Things to do in New Orleans

By Mike Welch

Photography by Cheryl Gerber

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Updated December 2018

With jazz joints, mouth-watering food and eye-popping neighbourhoods, New Orleans is a treat for all the senses. Local writer Mike Welch shares his highlights of the Big Easy.

French (Quarter) fancies

It’s almost redundant to suggest stopping anywhere in the French Quarter, the world’s greatest spot for just, well, wandering. Many begin their beautifully aimless exploration of the neighbourhood from its heart in Jackson Square, where artists and tarot readers surround famous St Louis Cathedral. Make sure to shop on Royal Street, and don’t leave without catching a set of traditional, unamplified jazz at cozy Preservation Hall (if you’re there in the evening). But otherwise just wander, and wonder, getting absorbed in small surprises.

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  • Listening to an unamplified jazz set at Preservation Hall is a New Orleans must © John Elk III / Alamy

    All that jazz

    Since opening in June 1961, Preservation Hall has welcomed over two million people through its doors. Artists such as Louis Armstrong and Tom Waits have entertained world leaders, movie stars and music lovers in the historic venue for over 50 years.

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Eat an original po’boy

On 3 July 1929, New Orleans’ daily newspaper announced that ‘work must resume!’ and the city’s transit strike – which shut down its vital streetcars – had to end. But the strike went on so long that, in a show of support for the streetcar drivers, the owners of Mother’s Restaurant on Willow Street began giving out free, low-budget French baguette sandwiches to all those ‘poor boys’ on the picket line. These days, a ‘dressed’ po’boy comes with meat or seafood, lettuce, tomatoes, mayo, and nothing more. Mother’s also coined the term ‘debris’ to describe its roast beef po’boys’ sloppy gravy.

The best view of New Orleans’ most famous sights can be glimpsed from the city’s least famous riverbank, Algiers Point

Wheeling around

Driving in quaint areas of the city, such as the French Quarter – or, more to the point, parking there – can be painful, but cycling is the best way to get around. Plus it gives visitors the most bang for their buck. Hire a bike and cycle through the French Quarter and bohemian Faubourg Marigny, past gorgeous mansions on Esplanade Avenue, with stops at cemeteries and other attractions along the way in this surprisingly compact – and mercifully flat – city.

  • A work of art on display in the gardens of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA)

    Get arty

    When NOMA opened in December 1911, it only had nine pieces of art on display. Nowadays, the museum is home to almost 40,000 objects, as well as the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Park, where you’ll find over 60 sculptures dotted around footpaths, lagoons and trees.

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  • Tuck into southern classics, from po’boy sandwiches to scratch-made biscuits loaded with ham and gravy, at Mother’s Restaurant

    Try it for yourself…

    Mother’s Restaurant is open daily from 07:00-22:00. It gets extremely busy at the weekend, so be prepared to queue – or visit on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday lunchtime when the crowds are thinner.

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  • Bourbon Street in the French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans’ nightlife © Jeremy Woodhouse/Getty Images

    Did you know…

    The popular New Orleans street was not named after whiskey. It actually refers to the Bourbon dynasty of France, whose kings ruled the country in the 16th century. Fly from London to New Orleans.

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Neighbourhood watch

Not a traditional tourist hub, New Orleans’s Mid-City neighbourhood nonetheless provides the same high level of southern architecture as Uptown’s Garden District, while also somehow feeling cosy and relatable. Any visitor would be unfortunate to miss the 1,300-acre City Park – with its beignet cafe, theme park rides, and system of beautiful lakes – which is just around the corner from the equally beautiful kayaking spot, Bayou St John. After a day in this urban paradise, head back up Esplanade Avenue to take a tour of French painter Edgar Degas’ former house, followed by drinks and fine cuisine at the nearby Café Degas.

Ride a streetcar

A trip on the famous St. Charles Avenue streetcar is a must, unfurling a miles-long panorama of Southern street life stretching from the Central Business District to Audubon Park, and way Uptown. The city has added a couple new lines recently, including one from the French Quarter down funky St Claude Avenue, ending in the Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood. Not far away begins the Ninth Ward, where the levee broke in 2005, and where you can take a guided tour through the neighbourhoods that were hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.

Art attack

You could spend hours browsing blocks of independent contemporary art galleries on Julia Street in New Orleans’s Central Business District. But on the first Saturday night of every month, it hosts beautiful (and boozy) gallery hops. On the second Saturday of each month, the St Claude Arts District offers a similar experience in a much more experimental, underground scene.

Sail away

The best view of the French Quarter and many other of New Orleans’s most famous sights can be glimpsed from the city’s least famous riverbank: take a $2 ferry ride across the Mississippi River to Orleans Parish’s second oldest neighbourhood, Algiers Point. You may find yourself the only tourist in Algiers’ Folk Art Zone and Blues Museum, and you’ll likely be dancing with just locals to the music at Old Point Bar, where the river breeze renders the humidity more than tolerable.

Museum time

You could spend your entire trip to New Orleans just visiting the city’s museums. In City Park, beneath splendorous oak trees, resides the celebrated NOMA – or the New Orleans Museum of Art. The Central Business District hosts the massive Contemporary Arts Center, right across the street from the distinguished Ogden Museum of Southern Art. On the other end of the spectrum, curious-minded travellers can visit the tiny but extraordinary Backstreet Cultural Museum, dedicated to the culture of the Treme (the nation’s first and oldest African American neighbourhood), and the beautiful House of Dance and Feathers, celebrating the city’s Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs, and skull-and-bone gangs.

  • Lobby bar at the Ace Hotel New Orleans. Photographer: Stephen Johnson.

    Take a tipple

    Pull up a stall and order a hurricane from the bartender, in this French-deco inspired hot spot. Check out happy hour, 4-7pm.

  • Guest room at The Troubadour. © The Troubadour.

    Make it a boutique break

    Stay in a hotel bursting with personality, with an uber chic rooftop bar and local artwork – all in the heart of New Orleans.

Where to stay

Maison Dupuy

Savour the great location of this four-star hotel, just a couple of blocks from the buzz of Bourbon Street – walk easily from place-to-place or jump in a cab. After epic days out exploring the Big Easy, take a dip in the hotel’s glistening pool and relax around the courtyard.

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The Troubadour

Take a break and immerse yourself in the perfect blend of boutique meets modern accommodation. Kick back on this four-star hotel’s rooftop and order drinks from the Monkey Board bar, with incredible panoramic views of the city. Be sure to check out happy hour, 4-6pm Monday to Friday.

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Ace Hotel

Stay at a four-star hotel with its own live music venue. Discover a taste of blues and jazz, as you park yourself a seat at the Three Keys. This boutique sanctuary offers a dazzling rooftop pool, bar and garden – unwind in this idyllic outdoor space after adventurous days about town.

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