Planning a family trip to New Orleans? Read on to learn more about the city and the best things to do when you visit New Orleans with kids. For my full list of family travel guides, click/tap here.
New Orleans has long been a popular tourist destination–it’s where Rhett Butler took Scarlet O’Hara on their honeymoon!–but it suffered extensive damage after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Fortunately, the city has bounced back and continues to thrive as it welcomes visitors of all ages.
French Quarter (Vieux Carré)
Not surprisingly, New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood (dating back to the 18th century) is its most popular tourist destination. Although it’s renowned for its wild nightlife, families can easily enjoy it by day. As you explore, don’t miss:
Jackson Square — This former military parade grounds and execution site is now home to musicians, artists, and street performers. The square’s biggest attraction (besides its atmosphere) is the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating cathedral in the United States. Take a break from the bustling city by stepping inside to check out its famous murals and carved-wood Baroque altar. You can also take a self-guided tour or attend daily mass at 12:05 pm.
Next to the cathedral is the Presbytère, a popular museum with excellent exhibits on Mardi Gras and Hurricane Katrina. On the cathedral’s other side is the Cabildo, a former city hall that’s now a New Orleans and Louisiana history museum. (Note to history fans: it’s also where the Louisiana Purchase was signed in 1803).
French Market — Located north of Jackson Square along the Mississippi River, the French Market is a six-block shopping district that’s been around since 1791. Today there’s a flea market, a farmer’s market, restaurants, and more. If you’re looking for inexpensive souvenirs or you want to try alligator on a stick, this is the place.
City Streets — The French Quarter’s streets are filled with colorful, historic buildings with decorative ironwork–it’s a wonderful place to wander. Bourbon Street is New Orlean’s biggest party street, so you may prefer to avoid it with kids. Personally, I didn’t mind walking it with my kids during the day. While you’re there, watch for Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, a bar that’s one of the oldest buildings in New Orleans (it was once owned by the pirate Jean Lafitte).
Royal Street, which parallels Bourbon Street to the south, is known more for shopping and dining than all-out partying. Stop in at M. S. Rau Antiques, an impressive jewelry, art, and antiques store that welcomes visitors. You can also find some of the city’s most famous restaurants, such as Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Galatoire’s, on nearby side streets.
The mighty Mississippi River is easily accessible from the French Quarter and the central business district to the south (aka downtown). The Natchez Steamboat is docked near Jackson Square, and it offers a number of dining and music cruises for those who want to experience river life as it was in the 19th century. Since the steamboat is expensive, an alternate option is to ride the Algiers Ferry across the river and back. It’s only $2 per person each way (kids under 2 are free), and the short trip provided great views of the city AND held my young kids’ interest.
Woldenberg Park is a greenspace between the French Quarter and the river that’s perfect for rest stops–there’s even a splash fountain for kids. A paved pedestrian path called the Moonwalk extends along the river, with steps leading down to the water.
The Garden District was first settled by Americans who moved to New Orleans following the Louisiana Purchase. This fancy, still-residential neighborhood is also home to Tulane and Loyola Universities. You can explore the area by foot or see it while riding on the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, which conveniently connects downtown New Orleans with Audubon Park (more on that below). The Garden District is also home to Commander’s Palace, a famed Creole restaurant that’s particularly known for its jazz brunches.
New Orleans’ cemeteries, or “cities of the dead,” are beautiful, decrepit, and creepy (all to varying degrees). Partly due to the area’s tendency to flood, the dead are buried in above-ground vaults that hold multiple bodies. The most famous cemetery is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried. We visited Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District, which is so picturesque it’s the setting for numerous movies and TV shows. Because of safety concerns, it’s recommended that you visit the cemeteries with a tour group such as Save Our Cemeteries. In fact, visitors to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 are required to be part of a tour.
National World War II Museum
This impressive museum–which is currently TripAdvisor’s #2 museum in the world–tells the story of the American experience in World War II using artifacts, oral histories, immersive exhibits, and multimedia experiences (such as the 4D film Beyond All Boundaries).
New Orleans Museum of Art
The New Orleans Museum of Art is a world-class museum famous for its Fabergé eggs and large decorative glass collection. Located in City Park (see below), it houses over 40,000 works of art, including works by Picasso and Degas. Art-loving families may also enjoy the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, a premier collection of Southern art.
AUDUBON NATURE INSTITUTE
The Audubon Nature Institute runs a number of New Orleans’ best attractions for kids, including:
Audubon Zoo — Our family had a wonderful time exploring this zoo, which is located in the lovely Audubon Park. Some of our favorite areas included the Louisiana Swamp (home to white alligators) and the Jaguar Jungle. If you’re visiting during the summer, stop in at Cool Zoo, a large splash park.
Aquarium of the Americas — The city’s riverfront aquarium focuses on the waters around New Orleans, including bayous, the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean. One of the highlights is the 400,000 gallon Gulf of Mexico exhibit, where visitors can see sharks, rays, and more all swimming together.
Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium — Few cities can boast an insectarium, so here’s your big chance to see thousands of bugs up close and personal. You can also stop in at the Tiny Termite Cafe, where chefs prepare food with insect ingredients. We were offered mealworm cookies, but only my two-year-old ate one (he didn’t know better).
If you want to visit more than one of these attractions, you can save money by purchasing combo tickets. Visit the Audubon website for more details.
Louisiana Children’s Museum
The Louisiana Children’s Museum is currently building a new campus in City Park that will focus on the state’s natural environment and cultural heritage. It should open in late 2018, but in the meantime you can visit the museum’s current downtown location.
City Park is a short car, bus, or streetcar ride away from downtown. My kids had a great time at a playground there, but you can also walk on trails, rent pedal boats, and even play miniature golf. City Park is home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden (don’t miss the Train Garden) as well as Carousel Gardens, a small amusement park with Louisiana’s only antique carousel. Finally, there’s Storyland, an outdoor play area with larger-than-life fairy tale sculptures for kids to explore.
If you’re looking for a playground near the French Quarter, head to Cabrini Playground in the neighborhood’s northeast corner (at Barracks St. and Dauphine St.).
New Orleans is a food lover’s paradise and the proud hometown of Creole cuisine (Creoles are the descendants of the city’s original French and Spanish settlers). I’ve already mentioned a few of New Orleans’ most famous (and expensive) restaurants, but if you’re like my family, you’re mostly looking for places that are cheaper and more casual. Here are some options:
Acme Oyster House — If you’re in the mood for seafood, check out this landmark restaurant, which is known for its oysters but also serves gumbo, jambalaya, étouffée, and more. A few other popular traditional New Orleans/Creole restaurants include Jacques-Imo and Mother’s (where food is served cafeteria-style).
Parkway Bakery & Tavern — If you’re looking for the city’s best po’ boy sandwich, you may well find it at Parkway Bakery & Tavern, located between downtown and City Park. For more po’ boys, try Johnny’s Po-Boys (conveniently located in the French Quarter).
Central Grocery–This Italian market and deli, located near Jackson Square, is famous for its muffaletta sandwiches–in fact, it’s where they were invented. You can eat inside or head to the river to dine al fresco. You can also find great muffalettas (and more) at Cochon Butcher near the World War II Museum.
Café du Monde–No visit to New Orleans could be complete without a trip to this famous café for beignets (French powdered donuts) and café au lait. With its prime location on the eastern corner of Jackson Square, it’s also a great place to people watch. (Note: When you go, be sure you don’t wait in the take out line if you want a table.)
Southern Candymakers — Stop in at this French Quarter shop to buy some of the city’s famous pralines and other sweets.
Walking tours are a great idea in New Orleans since the city has so much fascinating history. If your kids are up for it (or if you can swap childcare with a partner), consider a tour from companies such as Historical New Orleans Tours, Gray Line New Orleans, or Cajun Encounters. Also, French Quartour Kids offers tours specifically designed for kids from 4-18.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz, but it can be hard attend indoor performances with kids. Preservation Hall, the landmark concert venue, allows children, and (according to Frommer’s) Maison and Three Muses will admit kids to their early shows. Another option is to take your kids to Rock N Bowl, where you can bowl to the beat of live music.
If you can’t (or don’t want to) make it to Mardi Gras, visit Mardi Gras World and tour the warehouses where over 80% of the festival’s parade floats are made. Visitors can also try on costumes, learn about Mardi Gras history, and eat king cake.
Explore Louisiana’s unique wetlands habitat by visiting a nearby swamp, where you’ll hopefully see alligators in action as well as other animals such as raccoons, turtles, and egrets. Tour companies such as Airboat Adventures, Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours, and Pearl River Eco-Tours offer boat and kayak tours led by experienced guides. If you want to explore some wetlands without a tour, try the Barataria Preserve at the Jean Lafitte Historical Park and Preserve.
Many of Louisiana’s famous plantations are located not far from New Orleans. Either on your own or as part of an organized tour, you can visit the beautiful Oak Alley Plantation as well as Laura Plantation, which offers excellent historical tours, or Whitney Plantation, home to the country’s first slavery museum.
Just outside New Orleans, Andrew Jackson led American troops to a resounding victory in the1815 Battle of New Orleans–even though the War of 1812 had ended two weeks earlier (they didn’t know). You can learn more about the battle, the war, and the general time period at Chalmette Battlefield. To get there, consider taking the Creole Queen paddlewheeler, which departs from downtown.
New Orleans is home to many festivals, most notably Mardi Gras, French Quarter Fest, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival. Some people want to visit New Orleans during these times and others are anxious to avoid them. Be sure to check dates before you plan your trip!
New Orleans is extremely hot and humid during the summer months, particularly July and August.
Many of New Orlean’s biggest attractions are located within walking distance of one another, but for city attractions that are a bit farther afield, consider taking a streetcar or city bus. Streetcars are so unusual in the United States that they’re not only convenient here–they’re great fun for kids.