The Ultimate New Orleans Bucket list
New Orleans is one of the most exciting and interesting cities in the US, right at the mouth of the grand Mississippi river. Bursting with culture, cuisine, and bons temps, it is a vacation destination that demands repeat visits. However, if you only have time for one, or if you are sailing from New Orleans cruise port, there are some highlights that you really shouldn’t miss.
New Orleans is on many travellers’ bucket lists. It’s an incredibly attractive city thanks to its Spanish and French colonial heritage, with a rich historical and cultural past filled with pirates, voodoo, and blues. It boasts one of the best food scenes in the US, as well as being arguably the liveliest party city in the country.
There is so much to see and do in the city that it can be overwhelming for first time visitors, and even regular visitors will always find something new to catch their attention and distract them. With that in mind, this bucket list guide is designed to highlight the absolute must-see attractions and places in the city, along with some of the best bars, restaurants, and music venues. These are the spots that no visit to the Big Easy would be complete without! You should also check out the darker side of the city, lear about the voodoo queen of New Orleans in the haunted New Orleans.
The Ultimate New Orleans Bucket list
When to go
There are two main considerations to think about when planning to visit New Orleans; the weather and the festivals.
The weather can be quite extreme over the summer, with temperatures hitting uncomfortable heights, lots of humidity, and significant rainfall. The best times to visit New Orleans for the best weather are in the months of February to May and September to November.
If you want to time your visit to include one of the main festivals, most happen during the Spring. Carnival Season officially starts on January 6, while Mardi Gras usually falls between early February and early March. The French Quarter Festival is usually in mid-April, while the main New Orleans Jazz Festival is in May. All of which are bucket list musts.
Where to stay
The French Quarter is the historic center of New Orleans, and the most lively and beautiful district in the city. As a result, it is the most popular area to stay, as you are right in the thick of things and close to all the major attractions. Hotel Mazarin is right in the heart of the city, just a few blocks from Bourbon Street, but manages to maintain a sense of peace and tranquillity. Hotel Peter & Paul is a restored Catholic church which offers understated elegance as well as yoga and pilates classes.
Just outside the French Quarter, the Central Business District shows a more modern side of the Big Easy. The Jung Hotel is a great option here, conveniently located for the St Louis Cemetery, Audubon Park, and Magazine Street, as well as the Canal Street streetcar.
For travelers looking for more peace and quiet, and an even more authentic taste of NOLA life, the Garden District is a lovely option. Calm and leafy, the magnificent mansion houses of this beautiful residential neighbourhood provide the perfect backdrop for a wonderful stay. The Queen Anne is a great choice, a sophisticated Victorian mansion which offers a dozen charming, distinctive rooms.
What to see
1. Jackson Square
Jackson Square has been a National Historic Landmark since 1950 and is one of the best places to explore some of New Orleans’ fascinating history. As the center of the French Quarter, it has always been at the heart of the major events in the city’s history and is the perfect spot to start an exploration of the city. It was where the Louisiana Purchase took place in 1803, making New Orleans part of the United States, and is named for Andrew Jackson, the general who won the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. The glorious St Louis Cathedral is situated at one end of the square, and the square itself is designed to mimic the famous 17th-century Place des Vosges in Paris, France. For history buffs, Jackson Square should definitely be on your list of must-sees.
2. Frenchmen Street
Often overlooked by tourists in favour of the louder, glitzier Bourbon Street, Frenchmen is a more authentic and charming spot to drink in New Orleans’ world-famous atmosphere. Music spills from every bar, cafe, and open doorway, and the ambience is something truly special. This is the beating heart of the NOLA music scene, with a stunning array of bars, cafes, and music venues, each with their own soundtrack. From a lonely trombonist wedged into the back of a one-room bar to the grand big band stylings at somewhere like Dragon’s Den, there’s something for everyone to love on Frenchmen. It’s a pretty lovely place for a wander during the day too, with record shops, pop-up art. galleries, and handmade craft markets aplenty.
3. The Garden District
A little way away from the centrally-located French Quarter, the Garden District is probably the most beautiful neighbourhood in the whole city and it’s therefore easy to see why it would make the list. Home to the most remarkable collection of historic mansions in the entire southern US, it is packed with extraordinary architecture, elegant frontages, and gorgeous leafy parks. An afternoon spent wandering this charming corner of the city is a must for anyone spending time in New Orleans. And it’s not just gorgeous colonial architecture that brings people to the Garden District. The historic St Charles Avenue streetcar line runs its picturesque route through the heart of the neighbourhood, offering the perfect combination of charming river views and convenient public transport. It is also home to Audubon Zoo, New Orleans’ best universities, and the famous shopping avenue of Magazine Street next door in Uptown.
4. National WWII Museum
Widely considered the official World War Two museum of the United States, this superb attraction combines interactive exhibits, superbly restored original artefacts, and a period dinner theatre experience. It’s a must for families and a serious educational and fun experience all round. The museum started life back in 2000 as the D-Day Museum and expanded a few years later to become one of the most significant military history museums in the US. The museum boasts amazing displays of original fighting aeroplanes, amphibious armoured vehicles, and an immersive submarine experience based on the USS Tang. All in all, it should be on the bucket list of any traveler with an interest in war and American history.
5. The New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints NFL team is an iconic part of the city, its beating heart and soul expressed on the football field. Their first (and only) Super Bowl title in 2009 was a special time for the city, particularly coming after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. Getting to a Saints game offers the opportunity to get under the skin of the city, and should be a bucket list item for all sports fans. Nothing quite compares to the energy at a Saints game. The Superdome and the tailgate parties that follow are a riot of colour, vibrancy, and full-on party atmosphere, and really sum up the exuberance and joie de vivre that makes New Orleans the remarkable city that it is.
Where to eat
6. The Parkway Bakery and Tavern
The birthplace of the po’boy, and New Orleans’ best sandwich shop, the Parkway has been in business since 1911. One of the best places to grab lunch in the city, it boasts a menu of 25 different sandwiches, as well as a full bar. The po’boy is one of New Orleans’ most famous foodie inventions (essentially a shrimp sandwich on French bread) and the Parkway has come to symbolize authenticity and the innovative culinary heritage of the city.
7. The Central Grocery and Deli
Another serious player in New Orleans’ foodie traditions, this family-run Italian-American deli is where the famous muffuletta was first constructed. First cooked up by Sicilian immigrants to the city, the muffuletta pairs sesame bread with many layers of hams and cheeses, topped off with a salad. No visit to New Orleans would be complete without trying this magnificent olive-topped creation. The Central is a deli first and foremost, selling Italian-influenced groceries (including the ingredients for you to make a muffuletta at home!), but the sandwich counter is what it is best known for now, and what gives it a spot on this list.
8. Cafe du Monde
The place to see and be seen, order a cafe au lait and some beignets at the Cafe du Monde it is a NOLA rite-of-passage. Cafe du Monde’s open-air site in the ‘Butcher’s Hall’ has been the focus for the morning rituals of New Orleans high society since the end of the 18th century. French culture in the city is a complex blend of the original French settlers and the Acadians (Cajuns) who arrived from Nova Scotia in the 18th century, and it is perfectly showcased in the traditional breakfasts at Cafe du Monde. Situated right on the banks of the Mississippi, it’s a pretty lovely place to spend a relaxed morning.
9. Brigtsen’s Restaurant
A mainstay of the Riverbend since 1986, Frank Brigsten’s understated eatery has become a must-visit spot with a menu to match. Paneed rabbit, fresh seafood platters, and parmesan and crabmeat-crusted Gulf fish are the highlights of an exceptionally thoughtful and exciting menu. This delightful restaurant is a fascinating blend of award-winning contemporary cuisine and creole classics and offers a gourmet journey into the full range of the New Orleans culinary arts.
A Treme favourite, Gabrielle re-opened in 2017 after Hurricane Katrina, and have been wowing locals ever since with fascinating twists on classic Cajun cooking as if they’d never closed. A bucket list favourite for its wonderful feeling of old-fashioned charm and retro elegance. The setting is warm, homely, and unpretentious, with service to match. The bright blue and yellow frontage welcomes you in, and the generous helpings ensure that you leave with a smile on your face. Don’t miss the barbeque shrimp pie and the peppermint patty dessert.
Where to drink
11. Pat O’Briens
A Bourbon Street icon, Pat O’Brien’s is home to the (in)famous Hurricane cocktail, as well as the unmissable duelling piano show in the backroom. Sure, the vibe is definitely not what you’d call ‘classy’, but it’s buzzing, fun, and a huge part of what makes New Orleans such an exceptional party city. No New Orleans bucket list would be complete without a few Bourbon Street options, and Pat O’Briens is without a doubt one of the most joyful!
12. Sazerac Bar
A classic art deco hotel bar that has barely changed since it opened in the 1930s, the Sazerac is the perfect spot for a pre-show cocktail. Located in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, it is bursting with history and character and is a favourite haunt of everyone from local politicians to bachelorette parties. Check out the bullet hole in the wall from an attempted hit on Huey Long, the original ‘Kingfish’, gone wrong!
The bar is named after the world’s first mixed cocktail, the Sazerac. Although it was created by a druggist in the French Quarter, the Sazerac Bar is its spiritual home. Antoine Peychaud, the creator, used to mix his drink in a large egg cup known as a Coquitier, which is where the word ‘cocktail’ comes from! The Sazerac is the perfect spot to immerse yourself in the decadence and sophistication of 1920s New Orleans high society.
13. Parleaux Beer Lab
New Orleans’ craft brewing scene has taken off in recent years, and Parleaux Beer Lab gets a spot on this list as one of the best places to sample the amazing creations that NOLA breweries have to offer. Part beer garden, part artisanal brewery, the Beer Lab has a staggering selection of craft ales as well as food trucks, making it a great spot to spend an afternoon.
14. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop
Quite possibly the oldest bar in New Orleans and one of the oldest in the US, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is an astoundingly atmospheric spot. Set in a historic Creole cottage, the legend goes that the Lafitte brothers, famous pirates in the 19th century, used this building as the base for their operations in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Its history is slightly shrouded in the mists of time, but whatever the truth of the various legends that are wrapped around Lafitte’s, it is easily the most atmospheric joint on Bourbon Street and an absolute must-visit. It is also supposedly one of the most haunted buildings in the city, with the ghosts of French Quarter residents who died in the fires of 1788 and 1794 still in residence.
Where to see music
15. Preservation Hall
One of the most well-known and storied music venues in New Orleans, Preservation Hall has been a hub for jazz, blues, and gospel artists from The Big Easy since the sixties. With 350 performances a year, you’ll be sure to catch something special, whether it’s a mind-blowing new artist or a long-term fave. The venue’s house band, the Preservation Hall Brass Band, are pioneers of New Orleans brass band music and are largely responsible for the popularity of the genre and the global success of musicians like Trombone Shorty, Kermit Ruffins, and Wendell Brunious.
16. The Maple Leaf Tavern
At the other end of the spectrum, the Maple Leaf Tavern is an icon of the music scene that is just as important as Preservation Hall, although far less formal. A wonderfully ramshackle dive bar that is a consistent favourite with locals, visitors, and students, particularly on Tuesdays when NOLA’s biggest and best brass band, the Rebirth Brass Band, takes the stage. It takes a claim to be New Orleans’ longest continuously operating seven-day-a-week music venue and hosted the city’s first live concert post-Katrina. It is a venerable, beloved landmark of NOLA’s music history, and should be on any music fan’s bucket list.
17. Le Bon Temps Roule
A genuine dive bar in Uptown, Le Bon Temps Roule is about as quintessential NOLA as you can get. It never closes, is almost always full, has a free pool and free oysters, and hosts some of the best live music in town. If you only visit once, make it a Thursday when the Soul Rebels Brass Band are in town.
18. The Three Musese
The Three Muses holds its own with the best music venues in the city, with a huge variety of live shows ranging from hot jazz and blues to zydeco and country and western. It also boasts superb food and drinks offerings, with bites like beer-braised pork belly along with delectable house cocktails making this a real winner.
What did you do on this New Orleans Bucket list? Let me know how it was in the comments below.
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