First, I think it’s necessary for me to add a caveat to the post title. It should fully read: 3 Must-See Places in New Orleans (when getting drunk and frisky isn’t your idea of a good time).
If you automatically equate New Orleans with raucous parties and rambunctious shenanigans, then you’re only familiar with one side of the city’s appeal. I’ve never been a party-girl or drink-slosher. While I prefer the title “Lifelong Learner,” I’m aware that others might, behind-my-back and with typical southern politeness of course, refer to me as a “fun-sucker, bless-her-heart.”
All that to say, this is not the post for you if you want to know the ins-and-outs of Bourbon Street, open carry laws, and Mardi Gras festivities.
Other Sides of New Orleans
But New Orleans is a city with at least a hundred faces, and for my first experience with the city I sought out the faces of its literary giants, luscious natural spaces, dynamic history, and inspired artistry.
If that’s your angle, keep reading.
If you’re looking for book shops and locations connected to literary giants, check out A Book-Lover’s Guide to New Orleans.
Ready to dig into our list of must-see places in New Orleans? Here’s the sneak-peek at the overall list in case you’re more interested in one of the other options.
First stop: Mardi Gras World.
Second stop: St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Third stop: City Park
Most of these are family-friendly, depending on the age of your children. But definitely look into options for kids at City Park and in Audubon Park (we didn’t visit kid-targeted spots, but we saw several along the way!).
I went to New Orleans with my mom. She had a conference in town so we stayed close to the convention center. It wasn’t cute and adorable and right in the middle of everything, but it was functional and necessary. We didn’t have any problems or complaints.
Having said that, we were a bit closer to Mardi Gras World and made that one of our morning excursions. I hesitated adding this to our itinerary because it seemed like a giant tourist trap. It is, more or less, but such a good one.
Mardi Gras World
Mardi Gras World is the best way to experience and understand the significance and amazing-ness of Mardi Gras if you’re not able to actually go. This is a giant active workshop where they build some of the floats for each Mardi Gras season.
Purchase a tour ticket in the gift shop. Tours run every half hour and last for about an hour. In most cases Mardi Gras World is open 7 days/week with tours starting at 9:30 AM and the last tour starting at 4:00 PM. If you’re visiting near a holiday or at any time in the vicinity of Mardi Gras, check their website for hours.
You’ll watch a short film about the history of Mardi Gras (really interesting), eat a sample of cake, and head into the workspace.
Keep in mind this is an active workspace. Pay attention to your tour guide to avoid wandering where you shouldn’t, and don’t distract the artists.
Our tour was great. We learned a bit about the timeline for creating a parade float, the requirements and expectations, what materials are used and why, the evolution of the parade float, and we watched artisans build, saw, paint, and otherwise work on small sections of upcoming designs.
Then, we walked into the gigantic garage covering several Mardi Gras floats. And this is where museum experiences are incredibly valuable: scale.
Watching television footage of a Mardi Gras parade does not to justice to the size and scale and scope of a float. The only other way to appreciate how huge these things are is to actually attend the celebrations.
Mardi Gras World is located in the Central Business District so transportation can be a challenge. Thankfully they offer a shuttle bus service. Check their website for times and pick-up/drop-off locations, but it’s super convenient! We walked to MGW from our hotel, but we took a shuttle bus to the French Quarter at the end of our tour. Perfect!
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
Next up: cemetery tour. New Orleans has several amazing cemeteries to visit, each with its own angle of interest. Cemeteries are a unique perspective on the past and can often be quite poignant in their substance.
In the end, I opted for a tour of the most recognized cemetery: St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The timing and the location fit best with our schedule, and I didn’t want to risk not getting to see one.
Bonus: the tour had us meet at a nearby coffee shop which was fantastic. I never would have known about it or thought to visit, but Backatown Coffee Parlour was a great find. My mom and I arrived early for the tour, so we had a light lunch and relaxed. Backatown has a spacious interior for groups or one-on-one meetings, a good-sized light menu, large overhead fans, and a reading nook in one of the corners.
In order to access St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 you have to be part of a paying tour. We used the group Save Our Cemeteries, and I definitely recommend them. The guide kept us moving at a good clip, went through a lot of history in a well-paced amount of time without belaboring the point, and included insights, anecdotes, and history throughout the presentation. Plus, Save Our Cemeteries actively works to restore and preserve these historic spaces.
Be Prepared: It is not shaded. Wear sunscreen and/or a hat.
Take Tram #48 to the very end. You have arrived at City Park. Pace yourself because there is so much to take in. We had a tour to catch in the afternoon so we had to prioritize our time.
The list below is only a fraction of the available activities (and omitting all the child-friendly attractions since I was happy to be kid-free for this trip!). Pick your favorites from our list or visit the City Park website and look through all the other offerings to plan your day.
The Singing Oak
From the trolley stop, when you walk towards the campus of the New Orleans Museum of Art, you’ll hear a small tinkling sound if the wind is blowing. Look to your right and walk across the lawn to the giant tree. This is the Singing Oak.
Local artist Jim Hart attached wind chimes to various branches and the tree plays soft waves of music as the wind moves through its branches. It is wonderfully creative, a thoughtful look at the intersection of nature and art, and a peaceful respite.
New Orleans Museum of Art
Continue walking up the lane to the New Orleans Museum of Art. At this point you have a choice: continue into the museum or go to the left of the museum and enter the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Because my mom and I were on a schedule, we opted for the sculpture garden. We’ll have to check out the inside of the museum on our next visit!
Besthoff Sculpture Garden
The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is a beautiful combination of natural beauty and sculpted creativity. Wander paths lined by trees and shrubs and blooms and grasses as you consider the various sculptures throughout. The range of art displayed, in terms of type, size, and theme, is considerable. We wandered and walked and talked for an hour at least.
New Orleans Botanical Garden
There was even more natural beauty to behold, and we opted for a walk through the New Orleans Botanical Garden just outside of the sculpture garden. We exited the sculpture garden through a side/back exit and walked the path to the Botanical Garden. After paying admission we moseyed through the manicured lawns and beds.
It was a beautiful place. We liked the hedges trimmed to look like waves. We took a walk through their very active butterfly garden and rested a couple minutes in giant swings hanging from large tree branches.
More Must-See Places in New Orleans
I’ve only highlighted three of our must-see places in New Orleans. We experienced quite a few more (and still left several to visit next time!). This dynamic city has so much to offer.
We ate obligatory beignets at Café Du Monde. I’m still in sugar-shock. And, if you’re willing to sit inside, you get served a lot quicker (thanks to the stranger who tipped us off).
Twice, we took a pedi-cab ride. They are a great way to get around the city. We had one ride that was casual and chatty and one ride that was fast and furious. The best experience was the first, the best story was the second.
In our quest to ride on the infamous St. Charles Streetcar Line (started in 1835 and the oldest continuously operating line in the world) and to find a bookstore for my Literary Tour of New Orleans we passed Audubon Park. Without realizing what we were in for, we began to meander along the walkways. It’s a beautiful park and the ancient, sprawling trees are everywhere.
There is so much to do at this park – golf, zoo, aquarium – but we just walked and enjoyed the sunset. Definitely one to check out with a family!
We were looking for the Tree of Life. We found it, but it was a hike from where we started. I learned later that it is at the back of the Audubon Zoo and sometimes visitors to the tree can see giraffes wandering the enclosure behind the tree. Nevertheless, I recommend getting decent directions before you set out.
It’s a beautiful, knobby, gnarled tree. It’s supposed to be great for climbing, but neither my mom or I were up for that particular challenge.
This itinerary was a great fit for me and my mom. I could easily imagine going back with my husband and children and finding a completely different itinerary.
Next time I visit New Orleans, I’d like to visit another cemetery (it was really hard to narrow them down), New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, and maybe take a Mississippi River Cruise.
Have you been to New Orleans before? What would you recommend adding to this list?