New Orleans is a city big on personality. Big personalities are hard to fully understand in a short period of time. New Orleans deserves more than one day if you can do it. There is so much history, so much style, so many great museums, so much beautiful architecture, just so much everything. How do you break it down if you can only stay one day? You break it down into pieces. What makes a place special? What is unique about this city? Avoid spending time in places similar to what you might find elsewhere. Avoid the bigger museums where you could easily spend a half a day in just that one place such as the Louisiana State Museum or the WW2 Museum (unless they hold particular interest to you.) That would be like going to Paris and only seeing the Louvre. You will not be able to see it all, so you will need to break it down into pieces and plan on returning again. So what is New Orleans is known for? Mardi Gras. Bourbon Street. Architecture. History. French and Creole influences. Louis Armstrong. What is important to you? To help you, I’d suggest choosing among the following:
See (1) museum, (1) architectural gem, (1) iconic food place, (1) historic site, and try (1) experience.
(1) Museum: Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture
When most people think of New Orleans, images of Mardi Gras come to mind. Mardi Gras is Big here. Big with a capital B. The parades, the beads, the colors, the music – it is all a huge part of the New Orleans personality. Visit the Mardi Gras Museum and you will see a world of costumes, color, and culture. Just like Mardi Gras itself, this museum is not dry and dull. Inside they have a costume room where you can try on costumes and pose for a most unique selfie. You can create your own Mardi Gras mask. On the tour you will learn why Mardi Gras is so important to the city and how it originated.
For some, must-see museums might include the Nationally known WW2 museum. Others might want to see a smaller museum such as the Backstreet Cultural Museum, New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, New Orleans African American Museum, The Battle of New Orleans field/Chalmette Museum, the Old Ursuline Convent Museum, or the New Orleans Jazz Museum.
(1) Architectural gem: French Quarter
New Orleans has been heavily influenced by the dominant cultures that were in power throughout its history, which include the French and the Spanish, as well as its Caribbean roots. The architecture is also influenced by the weather – the summer heat with no air conditioning influenced the enormously tall ceilings and doors, and hurricanes necessitated shutters decoratively adorning exterior windows. The warm weather influenced the need for the use of courtyards to help with privacy, protection from hurricanes, as well as shade from the sun. If you have a chance, duck into one of the many courtyards hidden behind the building fronts. There is plenty of amazing architecture just wandering around the French Quarter. Take time to wander around, looking up past the touristy trinket shops.
Get off the main drags and experience some side streets where it is a combination of shoulder-to-shoulder town homes, cobbled streets, and small businesses and restaurants. Imagine the streets lined with carriages, horses, and ladies in hoop skirts and carrying parasols. It is easy to imagine, especially if you can wander the streets early in the morning when the streets are almost empty.
(1) Iconic food place: Cafe du Monde
When in New Orleans, you must try the famous beignets and coffee at Cafe du Monde. Prepare yourself in advance by not wearing black… their French style square doughnuts are served piping fresh and exorbitantly floating in a sea of powdered sugar. You will get dusted. They have been serving the same limited menu to perfection since 1862. Imagine Abraham Lincoln walking up and ordering a cup of coffee here. Other than adding soft drinks to their menu, it really hasn’t changed since. Although they have 10 locations scattered throughout New Orleans, for the true Cafe du Monde experience, you need to go to the original location located in the French Quarter’s French Market. There has been a market in this same spot for hundreds of years, beginning with the native Chocktaw who traded here, continuing to 1813 when the building was built where the Cafe still is today. For a taste of New Orleans, you need to try Cafe du Monde!
For lunch options, consider Central Grocery & Deli on the east edge of the French Quarter. It is home of the original muffuletta sandwich – a meat and cheese deli sandwich with homemade olive salad spread that is iconic New Orleans.
(1) Historic site: Hermann-Grima House & Gallier House Museum
More than a museum, this gem is a combination of two historic French Quarter homes that showcase the elegant life style of a well-to-do family at the peak of New Orleans history. Walking inside is like stepping back in time. Wander inside and experience life in the mid 19th century with true New Orleans style courtyards, restored urban slave quarters, and carriage house – all beautifully furnished and displayed. A great way to see a New Orleans home, architecture, courtyard, as well as history.
(1) Experience: Ride the oldest operating streetcar in the world
One of the best ways to get a good look at New Orleans is to sit a spell aboard one of the historic trolleys. The St. Charles line in particular is enjoyable. It leaves the French Quarter and heads towards the fabulous Garden District on a route that will take you along a tree lined street past some of the most stunningly beautiful homes, past big name colleges such as Tulane University and Loyola, and into the historic Carrolton neighborhood. Riding the streetcar is a treat in itself as it is the oldest continually operating street railway in the world. It began life in 1835 and although the cars themselves are not quite that old, they do feel historic. They are old enough to not have any air conditioning, so open a window and enjoy the view. For just $2.50 roundtrip, you can’t go wrong! Bring exact change, or purchase a one day hop on/hop off pass called a Jazzy Pass at the kiosk that gives you unlimited rides for just $3. Rides leave the French Quarter along the main thoroughfare called Canal Street where it meets Bourbon Street.
A few tips to make your New Orleans trip more enjoyable:
• Summers are hot and humid – you need to dress in layers as you walk in/out of buildings with their air conditioning blasting.
• Be prepared for large crowds if you arrive during the weeks around Mardi Gras or any home football games
• Try a guided walking tour to get the most out of what you are seeing. Avoid the ghost tour if you are squeamish.
• Try some new foods! The New Orleans area is known for unique dishes like jambalaya, po’boy sandwiches, gumbo, muffuletta sandwiches, crawfish, Bananas Foster, and pralines.
• Wear good shoes… you will be doing a lot of walking on brick or cobbled streets.
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