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Ten Things to Do in New Orleans for First-Time Visitors (From a Former New Orleanian)

What to do if you find yourself in New Orleans? Here are my top-ten fun things to do in the city that care forgot.
Iconic view of Saint Louis Cathedral with Jackson Square in the foreground (exterior)
Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash
Since I am from the New Orleans metropolitan area, friends, co-workers, and other such folks (who have never visited the Crescent City) often ask me for my advice on things to do and places to see. Last Summer, I hosted teacher friends from China who were in town to visit and it made me think about formalizing a list for first-time visitors. So here it is!

Replica of Colonial-era signage at the entrance to Jackson Square in New Orleans
New Orleans has been governed by the Spanish,
 the French, and the Americans in its long history.
FYI: New Orleans’s number one export other than oil is tourism. Except maybe for mid-August when even the locals complain it’s too dang hot - the city is abuzz with activity. My list just touches the tip of the NOLA iceberg. I do not even mention the numerous festivals and events that converge on the city each calendar year  Jazz Fest in May, Mardi Gras in February or March, and Southern Decadence for Labor Day  just to name a couple of popular events that pop into my head.
      Additionally, my list does not go beyond the traditional - so I don't mention trending spots or places that I have never visited. I lived in New Orleans as an adult for several years, and growing up I lived in the suburbs west and north of Lake Pontchartrain (in Saint John the Baptist and Saint Tammany Parishes, respectively). So I hope you enjoy the list and maybe you have your own contributions - which you should add in the comment section below.
Here's my unofficial list of things to do in New Orleans for first-time visitors:
#1. Jazz! Preservation Hall on Saint Peters Street in the French Quarter
Preservation Hall is an historic jazz concert venue in New Orleans, Louisiana
Performance at Preservation Hall © Alamy Stock Photo
    Take in a jazz performance at Preservation Hall on Saint Peters Street in the French Quarter. It's a great way to experience our musical heritage in New Orleans. The venue is dedicated to the preservation and performance of jazz. Each hour-long performance is like a love song to jazz and a shout-out to the city's living and working jazz performers. The musicians talk with the crowd and create a fun, intimate experience. Be sure to get a photograph with the performers after the show, and leave a nice tip!

      I highly recommend that you buy tickets in advance online. The venue is small and space is limited (and it is a very popular spot). Without advance tickets, a queue forms on Saint Peters Street for people hoping to snag a ticket at the last minute. Be prepared to line up well in advance of the performance time (there are five or six performances on a given day). If the line has extended beyond Pat O'Brien's then your chance of snagging a ticket dwindles.  

Other Music Venues I Recommend:

d.b.aTipitina's and House of Blues are also top quality music venues.
* The U.S. Government's National Park Service hosts free concerts in the old U.S. Mint building (which is also a cool place to visit, as it hosts the Louisiana State Museum's own Jazz collection, as well as artifacts from the Mint when it operated as a money-making factory for the United States Treasury). In fact, the Park Service lists Jazz as one of its National Parks. That's right. Jazz is a nationally-funded national institution and the federal government officially supports its preservation and continuance. Check the calendar for performance times.
#2. The Saint Charles Streetcar Line (and other Streetcars)
Passengers board the Saint Charles Avenue streetcar in New Orleans, Louisiana
This olive-colored New Orleans streetcar runs from downtown to
the Garden District and ends at Palmer Park in the city's Carrolton neighborhood.
 
Most Popular Option: The Saint Charles Avenue Line 
      Travel on the Saint Charles Avenue Streetcar for perhaps the most iconic New Orleans streetcar experience. How to do it? If you are downtown or in the French Quarter, get on the streetcar at the corner of St. Charles and Common (near Canal Street) to go uptown through the city's historic Garden District. Take in the gorgeous, stately homes that line St. Charles Avenue. The line is also a convenient way to reach Audobon Park or Tulane and Loyola universities. 
      The fare is $1.25 and you can pay with exact change (so bring your quarters). The RTA, which operates public transport in the city, also offers Jazzy Passes, that are good for 1-day, 5-day,  week, or month passes. Ask your hotel concierge. I have never used it but the RTA also offers a mobile app that makes it easy to purchase tickets.
       The streetcar runs all day (until about 2 in the morning) and it stops at every other intersection.
Downtown and Mid-City Option: The Canal Streetcar Line
 
      If you want to go to the New Orleans Museum of Art, take the Canal Streetcar line. The cars on this line are apple red with a strip of yellow - so they are easy to distinguish from the olive-green color of the Saint Charles line's running stock. Keep in mind the line is split into two - one line goes to the Cemeteries and the other goes to City Park and the Museum. For the museum and City Park — take the line that goes to City Park. Don't bother with the Cemeteries-marked line. If you want to see an authentic New Orleans cemetery, I recommend visiting Lafayette Cemetery #1 (it is across the street from Commander's Palace - see #9).
Mississippi River Option: The Riverfront Line
      The line hugs the bend of the Mississippi River along the French Quarter. It's not my favorite line to take, but it's convenient for visitors to the Aquarium of the Americas, the French Market and to enter the Faubourg Marigny.  
For Travelers Traveling from the Amtrak Union Passenger Terminal: The Rampart-St. Claude Line
      The city recently installed a brand-spanking new streetcar line. The first segment runs on Loyola Avenue and it carries passengers to New Orleans's Amtrak station; the second segment is the Rampart line that takes travelers along the northern periphery of the French Quarter, passing Armstrong Park (for entrance to the Mahalia Jackson Performing Arts Center) and then terminates at Elysian Fields (for easy access to the Faubourg Marigny).
#3. Iconic New Orleans Diner Experience at Camellia Grill
Camellia Grill is a Greasy Spoon Diner in New Orleans, Louisiana
Waiters serve food at Camellia Grill
      Once you're on the St. Charles streetcar (See #2) tell the driver to let you off at Camellia Grill. It's a greasy spoon. The waiters, dressed in white smocks affixed with a black bowtie, are fun to talk to (and they shout out your order in short order form).
      Make sure you get a seat right at the counter so you can see your food being prepared. Be forewarned: it gets crowded on weekends and at night. So prepare for a long wait during peak hours.
#4. Drink a Nightcap at the Historic Columns Hotel on Saint Charles Avenue
Friends gather in the library room of the Columns Hotel in New Orleans to celebrate Greig Roselli's birthday
I had a birthday party in the Library Room of the Columns. It was a blast!
     On your way back (See #2) from Camellia Grill ask the driver to stop at Peniston Street. Tell him or her you want to go to the Columns Hotel. Order a drink in any of the fancy rooms. I like the library room. The Columns Hotel is on Saint Charles Avenue. It's also a hotel. So, if you plan in advance you can stay here. I like to take my friends from out-of-town here because it recreates the feeling of nineteenth-century New Orleans. If the weather is nice, it is also a nice way to watch the Saint Charles Avenue streetcar while drinking a cocktail. 
Other Drink Spots Around Here:
   New Orleans does not have a scarcity of bars and places to carouse. A little bit further down St. Charles Avenue at Polymnia Street, there is a wonderful bi-level pub and bar that servers bar food and has a plentiful variety of beers on tap  — The Avenue Pub. The second floor is cool — and there is a balcony that overlooks Saint Charles Avenue.
#5. Eat a Muffuletta in the French Quarter at Central Grocery
Greig Roselli and his friend eat a mufaletta at lunch bar at Central Grocery on Rampart Street in the French Quarter neighborhood of New Orleans, Louisiana
I introduce my friends to this eatery every time I get a chance! 
     The go-to sandwich to order at this mainstay French Quarter Italian Grocery is the muffuletta - a large bun layered with Provolone cheese, Swiss cheese, mortadella, mozzarella, salami, ham, and olives. Order before noon - especially on busy holidays and weekends. The sandwiches sell out fast. You can eat in the grocery but space is limited. There are plenty of outdoor spaces available if the weather is nice - especially along the River or near the Saint Joan of Arc statue nearby.
Option #2: Order the muffuletta at Napoleon House — this American Creole restaurant has a traditional French Quarter-style inner courtyard — great ambiance!
#6. Order a Café au Lait and Beignets at Café du Monde on Decatur Street.
With powdered sugar on his face, a young teen boy in a blue t-shirt eats a beignet at the City Park Morning Call Café in New Orleans, Louisiana
Beignets are messy yet fun to eat. 
     So — there is nothing more touristy — and necessary — than a stop at Café du Monde. It's an open-air café that has a basic menu offering of coffee, beignets (a fried doughy pastry topped with powdered sugar). Tip: after you drink your coffee and eat a beignet walk behind the building and look in the window where you can see pastry chefs prepare the beignets. Afterward, take a stroll in Jackson Square and visit Saint Louis Cathedral. If you're hungry for lunch go to Stanley Restaurant (it's good).
#7. Spend a Saturday on a New Orleans Bookstore Walking Tour
Greig Roselli and a companion browse at Arcadian Books & Prints on Orleans Street in the French Quarter
Inside Arcadian Books & Prints
     New Orleans has a splendid array of used and new bookstores that are within walking distance of one another. I like to spend a Saturday visiting all of them. 
     Start at Faulkner House Books. It's a trendy shop on Pirate's alley, adjacent to Saint Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. Tip: ask for a map of all the bookstores in the area. It'll help you plan your day, better!
There are more bookstores in the city than the ones I have listed, but here is a list of shops I particularly like.
  • Faulkner House Books at 624 Pirate's Alley is the premier bookseller I mentioned above.
  • Arcadian Books & Prints at 712 Orleans St. in the French Quarter is a small shop filled with used books galore.
  • Beckham Books at 228 Decatur is a ginormous venue replete with postcards, books, first editions, and vinyl records.
  • Blue Cypress Books at 8126 Oak Street is located on a shopping street in the Carrolton neighborhood of the city.
  • Crescent City Books at 124 Baronne is downtown off of Canal Street — a nice selection of books and a convenient browsing location to hit up before an evening dinner on the town!
#8. Walk Down Bourbon Street (And It's Not Just Strip Joints and Boobs)

Pamela P. Roselli stops her bike on Bourbon Street in front of Lafitte's Bar (c. 1990s)
Bourbon Streetview (with Jean Lafitte's Bar in the background) 
      Bourbon Street is the nighttime pulse of the French Quarter. Any night on the calendar it's most likely to be chock full o' tourists — and on Mardi Gras Day or during the Southern Decadence Festival it's veritable melée. However, Walking from Bourbon to the end of the French Quarter is a nice thirty-minute walk, and it affords one a realistic glimpse into life for people who actually call the French Quarter home! Once you pass the gay bars on St. Anne Street, the neighborhood evolves into a quieter bailiwick of handsome row houses and local bars. Once you hit Elysian Fields you can venture into the Faubourg Marigny.
#9. Eat Dinner at a Very Traditional New Orleans Restaurant:
Michelle Ferreira, Greig Roselli, and Lauren Yandow enjoy dinner at the Palace Café on Canal Street in New Orleans
Inside the Palace Café on Canal Street
- Napoleon House (500 Chartres Street). Order the Red Beans and Rice.
- Café Maspero (601 Decatur Street). They serve seafood. N.B. Crayfish is not in season in August.
- Daisy Dukes (121 Chartres Street) - Southern-style place.
- Luke (333 St. Charles Avenue) - French and German food
- Palace Café (605 Canal Street) - American food.

These are more expensive places but they are bucket list material:
- Antoine's (713 St. Louis Street) Caveat: it is a very expensive place. 
- Commander's Palace (1403 Washington Avenue) — Classy. Dinning. Period.

If you want to venture out of the New Orleans metro area, these places could satisfy your palate if you are willing to drive for more than one hour:
- La Provence (25020 Highway 190 in Lacombe, LA) - French dining
- Sal and Judy's (27491 Highway 190 in Lacombe, LA) - Crazy good food. Comfort food.
- Trey Yuen (600 N Causeway Blvd, Mandeville, LA) - Cajun-style Chinese food
#10. Gamble at Harrah’s Casino:
Harrah's is the only land-based casino in the State of Louisiana. It's glitzy and there is an OK all-you-can-eat buffet. Budget your money. Choose an amount you are willing to lose and don't go over your limit. I'm basic so I play the penny slots and then I validate my parking (it's expensive to park in downtown New Orleans so the parking validation is a welcome win).

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