Discover a Unique Culture and History in New Orleans – a vibrant city in Louisiana.
New Orleans is a melting pot of French, African, and American cultures, the birthplace of jazz, the home of Voodoo in the United States, a living history, beautiful architecture, and great food. New Orleans is colour and vibrancy you don’t want to miss. My 6-day travel guide highlights the best things to do in New Orleans. Read on to discover why you should visit New Orleans.
There is something about New Orleans that gets under your skin. There are not many places I yearn to go back to a second time, but New Orleans (affectionately referred to as NOLA – New Orleans Louisiana) is the exception. Built on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River in southeastern Louisiana, the city is history, culture, music, colour, vibrancy, and life in a neat package
I was in New Orleans with my sister and brother-in-law to take a 7-night paddle steamer cruise on the Mississippi River. As we were embarking on the cruise in New Orleans, we had decided to spend six days exploring New Orleans before taking the cruise.
The following New Orleans itinerary was ours of the making and easy enough for anyone to follow. However, it is just as easy to manipulate the itinerary to your liking. After all, it is a guide. We allowed ourselves lots of free time while still doing all we wanted. We organised the tours of the plantations and bayous from Australia before we left on this trip. Six days was an ideal length of time to see New Orleans and its surroundings for the first time. Enjoy this visit through my eyes and see for yourself.
- Day 1: Exploring the French Quarter
- Day 2: Voodoo and Wealth (and not in the same sentence)
- Day 3: Bury Them High
- Day 4: A Step Back in Time
- Day 5: Swamps and Bayous
- Day 6: A Unique Sculpture Garden
Sleeping in New Orleans
We stayed at New Orleans Jazz Quarters, a delightful Creole-style boutique inn dating from the 1800s. It is in a fabulous location (1129 St. Philip Street) opposite Louis Armstrong Park on the perimeter of the old French Quarter, with easy walking access to much of the city.
Jazz Quarters comprises 11 iconic Creole cottages and suites, all located in a gated complex with a high level of guest security. Free parking and WiFi are available.
We stayed in the two-bedroom Marsalis Luxury Cottage, with its high ceilings and decorated with classic period furniture from the 1800s. A large living room, a big bathroom with a deep bath, and a kitchenette completed the layout. We were very comfortable in this cottage and found the living room a great place to relax
New Orleans is home to several architectural styles. The Marsalis Cottage reflects the Shotgun House style of narrow rectangular homes raised on brick piers, with a covered narrow porch supported by columns. The term “shotgun” comes from the suggestion that you can shoot a bullet clear through every room when standing at the front of the house.
For an excellent resource on New Orleans’ architectural styles, refer to City of New Orleans, Historic District Landmarks Commission, “Building Types and Architectural Styles”.
Day 1: Exploring the French Quarter
Note: We arrived in New Orleans the night before.
This morning we took a self-guided walking tour of the French Quarter – thoroughly exploring the Lower French Quarter. Being set in a grid pattern, the French Quarter, the historic heart of New Orleans, is easy to walk around and find your way. My sister was our guide, and Eyewitness Travel was her resource.
Heading from Jazz Quarters to the Mississippi River, we walked down Esplanade Avenue – a broad, tree-lined, 2-kilometre-long residential street bordered by beautiful old Creole homes. Our first stop was the flea market within the French Market, where I couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt emblazoned with a transfer of a voodoo doll with a pin stuck in it.
Places of interest
Walking the length of the French Market, which also incorporates a farmer’s market and runs parallel to North Peters Street, we turned right into Ursulines Street. Our destination was the Old Ursuline Convent on the corner of Ursulines and Chartres Streets. Built in 1752, the Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. We took a walk through the Convent. Of most interest were the rooms telling the history of the Battle of New Orleans between Great Britain and the United States. According to the Eyewitness Travel guide, a stained-glass window depicting the Battle of New Orleans is in the Convent’s chapel. However, the window alluded us.
Opposite the Ursuline Convent is Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden. Built in 1862, many famous New Orleanians have lived in the house, the most notable being the Confederate General, Pierre Beauregard. General Beauregard only lived in the house for 18 months, but because he was a famous Civil War hero, the house still bears his name. The ‘Keyes’ part of the house’s name is attributed to the author, Frances Parkinson Keyes. I have to admit I have never heard of this author but have heard of General Beauregard.
The Beauregard-Keyes House is an example of the ‘raised centre-hall cottages’ architectural style, reflecting urban versions of French-Colonial plantations. Raised Centre-Hall Cottages are typically raised on piers to five feet or more above ground level. They have deep, covered front porches supported by symmetrically placed columns and accessed by a central stair.
We could not go into the house or gardens this day as a film crew was on site.
We then made our way to Jackson Square – a great place to sit and people watch as there is so much going on. Around the Square are artists selling their paintings, tarot card readers, and jazz bands competing for tourist attention. While my sister and brother-in-law went into St Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, I spent a lovely half hour watching a band entertain the crowd who were enjoying their music.
St Louis Cathedral, also called the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, is the oldest continuously active cathedral in the United States. Originally built in 1724, the cathedral has been rebuilt twice due to destruction from a hurricane and fire. Visitors are reminded this is a working church, with mass held daily.
We were now well and truly ready for coffee and headed to Café du Monde on Decatur Street, famous for its beignets. Beignets are square pieces of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar, and Café du Monde has been serving them since 1862. They were yummy and worth fighting the crowds for a table. But then again, I do have a sweet tooth. I got the feeling my sister and brother-in-law did not share in my ecstasy.
Before heading back to Jazz Quarters, my final stop was at The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Voodoo, brought to Louisiana by enslaved Africans from West Africa, is one of New Orleans’ many tourist attractions. According to guidebooks, the museum provides insight into Voodoo’s mysteries, legends, and traditions in its hallway and two small rooms packed with voodoo artifacts and examples of voodoo practices. I have to admit that I left the museum as bewildered and ignorant as I entered. And, if I am going to be honest, I found the museum a bit bizarre. Voodoo remains a mystery for me.
Since visiting New Orleans, I have attended the Voodoo Festival in Benin (West Africa). I now have a better understanding of Voodoo – perhaps one of the most misunderstood religions in the world.
Even without my newfound understanding of Voodoo, I recommend visiting the museum as it is unique where museums are concerned. I doubt you will experience anything else like it.
The Voodoo Museum, at 724 Dumaine Street, is open 10.00 am to 6.00 pm, seven days a week. General admission for adults is US$7.00. However, entrance to the gift shop is free. There is no formal tour of the museum.
Before leaving Australia, I researched voodoo dolls and was keen to buy one as my souvenir of New Orleans. The voodoo dolls sold in the Voodoo Museum’s gift shop were made of moss – Spanish Moss, to be exact. The museum staff informed me that the dolls made with moss are the more traditional voodoo dolls, and I specifically wanted a traditional voodoo doll. However, I was worried I wouldn’t get a ‘moss’ doll back into Australia. Australia has strict biosecurity requirements regarding plant material, and I would need to think about this one.
Walking around the French Quarter’s streets, the cast-iron balconies caught my eye, and I never tired of admiring them and taking photos.
Day 2: Voodoo and Wealth (and not in the same sentence)
This afternoon we went out to the Garden District. But this morning, I was on a mission to buy a voodoo doll.
My research in Australia had come up with several voodoo shops that sold voodoo dolls. I walked from shop to shop looking for a doll I liked that would not be confiscated by Australian quarantine. I ended up buying one of the voodoo dolls made with moss that I had seen in the Voodoo Museum yesterday. I decided I would risk how quarantine in Australia would deal with it. To be sure I ended up with something to put in my home, I bought a voodoo doll from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street made of calico and stuffed with cotton. No Spanish Moss anywhere! According to the label on the doll, it is a “voodoo doll for spiritual strength”. Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was the most powerful and eminent voodoo queen in New Orleans.
Catching a bus this afternoon to Canal Street, we took the St. Charles Streetcar out to the Garden District. Streetcars are icons of New Orleans and similar to Melbourne’s trams in Australia. The St. Charles Streetcar is the most famous as it is said to be the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world.
The Garden District provides excellent insight into how wealthy New Orleanians live – in grand mansions on large blocks of land, with beautiful, lush gardens and well-kept lawns. These are the homes built by wealthy city merchants, bankers and planters.
On a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District, our first stop was Lafayette Cemetery. However, we failed to realise there are two Lafayette Cemeteries. Turning right into Washington Avenue after getting off the St. Charles Streetcar instead of left, we ended up at Lafayette Cemetery No. 2. We had intended to visit the famous, walled Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 with its lavish, ornately decorated tombs, where tombs tell the story of a yellow fever epidemic.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 was our first introduction to above-ground tombs and oven wall vaults, for which New Orleans is famous. Burying people in the ground is not manageable in New Orleans due to the city being below sea level.
What the walk to Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 did reveal was an apparent delineation between the haves and have-nots in the Garden District, as noted by the houses on either side of St. Charles Avenue.
Walking back up Washington Avenue and crossing St. Charles Avenue, we explored the area around Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Our focus was on the homes of the Garden District, with their typical “raised centre-hall cottage” architectural style.
Our Garden District walk
The Gothic Revival styled Briggs-Staub House, at 2605 Prytania Street. This style of architecture is rare in New Orleans because Protestant Americans say it reminds them of Roman Catholic France.
Colonel Short’s Villa, at 1448 Fourth Street. Built in 1859. This historic residence is one of the most stunning in the Garden District, and the house is famed for its cornstalk ironwork fence.
Robinson House, at 1415 Third Street, was built for a Virginia tobacco merchant. It is one of the grandest and largest residences in the Garden District.
Finally, we stopped outside the pink Carroll-Crawford House, at 1315 First Street, with its ornate cast-iron balconies.
Our exploration of the Garden District was a lovely way to spend an afternoon. With all that walking, we were ready for a rest by the time we got back to Jazz Quarters.
Day 3: Bury Them High
After a morning of leisure, we took an afternoon tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. The entrance to the cemetery on Basin Street, just outside the French Quarter, was a 5-minute walk from Jazz Quarters.
It is not permitted to enter St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 without a licenced tour guide because the cemetery has been subjected to much vandalism over the years. We chose a tour with Save Our Cemeteries, a not-for-profit organisation “dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and protection of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries through restoration, education, and advocacy”. Booking a tour with Save Our Cemeteries appealed to us, as we felt we were contributing in a small way to the conservation of New Orleans’ history and culture.
Update: In a recent communication with Save Our Cemeteries, I learned they are no longer permitted to provide tours of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Cemetery Tours New Orleans are the only authorised company providing tours of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Established in 1789, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans and the most famous. There is many renowned New Orleanians buried here. The most famous (or infamous, depending on where your views lie) is Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. According to our guide, people leave offerings at her grave because they believe she continues to work her magic from beyond the grave.
The actor Nicholas Cage has purchased his future, pyramid-shaped tomb in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Should you aspire to be buried in this famous cemetery, the going price for a plot is US$40,000 (approximately AU$56,247).
Eyewitness Travel tells you the above-ground tombs are due to New Orleans being below sea level; that, before above-ground tombs, the bodies would float to the surface when the Mississippi River flooded. However, our guide told us that having above-ground tombs was to copy the French burial style. Who do you believe? There is, no doubt, truth in both versions. Whatever the reason, the above-ground tombs are fascinating to see. Some are very ornate, some have fallen into decay, whilst the largest contains 70 oven wall vaults. Interred in a single tomb are several generations of a family, in vaults on top of each other.
Please note: The tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 takes 1.5 hours. There is very little shade in the cemetery, and New Orleans can get hot. I recommend you take plenty of water, dress lightly, wear a wide-brim hat and use sunscreen.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, and the two are synonymous. As such, we felt we could not come to New Orleans without experiencing a jazz club. With this in mind, we had dinner this night at Three Muses on Frenchmen Street – a jazz club offering tapas-style share plates, cocktails, and live music all under the same roof. Three Muses is open Thursday to Sunday, 4.00 pm to 10.00 pm and bookings are essential.
The food was delicious. I recommend the mac and cheese. However, jazz is not a genre of music I like. So, I can’t say I enjoyed the experience.
Day 4: A Step Back in Time
Once again, a lazy morning before taking an afternoon plantations tour with Tours by Isabelle. Our “Small-Group Louisiana Plantations Tour from New Orleans” tour took in two sugar cane plantations – St Joseph Plantation and Houmas House Plantation and Gardens – with pickup from Jazz Quarters.
The plantations on this tour still feature in tours offered by Tours by Isabelle but not in this combination.
We deliberately chose a tour that took us to different plantations from that offered as a shore excursion on the Mississippi River Cruise – the famous Oak Alley with its much-photographed tree-lined path to the front door. We wanted to get a varied view of Louisiana’s famous plantations.
St. Joseph Plantataion
The 1000-acre St. Joseph Plantation is a historic plantation located on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is one of the few fully intact, still working sugar cane plantations in Louisiana. The plantation house was built in 1830.
I enjoyed the tour of St. Joseph Plantation house. Our guide was a distant family member, and I got an authentic feel for how the families lived and their relationships. She brought the rooms we explored alive with her stories.
You are free to explore the grounds, including buildings (cabins, kitchen, schoolroom) that were a part of the historical slave quarters. And there is a gift shop if you are so inclined.
Houmas House Plantation and Gardens
Houmas House was built in 1840 and set in beautiful gardens with giant, old oak trees leading up from the river (from the levy bank, to be precise) to the front of the house. Called (according to its brochure) the “Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road”, the 16-room house and gardens reflect the opulent lifestyle and grandeur of the prosperous sugar barons who once lived in Houmas House. The restoration of Houmas House is of a higher standard than the house on the St. Joseph Plantation. Although well organised, I found the tour of Houmas House, conducted by guides in period dress, to be very dull as it primarily focused on descriptions of the furnishings. I left the tour about halfway through (I had seen enough and heard enough) to explore the extensive, formal gardens on my own. The gardens alone are worth the visit to Houmas House.
Day 5: Swamps and Bayous
Our organised tour today wasn’t until early afternoon. So, we spent the morning resting, reading, and laundering (not me).
In the afternoon, we were picked up from Jazz Quarters by Pearl River Eco-Tours for their 3-hour “Six Passenger Swamp Tour” (now taking ten passengers). After an hour’s drive from New Orleans, we arrived at the Honey Island Swamp – one of the least altered river swamps in the USA.
We chose the tour with the smaller boat (skiff) as we thought it would give us a more personal experience than the larger, 18-26 passenger boat. And it did! The smaller boat was able to go into swamps and bayous that the bigger boats could not navigate.
The Mississippi River Delta is famous for its bayous, particularly the bayous of Louisiana and Texas. They are wetlands and eco-systems like I had never seen before. We saw alligators, bald eagles and other birdlife, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), diverse plant life, and hardwood (Cypress) swamps. Many trees were shrouded in Spanish Moss. [There’s that moss again!] Honey Island Swamp is true Cajun country.
Our guide was very informative, and I came away knowing much more than when I started. Pearl River Eco-Tours was well organised, and our pickup from Jazz Quarters was on time. We thoroughly enjoyed the Six Passenger Swamp Tour and recommend it to others.
The Six Passenger Swamp Tour with Pearl River Eco-Yours was organised from Australia without a hitch.
Day 6: A Unique Sculpture Garden
We weren’t required to board the boat for our Mississippi River cruise until mid-afternoon. So, we took the Canal Street streetcar to City Park at the end of the line.
Covering an area of 1,300 acres, City Park is one of the biggest urban parks in the United States. The New Orleans Museum of Art and Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden are located in the park. The sculpture garden now occupies approximately 11 acres of City Park, with over 90 sculptures from national and international artists. I found some of the sculptures quite bizarre. There are two I will remember for a long time to come:
- The first is a sculpture of a man covered in small birds pecking him.
- The second was also of a man but this sculpture is a man hanging from a scaffold by his feet.
I kick myself now for not taking photos of these sculptures.
Entrance to Besthoff Sculpture Garden is free and open seven days a week. Summer opening hours are 10.00 am to 6.00 pm, while winter hours are 10.00 am to 5.00 pm.
Before embarking on our boat, I couldn’t resist buying a bracelet from Tiffany’s.
Our time in New Orleans was relaxed and set at a leisurely pace. The city is flat and easy to walk around, and we gave ourselves time to see all we wanted without being rushed and allowing plenty of free time. What a great city!
Our New Orleans itinerary was successful, and our time was well spent. There was nothing I regretted doing and nothing I wished I had done.
Save this guide and visit New Orleans soon.
A word on safety
As a female traveller, I did not go out at night on my own (my usual precaution). However, I always felt comfortable and safe walking around on my own during the day. And I did so on many occasions for several hours.
Footnote: The moss-made voodoo doll did not make it past quarantine in Australia, and I was not even allowed to have it zapped – gamma radiation to render it safe for keeping.
Editor’s Note: This blog post was originally published in June 2019 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Unless specifically stated, all photos are my own and remain the copyright of © Just Me Travel.
The prices and opening times quoted in this post are correct at the time of this update.
Comment below to share your thoughts on this blog post. Have you been to New Orleans? What was your favourite thing to do, attraction to see, or place to eat? What would you recommend to other travellers?
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Author’s Note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip, and always follow government advice.