Fantastic music, fantastic food, easy-going and rule unto itself New Orleans is one of the few true cultural experiences (in my opinion) you can have in the US. There is nowhere else I have traveled that you can really compare it to; I mean, where else can you find cemeteries that are tourist attractions, voodoo and undead tours as a booming industry, world-renowned food and cocktails and the epicenter of a musical culture all in one city! Try not to spend any less than three days in New Orleans; to do so wouldn’t do it justice and rushing certainly isn’t the way to things round these parts!
Louis Armstrong International Airport is only about 18 miles outside of downtown New Orleans and has a fairly decent spread of public transport options. Whilst the Amtrak train can’t get you to and from the airport there are currently two different bus options costing only a couple of dollars (Jefferson Transit Authority (JET) or the Regional Transit Authority (RTA)). Both are likely to take about 40-50 minutes to reach downtown and more detailed route maps can be found on their websites which I’ve put in the additional resource section. You pick both options up on Level two of the terminal outside Concourse C. Alternatively, if you have a whole heap of luggage and don’t want to hassle of trying to find your hotel then a taxi is a good bet; particularly because they are fixed fare to downtown which takes out all of the mystery and the potential to haggle (I found this out after trying to aggressively haggle thinking the fixed fare was just the drivers opening offer!). Finally, if you’re a solo traveler and the taxi option seems a bit over-budget then you can always take a shuttle (the ticket booth for the shuttle is on the first floor after heading our through baggage claim).
New Orleans is, for the most part, extremely hot and extremely humid. Whilst most of your time will likely be spent in the French Quarter (and therefore easy walking) there are a number of sights and attractions out of immediate waking distance under the particularly sweaty circumstances. One option is to hop on one of the street car lines which are a bit of tourist attraction in their own right. There are three lines (St. Charles, Canal Street, and the Riverfront) all of which terminate downtown and you can buy one day, three day and one month passes. Alternatively, if you’re a fan of hop-on-hop-off buses then New Orleans has one that covers most of what you’d want to see. It also incorporates 3 guided walking tours of the French Quarter, Garden Quarter and Lafayette Cemetery #1; so as bus tours go this one is pretty comprehensive and fairly decent value for money.
If you plan on visiting a number of sights they have admission prices then you might want to consider looking at the New Orleans Pass to see if it can save you any money. It certainly isn’t cheap (not by any stretch of the imagination) but their website certainly makes a convincing case for its cost-effectiveness (I myself didn’t buy it, but I can see how it could be good value for money). It can be purchased over a number of days (1, 2, 3 or 5 day denominations to be precise) and includes most of the pay-for attractions including Mardi Gras World, a swamp tour, a bus tour, Oak Alley Plantation tour tour, a trip on a paddle wheeler up the Mississippi, a haunted history walking tour, a guided tour of St Louis #1 Cemetery and a cooking class. I recommend a number of these in my suggested activities below, so if you end up doing most of them there are significant savings to be made.
According to CNN approximately 1.4 million people are drawn to New Orleans each year for Mardi Gras. The annual festivities begin on January 6 during what is technically known as the “Carnival”. Carnival then reaches its peak on Fat Tuesday (which is a different date each year) and ends the following day on Ash Wednesday (the start of Lent). If you want to visit New Orleans during all of the festivities then you’ll need to plan well advance as hotels book up ridiculously early (and can be a fairly expensive proposition). If you’re interested in finding out more about New Orleans during the Mardi Gras time of year then look no further than this excellent website.
The French Quarter: The French Quarter really is at the center of everything you think of when you imagine New Orleans. Home to Bourbon Street, restaurants, bars, live music into the small hours and to New Orleans most famous French architecture and landmarks. You could easily spend at least one whole day exploring the French Quarter (more if you want to see absolutely everything it has to offer). The must-see sights include Jackson Square (where you’ll find street entertainment and pavement artists), St. Louis Cathedral, the Steamboat Natchez, The French Market, the Farmers and Flea Market and the Presbytère Museum. Beyond those major landmarks you’ll likely spend hours just wandering the street, listening to music and indulging in so many rounds of food and drink that it’ll be difficult to make it back to your accommodation.
Voodoo Tours: You only have to hang around in Bourbon Street for ten minutes before you’re likely accosted by someone touting a voodoo, ghost, un-dead, spiritual, or combination thereof, tour. If you aren’t and want to try then then head over to Reverend Zombie’s House of Voodoo to book one (yes, that’s a real place). Some of the tours offered are serious factual tours about the history and background of voodoo whilst others pander a little more to preconceptions and are meant more as entertainment. Either way, it’ll likely see you pounding the pavement around the French Quarter with guides sharing stories, witnessing rituals and meeting practicing voodoo priests. Maybe not exactly a great night out with the kids, but if you’re a consenting adult then grab a hurricane before you depart and enjoy!
New Orleans’ Cemeteries: Because of New Orleans’ ‘swampiness’ above-ground cemeteries became the norm and these ‘cities of the dead’ have become a bit of a tourist attraction in the modern day. The most well-known of these weirdly macabre but highly engrossing tourist attractions is St Louis Cemetery #1; mostly because it’s home to Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. It’s definitely worth joining a guided tour to make sure you get the backstory to above-ground cemeteries and their residents. As mentioned above, you could always join the guided tour of Lafayette Cemetery #1 if you buy a ticket for the hop-on-hop-off bus.
Steamboat up the Mississippi: Nothing screams Mississippi more than taking a ride up the river in a steamboat. Perhaps the most famous is the Steamboat Natchez. Departing from the Toulouse Street Wharf behind Jax Brewery, you’ll gently paddle (not literally you, obviously) up the river past the city and settle in for dinner or brunch accompanied by live music. The Jazz brunch is a winner.
Food, Food…and Drink: The list could potentially be endless, but when you go to the Big Easy it’s all about the food and music. My personal food and drink favourites are Bananas Foster (Brennan’s or Palace Café), Beignets (Café Du Monde in the French Market), Muffulettas (Central Grocery), Po-Boys (Ye Olde College Inn) and Jambalaya (take your pick!). You can always work all the calories off dancing on Bourbon Street later while sipping on a hurricane (definitely Pat ‘O Briens but be careful; they pack a definite punch; as one of our group found out).
Music: Bourbon Street is the obvious domain of the tourist, but you should definitely venture away from Bourbon Street for something a little more ‘local’. Frenchman Street is just the ticket and live music can be found pretty much every night. It’s also much cheaper (or free) to see live music on Frenchman in comparison to Bourbon Street. Obviously, none of this is meant to say don’t do Bourbon Street; in fact, any trip that doesn’t spend at least one night through to early morning on Bourbon is sacrilegious.
Mardi Gras World: If you aren’t in New Orleans during Mardi Gras but want to learn more about the festival, and see first-hand the effort that goes into carnival preparations each year, then look no further than Mardi Gras World. Led by a guide, you’ll get to learn more about the history of the festive together with a behind the scenes tour through the artists’ studios where all of the floats for the parade are made. The huge site is located just outside of downtown but admission includes a free shuttle from 20 different pick-up spots. Each tour is about an hour long and comes with a delicious slice of King Cake.
Oak Alley Plantation: OK, so not strictly in New Orleans (it’s about an hour’s drive), but how could you come to Louisiana and not visit a plantation house? There are a large number of options around the New Orleans area but after a decent amount of research I choose to visit Oak alley which is one seriously photogenic plantation house! The guided tours are really informative and conducted in period dress. Sure, it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it provides a little insight in to the history of slavery, the regional sugar industry that lined the Mississippi and the grandeur that the elite classes experienced (for film buffs you can also learn more about the multitudes of movies shot here). The Oak Alley website provides a handy list of transportation providers who will whisk you from downtown to the plantation if you don’t happen to have a rental car.
Swap Tours: If Cajun country is famous for something other than its food, music and hospitality then it’s probably its hot, sweaty swamps and bayous. From spotting Louisiana’s famous alligators from the serenity of a pontoon boat to the high octane speed of an airboat you can be out of New Orleans and into the wilderness in a matter of moments. Local companies offer a whole host of tours departing from the city. A great place to start perusing the options is the Viator website.
TRA Route Map and Information: http://www.norta.com/getattachment/Maps-Schedules/April-2016-Transit-Service-Enhancements/route_202.pdf.aspx
JET Website: http://www.jeffersontransit.org/
Airport Shuttle Website: http://www.airportshuttleneworleans.com/
New Orleans Pass Website: https://www.neworleanspass.com/
Oak Alley Plantation Website: http://www.oakalleyplantation.com/
New Orleans Online Coupons: http://www.neworleansonline.com/tools/coupons.html
Steamboat Natchez Website: http://www.steamboatnatchez.com/
Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus: http://www.citysightseeingneworleans.com/