Things to do when you're tired of eating & drinking... Museums around NOLA
Updated: Jan 17
While it is true that we're the city that makes plans for dinner while at lunch, there's also quite a few lesser-known things to see & do in New Orleans. While the WWII museum is an all-day affair that people flock to (it's the #1 tourist destination in the whole city) and NOMA and its sculpture garden in beautiful City Park make it into every tourist book, there's also museums dedicated to culture, food & history that even the locals forget about. So, below I've collected recommendations for "museum-ey things to do" whether you're a local looking to shake up your routine or a tourist who wants to spend the afternoon doing something that doesn't come with a check at the end.
JAMNOLA, Dr. Bob's & Studio Be
A funhouse of culture and Instagram photo ops, there's 17 immersive exhibits showcasing the iconic art, music, food and theatrics of the city through the eyes of over 30 local artists. It's a short ride from the Quarter, but while you're there, also check out Studio Be which sits just across the tracks that mark the historic case of Plessy v. Ferguson (JAM is actually located in the Press St train station that Plessy was arrested in). Bywater Brew Pub is also steps away, as is Dr Bob's shop- a folk art icon whose "Be Nice or Leave" signs you'll see in plenty of bars around town. Just a little further down Chartres St. is the river crossing at Piety St. (the Rusty Rainbow)- cross the bridge to see an amazing view of the Mississippi then backtrack down Piety and grab a liter in the hidden oasis of Bratz Ya'll biergarten. It's well worth the afternoon trek! There's even a street art tour offered on Air BnB, as is my Bywater tour which includes lots of history over eating & drinking through this bohemian neighborhood. It takes about 1 hour to visit JAMNOLA & costs $29/adult & $21/child - use the discount code JAM15 for 15% off. Reserve online.
Southern Food & Beverage Museum
Open 11:00am-5:00pm Thursday-Monday, this building also houses the Museum of the American Cocktail. Full of ephemera from the culinary world of the south, this is a must-do for any lover of food & drinks history. Be sure to check out their calendar of events for cooking demos, lessons & lectures- even locals would love taking a lesson to learn something new about our cultural foodways. Another building across the street houses a library of culinary literature and historic cookbooks, so be sure to ask about accessing it when you book you ticket. You can keep cooking & learning after your visit by checking out their recipe blog & podcasts and books by museum director Liz Williams. Adults are only $10.50, kids under 12 are free. Click here for location, parking, etc.- reservations aren't required.
And if you still feel like drinking, but want a tasting tour or a cocktail lesson to go along with it, I recommend the incredibly charming Happy Raptor rum distillery, not far away!
Relatively new, riverfront museum Vue Orleans (pronounced like NEW Orleans) is a bit pricey ($25 for adults, $15 for kids, under 3 is free, LA residents $20), but its proximity to the Quarter makes it an ideal tourist spot with some educational yet memorable exhibits that kids especially will enjoy. But it's not just for kids- the new tech makes the museum experience anything but dull: interactive screens show actors narrating the stories of historic New Orleans figures, storytelling that's interesting & engaging. The diner counter features Chef Kevin Belton & local food personality Poppy Tooker, chatting about each of the classic NOLA dishes you "order" from the digital menu. But the real draw is the elevator ride to the observation deck; once the doors close, it tells a vivid story of the city Willy Wonka style, while taking you to the top floor for a full 360 view of New Orleans. You can also play a simulation game of driving barges through the risky hairpin turns of the river before wrapping up your visit, which should take about 1 hour. Buy Tickets here- reservations recommended since this has become a popular spot for convention groups & field trips. Parking, directions, etc. click here.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
The Backstreet Cultural Museum has reopened & holds the world’s most comprehensive collection related to New Orleans’ African American community-based masking and processional traditions. This inculdes the Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure clubs (second-lines), Baby Dolls and the Skull and Bone gangs. Don't know what most of those words mean? Even more of a reason to visit the museum! In short, it is a must-do for anyone wanting a "true" experience of this aspect of New Orleans culture- a place many tourists miss and locals have not visited, and that's a shame. Located at 1531 St. Philip St. & open 10-4pm Tues. - Sat. ($20 Entry / $15 Locals, Seniors & Veterans / $10 Children 12 & under).
*** On Mardi Gras Day, there’s no better place to be than the Backstreet Cultural Museum. At the museum, you will catch the Mardi Gras Indians in their new suits, the North Side Skull and Bone gang, Baby Dolls, musicians, culture bearers, and just about anyone else. Our annual Mardi Gras Day Open House begins at 8 a.m. with “Breakfast with the Bone Gang.” Come witness and partake in the music and dances that honor New Orleans’ cultural heritage.
The Sazerac is New Orleans' official cocktail in the city that invented the cocktail (no, really, it began here) and this is your place to see how the Sazerac is part of the customs, traditions and culture of New Orleans. The role coffee houses played in bars & cocktail culture, the history of pharmacies and tinctures in the birth of the cocktail, Spanish monks bringing over early versions of rum to our shores and how one bad year for cognac led to the European palettes of Creoles to convert to American whiskey- you'll learn it all here in 3 stories. There's a fun interactive "bartender" display that I really enjoyed & on each floor, staff whips you up small pours of Sazerac, whiskey & rum drinks to taste. The bottom floor is the distillery & shop, where you can up your home bar game with bar tools & more. The best part? It's FREE! Takes about 1 hour and is very convenient to the Quarter, at the corner of Canal St & Magazine St. Reservations required (since it's free, there's always no-shows so don't worry if the date/time you want is full).
New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
This historic French Quarter building at 514 Chartres St., hasn’t changed much since the 19th-century & is a popular spot for weddings. Once home to America’s first licensed pharmacist, the museum celebrates this history through a treasure trove of antiques and ephemera and feels like stepping back in time. The collection includes hundreds of artifacts, from hand-blown apothecary bottles, potions once used by Voodoo practitioners, surgical instruments, prosthetic devices, old wheelchairs and a reconstruction of a 19th-century pharmacists’ work area. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-5pm ($10/adult, $7/seniors 65+, students, & military / Children 6 and under free).
Historic New Orleans Collection
Another amazing FREE museum located in the Quarter, the exhibits at the HNOC are well-curated and meet a variety of interests- check to see what is on current display. Their virtual exhibits are a invaluable resource to anyone interested in Louisiana history & culture and for those who live all over the globe but have their heart in NOLA. This was one of my faves: https://www.hnoc.org/virtual/dancing-in-the-streets
Located at 520 and 533 Royal St, open Tuesday–Saturday, 9:30am –4:30pm and Sunday, 10:30am–4:30pm.
Mardi Gras World
Open 9am-5:30pm 7 days a week, Mardi Gras World is "where Mardi Gras is made". Literally- the warehouses hold artisans, equipment and supplies to create the floats for Kern Studios, along with numerous floats, float pieces (many reused and repurposed year after year) and Mardi Gras history. Mardi Gras gets a bad wrap- tourists picture Girls Gone Wild and spring break shenanigans and cringe at the idea of it- but anyone who doesn't know why the locals adore it, should visit Mardi Gras World. It is truly magical to wander their warehouses and so cool to see the magic get made, definitely a must-do for kids. Located just next to the Convention Center, it's easy to get to from the Quarter, CBD & Warehouse District. Takes about 1.5 - 2 hours to visit - Adults $22 / Ages 2-12: $14 / Military/Students/Seniors: $17 click here for tickets.
And now, some secrets...
Since 1912, this antique store has housed fine art, antiques and jewelry. Not just a shop, it extends 40,000 sq ft., far behind its shopfront doors at 622 Royal St., to a gallery filled with rare, museum-quality antiques, important fine art and breathtaking jewelry. Even if you think "ew, snore, antiques" THIS is the one place you should let surprise you. Be sure to watch this video before you go: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JvAcOL_7gV8&feature=youtu.be
The daughter of Count Arnaud, Germaine Cazenave Wells, was a vivacious society lady. When it came time for her to take over Arnaud’s, she learned all that she could in order to maintain the restaurant legacy her father had so carefully built and it was her public-relations savvy that landed Arnaud’s on lists of “the world’s best restaurants” multiple times. And of course, as a high-society woman, she was a figure in Carnival balls. During the renovation by the restaurants current owners, Wells’ Mardi Gras costume collection was discovered in a storage space. Over the years, Wells had acquired two dozen Mardi Gras costumes including 13 of her own queen costumes, one of her mother’s, one of her daughter’s, six children’s costumes and four king’s costumes worn by Count Arnaud himself. The simple storage space that holds all of these Mardi Gras treasures was renovated in 1983 and converted into a full museum, named in Germaine Cazenave Wells’ honor. Read about it here, but to see the collection you just need to ask your server or bartender at the restaurant.