If this is your first adventure to New Orleans, the list of things to do and see might seem overwhelming! There are the beignets to eat (vegan ones, of course), eerie cemeteries to explore, live jazz to scat, and much more.
And, if you’re like me, you don’t necessarily want to do everything that everyone else is doing — that’s rather dull, right? No worries, I’ve got you covered. If you’re a first-time visitor to New Orleans, here are 10 things that you must do and see!
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If This Is Your First-Time to New Orleans, Don’t Miss These Activities
It’s hard when you only have a few days, and it’s your first time to a destination — what in the world do you do? You don’t want to risk missing the good stuff, but you really want to miss the not-so-interesting stuff, right? If that’s you, this list is all you need for a unique New Orleans adventure.
#1 Take a tour
Taking a tour is my absolute favorite thing to do when visiting a new city! For first-time visitors to New Orleans, there is no better way to get a history lesson on many topics — jaw-dropping homes in the Garden District, famous hauntings, why the cemeteries are above ground, and more.
Taking a tour also gives you an excellent opportunity to chat with a local about their city and learn about the best places to eat, what to skip, and more tips and tricks. There are loads of different tour options for New Orleans, some you can book on-site, but some sell out fast! I recommend that you book all of your tours ahead of time to ensure you can nab a spot.
Recommended tours for first-time visitors:
These are actually two options (it’s somewhat confusing, but I liked the guide, so that’s why I am recommending it). You pick one or both if you have time. I really liked the French Quarter and Voodoo, but to be honest, we didn’t spend much time in the French Quarter, the tour mostly covered history and Voodoo.
This tour takes you inside the famous St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, the oldest graveyard in New Orleans, which is the resting place of Marie Laveau. Interestingly, Nicolas Cage has purchased a plot there. It’s important to note you can only access the cemeteries with a licensed guide.
Learn all about the architecture and history of the city’s most prestigious area. This area is also home to a few celebrities and is a favorite spot for filming movies.
#2 Learn about Voodoo and get a Tarot reading
Did you realize that Voodoo has nothing to do with dark magic and putting pins in a doll to torture someone you dislike?! I was shocked too! All of that is purely for entertainment.
Voodoo actually means “pure light” and was famously practiced by Marie Laveau in New Orleans, who sought to promote peace, love, and harmony through its practices. The Voodoo tour I took provided an interesting background into this religious practice. I also lucked out because our guide was a walking voodoo historian — his father wrote four books on it! If you’re even remotely interested in learning more, you should do this.
After the tour, head over to Voodoo Authentica in the French Quarter for a tarot reading — this is the perfect opportunity to ask any burning questions you may have. The shop is also a great place to learn about Voodoo dolls, Gris Gris bags, herbal oil blends, and New Orleanian, Haitian, and African art.
#3 Wander through the Garden District & Shop on Magazine Street
Even if you don’t take a tour of the Garden District, you should still carve out time to explore tree-lined streets and marvel at the impressive homes. You shouldn’t miss a couple of streets: St. Charles and Prytania — you can hop on the dark green streetcar on St. Charles to save your feet a few steps. You will also find the homes of many celebrities past and present — Anne Rice had multiple homes throughout the area, and today, Sandra Bullock and John Goodman can be spotted from time to time.
After your house hunting adventure, pop on over to Magazine Street for the best shopping in New Orleans — seriously, skip Canal Street; this is better! Here you will find fun independent boutiques, art galleries, cafes, smoothie shops, and more. I recommend wandering into Zele NOLA — they carry locally designed jewelry, art, crafts, and more from over 100 different artisans.
While you’re wandering, you might get hungry! There are multiple vegan-friendly restaurants throughout the area, including Dat Dog and Nirvana. For something small, check out The Daily Beet or raw REPUBLIC.
#4 Enjoy live music on Frenchmen Street
This is the musical heart of New Orleans. Your ears will be delighted with the rhythmic sounds of jazz, blues, reggae, rock, and more! The crowded and buzzing street bursts with music — it’s not just in the clubs but also on the sidewalks and street corners. Make sure you plan an evening visit to one (or all) of the many clubs — the Spotted Cat, Blue Nile, and Snug Harbor are great places to start!
#5 Sip natural wines at Bacchanal Wine
More live music, but this time in the comfort of what feels like someone’s backyard! Bacchanal Wine is a unique spot tucked into the Bywater neighborhood. It’s not a place you would find wandering New Orleans, making it extra special.
When you arrive, your visit starts at their terrific wine store — the majority of their wines are natural with many vegan options. If you’re coming with a group, it makes sense to buy a bottle of wine here to enjoy. Otherwise, if you’re only interested in having a glass, then head up to the bar. Their back patio features live music throughout the week — it’s a wonderful spot to relax under the stars year-round.
They do serve a limited menu, not super vegan-friendly, but there are a couple of things, including vegan cheese from Rebel Cheese in Austin (you can find it in the wine store).
#6 Take a behind the scenes tour of Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras isn’t a quick, one-time thing in New Orleans — it’s a big business and takes a huge amount of creativity and labor all year! If you can’t make it in person to enjoy the 54 parades, 588 marching bands, and 1,061 floats, then make sure you pop into Mardi Gras World. If by chance, you are visiting during all of the festivities, be sure to plan ahead with this Mardi Gras guide!
The 300,000 sq. ft. warehouse is the beating heart of Mardi Gras. Here, you can see artists working to create new and unique designs for the next year and check out past floats up close! The tour starts with a bit of history of the parades and why it’s so unique; then, you can continue on your own to explore where all the Mardi Gras magic happens! This is also a great way to explore the excitement of Mardi Gras with kids!
Mardi Gras World is open Monday-Sunday from 9 am – 5 pm, and adult tickets are $22.
#7 Grab a drink on a carousel
Looking for a truly one-of-a-kind place for a drink? Then don’t miss the Carousel Bar & Lounge at The Hotel Monteleone. Just like the name leads you to believe, it really is a carousel! The whimsical carousel is the city’s only revolving bar and was even rated by Vogue Living as one of the top 20 bars in the world.
It is popular, and challenging to nab one of the 25 seats on the merry-go-round, but even if you can’t grab a seat, it’s still worth checking out (there is other seating, it’s just less exciting than sitting on the carousel).
The bar also hosts live music Wednesday – Saturday.
#8 Skip the craziness of Bourbon St. for Royal Ave.
Truth be told, I wasn’t a super fan of the French Quarter (first-time visitors to New Orleans should check it out). It was just too much for me, but one street that you shouldn’t skip is Royal Ave. Unlike the rest of the French Quarter and famous Bourbon Street, Royal Ave. is known for family-owned antique shops, art galleries, and other shopping.
It’s full of Southern charm!
#9 Enjoy the botanical gardens at City Park
Get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and stroll through 10 acres of carefully curated gardens and art at the New Orleans Botanical Garden. Under the mature live oaks, you will find over 2,000 varieties of plants — many are native to Louisiana and a tropical rainforest, waterfall, conservatory, and more.
On Thursdays, the gardens host a twilight concert series featuring a variety of live music in the Pavilion of the Two Sisters.
Admission to the gardens is $12 for adults.
If you were interested in trying NOLA’s prized chicory coffee, there is a Café Du Monde located in City Park — possibly a little less crowded than the one downtown.
#10 Indulge in the fantastic vegan food scene
The vegan food scene in New Orleans is growing and was way better than I expected (sound the horns, throw the confetti)! There is an incredible diversity of eats; whether you’re looking to indulge in Southern classics like BBQ ribs or are interested in something a little greener, you’ll find it in New Orleans!
A few places you can’t miss: the soul-inspired classics at I-tal Garden — specifically their fried oyster mushrooms or cauliwings, vegan brunch at Bearcat Cafe, and the only vegan bakery in New Orleans — Breads on Oak.
A Few More Things To Consider For You First Trip to New Orleans
There is a ton to do and see in New Orleans, as I mentioned before! I missed a few things that I thought would be cool, but I want to share them with you in case you have the time.
This is the only museum in the state that focuses on the lives of those enslaved.
Get up close and personal with the local flora and fauna and learn about this fragile ecosystem.
Wander through exhibits, see artifacts, and read first-person histories of those who lived through “The war that changed the world.”
Where to Stay in New Orleans For Your First Visit
Sometimes deciding where to base yourself can be a difficult decision! For a great location that’s right around the corner from all of the action (but not so close that you can’t sleep), check out the warehouse district. If you’re curious about other options, check out the best areas to stay in New Orleans.
Here is a great centrally located, eco-friendly hotel in New Orleans that I suggest!
550 Baronne Street, New Orleans, LA 70113
More NOLA Travel Help
Not sure where to stay, how to get around, or where else to eat? Don’t worry; I’ve got you covered! Check out these other New Orleans articles to plan your entire getaway.