The Big Easy has been at the center of life on the Gulf Coast since the days of the French Mississippi Company, and you can find that legacy throughout the incredible variety of things to do in New Orleans. You can walk the cobbled streets of the French Quarter to visit storefronts older than the United States, relive the age of the paddle-wheelers with a trip on a classic steamboat, or take a walk through plantation life in the carefully maintained manors just outside of town.
- The French may not have done much with all that land they claimed in the heart of modern-day America, but La Nouvelle-Orléans was the exception. More than half the buildings in the French Quarter were made by and for Napoleon’s former subjects, and they show off a special kind of European flair. Pick a direction and start walking, or, to really delve into the secrets of the district, get a guide from Gray Line New Orleans to let you in on all the stories these old streets have to tell.
2. After the Louisiana Purchase, when the Americans moved in, the city really came into its own. The streets of the Garden District are still lined with great mansions, oak trees, and wrought-iron fences, and you can’t turn a corner without spotting some highlight from the National Register of Historic Places. New Orleans Legendary Walking Tours has a team of guides armed with plenty of stories of New Orleans’ days as the largest city in the South. And if you’re a fan of the French impressionists, you can head up the road to Tremé and check out the home where Edgar Degas took a break from the art scene in Europe.
3. You can’t really get a look at the past around here without sparing some time for the cemeteries. With the oldest above-ground tombs in America, New Orleans’ rows of stone mausoleums are a great window into the ways the next world looms over local life. New Orleans Ghosts can take you to learn the stories at sites like St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 as you visit the graves of historical icons—from the city’s first mayor to its first black mayor, and from the resting place of civil rights icon Homer Plessy to the future tomb of Nicolas Cage. (Yes, really.)
4. We can confirm that there’s a good reason why the nightlife is one of the most legendary things to do in New Orleans, and it just so happens that a lot of it happens in the oldest part of town. The alleys and cobbled lanes around Bourbon Street are filled with legends of ghosts, vampires, mobsters, and voodoo queens—a mélange that makes way more sense after you’ve visited a few of the bars that fill the scene. A guide from Nawlins Theatrical Tours can help you learn the city’s oldest secrets in a whole new way, or French Quarter Phantoms can help you explore the world of true crime.
- Back in the days when cotton was king, the lands outside New Orleans were home to some of the biggest sugar barons in the country. There’s the Gothic grandeur of the San Francisco Plantation House, the famous tree-lined avenue of Oak Alley Plantation, and the carefully maintained manor of Destrehan Plantation, and tour operators like Gray Line, Louisiana Tour Company and Tours by Isabelle give you a look at the plantation houses that still dot the landscape and lives of the people who shaped the region—including all the people who weren’t there by choice. The biggest slave rebellion in American history happened here, on the east bank of the Mississippi, and the preserved work sheds and slave quarters around the elegant main houses are a vivid reminder of how the other half lived.
- The main reason why New Orleans became a city was its location at the mouth of America’s greatest river, so you won’t really know the place until you’ve taken a turn on a riverboat. A few of the old paddle-wheelers, built in the style that dates back to Mark Twain, are still taking on guests: A ride on the Creole Queen with New Orleans Paddlewheels can take you to the site of Andrew Jackson’s famous victory in the War of 1812, or Gray Line can treat you to dinner and jazz aboard the famous steamboat Natchez if you’re just on board for the experience.