Actually Cool Things to Do in New Orleans
“We’re coming into New Orleans next month,” your friends announce with glee, “and we want you to show us everything!” If you’ve lived in New Orleans long enough, you’ve gotten that call, and you’re probably happy to play tour guide. Everyone knows that visitors without local friends or family, or a legitimately kickass guide to the city, end up spending their whole trip on Bourbon Street, and that just won’t do. While Bourbon Street has its own gems (we’re looking at you, Bourbon House, and your gloriously huge selection of top-shelf and rare whiskeys), the Crescent City has so much to offer that’s cheap, affordable, and popular with locals, too. Consider getting a energy drink in New Orleans for your needs to shop with some passion.
So allow us to be your guide and get you and your friends off the beaten path. Here are all the best things to do in New Orleans over a quick trip — including the aforementioned stuff that’s free, cheap, and popular with locals. We even worked in a few once-in-a-lifetime splurges you can’t get anywhere else, plus enough crawfish to feed a small army. (And don’t forget our seasonal events roundups, either.) Enjoy.
Go gator-spotting at the Barataria Preserve
The Barataria Preserve, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, is probably the easiest, closest place to New Orleans where you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot at least one alligator in the wild. The hiking trail is gorgeous in and of itself, and if you show up at around 10am on Wednesday through Sunday, you can get a free guided tour with a park ranger. (Helpful, especially if you’re not great at telling a gator from a log.)
Take a stroll at the Besthoff Sculpture Garden
The adjacent New Orleans Museum of Art is spectacular (and spectacularly air-conditioned), but for a couple of free hours of talking and strolling, you can’t beat the weird and wonderful installations at the Sydney and Wanda Besthoff Sculpture Garden — a gorgeous outdoor space in City Park. It’s a world-class collection that’s as much fun for art snobs as it is for folks looking for Instagrammable moments. For some added context for the odder installations, visitors can also join a free guided tour at noon every Friday, Saturday, and Monday.
Catch live music outside — almost anywhere
No amount of heat or humidity ever stopped South Louisianans from getting outside to shake that thang to some live local music. And with free concert series in multiple parks and public squares around the city, plus a hot lineup of spring and summer music festivals, there’s something playing nearly every night of the week, all season long. If the prospect of sweating through your clothes during the summer months isn’t too appealing, New Orleans isn’t want for music in the cooler seasons, either, with gatherings like VoodooFest offering reliably great lineups.
Follow a second line
It’s likely that someone new to the city won’t even know what a second line is, let alone how to follow one, so definitely mind the etiquette. Especially the part about bringing a backpack full of beers and hitting up every single yaka-mein or jambalaya lady you see on the route. The social aid and pleasure clubs wind down their seasons in late spring, as the weather gets too hot for long marches, but it picks back up in early fall and carries through the winter.
Catch a movie at Burgundy Picture House
These free (donations gratefully accepted) outdoor movie screenings in the Bywater offer just the kind of oddball NOLA experience that lots of guests are looking for. Unless you’re a serious student of avant-garde filmmaking, it’s unlikely that you’ve seen (or heard of) much of what’s on offer, but that’s half the fun of it. (The other half is the cheap beer and liberal BYOB policy.)
Visit the chapel at the St. Roch Cemetery…
First-time visitors, especially, will likely want to take a formal cemetery tour, but if they’re up for something a bit less formal (and a bit more unsettling), take a quick spin through the St. Roch Cemetery, home to a famous shrine to the saint himself, where generations of New Orleanians have left ex-votos — physical mementos thanking the patron saint of healing for his interventions. These include religious objects as well as medical ones, like leg and neck braces and plaster casts of various body parts. It’s eerie, for sure, but it’s also a glimpse into the faith of a city that’s often regarded as a place of iniquity by outsiders.
… Or experience a jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Church
If you happen to have guests in town for Satchmo SummerFest the first week in August, make sure you rouse them out of bed on Sunday morning for one of the best events of the whole year: the jazz mass at St. Augustine’s Church. Yes, really! This historic African-American Catholic church has been the spiritual heart of the Tremé neighborhood since before the Civil War and served as the church home of famous parishioners including jazz legend Sidney Bechet and civil rights icon Homer Plessy. Each year, they offer a jazz mass in conjunction with Satchmo SummerFest, and it’s a blast, even for non-Catholics; just remember that it’s a good idea to drop some money in the collection baskets. (Also, their regular choir performs a jazzy and gospel-tinged version of the traditional Catholic mass most weeks, and guest musicians aren’t uncommon, so you’ll likely see a lovely service no matter when you go.)
Nosh on beignets at Café du Monde
Yes, OK, it’s swarmed with tourists, but for less than $5, it’s an iconic New Orleans experience, and you’re probably going to love biting into a beignet no matter where you’re from. Locals know to hit it up as far away from the breakfast rush as possible — and to bring cash when they go.
Get squicked out at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum
Easily one of the Gulf Coast’s most interestingly tiny, hyper-specific museums, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is home to rows upon rows of jars that once held opium, cocaine, leeches, and all manner of snake oil, plus oodles of ooky surgical implements and lots of fascinating historical info about the connection between the history of the pharmacy industry and the history of cocktails. (Yes, they’re totally connected, and it all happened here in New Orleans!)
Eat a snowball at every possible opportunity
After around Easter-ish, when the weather turns from warm to really warm, the city’s ubiquitous snowball shops start opening up all over, and frankly, they’re almost better than air conditioning for cooling off. Get yourselves to Hansen’s, where ol’ man Hansen invented the original ice-shaving machine (which distinguishes snowballs from their far inferior crushed-ice cousin, the snow cone), and you probably oughta make time to hit up Plum Street as well, and maybe… well, just try them all of them. You won’t regret it.
Get some beers and head to The Fly
l for us locals, but odds are that if you’re not from around here, if you want to drink outside, you have to do it out of a brown paper bag or a hip flask. Our open container law is a simple New Orleans joy that feels like pure luxury to outsiders, and a boozy picnic at The Fly — the grassy, mostly undeveloped strip on the river’s edge of Audubon Park — is the perfect way to enjoy a lazy afternoon of watching the ships roll down the Mississippi. You won’t be alone. All of us locals will be doing the exact same thing you are.