Embrace Creole and Cajun and learn the difference between the two with this tailor-made New Orleans itinerary. From the voodoo of the French Quarter to the musical beat of Tremé and the gentrified Garden District, here’s how to spend a foot-stomping three days in New Orleans.
Day One –French Quarter, Café Du Monde, Tremé and Jazz
Day Two – Garden District, World War Two Museum and Cooking Class
Day Three – Swamps and Plantations or Cooking and History
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Most visitors get their bearings in Jackson Square, a rather clinical looking parkland in front of the austere St Louis Cathedral. Twas here that the Louisiana purchase took place, making the ground a National Historic Landmark, but today it bursts with character, chaos and complexity, all brushed into a postcard look.
The square helps to get your bearings: Old Man Mississippi in one direction, the colourful French Quarter in the other. And the cream and green spinning fans of Café du Monde at the intersection, serving up sugary beignets and chicory coffee from dawn.
Inside Tip: head to Café du Monde early to stand a chance in shimmering sugar of beating the tourist crowds. If you’re heading to New Orleans from Europe, embrace the jet lag and get there first.
Before delving into the melee of the French Quarter, head out along Decatur Street to the French Market and relish the voodoo skulls, alligator hides and iced smoothies along the route.
Jackson Square also hosts the Presbytère museum, worth a detour if you need some air-con and some context. Downstairs features the build-up and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the shattering event in New Orleans. Upstairs tackles a happier subject: the sequins and shine of the annual Mardi Gras festival that fills the streets of New Orleans.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Love Mardi Gras but can’t make the real thing? Mardi Gras world is for you! It’s a massive warehouse that takes you behind the scenes of the procession that is covered all over the world.
The French Quarter
Spend the afternoon unpeeling the layers of the French Quarter. Follow a self-guided route, join a walking tour, or meet your inner tourist on the horse and cart tours that are perhaps more interesting than they sound. If all else fails, simply wander around. It’s like historic European towns, you can’t really go wrong.
For an area of less than one square mile, the French Quarter has as many personalities as France has cheese. Bourbon Street attracts the partygoers and, unless you like your drinks bright green and by the bucketful is probably best avoided.
Instead, head to Royal Street for the art and relish the peace and quiet of the residential areas.
If time and energy are on your side, head either to the Warehouse District in one direction or the Faubourg-Marigny in the other. Frenchmen Street as dusk blends into night sings with the soul of a city that loves music.
Widely accepted to be the birthplace of jazz, the neighbourhood of Tremé lies just beyond the French Quarter. It celebrates African-American and Creole history through cultural centres, jazz spots and great places for a bite to eat.
The Louis Armstrong Park includes the infamous Congo Square, where enslaved people and indentured servants would gather on their day off and play music; the sound bridged the language gap between people of different languages and from here, so legend goes, jazz was born.
Join a cycle tour amid the colourful cottages to learn more about the New Orleans history, from its origins during the European settlements through to slavery and on to Katrina.
St Louis Cemetery No 1 attracts more crowds than seems possible for a graveyard, partly drawn in by the mystery of voodoo priestess Marie Leveau. It’s definitely worth taking a tour for this part, otherwise the significance will pass you by. Also, the graveyard yields no shade so remember your hat, water and sunscreen.
Inside Tip: Visit the Louis Armstrong festival Satchmofest each year in New Orleans for an intimate, historic and yet modern look at jazz.
A Note About Jet Lag in New Orleans
Go easy on yourself if you have jet lag (which you will, if you’re arriving from Europe.) Move some of the neighbourhoods from day one to day two and perhaps skip the day trips at the end to catch up.
Inside Tip: Breakfast at Brennan’s
Treat yourself to an egg-stravaganza with an eggy breakfast at the historic, silver service Brennan’s. To liven things up, go for the flaming dish. Then come back and tell me how it went.
New Orleans’s leafy Garden District lends a breath of fresh-air to an intense, intoxicating city. Although you’ll need to hop on a tram to reach it from the historic centre, it’s also quite close in the context of the sprawling city of New Orleans as a whole.
From the Warehouse District, take the St Charles Streetcar and hop off at Washington Avenue and St Charles Avenue.
Landmarks include Lafayette cemetery and the Commander’s Palace, a restaurant serving haute Creole cuisine since 1893.
Though the turtle soup tastes good, but I believe your time is better spent escaping the tourists and heading to Magazine Street. This is where well-heeled locals really hang out, grabbing quick red beans and rice at Joey K’s ruby-yellow Restaurant and Bar or shopping among the boutiques.
It’s a curious spot for a WWII museum, far from most of the theatres of war. But that aside, the National WWII Museum is a staggeringly comprehensive and emotional piece of work.
From studies of propaganda to aircraft hanging from the ceiling, submarine simulators and light and sound exhibits that include Europe and the Pacific, it’s a surprisingly nuanced and powerful place to learn about world history.
It’s vast and to see everything would take an entire day, not to mention nerves of steel. Focus on the areas most important to you and spend the afternoon here.
Before heading back to the ebb and flow of central (tourist) New Orleans, pop into Cavan for inner. Through crab noodles and a raw oyster platter, this salvaged mansion from 1883 brings the cuisine of the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf of Mexico back to life.
Day three on this New Orleans itinerary takes you outside the city on two different but powerful day trips. Why? Because once you see what lies just outside the city, the centre and mix of New Orleans today suddenly makes sense.
With all that said, if you find yourself rushed on day one, move some of the neighbourhoods to day three. Don’t spoil your trip by trying to do too much.
Despite the off-putting description, joining a boat tour on the swamps around New Orleans is a calming, even fragrant experience. The water is calm, the hogs quiet and the scent of magnolia in the air.
Plus, drifting along the swamps highlights how Creole cuisine developed (impossible to produce butter in this climate) and why Katrina was as devastating as it was (with this much water all around, the failure of the dams was catastrophic.)
As the final stop for the gargantuan Mississippi, New Orleans was the trading hub and melting pot of the south; the wealth of Louisiana fuelled by the cotton and sugar plantations further upstream.
The houses are beautiful, even if the history is not. The Great River Road runs parallel to the Mississippi, dotted with grand plantation homes, each with a different story to tell.
Oak Alley Plantation is probably the most famous, its 28-tree avenue of live oaks forming the backdrop of a Beyoncé video among others, but it’s the Whitney stands out the most.
For the Whitney Plantation is the only one to tell the story of the houses from the people who made them: the enslaved individuals shipped here and tortured to death, one after the other, from the hundreds into the thousands. A memorial wall and statues traces as many of the barely named people as possible and forces people of today to pause and think about the past.
It is possible to complete a tour of the two plantation homes and a swamp tour and be back within one day but it is a rush. If you have a shorter third day, because of a flight, for example, then just pick one of the three.
If you have more time, check out this New Orleans Road Trip itinerary and stay overnight in plantation country.
Alternatively, if you’re looking to really slow things down and enjoy the city of New Orleans as much as you can, then cut yourself some slack on day one. Move some of the neighbourhoods to day three and enrol in a cooking class, like the one offered by Langlois.
Learn about history, culture and cuisine with a glass of wine in your hand and without moving an inch.
In other words, learn how to follow the New Orleans motto: laissez les bon temps rouler.
Let the good times roll…
The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) serves both domestic and international destinations but is some way out of the French Quarter. Transfers are easy enough to arrange, with taxis costing around $36 to the French Quarter and the airport shuttle at $24 at the time of writing.
ESTA Visa Requirements for Non-US Visitors
Please note that at the time of writing, even tourist visas to the US must be arranged in advance. The most common way to do this for UK visitors is to sign up to the ESTA scheme, which charges a fee and has various restrictions. Always check the up to date guidance on the official website.
You can apply for your ESTA yourself online for a fee or, for a little extra, you can arrange your ESTA through a professional visa bureau.
The advantages of doing it this way include:
Within the French Quarter, the Louis Armstrong Park and along the river, it’s perfectly easy to walk around, even in the heat of summer. Beyond that, look out for the iconic New Orleans trams featured in A Streetcar Named Desire.
For first time visitors, it’s useful to stay within the French Quarter or at least within walking distance. The character is so unusual and changes so much during any 24 hour period that you want to be able to soak it up as much as you can.
The Warehouse District is also a good place to stay. And if you have more than two nights, it’s worth changing hotels. The French Quarter can start to feel claustrophobic and it’s more interesting to see different sides of New Orleans as well.
Maison Dupuy – French Quarter, olde world charm with swimming pool to cool off.
Le Meridien – large, corporate luxury hotel between the French Quarter and Warehouse District in the Central Business District.
Old No 77 – Hipster, boutique hotel within walking distance of the French Quarter.
Avoid Bourbon Street. That’s rule number one! Next up, for easy to access jazz, head to Frenchman Street in the French Quarter. Every doorway leads to music, from cover bands to up and coming musicians and grassroots movements.
One of the best things about any New Orleans itinerary is the chance to check out some New Orleans food! The history, landscape and politics have combined to create unique flavours to make your taste buds dance as hard as your feet.
Here are some can’t miss dishes:
So, that’s a wrap. Tell me, what do you think should be added to this New Orleans itinerary?
Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.
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