New Orleans, NOLA, Crescent City, the Big Easy. Whatever you choose to call it New Orleans will leave a lasting impression. The city that sits on the mighty Mississippi River in Louisiana is a vibrant hub of non-stop music, great food and a fusion of cultures and nationalities. New Orleans radiates energy, colour and goes by the saying ‘laissez les bon temps rouler’ – let the good times roll. Here’s how to roll on your 3 days in New Orleans.
What to see and do in New Orleans in three days
Coming up are sixteen sights, attractions and must dos for your trip to the Big Easy. I haven’t put them in itinerary form so you can pick and choose when to work them into your stay. There’s enough here to see and do for three or even four days in New Orleans. Why not pin it for later. This map of the French Quarter should help you find your bearings.
Free Stuff in New Orleans
Soak up the Street Music
Music is the beating heart of New Orleans; it’s in the streets flowing from under doorways, through the windows and from the rooftops. It’s in the air and it’s a part of the city’s life force. Music in New Orleans is inescapable; jazz, blues, Cajun, whatever. In Frenchman Street one evening a pop-up jazz band appeared from nowhere playing trombones, cornets and trumpets. A crowd gathered, people danced in the street and the traffic came to a standstill. The band vanished into the night about thirty seconds before the police arrived to clear the gridlock.
Check out the Architecture
The French Quarter is New Orleans‘ oldest neighbourhood. There’s a mix of French Creole and Spanish influenced architecture, hints of which can be spotted on old tiled street names and the French Fleur de Lys emblem which is evident all around the city. You’ll find Caribbean, African and other European influences.There are some gorgeous mansions to explore in New Orleans but I liked the colourful little Creole houses with their porches and swing chairs. The townhouses have beautiful ironwork balconies with ornate scrollwork and hanging plants. Look out for the Romeo catchers. These spikes are found at the top of the poles supporting the balconies. Back in the day they were used by families to prevent unwanted Romeos climbing up to their teenage daughters. Real gas lamps flicker atmospherically at night and give the city a spooky feel.
St Louis Cathedral
At the heart of the French Quarter, St Louis Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in North America and one of the city’s most noticeable landmarks. It’s worth taking a quick look inside and a good way to avoid the heat for ten minutes. The cathedral is open to the public daily from 7:30 a.m to 4 p.m.
The French Market
The French Market started life in 1791 as a native American trading post on the Mississippi and has been added to over the years by French and Spanish colonials and then immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. It’s one multi-cultural market place. You’ll find a buzzing five blocks of local produce, specialty art, handmade crafts, a farmer’s market and affordable freshly cooked food. Stay tuned for what to eat and drink in New Orleans.
Visit the Garden District
Hop on a streetcar ($1.25 one way – you’ll need the exact fare as they don’t give change) and head down leafy streets to the garden district and admire some of the city’s most beautiful homes, columned mansions and, of course, gardens. A free walking tour will give you a break from the city’s heaving touristy spots and give you the chance to check out a more residential area. The French Quarter is easily walkable.
Free Tours in New Orleans
I recommend taking the Free Tours by Foot walking tours. They offer dozens of walking tours throughout the city and although free a tip is expected at the end. You’ll find out about the history of each neighbourhood which’ll give you an idea of what you’re looking at when you explore on your own later.
Must Dos for your first time in New Orleans
All of the above free things plus….
Bar Hopping on Bourbon Street
You can’t go to New Orleans without hitting the iconic Bourbon Street. Frankly, I must be getting old because this crazy street really wasn’t my scene and I was far happier watching the goings on from above on one of the ornate balconies. When you’ve had your fill of staggering stags and hens, strip joints, ‘huge ass’ beers and avoiding puke on the pavement head to Frenchman Street for a more authentic New Orleans experience. The drinks are a little cheaper there too.
Fun on Frenchman Street
Frenchmen Street is about four blocks of old-style jazz clubs, laid-back bars, great music and a local vibe. It’s what Bourbon Street used to be but with a hipster feel. Frenchman Street is the best street to stroll from club to club, with your ‘to go’ drink in hand and listen to the music. It’s where we enjoyed the traffic jamming band, where street poets will type up a love poem for you on a retro typewriter and where we spent a brilliant night with fabulous live bands at Bamboulas. The guy on the washboard was epic! Frenchmen Street is in the Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood of New Orleans and within walking distance of the French Quarter.
Check Out the local art in Jackson Square
Right next to the cathedral is Jackson Square and a pedestrian area where tarot readers, street performers and artists hang out. For over fifty years the open-air artist community have hung their works on the iron railings around Jackson Square. You can sit for a portrait under the shade of the oak trees, buy a piece of local artwork to take home or just enjoy the street performers.
Take a Mule and Carriage Ride
Horse and carriage used to be the only way to get around town in the early days. Nowadays, the carriages are pulled by mules and can be found on Jackson Square by Decatur Street. This is a good way to get your bearings and explore the city at a relaxed pace so do it when you first arrive. The guides are entertaining and informative and you’ll get snippets of NOLA history, stories and hauntings.
Quirky New Orleans
New Orleans Voodoo Tour
There’s a whole voodoo thing going down in New Orleans and you’ll find dolls that come complete with evil looking pins in the tourist shops. But it’s more serious than that. Voodoo, was introduced by Haitian settlers and then popularised by famous Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. Learn the meaning behind some of Voodoo’s bizarre rituals, superstitions and more about the NOLA’s subculture on a Voodoo Tour.
New Orleans Cemetery Tour
New Orleans was built on swampland which means they can’t dig into the ground for graves. Instead, the dead are buried above ground in stone crypts and mausoleums right in the middle of suburban areas. The cemeteries are spookily atmospheric and eerie with elaborate stone edifices and sculptures looming over the labyrinth of connecting pathways. Discover St. Louis #1 cemetery aka ‘The City of the Dead’ and New Orleans’ oldest graveyard and learn about Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau, Jazz funerals and see Nicholas Cage’s place of eternal rest when he makes his final bow. (Access to this cemetery is by guided tour only).
Sip a Sazerac at the Monteleone Carousel bar
Take a spin on New Orleans’ only revolving bar with the city’s signature cocktail, the Sazerac, in hand. The famous Carousel Bar is part of Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter and overlooks Royal Street. The 25-seater, circus-styled, Merry-Go-Round bar slowly revolves and gives you the perfect excuse for being slightly wobbly when you leave.
More New Orleans things to do
Take a Steamboat up the mighty Mississippi
View the city from the murky waters of the mighty Mississippi with a trip on a paddle steamer. You can take a dinner jazz cruise or Sunday Brunch Jazz cruise with Steamboat Natchez. We took a historical cruise on the Creole Queen Paddle Wheeler to Chalmette Battlefield, the site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.
See the Saints play at the Superdome
If there’s a Saints game on when you’re in town dress in black & gold and get to the Superdome. There was a real party atmosphere in town when Saints played the Patriots while we were there and we wished we’d got tickets. Sadly, the Saints lost that game but our banter with local drinkers in the Erin Rose pub was a win.
These activities should keep you busy for 3 days in New Orleans. If you’re spending a fourth day in the city you might want to consider going further afield.
Day trips from New Orleans – read my reviews of Oak Alley Plantation and Cajun Pride Swamp Tour
Day Trips from New Orleans
Oak Alley Plantation
In a nod to the rich history of the Antebellum south we visited Oak Alley, a beautiful plantation house with an alley of 28 oak trees dripping with Spanish moss. After a talk by one of the staff about the lives of the slaves that worked on the plantation we took a self tour of their reconstructed living quarters. This was followed, in stark contrast, by a guided tour of the big house where we learned about the families that lived there and ran the plantation.
Search for Gators on a Swamp Tour
A swamp tour is a must do if you’ve more than a couple of day in New Orleans. I love to see wildlife in its natural habitat so we booked a swamp tour with Cajun Pride Swamp Tours. There are tours where you can go kayaking through the water but with alligators lurking below the surface I felt happier in a bigger boat! We saw racoons, dozens of alligators, crawfish and turtles. Captain T Tom was a knowledgeable and funny guide and very passionate about the wildlife and the Manchac swamp. If you only do one of these two tours pick this one.
We picked up our Avis hire car first thing and visited Oak Alley and the Cajan Pride Swamp tour on the day we headed out of the city en-route to Natchez. You can visit both without a car as tours are available that’ll pick you up and drop you back at your hotel on a day trip from New Orleans. This day trip from New Orleans takes in both Oak Alley Plantation and the Cajun Pride Swamp tour
Getting from Louis Armstrong Airport to New Orleans
Drive time is around 37 minutes depending on traffic for the 22 km journey to the French Quarter. The Airport Shuttle will take longer due to stop offs.
The airport shuttle to your New Orleans hotel costs around $38 per person round-trip or $20 each way. You can reserve a spot on a shuttle online in advance or in person at the baggage claim on arrival. If there’s two or more passengers a taxi can be cheaper.
Taxi rides cost around $36.00 from the airport to the Central Business District or the French Quarter (west of Elysian Fields) for up to two passengers. For three or more passengers, the fare will be $15.00 per passenger, plus tip, so a little cheaper than the shuttle.
Blacklane Limousine Service – If you want to arrive in style this is for you. A ride in a chauffeured limo for up to three passengers will cost around $123 (including tip) with Blacklane. Costs vary depending on time of year.
When to go to New Orleans
The most popular time to visit New Orleans is from February to May. The weather’s mild and there are events like Mardi Gras and the annual Jazz Fest on the calendar. However, we visited in September which was great too. We had warm sunny weather, just a little humidity, and temperatures in the 70-80 degrees (F) every day. It didn’t feel too crowded, even in the French Quarter on the day the Saints were playing.
Best Area to stay in New Orleans
Stay in the French Quarter. Yep, it’s right in the tourist centre, but you’ll be within walking distance to almost anything you’ll want to see, do, eat or drink. New Orleans is a party town where you can drink on the street and take your plastic ‘to go’ cup from music bar to music bar (no glass allowed on the streets). When you’ve had your fill your hotel bed won’t be far away. The French Quarter is the best area to stay in New Orleans and also one of the prettiest neighbourhoods. However, if you want to get any sleep don’t stay on Bourbon Street.
We stayed in the French Quarter at Hotel Monteleone. It was our first road trip stop and we wanted something really good after our long flight and it didn’t disappoint. It’s an historic hotel on Royal Street and within easy walking distance to all the top New Orleans attractions. It’s also got a great rooftop pool to chill out in after a day’s sightseeing.
If you’re looking for something more budget-friendly check out Holiday Inn Hotel French Quarter-Chateau Lemoyne.
What not to do in New Orleans
Don’t say ‘Nawlins’ unless you want to upset the locals. If someone could let me know how you should say ‘New Orleans’ like a local I’d love to know.
Don’t wear beads unless it’s Mardi Gras, don’t flash anything for them and absolutely don’t pick them up off the floor. Bad juju will ensue and you’ll pick up more than you bargained for on the dirty streets.
Don’t forget to tip.
So those are my top tips and guide for what to see and do with your three days in New Orleans. If you’d like to add anything you loved in the city let me know in the comments below.
Read more about our Deep South Road Trip and stay tuned for another New Orleans post on what to eat and drink in the Big Easy – there’s a lot.