10 Things To Do That Show That New Orleans is More Than Mardi Gras
We booked our trip to New Orleans for 8 days to coincide with the big Mardi Gras celebration but planned it so that we would have some time to explore New Orleans as well. It has European charm, great food and a moderate climate if you are a Canadian looking for a great escape. There is a lot to do in New Orleans. Let us show you that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras!
1) Outdoor Sculpture Garden
The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Outdoor Sculpture Garden is located on the grounds of the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA). You can take public transit to City Park and a short walk up the path gets you to the museum. There is no admission charge if you just want to stroll around the sculpture garden.
There is an interesting mix of metal and stone abstract sculptures with a few colourful modern pieces. Even without the interesting sculptures, the garden is a beautiful nature spot to sit and relax for a few hours.
After strolling the grounds you can get something to eat or drink at the Morning Call Cafe or go into the museum to the NOMA Cafe. You could rent a bike to explore the grounds or rent a boat to go around the small lake. Great museums show that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras!
2) Cemetery Tour
New Orleans is known for its above ground tombs, largely due to the very high water table. A tour of the oldest St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 will give you a chance to learn about the colourful history of New Orleans while admiring the broad variety of both family and mass burial tombs. We toured with a knowledgeable guide from Save Our Cemeteries and got an educational and entertaining insight into a wide variety of New Orleans legends. We saw the tomb that Nicholas Cage had built waiting for him, saw where the artist Edgar Degas’ grandparents are buried and heard about the black history that is celebrated in this New Orleans site.
If you want to visit the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 you will need to book a tour or hire a private guide as you cannot just wander in off the street. If you want to walk about on your own, the cemetery expanded outside of this small site to other cemeteries around New Orleans. These other cemeteries will let you explore the above ground tombs and wonderful statuary in a bit more modern state. The interesting history you will find shows that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras!
3) Wander Around New Orleans
The French Quarter is the heart of New Orleans old town at the bend in the Mississippi River. The Faubourg Marigny district is a more residential local neighbourhood right beside the French Quarter. Both of these areas are steeped in history and very walkable. Public transit only runs at the boarders of these two districts.
If you really need a break from walking or want a slow tour, consider taking a ride through the French Quarter on either a pedi-cab (a small cart pulled by a human) or one of the many horse drawn carriages. Rates will depend on how many people there are, how long you are going for and in some cases whether there is rate hikes for busy tourist times.
If you stroll about you can enjoy the distinctive architecture – ornate decorative iron work, shuttered doors and windows, real flickering flame sconces and balconies looking out over the street. The narrow houses have a very European feel to them.
Head down to the water at the Mississippi River to sit and watch the lazy Mississippi flow past. Walk along the path to the Riverwalk to look at the paddlewheel boats in dock.
Strolling along Royal Street you will find art and antique shops in every block. You can stop at the Hotel Monteleone and get a drink at the Carousel Bar. Hop on the rotating deck and order a New Orleans special Sazerac drink (Sazerac rye whiskey, Herbsaint and Peychauds Bitters)!
Jackson Square and the Plaza D’Armas provide the setting for the stunning St. Louis Cathedral. The church was closed for daily mass when we went to visit so we only got a chance to admire this great building from the outside.
Wandering around the city will show you that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras!
4) Visit the French Market
If you head along the Mississippi, you will find the French Market. Row after row of vendors sell a mix of home made crafts, local art and production tourist gifts. If you go early in the day, you will be able to meander slowly and see what is in the shops.
As you move through the French Market you will get to the food court which was probably our favourite part. You can find all the local favourites whether it is spicy sauce, fresh made pralines or a seafood lunch.
5) Try Local Specialties to Eat
We ate in a lot of different places while in New Orleans. While I am quite conservative in my food tastes, David will often ask what is “local” on the menu and matches that with a local beer or wine. Enjoy the food and you will easily see why New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras!
When you are in New Orleans some things you must consider trying:
1) Alligator: We tried deep fried gator meat as Gator Balls. You may also find unique choices like Alligator Pie.
2) Crawfish: Crawfish seemed to be a staple in almost any kind of meal you wanted. You could start your day with a crawfish omelette, move to crawfish bisque for lunch and finish with fried flat crawfish for dinner. In New Orleans, crawfish are farmed in the rice fields in off-season. Crawfish dishes may be “market priced” depending on the season and availability.
3) Creole and Cajun Dishes: So what is the difference? Creole is often thought to be “city food” whereas Cajun might be considered “country food.” While only Creole dishes include tomatoes, the biggest distinction comes from the heritage of the two cuisines. Cajun refers to the lineage coming down from the French Acadians, settlers that came from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in Canada. Creole originated with the French and Spanish upper class that originally ruled in New Orleans. Locals will say both type of cooking is well seasoned rather than spicy but both use a heavy hand when applying cayenne pepper.
1) Pralines: While each store will say they are the best or the most authentic, it may be a matter of taste. You can get them in the “original” flavour or can get them in other flavours (chocolate, peanut butter, salted caramel). Pralines are a bit like softer, smoother fudge – and they pack a sugar hit when you need it.
2) Beignets: Many will say that you must go to Cafe du Monde for the “original” beignets. Traditional beignets are covered in white powder sugar but you may even find them in other flavours. Cafe du Monde is often crazy busy so if you don’t want this atmosphere you may want to source the beignets somewhere else in New Orleans.
3) King Cake: King Cake is a specialty during the Mardi Gras festivities. It seems to be used for any king of a dessert that you decorate in Mardi Gras colours (green, purple and gold). We had King Cake as cheesecake, fudge and bread pudding.
6) Take Your Drink To Go
We had not been wandering around New Orleans for more than a few hours before we quickly realized that drinking in public was practiced – a lot. We passed a guy riding a bike with a special beer bottle holder. It was common to see people walking around with beer bottles or beer cans in thermal covers. Several of the restaurants we went into had no problem giving us our remaining drinks in a plastic to-go cup.
And of course when you head into the French Quarter, there are a lot of stores dedicated to selling you fancy alcoholic drinks in huge plastic containers to go (including the fishbowl) – Pina Coladas, Strawberry Daiquiris and Hurricanes. Taking your drink to go in New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras tradition!
7) Find A Park And Relax
There are several quite large parks in the downtown area. Most of the parks are gated and close after dark. If it is sunny you can pick up a picnic and lounge in the green space preserved in the city centre.
In the Marigny district you could wander over to Washington Square and sit in the sun under the palm trees while kids play in the playground. Heading along the waterfront around Cafe Du Monde you will find Jackson Square and the pedestrian lane where vendors are set up to sell everything from portraits, to local art and your own personal encounter with a parrot. Lafayette Square is on St. Charles Street close to the heart of the VIP zone for the Mardi Gras celebrations.
You can take the St. Charles streetcar out to the Audubon Park. Walk around to enjoy the fountains and ponds. We spent some time watching the black-bellied whistling ducks playing for the tourists. The park also includes a zoo if you are travelling with children.
Green space and quiet relaxation will show you that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras!
8) Listen to Jazz
There seemed to be music everywhere in New Orleans. You can find musicians on the street or in the bars in all areas. You can have your jazz with brunch or to close the bar in the wee hours of the night. Frenchman Street in the Marigny District provides a number of jazz bars back to back.
We were lucky to have a local joint close to our hotel (Buffa’s) that offered music every day of the week, often several times in the day. We had brunch on Sunday and were treated to a crowd favourite band that had everyone cheering. One day they had open mike night and the stage was filled the entire night. One night we dropped in exhausted after 7 hours of Mardi Gras parade fun and had a late dinner while music filled the place.
We were also told that the jazz festival is in April in New Orleans. We would love to come back when the music fills the streets. Jazz music in New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras entertainment!
9) Ride A Streetcar
There are 4 streetcar lines in New Orleans. The Canal Street and Loyola lines can be considered more as transportation lines. The Riverfront line runs along the Mississippi River and can help you get from the far end of Riverwalk over to the end of the line at Esplanade and the Old U.S. Mint. This run is less scenic than you may think given that almost half of it runs behind buildings or behind a river berm. The Canal Street streetcar starts in downtown and runs all the way to mid-city area at City Park (where the New Orleans Museum of Art is located).
The streetcar line I had been waiting to try was the St. Charles streetcar. Since most of the Mardi Gras parades run along St. Charles Street, we left this until after the big Mardi Gras celebrations were complete.
Taking the St. Charles streetcar gives you a view of stately old mansions lining both sides of the street. If you buy a daily transit pass (a $3 bargain), you can get on and off the streetcar to sightsee, get something to eat or visit the Audubon Park along the way. A streetcar ride in New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras transportation!
10) Stroll Down Bourbon Street
If you want a walk down the wild side, head on over the Bourbon Street. We heard that it is quite crazy most nights but at Mardi Gras it was wild. This is where you may see how some women earn their strings of beads thrown from the balconies! The police presence was high on the crowded streets. This made us feel more comfortable as we wandered along.
Strolling down Bourbon Street in New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras fun!
Still More To Do
We had a busy 8 days visit in New Orleans and we quickly saw that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras. Even with a crammed schedule there were a few specific things that we had to leave for another trip.
– If possible, plan the time to venture outside of just New Orleans and the French Quarter. We had been interested in visiting the old River Road for a plantation tour to see a little of the country life of days gone by.
– We had wanted to take a steam-powered paddlewheeler up the Mississippi. There are two main companies that operate short half-day tours from New Orleans (Steamboat Natchez and the Creole Queen). It would also be interesting to do this longer river cruise further up the Mississippi. That would require several days.
– There are a lot of art galleries in New Orleans. On our cemetery tour our guide noted that Edgar Degas spent time in New Orleans. During his short stay in this city he completed 20 paintings. He was the only Impressionist to have lived and worked in the U.S.. The Degas House restored Musson house on Esplanade Street will give you a glimpse into Degas and his time in New Orleans and the art of Degas.
And Don’t Forget A Visit For Mardi Gras
There are a lot of things to do in New Orleans if you visit outside of Mardi Gras time. We have provided a glimpse into the wide variety of things you may find visiting this delightful city with its European flair. If you visit, there are direct flights from many cities. If you can’t get a direct flight, New Orleans is connected to the major airline hubs in the U.S..
But you should ensure that one year you plan to visit New Orleans for Mardi Gras. The whole city dresses up for the party. People walk the streets in costumes. And the parades go on for weeks! If you are planning to visit New Orleans while Mardi Gras is on, we have a few tips for your Mardi Gras visit planning!
If you visit New Orleans once, you will want to go back!
What have you found that shows that New Orleans is more than Mardi Gras?