Know Before You Go - New Orleans Top Recommendations from a Local Guide
Updated: May 22
Broken into 3 great areas of town:
the French Quarter
the Garden District & Uptown region
the Bywater/Marigny neighborhoods
Places in pink, links in green
There's SO much to do in New Orleans. People often book a weekend, thinking they'll hit Bourbon St, see some music on Frenchmen, eat a ton and drink even more. Which is great, but then, if they've been good explorers and have chatted up the locals, they leave with a long list of things to do when they return "one day". So, I've made it easy! Below are some itineraries (with locations in pink) of my favorite things to do and see in New Orleans... Let me help you make the most of it, and see you next time, because you'll want to come back!
The French Quarter
It's less than 1 square mile of the city, but it's beautiful and old. Explore during the daytime for great photos of balconies and buskers. Royal St. is full of cool antique shops like Vintage 329 and galleries. The Historic New Orleans Collection offers amazing history exhibits and is often overlooked by tourists. Get your tarot or palm read in Jackson Square- even locals go to these folks for their readings and check out the local art by the vendors. You'll want to at least stroll Bourbon St. for the experience, but you won't feel the need to stay there long unless you are looking for a Spring Break vibe. After your mandatory trip down Bourbon (watch out for getting hustled by doormen and shot girls) hit the gay bars Bourbon Pub or Good Friends to sit on the balcony and people watch below.
Music: Inside the Quarter, you can't beat Fritzel's for a traditional European jazz experience often overlooked by tourists who flock to Preservation Hall. But real music buffs know that Frenchmen St., right at the end of the French Quarter, is chock full of music clubs, many with no cover. To find the times of shows, visit the WWOZ Livewire Calendar- top clubs to check out are BMC, Masion, Bamboulas, Spotted Cat and Cafe Negril. You'll hear everything from swing jazz, brass bands and funk to blues. For a bite to eat, hit Dat Dog right there on Frenchmen St. and be sure to check out the local microbrewery Brieux Carre if you're a beer lover. Finish the night with the locals at R Bar two blocks away. Check out the WWOZ Livewire for up-to-date show listings!
Food & Drinks: As most locals know when it comes to food: in the Quarter, there's a lot to choose from and little to love, with big advertising bucks to draw in tourists. (See Head Uptown or Best of Bywater below to get food recs outside of the French Quarter.) Eat better in the Quarter at GW Fins, Muriel's Jackson Square (check out the seance room and get a balcony seat for dinner) or Tableau for the Creole classics. If you want an authentic local's lunch, walk a short ways to Lil Dizzy's in the Treme, where everyone is "ma' baby". If you aren't bound to Creole classics & want to try other cuisines, Doris Metropolitan, Cane and Table and Sylvain are all good bets for great Quarter eats. Drinks flow at Backspace Bar, Erin Rose (frozen Irish coffee and great staff), Bar Tonique (a badass cocktail team make classics at very reasonable prices) and Jewel of the South for a special night out for cocktail lovers who want to drink from the best in the biz (Chris Hannah mans the bar). Everyone has beignets on their list, but for the best, scroll down to the Head Uptown section below!
Shopping: I cannot emphasize this enough. Don't buy stuff in the Quarter for the most part- there's only a few small shops that support local art and crafts, lots of junk from overseas abounds. Dark Matter Oddities, Lionheart Prints and Fifi Mahony's are some one-of-a-kind shops to not miss in the Quarter. And for more small biz choices in your shopping see Head Uptown below...
Day Trippin': You'll (eventually) get tired of just eating and drinking, so here's some more options easily accessible from the French Quarter:
Rent a bike from Flambeaux and head down Esplanade Ave. to New Orleans Museum of Art in City Park. A beautiful ride, a great sculpture garden and magnificent botanical gardens await! Biking not your thing?
Walk to Crescent Park, right at the edge of the Quarter by Frenchmen St. This entrance, Mandeville Shed, is a great place to pack a picnic and some drinks and watch the river roll by- you might catch roller skaters, dance rehearsals or just kids having fun!
For a FREE good time, book a self-guided tour of the Sazerac House right on Canal St. at Magazine. Learn the history of the Sazerac, which started with French cognac and the roles of New Orleans apothecaries and coffee shops in business and cocktail pleasure. Taste drinks along the way, while your also learn about rum and whiskey and visit interactive displays- a must for cocktail lovers! You might also want to explore the Pharmacy Museum if you find you're interested in apothecaries!
If you think Mardi Gras is not for you- just a big Spring Break, Girls Gone Wild frat party- think again! Mardi Gras World is dedicated to this incredible holiday, rich in history and steeped in our culture. The collection of warehouses is where "Mardi Gras is made"- you can see float artists hard at work in the workshop and wander through years of past float art on display! Another one for kids AND adults, discover the magic of Mardi Gras and you just might change your mind about it!
If you want to see plantations, you'll need to book a tour with transportation from the Quarter or CBD, none are accessible without a ride or car. My top plantation tour recommendation is Whitney Plantation, which stands out because it was the first to focus on the slave experience as part of the plantation's history. Beyond the Bayou and Cresecent City Tours & Transportation are both great choices!
Looking to visit the bayou? Again, you'll need a tour with transportation or your own car- I'm a big fan of Beyond the Bayou for eco-friendly boat tours or Kayak Swamp Tours if you are looking for something more active.
Cooking classes let you take the experience with you! I can't recommend Mardi Gras School of Cooking enough- great staff and less touristy than other places!
Haunted tours are a big thing down here- we're full of stories about pirates, murders, ghosts and vampires. I think Hottest Hell Haunted Tours has some good local guides and deliver the spookies without the cheese factor.
You can buy a day pass and take the St. Charles Ave. streetcar to & FYI, all of this is kid-friendly:
Magazine St. is a great local shopping street full of small business like Zele which has stuff by over 100 local artists and craftspeople or Fleurty Girl or Petcetera for gifts! A bulk of shops are located between Jackson Ave. & Louisiana Ave. along with great food & drinks.
In fact, there's lots of food to choose from but here goes nothing: be sure to get a flight of different flavors of beignets and a cafe au lait at The Vintage, chargrilled or raw oysters at Basin Seafood & Spirits, the plate lunch at Joey K's, po-boys at dive bar Parasol's or Mahoney's and breakfast at Slim Goody's or an unforgettable brunch at Atchafalaya (they also have a GREAT happy hour Thurs- Sun 3pm-6pm). Additional shops run the length of the street & there's plenty at each stoplight- from Louisiana, next is Napoleon and all the way to Jefferson Ave., just a few blocks after Audubon Park...
Either continue your walk or hop back on the streetcar (continue going the same direction you were when you first got on it) and get off next at Audubon Park (directly across from Tulane and Loyola universities). Take the 1 mile track around for a nice stroll and birdwatching, visit the Audubon Zoo or go to an area called The Fly for a sunset picnic right on the river. Magazine St. cuts right though the park if you are walking there.
Get back on the St. Charles streetcar (again, headed the same way, further uptown), ride it to the river bend and it turns right onto Carrollton Ave. Get off a few blocks later at Oak St. for dinner at Jacques-Imo's or Cajun food at Boucherie or Bouree, wine at Oak or beer at its sister bar Ale (they share a courtyard so you don't have to choose). Walk Oak St. to the end and soon you'll find a new brewery right next to the river levee, where you can take a sunset walk. You're also very near the Maple Leaf Bar to check out some live music with the local crowd.
Hop back on the streetcar to return to downtown after a long day of Uptown exploring!
Best of Bywater
There's always more to do, so here's some additional suggestions if you have more time & include kid-friendly options:
JAM NOLA: (kid-friendly) 20+ New Orleans artists craft a Crescent City-themed cultural experience in the Marigny that evokes Joy through Art & Music. Use the code JAM15 for a 15% discount on full priced adult and child tickets!
Music Box Village: (kid-friendly) a place where play, imagination, experimentation, collaboration, community and hard work come together as artist-made, interactive “musical houses.”
If you really want to buy some Voodoo items or learn a little more of the history, check out Island of Salvation inside the Healing Center- be sure to visit all the pretty sculptures inside the main hallway of the Healing Center, including Marie Laveau and Baron Samedi.
Food: After both of those places, you'll need to eat and there's plenty of places in Bywater to do it. Bratz Ya'll biergarten sometimes has music, but always has great beer and food, and Pizza Delicious is right in front of it if you have kids who are picky-eaters. Frady's corner store has po-boy lunches you can take down to the river- walk 2 blocks to the Piety St crossing (the "Rusty Rainbow" arch bridge- you'll see it at the end of the block) and chow down in Crescent Park with a great view of the river. Want BBQ? The Joint BBQ has great plates for a mix of smoked meats, damn good beers and drinks and a courtyard area to sit in.
Bars: If you are kid-free in Bywater, drinking spots are everywhere, but kind of hidden gems. Wrap up the evening at Bacchanal Wine Bar is the most popular with travel bloggers who are charmed by it's laid back, backyard atmosphere. Go for the live music & company (you share tables), especially if you're into wine- there's also beers & cocktails, but they're a great wine spot & a great plan for your last night in town. Other bars in the area - Vaughn's and Bar Redux are my two fave dives within two blocks of each other that have random shows on random nights- drag, live bands, comedy, burlesque! Parleaux Beer Lab has a great courtyard & gets experimental with their pints, often using fruit grown right in the yard. Finally, catch a show at Allways Lounge or karaoke at Kajun's.
So much to see, do and eat- take to the comments and add your recommendations!