Top things to see and do in New Orleans

tram in New Orleans

Zoe MacFarlane

Posted May 22, 2023

Vibrant, spirited, and enchanting, New Orleans is a destination rich in culture, colour, good food, and good times. Here's the best things to see and do in New Orleans.

While the New Orleans Mardi Gras festivities and its famed Bourbon Street may be the drawcard to visit Louisiana’s most famous city, there’s so much more to explore beyond the party scene. Discover the best cultural, historical, and culinary treats in the city known as “The Big Easy”, in our ultimate travel guide.

New Orleans (or NOLA as it’s affectionately known), is a city for the soul. Vibrantly painted buildings house historical treasures, heart-felt music, and feasts that leave you sated. This is a city to let your hair down and follow the fun.

If you’re planning to drive while you’re overseas, you may need an International Driving Permit. You can apply online but check the country you’re visiting requires one before you travel and allow time for processing. 

What to see, do and eat in New Orleans

Experience the history and culture of New Orleans

A journey for your senses, New Orleans is a coastal city in southeast Louisiana at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The fascinating blend of French. West African, Spanish, and Native American cultures come together to create a city like no other.

While the French founded New Orleans in 1718, they did so on land that was long used by Native Americans for trading, hunting, and meeting. Today, the French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans and a fabulous base, right in the thick of things.

To learn about the French Quarter and New Orleans’ history, head to the free Historic New Orleans Collection, dedicated to stewardship of the city’s heritage. Alternatively, join one of the city‘s free (tip-based) walking tours. The informative guides bring the city to life in a way that a plaque on a wall cannot.

The folklore around ghosts, spirits, and voodoo is a quintessential part of the New Orleans culture, too, especially around the French Quarter. Ghost tours tap into the region’s myths and legends; choose from a voodoo tour, a cemetery excursion, or take a haunted pub crawl.


man playing instrument in New Orleans

New Orleans is famous for its Jazz music scene. Image: Supplied


A taste of New Orleans

New Orleans culture is best in the flavours that fill your plate, but what are the must-try dishes when visiting the Big Easy?

Gumbo is the perfect representation of New Orleans’ melting pot. Consider gumbo your chance to taste culture and history in one delectable stew, thanks to the blend of seasoning and flavours from Europe, West Africa, and native to Louisiana.

For a lunchtime snack, grab a Po-Boy, which typically consists of meat, salad, and lashings of mayo that a flaky-yet-chewy baguette. While you might want to grab one every day, also try Muffaletta, the other traditional New Orleans sandwich. This one has Italian flavours in a sesame-topped round bun.

For seafood lovers, sample crawfish pie, shrimp bisque, and oysters Rockefeller. The latter are baked with herbs, breadcrumbs, and butter making them melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

For dessert, beignets are the moreish deep-fried doughy sugary hit that perfectly complements a café au lait. For many NOLA visitors, this becomes a daily ritual during a stay.


New Orleans restaurant

Gumbo is just one of many unique New Orleans dishes. Image: Shutterstock


Magical Mardi Gras in New Orleans

The ultimate party in New Orleans (possibly the United States) is Mardi Gras. In true NOLA style, this is not a one-night event but a series of them. The revelries begin in early January through to Fat Tuesday, the night before Lent and 47 days before Easter. This is the main event when all New Orleans shifts to full throttle.

Elaborate floats, lively parades, doughy king cakes, and exuberant bead-tossing from French Quarter balconies are only a part of what goes down across this extended festival period. Expect to not just witness the fun of Mardi Gras but fully participate in it: visitors are more than welcome.


steampaddler ship in New Orleans

Take a ride on a traditional steampaddler boat in New Orleans. Image: Supplied


New Orleans by night

To visit New Orleans without experiencing the nightlife is like skipping the beignets – it's an integral part of the culture!

While Jazz was birthed in New Orleans (check out the Jazz Museum if you’re a fan), it’s not the only melody you can expect to hear while exploring the city. Body-shaking African rhythms, moody blues tunes, and upbeat marching band brass sounds fill the streets.

Iconic Bourbon Street is the centre of the party action. Thirteen blocks of bars, restaurants, boutiques, and beats ensure there is never a dull moment. For live jazz, blues, and reggae, head to Frenchmen Street in the 7th ward.

While you’re exploring NOLA’s best bars and clubs, order a Sazerac, a cognac, absinthe, bitters, and sugar cocktail. First made in New Orleans in 1850, this is America’s oldest cocktail and the city’s official drink.


New Orleans at nighttime

New Orleans has amazing nightlife. Image: Supplied


Day trips from New Orleans

New Orleans is close to some exciting day trip locations, with the most popular being the swamp and wetland tours of the Louisiana Bayous. In the heart of Cajun Country, the waterways reveal another side to the region, one far removed from fabulous cocktails and raucous revellers. The bayou’s unique flora and fauna is fascinating, though the lurking alligators that get the most attention.

Just over an hour from NOLA, Louisiana’s state capital, Baton Rouge awaits. Here, southern charm meets modernity, offering travellers historic state buildings, Art Deco architecture, metropolitan museums, and thought-provoking art exhibitions to explore. Baton Rouge's Cajun and Creole influence is best enjoyed in a restaurant. Whether it’s catfish and collard greens, crawfish étouffée, or boudin (a pork sausage), your tastebuds will thank you.

Surprising to many, there are long white sandy beaches and quaint coastal towns close to New Orleans, along the Secret Coast. In under 90 minutes, reach lively Biloxi famed for its expansive beaches, fresh seafood (try the Gulf shrimp), and casinos. If you’re renting a car, take a longer road trip to Florida's sun-drenched Pensacola shore, where the sugar-white sand and turquoise waters beckon.


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