans

New Orleans is the city of festivals. Carnival (Mardi Gras), Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest… the list goes on. Chances are that if you visit during one of these events, you will be caught up in the festivities (rightly so) and won’t get a chance to see much of the city. Consider what you want to experience when planning the timing and length of your stay. See a list of upcoming festivals here. Also, be wary of summer heat and humidity if you don’t cope well with hotter temperatures. Find more detailed climate information here.

Where to stay in New Orleans

We have stayed both on the CBD side of Canal Street and in the French Quarter. If you are a light sleeper, choose the CBD side for a better night’s rest, it will only cost you an extra 5-10mins walk. For those staying in the French Quarter, take a pair of earplugs. I sleep like a log and was still woken during the night, by a weed seller doing 2am laps around our hotel block blasting his music.

Safety and security

New Orleans has a lot of high crime-rate neighbourhoods. Do a little research on which places to avoid. You only have to wander a block or two in the wrong direction to end up in a risky location.

Unfortunately, like many highly touristed places, New Orleans also draws the hustlers and petty crooks. Take time to read my tips on travel security and be conscious of common scams and pickpockets.

Plan a trip to New Orleans

Find flights to Louis Armstrong New Orleans Airport (MSY) with Skyscanner.

Search for accommodation using Tripadvisor.

Don’t forget travel insurance, I recommend Seven Corners or World Nomads.

Have a blast absorbing everything in New Orleans. I hope you find this guide helpful and if you think I’ve missed any essential “what to do in New Orleans” items, please drop me a line in the comments below.

Peace, love & inspiring travel,

Madam ZoZo

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