Looking for some fun activities in New Orleans? Having a good time is practically synonymous with visiting the Big Easy. There is no other city in the United States (and maybe even the world) quite like NOLA, and you’ll feel that the minute you step foot onto the storied streets.
From the historic French Quarter to the banks of the Mississippi River and the Garden District, there are some surprisingly fun things to do in New Orleans. After all, the city’s Cajun French mantra is “laissez les bons temps rouler,” or “let the good times roll.” If that’s not a good indicator of what to expect, what is?
Keep reading for Five surprisingly fun things to do in New Orleans.
1. Walk through a historic cemetery
This is where that “surprising” factor comes in. Most people don’t think of cemeteries as fun, but most places aren’t like New Orleans. This city is steeped in more than 300 years of history and the dead are very much part of everyday life for the locals.
The cemeteries are stunning landmarks, filled with towering shade trees, elaborate marble statues and above ground mausoleums. The land is too soggy to bury the dead in the ground, so the thousands of mausoleums (which are small walled cities in their own right) stand as sentinels over the deceased. The oldest of the cemeteries, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, opened in 1798 and is the final resting place for some of the city's most famous (or infamous) residents.
Another piece of that history centers around this being the birthplace of jazz music, so it is sometimes woven into the funeral processions as a jubilant send off for loved ones. A second line, which is essentially a parade of dancing revelers with a brass band in tow, is a regular site for jazz funeral processions entering a cemetery. Where else are you going to find live music in a graveyard?
It goes without saying to be respectful, but it's so unique and extremely New Orleans that you can't help but admire the way death becomes a celebration of life. You will be in awe of the history, the size and the character in these cemeteries, which are all a reflection of the vibrant culture for which New Orleans is known.
2. Go on a cocktail crawl
Lots of people are willing to debate that cocktails were actually invented in New Orleans. While that detail remains to be set in stone, there is no doubt the city has an affinity for making delicious mixed drinks. So much so, that many historical bars have signature cocktails they’re famous for all over the world.
Take for instance, the sweet, red hurricanes you get at Pat O’Brien’s or the frozen purple Voodoo Daiquiri at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. You’ll also see everyone walking around Bourbon Street with a neon green Hand Grenade that you can order at a few walk-up windows.
Now, let’s turn to the craft variety. For a cocktail that was actually confirmed to be invented in New Orleans, go have a Sazerac at the swanky Roosevelt Hotel. It’s the city’s official cocktail and is made with rye whiskey, Herbsaint (absinthe), sugar and Peychaud’s Bitters, which were also invented in the French Quarter by a Creole apothecary named Antoine Peychaud in 1838. They’ve got absinthe over at the aptly named Absinthe House or another NOLA original, the Vieux Carré at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone. Actually, go have anything at the Carousel Bar, as it is one experience you’ll never forget. The 25-seat revolving bar is an operating Merry-Go-Round and was named one of the 20 best bars in the world by Vogue.
The mixologists in New Orleans have created a cocktail culture to rival any city in the world. They take their jobs very seriously and should be revered for their knowledge and expertise, so take it from us and go on a cocktail crawl.
3. Take a nighttime ghost tour
NOLA is full of ghosts. Don’t believe it? They don’t mind. You can’t be called one of the most haunted cities in the country without embracing the idea of an afterlife. You’ll even see real estate signs all over the French Quarter that say homes are “Haunted” or “Not Haunted.” Once again, New Orleanians lives alongside their ghosts, figuratively and literally. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that New Orleans is chock full of ghost tours.
Here’s the thing about the nighttime ghost tours, you don’t even have to believe in ghosts to enjoy yourself. You’ll walk down the charming streets of the French Quarter while the gas lamps flicker and the horse or mule drawn carriages clop on by. The tour guide will stop in front of a sprawling mansion, tell you a truly gruesome tale about something that happened a couple hundred years earlier, then about the sightings they’ve had since the grisly events.
On cue, you will crane your neck to look up at such a lovely property, staring a little more intently at the darkened windows and envisioning what it must have been like during that time frame. And then you’ll realize, it looks pretty much the same because history has been preserved. Well, with the addition of cars parked against the curb.
4. Eat crawfish at the French Market
Crayfish, crawdads, mudbugs, crawfish. Whatever you call them, March through May is peak crawfish season in New Orleans and eating them is one surprisingly fun experience you won’t forget. The tiny lobster-looking crustaceans are caught in fresh water and boiled in giant pots with some seasoning, corn, potatoes, sausage and sometimes other shellfish thrown in. If you go to a crawfish boil, it’s a whole experience, with the crawfish and other goodies being dumped straight onto a covered table in front of you. No plates or cutlery needed.
But at some point, you’ll end up in the open-air French Market, wandering through the endless stalls of artisanal goods, souvenirs, flea market finds, and other fun stuff. Look for the folks shucking fresh oysters near a fragrant boiling pot, pull up a barstool, order a pound of perfectly seasoned crawfish, and ask the locals for a quick tutorial. They’ll inevitably tell you to “pinch the butt and suck the head” to get a good laugh but that’s pretty much exactly how to eat them. Pull the head off with a twist, at which point you can suck the savory broth out of the head or discard it, then you’ll pinch the tail and pull the meat out.
There are tons of really great places to have crawfish, but the French Market is all atmosphere and people watching. There’s typically a warm breeze floating through the metal canopy, the sounds of live music nearby, lots of laughter and people milling about. All you need now is an ice-cold Abita beer to wash it all down. And if it’s not crawfish season when you go, order a dozen oysters.
5. Buy art in Jackson Square
The Crescent City is home to a whole bevy of creatives. Authors like Mark Twain and Ann Rice, the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, the father of jazz Louis Armstrong, Aaron Neville, Harry Connick Jr. and countless others have called New Orleans home or found inspiration in the legendary neighborhoods. In a city that welcomes individuality and encourages people to march to the beat of their own drum, it’s not hard to see how there would be a thriving art scene.
And art can be found absolutely everywhere; painted on the many buildings, in the countless galleries and shops, in the architectural elements, the culinary scene and of course under the soaring oak trees in Jackson Square. Every single day, local artists display original works of art along the wrought iron fences. Some of them have been exhibiting their work in Jackson Square since the 1950s, while others are the third of fourth generation artists in their families to sell their pieces on the square. You can watch live painting demonstrations, shop for the perfect souvenir for your own home, or even sit and have your portrait painted by one of the gracious and talented artists that call the city home.
Ashley Oñoz-Wright has been a travel writer and editor based in Las Vegas, NV for the last ten years. Her work has been featured in Manifesting Travel, Modern Luxury, Sophisticated Living, Greenspun Media Group, Vegas.com and LasVegas.com. She holds a degree in Sociology & Anthropology from DePauw University.