Things to do in New Orleans

Must-see New Orleans sights

Swathed in the romance of pirates, voodoo, late-night jazz and Mardi Gras, New Orleans is undeniably special.

  1. Mardi Gras
  2. Preservation Hall
  3. Swamp tours
  4. The French Quarter
  5. Cities of the Dead
  6. National World War II Museum

The hub of Louisiana is infused with a dizzying jumble of cultures and influences, with a history of both French and Spanish rule. The “Big Easy” likes to party, so you may find yourself bouncing around bars till dawn, dancing to great jazz and gorging on garlicky Creole food. But along with its famed joie de vivre, there’s a wistfulness here too – as seen in the peeling facades of the old French Quarter and in the cemeteries lined with crumbling above-ground tombs.

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1. Mardi Gras

Loads of New Orleans package holidays are aimed at the carnival season; especially its magnificent, costumed, beaded and feathered world-famous street party Mardi Gras. This period of revelry starts on Twelfth Night, January 6, and runs for the six weeks or so until Ash Wednesday. Though the name is used to define the entire season, Mardi Gras itself, French for “Fat Tuesday”, is the culmination of a whirl of parades, parties, street revels and masked balls, all tied up with the city’s labyrinthine social, racial and political structures.

Tip: Don’t miss the flinging of “throws”, where krewe members scatter beads, toys and coins from parade floats into the crowds.

2. Preservation Hall

A live jazz, funk, soul or swing concert is on everyone’s list of what to do in New Orleans. At this quintessential, rollicking jazz joint, the music (and crowd) heats up as the night grows late. Hosted in a tumble-down old building, with just a few hard benches for seating, this authentic venue has long been lauded as the best place in New Orleans to hear trad jazz. The music is joyous, building steam as the night goes on – queues form well before the doors open. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, founded here in the early 1960s, still occasionally performs here in addition to touring around the country. Generally, nightly sets at 5pm, 6pm, 8pm, 9pm & 10pm.

Tip: There’s no bar inside, so grab a drink before you head in.

3. Swamp tours

Look beyond the city centre for things to do in New Orleans. Nature is quick to take over here, and atmospheric swamps are a stone’s throw from urban life. Watch out for alligators lurking in the ghostly, Spanish-moss-shaded bayous. Many of the swamps are just a half-hour drive from downtown, and these otherworldly enclaves that provide a wonderful contrast to the city itself. The Barataria Preserve, in Marrero, south of the Mississippi River is one of the most poplar places to join a tour.

Tip: Dr Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours offers a chance to see nutrias (semi-aquatic rodents), black bears and alligators.

4. The French Quarter

The beautiful French Quarter is where New Orleans began in 1718. Today, battered and bohemian, decaying and vibrant, it remains the spiritual core of the city. Its cast-iron balconies, hidden courtyards and time-stained stucco buildings exerting a fascination that has long caught the imagination of artists and writers. A stroll around here is still one of the best things to do in New Orleans; early morning, in the pearly light from the river, is a good time to explore. At just 13 blocks wide, it’s smaller than you might expect, with shops, restaurants and bars clustered between Decatur and Bourbon streets. The Lower Quarter has a certain mystique with quiet, residential streets, where the LGBTQ community lives side by side with elegant dowagers, young professionals and scruffy artists and writers.

Tip: Restaurants around here fully embrace the city’s Cajun, Creole, and French roots.

5. Cities of the Dead

New Orleans doesn’t just celebrate the living: it also celebrates the dead, in grandly moody and ornate cemeteries that offer a fascinating foray into the city’s past. Wander through one of these elegantly decaying sites, past detailed ironwork, sun-bleached tombs (burials are mostly above-ground because of the swampy land) and winged statues rising up against the blue sky, and you’ll understand why cemeteries here are called “Cities of the Dead”. The numbers are impressive: New Orleans has 40 historic cemeteries, five of them listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the famous St. Louis No. 1, which dates from 1789 and is the final resting place of many famous New Orleanians, including voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.

Tip: Visit the cemeteries on All Saints’ Day on Nov 1, when families decorate loved ones’ tombs with fragrant flowers.

6. National World War II Museum

The colossal National World War II Museum opened on June 6, 2000, the 56th anniversary of D-Day. The volunteers who help run the museum are ex-service personnel, and they can fill you in on war history while you weave your way through exhibits of weaponry, heartrending soldier keepsakes and media stations with oral histories. It’s worth paying extra for the Victory Theater’s “Beyond All Boundaries” 4-D movie, a sombre film, narrated by Tom Hanks, which is overlaid with light-hearted super-effects such as shaking seats and billowing smoke.

Tip: Set a whole afternoon aside for this amazing exhibition; the exhibition is so gripping it’s impossible to speed through.

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