New Orleans Trolley Tours
New Orleans Trolley Tours

The Do’s and Don'ts of visiting New Orleans for the First Time

Amazing stuff to do in New Orleans for first-timers

Published on February 19, 2021

If you're looking for things to do in New Orleans beyond enjoying a drink on Bourbon Street, there are plenty of options. Whether you're taking a spooky ghost tour through a cemetery or visiting a vintage cafe and washing down one of America's most famous desserts with New Orleans' best cup of coffee, you're sure to find terrific activities no matter where you turn. Here are the do's (as in "must-do") and don'ts (as in "don't leave without doing this!") for any first trip to New Orleans.


Do: Stick to New Orleans' Tourist Trail

If it's your first time in New Orleans, make sure you see the main attractions! There are a ton of places to discover as you stroll through New Orleans. Mosey through the French Quarter and over to Jackson Square, where St. Louis Cathedral (and the Square's namesake statue of Andrew Jackson) rises above you like a scene from a postcard.

While much of the stuff to do in New Orleans centers around the French Quarter, that's only the beginning. Go back in time to a different era when you visit the National World War II Museum or stop by the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, home to more than 3,600 animals, including rare and endangered species.

Don't: Miss the Chance to Learn More About Voodoo

People who have never visited New Orleans might want to learn a little more about what voodoo is and how it's played a major role in the city's history. Plan to visit to the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, which explores the history of voodoo and is home to a variety of voodoo-related art.

Want to dig deeper into voodoo culture? Whether you have a few nights in the Big Easy or you're just planning to hunker down for a day or so before boarding one of many amazing cruises from New Orleans, consider taking a voodoo tour. Many of these focus on Maria Laveau, the "Voodoo Queen of New Orleans," and how history led West Indian voodoo culture to take root in New Orleans.

Do: Discover the Beignet Craze

New Orleans is perhaps the most famous culinary hotspot of the American South, and it deserves its reputation. Dishes like jambalaya (rice stir-fried with spicy sausage) and shrimp and grits have become known around the world. Get yourself a table at Cafe du Monde and order some beignets, or French-style donuts, which you can wash down with a New Orleans-style cafe au lait.

Other famous New Orleans food includes the "po'boy," a fried seafood (usually shrimp) sandwich on New Orleans French bread. Yet another way to taste New Orleans is to order a steaming bucket of crawfish, which are usually served steamed and with plenty of lemons on the side to add a zesty tang before you peel them open! Crawfish boils also tend to be a decidedly communal affair — if you're shy going in, you'll get over that pretty quickly!

Don't: Forget to Explore the Big Easy on Foot

One of the best ways to explore a new city is on foot — you may even be able to find a few hidden gems along the way. So grab a frozen cocktail and find the walking tour that best piques your interest.

The best part about these tours? While they'll include plenty of stuff to do in New Orleans, many of them are free or donation-based. From companies like Free Tours by Foot and the woman-centric Two Chicks Walking Tours to the surprisingly irreverent New Orleans Legendary Walking Tours, seeing New Orleans on foot is a decidedly relaxing affair. You usually start and end in a popular tourist spot and leave with a dozen (or more!) new friends.

Do: Explore via Paddleboat

It's hard to overstate the importance of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain in relation to the New Orleans cityscape and the city's history. If you're looking for things to do in New Orleans, nothing's better than taking to the water in a vintage paddleboat. Boat tours leave from various points in New Orleans several times a day and give you a new perspective of the city.

There will be guides on some ships who will share historical facts about New Orleans, while other vessels feature their very own jazz bands. Still others have crews that will serve you a boozy brunch as you cruise along the mighty Mississippi — how does shrimp and grits sound? No matter which boat tour suits you best, they're a must-do while you're there.

Don't: Miss New Orleans' Haunted Locations

Many of the top things to do in New Orleans in fact involve cemeteries. The city is said to be home to its fair share of ghosts and ghouls, whether or not you believe in that sort of thing.

As is the case with many other New Orleans tours, there are a wide variety of tours involving ghosts and other creatures of the night. Some tours are purely historical, taking you through cemeteries and other New Orleans structures that have a reputation for being haunted. Others, including the famous Ghost and Vampire Tour, take you back in time as you visit the sites of specific murders and other grisly crimes as well as providing the historical background for mythology you might already know. There's even a "haunted pub crawl" you can sign up for.

Do: Explore the Bayous and Backwaters

In addition to plenty of things to do in New Orleans, there are a lot of activities located just outside of New Orleans. You can explore the swamps that surround the city as part of a fascinating tour of New Orleans' bayous. Whether you paddle yourself through these storied waterways with a guide or take a locally famous airboat, there's no better way for the legends of Louisiana to come alive for you.

If you don't want to get face-to-face with a real-life Louisiana gator, other day trips from New Orleans veer much more toward the terrestrial side of things. For instance, you can book plantation tours from New Orleans, which will allow you to tour glorious Antebellum homes. Still other tours combine exploring with bayous and backwaters with getting glimpses of the homes that rise above them on land. There are plenty of options, so you'll have no trouble finding the choice that's right for you — with, or without reptiles!

Don't: Skip a show at the Symphony, Opera or Theater

It's tempting to think that jazz is the only music you can enjoy in New Orleans, but there are so many other options. You can catch a performance by the Louisiana Philharmonic, the renowned symphony orchestra based in New Orleans. The city is also home to its own opera company, which continues an opera tradition in the city that dates back to 1790.

If you want to see a theater performance, you may get lucky and be able to see a New Orleans-themed show like "A Streetcar Named Desire," but if not, New Orleans always offers a variety of Broadway and Off-Broadway favorites. Famous New Orleans venues include the Anthony Bean Community Theater and Le Petit Theatre, a vermillion-colored building that's probably the city's most storied performing arts venue.

Do: Take Part in Local Events

If you're booked on one of the cruises from New Orleans that departs during the last week of April or the first week of May, it's likely that you'll be in town during New Orleans Jazz Fest. Even if you're not here then or during Mardi Gras in late February, New Orleans probably has the most special events per year of any American city — why not join in?

The New Orleans spring and summer are filled with festivals, from late May's delicious Oyster Festival to July's Essence Festival, which is a lively celebration of black music, culture, celebrities and more. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ travelers should time their New Orleans cruises for around Labor Day, when rainbow flags fly over Bourbon Street for the annual Southern Decadence festival.

Don't: Forget About That Bourbon Street Cocktail

When it comes to New Orleans nightlife, Bourbon Street and its variety of watering holes looms large. Wander over and try some local drinks, especially the sazerac, which is made by mixing absinthe with whiskey or cognac, a splash of bitters and a single sugar cube.

Even if you aren't a big drinker, a stroll down Bourbon Street is definitely one of the most worthwhile things to do in New Orleans. From lush balconies to vintage street signs to the sight of excited people clutching beads and clinking highball glasses, the address is one of the most iconic in the American South for a reason.

Whether you're bound for a cruise departing New Orleans, or looking to stay and lounge awhile in the Big Easy, you'll find everything from beignets and bayous to victuals and voodoo in this spectacular city of the American South.


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