A First-timer’s Guide to New Orleans

From jazz brunches to swamp tours, these eight must-see and do activities will surely make your first trip to New Orleans the first of many

Credit: Colleen Seto

Even if it doesn’t include Mardi Gras, your first trip to NOLA should include a little history, a lot of food and a first-hand experience of the untamed swamps

First time to New Orleans? Call it N’awlins like the locals do and you’re off to a good start.

Of course, everyone knows about Mardi Gras, but there’s so much more to experience in this fine city. The New Orleans vibe is so eclectic and diverse, you’re sure to find something you’ll love about the Crescent City.

Here’s a rundown of eight must-see and do activities to get you started on your NOLA visit.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Take a Swamp Tour

Located only 25 minutes from New Orleans, the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve is the place to explore Louisiana’s swamp country. This be the land of gators!

Take a guided tour with Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours along the canals and bayous to see the wildlife up-close and personal.

The boat captains know the murky waters inside and out, pointing out various plant life like the bald cypress tree — Louisiana’s state tree. They yip and holler to the gators as though they were dogs — “Here boy!” — and chances are, you’ll probably see a gator or two. Careful, there may even be a gator on-board!

Credit: Colleen Seto

Hop Aboard a Carriage Ride

Take a mule-driven carriage ride for an overview tour of the French Quarter. The 20-odd carriages are lined up in front of Jackson Square. It’s a great way to check out the Quarter, NOLA’s epicentre for food, music and shopping.

The stately architecture features iconic Creole cottages/townhouses with Spanish influence, built after the great fire of 1788.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Have a Jazz Brunch at Muriel’s

The popular Muriel’s restaurant, located right in Jackson Square, showcases a mix of contemporary and Creole cuisine. This beautiful historic home-cum-restaurant has a special energy, perhaps due in part to its resident ghosts.

Take a peek upstairs in the seance lounges and the outdoor balcony for a great view of Jackson square. The fun and decadent Sunday jazz brunch is definitely worth trying.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Stroll Down Bourbon Street

If you want to take in some nightlife, Bourbon Street is the place to go. Sure, it’s known for its gentlemen’s clubs and wild partying, but this French Quarter strip is also steeped in rich history. It offers endless entertainment, dining, imbibing and people-watching to wile the night away.

Visit the Old Absinthe House built in 1807 and known for its house specialty the Absinthe House Frappe. It’s been a favourite watering hole in the French Quarter for more than 200 years, and is where everyone leaves their calling card—the walls are covered in them.

And pop in at Pat O’Brien’s for an infamous Hurricane cocktail, a sweet alcoholic drink consisting of rum, passion fruit syrup and limejuice. The drink originated there in the 1940s, where it was served to sailors in a hurricane lamp-shaped glass, hence the name. Now, the Hurricane is one of New Orleans’ signature beverages, and having one in a sought-after Pat O’Brien’s Hurricane glass is the way to do it right.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Eat Beignets

Ah, beignets (pronounced ben-yays)! One of NOLA’s most famous delicacies, and with good reason. These square-shaped donut-like pastries, minus the hole, are doused in icing sugar and they’re delicious.

Try the ones at Café Beignet; they’re bigger and tastier than their famed Café du Monde counterparts, and the line-up’s smaller, too.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Embrace Voodoo

New Orleans continues to have a strong voodoo presence brought from Africa through the slave trade. There are many misconceptions surrounding voodoo, primarily that it is intended to cause harm or cast evil spells. Most voodoo practitioners believe in using voodoo for positivity and healing.

So have no fear and let your curiosity get the best of you. Take in the many voodoo offerings such as palm and Tarot card readings, locally made and blessed voodoo dolls and charms, or a tour at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Hear Live Jazz at Preservation Hall

Head to Preservation Hall for an intimate and interactive jazz performance with both music veterans and emerging artists. The venue was created in 1961 to protect and honour New Orleans jazz, and it’s doing a mighty fine job.

Live sure-to-please performances happen nightly for only $15. This is without a doubt THE place to see a fantastic, live, unplugged jazz show.

Credit: Colleen Seto

Visit Mardi Gras World

Okay, okay, if you just can’t visit New Orleans without getting a taste of Mardi Gras, and the carnival is not actually taking place, head over to Mardi Gras World.

Here you get a behind-the-scenes look at the Mardi Gras floats being designed and built. It’s phenomenal to see the detail and scale of these behemoths, and how much work goes into getting them carnival-ready every year.