15 top-rated tourist attractions in New Orleans
New Orleans is one of America’s most unique cities, with a vibe you can’t find anywhere else. Known worldwide for its jazz music, Cajun cuisine and outrageous Mardi Gras celebrations, the city is a melting pot of cultures with a diversity reflected in everything from music and food to language and architecture.
Most of the action for tourists is centered around the French Quarter, with infamous Bourbon Street at the heart of the neighborhood. Along the Mississippi River, which borders the French Quarter to the south, are horse-drawn carriages waiting to take visitors on a tour, the Steamboat Natchez docks along the shore, and tourists line up to buy beignets. Beyond the French Quarter, the city has many quaint areas worth exploring, from the trendy Warehouse District to the elegant Garden District. Read down below and find out which fun things to do in New Orleans.
Top-rated tourist attractions in New Orleans
The French Quarter of New Orleans is what most tourists come to see when they visit the city. Located along a bend on the Mississippi River, the main attraction here is the architecture, but it’s also a great area for dining and entertaining. The old buildings, some of which date back 300 years, show French influences, with arcades, wrought-iron balconies, red-tiled roofs and picturesque courtyards. Many of these buildings now contain hotels, restaurants, gift shops, galleries and a profusion of jazz venues with entertainment of varying quality.
The most famous street in the French Quarter is Bourbon Street , but it’s not necessarily the highlight of the area. This street is relatively benign during the day, but at night it turns into a noisy and rowdy pedestrian area that may not always feel safe. Royal Street offers a great mix of history, fine dining and unique shopping opportunities, with some high-end shops, galleries and hotels. One of Royal Street’s most notable buildings is the Court of Two Sisters (1832), now a restaurant known for its jazzy brunch. To hear some quality musicians playing traditional jazz music, Via dei French is the place to go. Good restaurants are also found here and artists frequent the area.
Mardi Gras is the main event in New Orleans, with celebrations lasting a two-week period, ending with the finale on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. The celebrations include almost daily parades and all kinds of entertainment and festivities which increase in intensity as the event nears its end. Spectators flock to the balconies and sidewalks to watch the parades and catch the strings of beaded necklaces thrown from the outrageously decorated floats. Bourbon Street is one of the main areas where people congregate, but the entire French Quarter is usually packed. The tradition was introduced to the city by French settlers and became particularly popular at the end of the 19th century.
National Museum of the Second World War
The National WWII Museum is an outstanding museum with engaging exhibits and documentary snippets that tell the story of WWII as it was fought in Europe and the Pacific. The museum is divided into three sections, with one section dedicated to the war in the Pacific, another dedicated to the war in Europe, and a third building housing WWII aircraft. A film titled Beyond All Boundaries, produced and narrated by Tom Hanks, is shown in the 4D Theater, with chairs rumbling as tanks pass the screen, and props transforming the film into a full sensory experience. As visitors move from room to room through the exhibits, short black-and-white documentary-style film segments give a real insight into how the exhibits got involved in the war. Oral histories add to the impact. Each visitor is given a profile of someone who was in the war, and oral updates are available at stations throughout the complex to follow the soldier’s progression through wartime. Also part of the complex is the Stage Door Canteen, featuring 1940s entertainment, featuring matinee and dinner shows. and oral updates are available at stations throughout the complex to follow the soldier’s progression through wartime. Also part of the complex is the Stage Door Canteen, featuring 1940s entertainment, featuring matinee and dinner shows. and oral updates are available at stations throughout the complex to follow the soldier’s progression through wartime. Also part of the complex is the Stage Door Canteen, featuring 1940s entertainment, featuring matinee and dinner shows.
Jackson Square is the main square in the heart of the French Quarter, originally known as the Place d’Armes. In the center of the square, surrounded by trees and greenery, is an equestrian statue (1856) of General Andrew Jackson. Prominently positioned at one end of the square is the famous St. Louis Cathedral, with its white facade and cone-shaped spiers. Also in the vicinity of the cathedral are the Presbytere and the Cabildo, both state museums of Louisiana. The area in front of the cathedral, along the iron fence surrounding the square, has long been a gathering place for artists, and shops and restaurants are nearby, making it a popular spot for tourists.
Preservation Hall is an unassuming old building that has long been a New Orleans institution known for jazz music. The historic hall still hosts traditional jazz from local artists. The building is small, creating an intimate setting, and seating is limited. Opening times and events are listed on the door each day, so if you drop by in the afternoon you can see what’s on in the evening.
St. Louis Cathedral
On the north side of Jackson Square is the St. Louis Cathedral, a historic New Orleans structure. It was built in 1794 on the site of two earlier churches and is notable for being the oldest cathedral in the United States in continuous use. Pope John Paul II visited the cathedral in 1987.
New Orleans City Park covers over 1,300 acres and contains many attractions, including the New Orleans Botanical Garden and the New Orleans Museum of Art and Sculpture. Of particular interest to children and families are the Carousel Gardens amusement park, Storyland and the new City Splash water park, which is still under construction. Also on site are tennis courts and an 18 hole golf course as well as good walking areas. The park claims to have one of the world’s largest stands of mature oak trees, with one being nearly 800 years old.
Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo
The Cabildo, to the left of St. Louis Cathedral, was built in 1795 as the residence of the Spanish governor. It is noteworthy both as a historic building and for the museum and its outstanding collection. The first city council met here in 1799, and the Louisiana Purchase was accepted here in 1803. It was once the Louisiana Supreme Court, but today the Cabildo houses the Louisiana State Museum and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum’s collections focus primarily on the history of New Orleans and Louisiana, especially the people of Louisiana and the many ethnic groups that make up today’s population.
The Garden District is a thriving residential area with handsome mansions, mature trees and lush gardens, and is probably, in some respects, the stereotypical image many outsiders have of the Deep South. The area can easily be explored on foot, and some companies offer guided tours, which can be a good way to learn the history and see the sights. First Street, Camp Street and Prytania Street are some good places to see large, elegant 19th-century houses with extensive grounds. Some famous celebrities have homes in this area. Most visitors come to enjoy the peaceful surroundings and see the houses, but there are also boutique shops and cafes in the area, although they are spread out, and finding a spot for lunch can be more difficult than expected.
Southwest of the Garden District is Audubon Park, named in 1886. It was established on the grounds of what had been the site of the 1884 World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Within the park are fine oak stands, the Audubon Greenhouses, the Audubon Golf Club, a number of small lakes, and lots of open green space.
A cruise on the Steamboat Natchez is a wonderful way to experience the Mississippi River and a unique way to see and learn about the city. Harbor cruises last approximately two hours and provide narration about the sites, with an optional lunch of Creole cuisine. The dinner cruise includes a live jazz band, a buffet dinner, and of course, a great view of New Orleans.
Special event cruises are also available seasonally, with special cruises offered for occasions such as Easter, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Christmas, and other holidays.
It’s a good idea, particularly during peak season, to book a Steamboat Natchez Harbor Cruise in advance. This tour guarantees your place on the boat and also the lowest prices.
Mardi Gras World
New Orleans is world famous for its elaborate Mardi Gras celebrations, which draw people from all over the world who come to enjoy the festivities that consume the city during this time period. To get a glimpse of what’s involved behind the scenes at this major event, visitors can take a tour of Mardi Gras World to see the working studios. Blaine Kern Studios is one of the leading float manufacturers in the world and is heavily involved in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Parade each year. Visitors can see sculpted objects, huge floats, extravagant costumes, and all kinds of figures. This is a great way to get a good sense of the size, color, and imagination that goes into the floats and parade.
New Orleans Museum of Art
On the south side of City Park is the New Orleans Museum of Art, one of the best of its kind in the South. The museum features an excellent collection of French and American art, as well as African and Japanese pieces. Also, check the museum calendar for temporary exhibits and a variety of themes. On site and another of the institutions highlights is the Sydney and Walda Besthoff outdoor sculpture garden, featuring more than 60 sculptures, as well as walking paths, lagoons, and mature oak trees.
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
Along the waterfront in downtown New Orleans, steps from the French Quarter, the aquarium focuses on species found in North, Central and South America. Starting in the north, visitors can learn about creatures that lurk beneath the surface of nearby surrounding waters, with exhibits highlighting freshwater fish from the Mississippi River and marine life from the Gulf of Mexico. This includes everything from sharks and rays to sea turtles. The Great Maya Reef can be viewed from a 30-foot pedestrian tunnel and is designed to look like a sunken Mayan city, with fish swimming among the ruins. The Amazon rainforest offers a glimpse into the colorful birds, exotic fish and even snakes of this region of South America. Increasingly popular are sea otters and penguins, as well as wildlife encounter programs. Available as optional extras are hands-on experiences with African penguins and the chance to SCUBA or snorkel the Great Maya Reef.
Audubon Zoo is a fun escape from the busy city, with lush gardens and a good selection of domestic and exotic animals. Located in Uptown New Orleans, the zoo is a good distance from the French Quarter but offers a good excuse to see this part of the city. Some of the zoo’s most famous residents are giraffes, jaguars, leopards, orangutans, elephants, rhinos, lemurs and alligators (including the rare white crocodile) just to name a few… During the summer months, the zoo offers a chance to cool off in the splash park, known as the Cool Zoo.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve
Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve consists of six physically separate sites in southeastern Louisiana. Two of these sites are in the New Orleans area and are well worth a visit. The Barataria Preserve offers a chance to see some of Louisiana’s natural treasures. The reserve consists of natural levee forests, bays, marshes, and marshes. Here archaeological sites have been found containing remnants of the ancient Troyville, Marksville and Tchefuncte cultures. For a more historic experience, Chalmette Battlefield preserves the site of the January 8, 1815 Battle of New Orleans, which was a decisive American victory over the British at the end of the War of 1812.