This GetCurrentFast.com travel guide presents our Editors’ Picks of the top attractions and restaurants in New Orleans during a 2-day trip at a leisurely pace. If this is your first visit, we suggest not scheduling your trip during Mardi Gras or other popular events in order to make your first visit to the French Quarter more relaxing and less crowded.
In this guide, you’ll visit the French Quarter after taking a brief guided tour of the city. Then on the second day, you’ll tour an antebellum plantation, take a steamboat ride on the Mississippi, or visit one of the biggest urban parks in the U.S. while getting acquainted with The Big Easy.
It’s hard to find a more colorful city than New Orleans, Louisiana. Of course, there are many beautiful cities in the U.S., so what do we mean when we say that about the city called NOLA by the locals?
Of course there’s the picturesque French Quarter district, or in French, Vieux Carre (Voo Car-ay or Old Square). This famous neighborhood serves as the crown jewel of the metropolitan region situated at the terminus of the American Nile, the Mississippi River. But, perhaps even more so than the French Quarter is the cross-section of cultures and characters that call “Nawlins” home.
For instance, the colorful characters include the entire citizenry with its seemly inexhaustible capacity for creating nicknames. Over the years, when their collective fertile imagination has been exercised, they’ve produced monikers for their beloved city including: The Birthplace of Jazz, City of Chefs, City of Festivals, Crescent City, Mardi Gras City, Nawlins, New York of the South, NOLA, Paris of the South, Super Bowl City, Queen City of the South, The Big Easy, The City that Care Forgot, and The Queen of the Mississippi.
Founded by French colonists in 1718 and named in honor of a French duke, the New Orleans population is a unique fusion of French, Spanish, Caribbean, and other cultures. Even the city’s neighborhoods are distinctively known as “parishes”.
Ownership of the city has seen more changes than most. As noted above, France claimed it first, then ceded it to Spain, who lost control of it to the British, who allowed Spain to win it back. Then Spain allowed the French to reassert control for a short time until Napoleon decided to sell it to the United States. This is one of the reasons why a guided tour of the city is beneficial if only to help you keep the origin of its architectural treasures straight.
If you take into account the placement of the city in a crescent-shaped bend near the mouth of the Mississippi River, and the close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, you can understand why this busy port town was such a highly prized piece of real estate. To this very day it remains one of the busiest ports in the U.S.
The development of the South during the antebellum period (pre-Civil War) was extraordinary, especially in the amount and variety of the mansions and plantations that reflected the economic success of the region. The New Orleans region was no exception, and has many excellent examples that could take weeks if not months to visit. Taking an extra day to visit one or two of them including a docent led tour of at least one of the historically distinctive ones, is highly recommended. (See Day 2 below.)
The French Quarter and other parts of the city are built below the banks of the Mississippi River and are not that far above sea level. So an elaborate system of levees separate them from Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. This is illustrated on the accompanying chart. It’s compelling testimony to the creativity, resourcefulness, and tenacity of the people of the region. The Battle of New Orleans, which ended the War of 1812 between the U.S. and the British, prefigured this. The Americans led by General Andrew Jackson, later President Jackson, steadfastly refused to allow the British to seize this key southern port. Since then, Hurricane Katrina severely tested the mettle of Nawlins, and through it the people of New Orleans have proven as tenacious as ever.
Today, the Crescent City is justifiably more famous for its cuisine and festivals. The most popular event is the annual Carnival commonly known as Mardi Gras (French for Fat Tuesday) which includes its namesake parade. Colorful Mardi Gras beads are sold and collected during the festivities, and can be purchased year round.
Mardi Gras parades are traditionally held on Shrove Tuesday, the day before the Catholic religious season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Traditionally, this acknowledged the final day of feasting before 40 days of fasting began. Today, the festival is essentially a secular event.
Because Mardi Gras is so popular, the French Quarter streets so narrow, and not all forms of entertainment are G-rated, taking in Mardi Gras may not be the best choice for an introduction to New Orleans, especially for families. Besides, at least on Bourbon Street after dark, there is a Mardi Gras look and feel to the place all year round—at least until sunrise at which time the “Mayor’s Clean Team,” the street cleaners, arrive.
If you like Dixieland Jazz, or want a good dose of it, consider scheduling your trip around a concert at Preservation Hall. The house band travels the world as ambassadors of the Birthplace of Jazz, and give a highly energetic and entertaining show. If they’re not in town, or even when they are and you want more Dixieland Jazz, check out the house band at Fritzel’s European Jazz Club. They entertain an enthusiastic crowd of locals and visitors.
The French Quarter, albeit often crowded and quite rowdy late at night, is indeed a most interesting and very walkable place to visit. So if you only have a few days to visit, we suggest you fly or drive to NOLA, forego a rental car, and stay in one of the hotels of B&Bs in or near the Quarter. Since the weather is generally mild year round, travel during the off-season can lower costs and make the visit even more enjoyable. And if after visiting New Orleans for a few days, all you can do is exclaim, “What a hoot!” —we’ll understand.
While you could easily spend a long time exploring all that New Orleans and the surrounding region have to offer, if you have only a few days, this guide helps you make the most of them. The itinerary below includes our Editors’ Choice attractions, restaurants, clubs, and bars so you can spend less time planning and more time having fun.
To read the itinerary, click the page numbers below.