While one of the most popular attractions in New Orleans is the French Quarter, and Bourbon Street can be fun, there is so much more to this amazing city. Let a local tell you about the 20 best things to do in New Orleans so you can make the most of your visit here. (And if you’re wondering, is 3 days in New Orleans is enough, the answer is not really. If you’ve only got a long weekend to spend here, plan on coming back soon!)
Perfect for romantic couples’ trips or honeymoons, New Orleans is an intoxicating mix of culture, fun, history, architecture, natural beauty, and—of course—incredible food. What are the top activities in New Orleans? In this article we’ll share the 20 top things to do in New Orleans including free things to do in New Orleans, romantic things to do in New Orleans for couples, and unique things to do in New Orleans.
For a great introduction to the city and its history and culture, as well as incredible bird’s eye views, head to Vue Orleans. It’s located in the former World Trade Center building at the “foot” of Canal Street (meaning, right by the river), which now also holds the swanky Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans.
Buy tickets right on the street in front of the building, or online to be able to reserve a time slot in advance. Then head up the stairs and into a series of amazing interactive exhibits which tell you all about local music, food, culture, events, and history. Don’t miss the “Story Café’ where you can sit at a counter and watch videos of local chefs preparing famous New Orleans specialties while telling you about the dish’s history.
Once you’ve finished with the exhibits, you’ll ride up 33 floors in an elevator that has floor-to-ceiling LED screens for immersive videos to enjoy and learn more along the way. You’ll step out into an indoor space with incredible views of the river and city, along with more interactive exhibits. Once you’ve walked around the 360-degree space, you can head up one more floor for the outdoor observation deck, which offers even more amazing views.
Take a ride on a riverboat
Get out on the “mighty Mississippi” and see New Orleans from a different viewpoint on one of two historic riverboats. You take a historic tour on the Creole Queen to the site of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 or do a jazz brunch or dinner cruise on the Steamboat Natchez. The dinner cruise is one of the top romantic things to do in New Orleans for couples, as you watch the glittering city skyline glide by.
The Creole Queen departs from a dock outside the Riverwalk, which is a shopping mall along the river at the foot of Canal Street downtown, while the Steamboat Natchez leaves from a dock on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, just a few blocks away. Ask at your hotel for discounts on tickets.
Visit the Audubon Aquarium
One of the top 5 aquariums in the country, the Audubon Aquarium is located at the foot of Canal Street downtown (which means it’s on the river) and offers fascinating exhibits about the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Amazon rainforest. There’s also a cool undersea virtual reality experience.
You can buy a combination ticket to also visit the Audubon Zoo (below).
Visit the Audubon Zoo
The Audubon Zoo is located Uptown, which is upriver from the downtown area. You can easily get here by taking the streetcar along St. Charles Avenue until it reaches Audubon Park (across from Tulane University), then walking through Audubon Park to the zoo entrance. Named one of the top things to do in New Orleans and one of the top 10 zoos in the country, this fascinating zoo features a wide variety of unique exhibits (don’t miss the Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle) plus rare animals like whooping cranes and albino alligators.
Enjoy the New Orleans Jazz Museum
What better place to learn about jazz than in its birthplace? Located in the historic Old U.S. Mint building on Esplanade Avenue (at the edge of the French Quarter), the New Orleans Jazz Museum will guide you through the story of jazz with all sorts of interactive exhibits, live performances, and more.
Explore City Park
The 1400-acre City Park is a lovely oasis in Mid-City, offering peaceful grounds with lagoons, walking and bike paths, and giant old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. It’s just 3 miles from the French Quarter but feels a million miles away.
Wander the park (or ride the open-air train that circles it); rent a bike to explore the paths; get out on the lagoons in a paddleboat; or head to Café du Monde for café au lait and beignets in a scenic setting. You can also tour the gorgeous Botanical Garden (which also has a sculpture garden). You can even book a Venetian gondola ride on the lagoon, for a truly unique and romantic thing to do in New Orleans for couples!
Visit the New Orleans Museum of Art
Before you leave City Park, be sure to check out the museums. The New Orleans Museum of Art is located at the main entrance to City Park in a beautiful historic building. It opened in 1911 and now features more than 40,000 pieces of art on permanent display, as well as a rotating lineup of exhibits. Don’t miss the 12-acre Sculpture Garden outside, which features more than 90 sculptures set among lush landscaping including lagoons and giant oak trees.
Play at the Louisiana Children’s Museum
Also set in City Park, the Louisiana Children’s Museum is located near the New Orleans Museum of Art, and it’s a great stop for kids of all ages (yes, including adults!) with fun interactive exhibits and experiences.
Tour the Garden District
Book a guided tour of the Garden District, a residential area just a few minutes from downtown. Enjoy the peaceful atmosphere as you marvel at the ornate architecture of historic homes in a variety of styles, set back behind wrought iron fences with lovely lush gardens. While you’re in the area, be sure to go shopping on Magazine Street.
Ride the streetcar
For an almost free thing to do in New Orleans that is also one of the most fun things to do in New Orleans, ride the streetcar from downtown up St. Charles Avenue. You’ll pass the grand old mansions of the Garden District, ancient oak trees dripping colorful Mardi Gras beads from prior parades, beautiful Audubon Park, and the lovely campuses of Tulane and Loyola universities.
You can ride it once for $1.25 but a one-day pass is just $3. There are 4 streetcar lines: St. Charles, Canal, Riverfront, and Rampart/St. Claude. You can see almost the whole city by riding these lines.
Take a cemetery tour
One of the most unique things to do in New Orleans is take a cemetery tour. Follow an informative local guide around St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, the oldest cemetery in the city, and learn about why people are buried above ground in New Orleans in marble tombs called mausoleums plus see graves of famous inhabitants like Marie Laveau, the queen of voodoo. (For another unique thing to do in New Orleans, you can also take a voodoo tour.)
You can also head out to Mid-City for a tour of St. Louis No. 3 on Esplanade Avenue, which holds the graves of local luminaries like Chef Paul Prudhomme and Chef Leah Chase, or the lovely grounds of Metairie Cemetery, which features breathtaking temples, tombs, and monuments and holds 9 Louisiana governors, 7 New Orleans mayors, famous musicians Al Hirt and Louis Prima, and gothic novelist Anne Rice.
You can do a combination tour through Save Our Cemeteries of St. Louis No. 3 and the Pitot House, which was built in 1799 and is one of the few remaining West Indies-style houses in Louisiana.
Tour the National World War II Museum
The National World War II Museum is an astonishing collection of 4 buildings located in the Warehouse District (next to downtown) that covers the history of World War II. Constantly evolving and adding exhibits, this is THE museum to check out for history lovers, but it’s fascinating for all. Explore World War II through interactive exhibits, videos, oral histories, historical artifacts, personal vignettes, and more.
Exhibits include the Pacific Theater Galleries, the European Theater Galleries, D-Day, the U.S. Merchant Marine, and Bayou to Battlefield, as well as an interactive submarine experience on the USS Tang and the 4D movie Beyond All Boundaries.
You can golf in New Orleans at the Audubon Park Golf Course (Uptown) or in City Park (Mid-City).
Wander the Warehouse District
One of the best free things to do in New Orleans is to wander around the Warehouse District, which is the arts center of the city. (It’s located on the opposite side of downtown from the French Quarter, where the Convention Center is.) You’ll find tons of galleries and shops to check out, as well as fun cafés and bars when you need refreshment.
Don’t miss the Contemporary Arts Center on Camp Street, which features multidisciplinary exhibits of local artists on several floors in a modern, airy space.
Check out Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World
This enormous warehouse is where all the Mardi Gras floats are built. They’re so complex that artists work on them all year long, so you’ll always be able to catch them in action even if you don’t visit near Mardi Gras. Located near the Convention Center downtown, Mardi Gras World offers behind-the-scenes tours that come with a free slice of king cake! This is one of the most unique things to do in New Orleans and it will give you some great photo ops.
Explore the Lakefront
New Orleans is tucked between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. Most visitors never see the lake, but it’s worth checking out—especially if you like fresh seafood. This is a great free thing to do in New Orleans. If you have a car, drive up Esplanade Avenue and take a right after you cross over Bayou St. John (at the entrance to City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art). Follow Wisner Blvd. out toward Lake Pontchartrain for a nice scenic drive with the bayou on your right and City Park on your left.
If you turn left at the intersection with Harrison and go down a bit, there is a fun stretch of restaurants and bakeries that are all really good. If you keep going down Wisner Blvd. until it hits Allen Toussaint Blvd. and turn left, that takes you into the lakefront area. Follow the road across a little bridge into “Bucktown” and check out Deanie’s Seafood, R&O’s, or any of the great seafood restaurants you’ll find there. Or, turn right on West End Boulevard to reach Lakeshore Drive, where you can park and walk along the lake.
Feast on the famous local cuisine
New Orleans is known the world over as a foodie capital. From Cajun and Creole to Italian and French, from neighborhood dives to gourmet fine dining restaurants, there is an astonishing array of delicious and delightful places to go. Eating is an activity in New Orleans; locals are known to discuss dinner plans while savoring their lunch.
For a fun thing to do in New Orleans, be sure to try at least one of the glamorous grande dame restaurants like Galatoire’s, where locals love to line up early on Friday afternoons for a table in the main room downstairs. It’s a festive atmosphere that offers fascinating opportunities for people watching as well as some of the most exquisite food and drink you’ll ever taste.
Here are some recommendations for the top restaurants in New Orleans to try. (To research New Orleans restaurants, you can check out www.neworleans.com or www.nomenu.com, which offers reviews and info curated by longtime food critic Tom Fitzmorris.)
For a classic New Orleans fine dining experience, go to Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace, Broussard’s, Arnaud’s, Brennan’s, Dooky Chase, Café Sbisa, and Mr. B’s Bistro. Reservations are a must at these restaurants, and there are dress codes so be sure to ask what’s required. It’s customary in New Orleans for meals at the finer restaurants to take several hours so that you can truly savor the experience; don’t go to any of these if you’re in a hurry. Enjoying a meal at one of these restaurants is one of the most romantic things to do in New Orleans for couples.
There are also some relatively newer fine dining restaurants that offer inventive menus in elegant surroundings, such as Restaurant August, Gabrielle, La Petite Grocery, Herbsaint, Cochon, Coquette, Compere Lapin, Patois, Chemin a Mer, and Miss River.
Longstanding neighborhood restaurants offer a more casual but still outstanding experience. These include Mandina’s, Mother’s, The Old Coffeepot, Pascal’s Manale, Jacques-Imo’s, and Deanie’s Seafood.
And of course, there are the cafés that specialize in poboys, the unique New Orleans sandwich made on local French bread. Some of the best are Domilise’s, Mother’s, Parran’s, and Parkway.
If you love dessert, you’ll want to try some of the local specialties like bread pudding, Bananas Foster, and crème brulee. Or, you can head to the 24-hour Café du Monde in the French Quarter for beignets and café au lait (rich coffee and chicory with hot milk). If you’re in town during the summer, be sure to get a snoball at a stand like Hanson’s Sno-Bliz Uptown, whose owner invented the first shaved ice machine.
Go see live music
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and it’s also known for funk, brass brands, and blues—not to mention a smattering of the Cajun dance music, zydeco. One of the most fun things to do in New Orleans is go dance to a local band. There are hundreds of venues where you can see great live music; for a full listing of who’s playing where, check out the calendar on local radio station WWOZ’s website. Some of the best places to see bands are Tipitina’s, the Maple Leaf, Rock’n’Bowl, the Spotted Cat, the Howlin’ Wolf, the Toulouse Theatre, and the House of Blues. For jazz, you can’t beat the acts at Snug Harbor and the Preservation Jazz Hall.
Savor a drink in a sophisticated setting
New Orleans knows a thing or two about cocktails. If you enjoy a finely crafted drink, be sure to stop at one or more of the city’s iconic lounges. This is definitely one of the most romantic things to do in New Orleans for couples. The Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone features a round bar that rotates (very slowly, no worries!) around the center so your view always changes. This glamorous lounge also offers excellent live music.
The Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel has been named the best hotel bar in the U.S. multiple times. Tiny and elegant with Depression-era murals and a gorgeous wooden bar, this is the original home of the Ramos Gin Fizz and is named after the Sazerac cocktail, which was also created in New Orleans.
You can also check out some of the newer, hip bars, such as Hot Tin Rooftop Bar at the Pontchartrain Hotel on St. Charles Avenue; the bar at The Chloe, a hotel in a 19th century mansion on St. Charles Avenue; or the bar at the Hotel Saint Vincent in the Garden District. There are cocktail walking tours available as well, which will take you to a series of local hot spots.
Party at a festival
While the two most famous New Orleans festivals are Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, you can find a festival almost every weekend of the year. Check the weekly arts and entertainment guide the New Orleans Museum of Art Gambit to see what’s happening when you’re there. Chances are you’ll be able to find an event offering delicious food and fun local music.
Some of the best New Orleans festivals are French Quarter Fest, Crescent City Blues & BBQ, Bayou Boogaloo, the Oak Street Poboy Festival, Celebration in the Oaks, Satchmo Summerfest, Voodoo Music Experience, Freret Street Festival, Cajun Zydeco Festival, New Orleans Food and Wine Experience, Louisiana Seafood Festival, Fried Chicken Festival, and the French Market Creole Tomato Festival.