What to See and What to Skip in New Orleans

PHOTO: Mule-drawn carriages make their way through the French Quarter, July 24, 2010, in New Orleans.Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
Mule-drawn carriages make their way through the French Quarter, July 24, 2010, in New Orleans.

How easy it is to let the good time roll in New Orleans! There’s a unique energy here -– an enchantment -– that makes this historic Southern city a truly special place to visit, and visit often. The list of fascinating landmarks to visit -– and the list of amazing things to see, hear and taste -– is endless, of course.

So here are just a few of our favorites. Who dat!

Come for the Tour, Stay for Breakfast Notable mansions abound in New Orleans, many of them welcoming visitors year-round. Degas House, the 19th century estate where French impressionist Edgar Degas briefly lived in the early 1870s, is one not to miss. The renowned artist, whose mother was born in New Orleans, produced close to two dozen paintings and drawings here. Two-hour tours, offered twice daily, are led by Degas’ own great-grand nieces and include a documentary screening and a walk down oak tree-lined Esplanade Ave. Come early and savor a pre-tour, cooked-to-order Creole breakfast, like French Toast topped with caramelized bananas. Mimosas come complimentary.

Skip the City, Tour the Swamp For a truly wild experience, tour the secluded bayous and swamps of South Louisiana on a high-speed airboat. Airport Adventures will pick you up from any downtown NOLA hotel and whisk you 30 minutes south to a haunting, 20,000-acre ecosystem teeming with snakes, alligators and eagles. Sweeping scenery and exotic vegetation come standard. Tours last about two hours and are offered seven days a week.

Skip the Sightseeing, Get Spooked If a city tour is more your style, then at least explore the darker side of New Orleans’ history – centuries of destruction, disasters and disease – that have cultivated a culture where spirits are accepted and respected. Magic Tours is a leader in the ghost tour arena, thrilling visitors with haunting legends of voodoo and vampires throughout the French Quarter. After-dark walking tours last two hours and depart nightly from the corner of Royal and St. Louis Streets. Kids six and under – if you dare take them – are free. Magic Tours also offers daytime tours of NOLA’s oldest cemetery – St. Louis #1 – which dates back to the 1780s and where, through a long-standing re-use of tombs, thousands of bodies have found their final resting place.

Don’t Just Sip, Discover Rum Speaking of spirits: the cocktail scene is on fire here! But there’s more to signature drinks than just sipping. At Old New Orleans Rum, 45-minute tours give you an intimate look at distillation, from beginning to end. It all starts with Louisiana-grown sugar cane molasses, and the proprietary process leads to strong sippers like Cajun Spice, a blend of runs that features flavors of cinnamon, ginger and cayenne pepper, and Old New Orleans Amber, where three years of aging lead to notes of vanilla and caramel. Call ahead to schedule a tour.

Visit the French Quarter, Bring the Kids NOLA’s French Quarter doesn’t have to be just for the grownups. French Quar-tour Kids is designed specifically for kids ages 6 to 16 and aims to show them what life here was like in the 19th century. Priced at $25 per person, this experience is designed and led by a trained teacher.

Forget the Headphones, Feel the Music Volumes can be written about the rich musical tradition in the Big Easy. This town provides its own soundtrack, day or night, with music of all types – from jazz to gospel to zydeco to rock – bubbling up from every street corner. When I met up with my pal Wil Fernandez here a few months ago – the advertising whiz was on a cultural trek across the country in his Winnebago – we caught hours of invigorating tunes form the in-house band at Fritzel’s European Jazz Club on Bourbon Street – a must! Other local performers with regular performances that get high marks include the Rebirth Brass Band, with its mix of jazz and funk, and Irvin Mayfield, who just opened a second jazz venue at the JW Marriott.

Skip the Diet, Bring Your Appetite Just like music defines New Orleans, so does food, in all its rich, flavorful, handmade glory, helps make this a one-of-a-kind destination. I’ll recommend Jacques Imo’s Café right out of the gate – fantastic grub but no reservations, so plan accordingly. My friends who were just in New Orleans highly laud Port of Call for hamburgers, Domilise’s for po boy sandwiches, Café du Monde for beignets and Snake and Jake’s for dive bar cocktails (or hair of the dog at 7am). For a truly comprehensive taste of NOLA’s thriving cuisine, check out any of the many culinary festivals this city hosts throughout the year, including the New Orleans Wine & Food Experience in May, the French Market Creole Tomato Festival in June and the New Orleans Seafood Festival in September.

Skip Dessert, Go for the Praline Aunt Sally’s has been a Creole praline institution since the 1930s. Pralines of all kinds are made with local ingredients and cooked extra slow inside old fashioned copper pots. Their newest store along the streetcar line on St. Charles offers one-hour, family-friendly, behind-the-scenes tours, with the last half hour spent tasting through all their praline creations. You also get a six-pack of pralines to take home.

After the Zoo, Visit the Bugs The Audubon Nature Institute runs a family of museums, parks and theaters throughout New Orleans (naturalist John Audubon lived here in the early 1800s), and each one is a unique visitor experience. Audubon Zoo, located uptown, houses more than 2000 animals and is a popular family draw. But for something a bit creepier and crawlier, check out the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, which features films, prehistoric exhibits, a field camp, cooking demos where bugs are the main ingredient and a pavilion with hundreds of flying butterflies. Located downtown inside the historic U.S. Custom House, the insectarium is walking distance from the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.

Skip the Guide Book, Go Mobile Your favorite digital device is all you need to feel like a local in the Big Easy. GO NOLA is a free app for iPhone, iPad or Android that combines a comprehensive calendar of events with entertainment and restaurants guides and a neat “Near Me” feature. OffBeat features music venue listings, DrinkOwl points our local drinks specials and the Historic New Orleans App finds your location and shares photos from that spot taken in the 1920s through 1950s – all three are free.

Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features many New Orleans travel and entertainment deals, along with travel tips, here: http://www.travelzoo.com/destinations/new_orleans/.