Your Big Easy to-do list: 10 insider favorites in New Orleans
Most people associate New Orleans with Mardi Gras, but the city has plenty to do all year long. The Big Easy is a foodie paradise: Sip chicory coffee and munch a beignet at Café du Monde, or grab a muffuletta sandwich at Central Grocery. Want to catch some of the country's best live music? This is the birthplace of jazz, but you can also enjoy Creole, Dixieland, zydeco, and blues. Take a ghost tour to learn more about the local ghosts, or paddle through the Crescent City in a kayak. The city is packed with diverse activities. Here, we’ve gathered together all the essential elements for an ultimate NOLA experience.
1. Float with alligators on a swamp tour
Outside the city limits, mysterious swamps and bayous surround New Orleans. Get up close and personal with the gators on a swamp tour, where you can spot waterfowl, snakes, swamp deer, and other critters that can't be found anywhere else in the country. Hop into a high-speed boat operated by Airboat Adventures and let a seasoned New Orleans native guide you through the water, giving you the inside scoop on the area and its wildlife. Be sure to bring your camera, because your friends and family will never believe that you really spotted a 10-foot alligator.
2. Chow down at Willie Mae's
Don't bother with the city's tourist-trap restaurants. Dig into some of the best fried chicken at local favorite Willie Mae's Scotch House. Located in the Treme neighborhood, this spot has been serving up its famous chicken since 1957. Be prepared for long lines of hungry customers, and remember that the restaurant is only open for lunch. Wondering what makes Willie Mae's fried chicken so amazing? The secret is in the Coca-Cola marinade.
3. Sip spirits with a spirit on a ghost tour
The LaLaurie House, featured in "American Horror Story"
From Anne Rice to “American Horror Story,” New Orleans is thick with fictional vampires and witches’ covens. But what about the reportedly true tales of the macabre? Get in touch with the city's spooky past with Haunted History Tours, voted the top New Orleans attraction by the Travel Channel. The theatrical tour guides alone are worth the price of admission. These long-time locals have generations of stories to share. The tour includes a stop at a haunted bar where you’ll have a chance to share a toast with a ghost.
4. Go fishin' at City Park
Itching to hook the "big one"? No need to leave the city: Just head to the Mid-City neighborhood. With more than 11 miles of lagoons, City Park is the perfect spot to do a little catch-and-release fishing. Big bass, blue catfish, and trout represent just a few varieties of fish found in its waterways. Rent a bike at the Boathouse on Big Lake and try out a few different fishing spots around the park. Some of the best locations are found behind the Casino Building, in the Couturie Forest, and along Bayou Metairie.
5. Paddle past cemeteries
If you want to get away from the party atmosphere of downtown New Orleans, the Bayou St. John and Mid-City neighborhoods offer more tranquil charms: Tree-lined streets, lagoons in City Park, and the sounds of church bells. Rent a kayak from Kayak-Iti-Yat or a stand up paddleboard (SUP) from New Orleans Paddle Boards and gently paddle through the area's historic waterways. Keep your eye out for some of the oldest structures in the city, including the Pitot House and the Spanish Custom House. You'll also catch a glimpse of the ornate above-ground tombs as you pass by St. Louis Cemetery #3.
6. Bike through the Garden District
Want to check out some amazing architecture? Rent a bike and explore the Garden District: a gorgeous pocket of the city filled with Italianate and Greek Revival homes and spectacular gardens. Steer clear of crowded Magazine Street and bike down Coliseum or Camp Streets instead. The neighborhood is filled with quirky shops, where you can peruse handmade jewelry, vintage furniture, and crafts by local artisans.
7. Practice your Cajun two-step
New Orleans has a live music scene that's tough to beat. Walk down just about any street and you’ll hear bands playing jazz, blues, zydeco, and Creole. Since opening in 1977, Tipitina’s has been one of the best spots to catch some of the Big Easy’s hottest rhythms. This venue has hosted all kinds of artists, including Willie Nelson, Wilco, Pearl Jam, and Dr. John. Visit on a Sunday evening, when Tipitina's holds a “fais do-do,” an old-school Cajun dance party. You can practice your Cajun two-step while the accordion and fiddles play traditional country tunes.
8. Take in some monumental art
Contemplate some serious art while walking among magnolias and live oaks at the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. Occupying five acres of City Park, this outdoor extension of the New Orleans Museum of Art contains more than 60 sculptures by artists from around the world. Highlights include a giant blue safety pin by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Kenneth Snelson’s stainless steel “Virlane Tower,” and “Venus Victorius” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The collection is valued at more than $25 million, but admission to the Sculpture Garden is completely free.
9. Explore the Abita Mystery House
Located in nearby Abita Springs, the Mystery House is an oddball roadside attraction built by artist John Preble. Check out Preble's massive collection of found objects, including old arcade machines, memorabilia, and "creative" taxidermy projects. You’ll see the half-bass, half-gator “Bassigator” and what might be the world’s largest hot sauce collection. The Mystery House frequently turns up on the show “American Pickers,” and it's been called one of New Orleans' most intriguing museums. While you're in Abita Springs, make some time to cycle the town’s treelined bike paths and grab a pint at Abita Brewery.
10. Roam Couturie Forest
Walk off that po’boy you had for lunch in Couturie Forest, a 60-acre preserve, located in City Park. While you’re wandering the trail system, listen for songbirds and the rustle of shier feathered friends. The thick undergrowth makes the area one of the best bird-watching destinations in Louisiana. Bring your binoculars and peek at yellow-rumped warblers, red-bellied woodpeckers, blue jays, hoot owls, and more. Eagle-eyed visitors often spot 40 species or more in a single outing. End your day on a high note with a stop at Laborde Mountain. At 45 feet, the man-made hill is the tallest point in New Orleans.