Besthoff Sculpture Garden
Besthoff Sculpture Garden | New Orleans Museum of Art
Besthoff Sculpture Garden | New Orleans Museum of Art
Travel

Actually Cool Things to Do in New Orleans

Living in New Orleans comes with specific obligations: We clean our catch basins before every big storm. Win or lose, we cheer on the Saints. We explain to tourists that no, Mardi Gras does not require you to take your top off (really, please don’t). And we play tour guide to any friends and friends-of-friends who land in town, rain or shine. 

While most visitors will have their certain expectations -- “you can do anything here!” -- it’s up to us New Orleanians to show visitors what makes this city so intoxicatingly loveable. Sure, that may mean a walk down Bourbon Street so they can say they’ve done it, but it also means offering reminders that there’s no need to down your beer before leaving a bar (thanks, open container laws!) and teaching them how to dance in the streets.

Allow us to be your guides to help get you and your friends off the beaten path. Here are all the best things to do in New Orleans -- including the stuff that's free, cheap, and popular with locals, plus a few once-in-a-lifetime experiences and splurges you can't get anywhere else.

Go gator-spotting at the Barataria Preserve

Free
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park
The Barataria Preserve, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, is probably the easiest, closest place to New Orleans where you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot at least one alligator in the wild. The hiking trail is gorgeous, and if you show up at around 10am on Wednesday through Sunday, you can get a free guided tour with a park ranger. (Helpful, especially if you’re not great at telling a gator from a log.) If you’ve got kids -- or just feel like one -- don’t forget to ask for a Junior Park Ranger workbook.

Besthoff Sculpture Garden
Besthoff Sculpture Garden | New Orleans Museum of Art

Take a stroll at the Besthoff Sculpture Garden

Free
City Park
The New Orleans Museum of Art is spectacular (and spectacularly air-conditioned), but for a couple of free hours of talking and strolling, you can’t beat the weird and wonderful installations at the Sydney and Wanda Besthoff Sculpture Garden -- a gorgeous outdoor space in City Park adjacent NOMA. It’s a world-class collection that received an update in 2019, and it’s as much fun for art snobs as it is for folks looking for Instagrammable moments. For some added context for the odder installations, visitors can also join a free guided tour at noon every Friday, Saturday, and Monday.

Catch live music outside -- almost anywhere

Free-$$$
Citywide
Inclement weather never stopped South Louisianans from getting outside to shake that thang to some live, local music. And with free concert series in multiple parks and public squares around the city, plus a hot lineup of music festivals, there’s something playing nearly every night of the week, all season long, especially during the city’s premiere spring festivals like French Quarter Fest (free!) and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (definitely not free). 

Follow a second-line

Free
Citywide
It’s likely that someone new to the city won't even know what a second-line is, let alone how to follow one, so definitely mind the etiquette. Bring cash to get your drinks from the local vendors who follow the route, stay out of the way of the movement if you take any photos, and hit up every single yaka-mein or jambalaya lady you see on the route. The social aid and pleasure clubs wind down their seasons in late spring, as the weather gets too hot for long marches, but it picks back up in early fall and carries through the winter. Local radio station WWOZ keeps a calendar, including routes, which is updated weekly.

Catch a movie at Burgundy Picture House

Free
Bywater
These free (donations gratefully accepted) outdoor movie screenings in the Bywater offer just the kind of oddball NOLA experience lots of guests look for. Unless you’re a serious student of avant-garde filmmaking, it’s unlikely you’ve seen -- or heard of -- much of what’s on offer, but that’s half the fun of it. (The other half is the cheap beer and liberal BYOB policy.)

Visit the chapel at the St. Roch Cemetery 

Free
St. Roch
First-time visitors, especially, will likely want to take a formal cemetery tour, but if they're up for something less formal (and a bit more unsettling), take a quick spin through the St. Roch Cemetery, home to a famous shrine to the saint himself, where generations of New Orleanians have left ex-votos -- physical mementos thanking the patron saint of healing for his interventions. These include religious objects as well as medical ones, like leg and neck braces and plaster casts of various body parts. It’s eerie, for sure, but it’s also a glimpse into the faith of a city that’s often regarded as a place of iniquity by outsiders.

Experience a jazz mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church

Free
Tremé
If you happen to have guests in town for Satchmo SummerFest the first week in August, make sure you rouse them out of bed Sunday morning for one of the best events of the whole year: the jazz mass at St. Augustine Catholic Church. Yes, really! This historic African-American Catholic church has been the spiritual heart of the Tremé neighborhood since before the Civil War and served as the church home of famous parishioners including jazz legend Sidney Bechet and civil rights icon Homer Plessy. Each year, they offer a jazz mass in conjunction with Satchmo SummerFest, and it’s a blast, even for non-Catholics; just remember to drop some money in the collection baskets and, you know, dress like you’re going to church. (Also, its regular choir performs a jazzy and gospel-tinged version of the traditional Catholic mass most weeks, and guest musicians aren’t uncommon, so you'll likely see a lovely service no matter when you go.)

Hit up happy hour at Brennan’s

$
French Quarter
While a reservation at this New Orleans institution will usually give your credit card some serious exercise, you’d be remiss to think the happy hour is likewise high-dollar. Dubbed Bubbles at Brennan’s, you’ll find good deals here Tuesday through Thursday, from 2-7pm, and Fridays, 9am-7pm, making it a solid spot for pre-dinner drinks or lunch. Specials include cocktails for $7 and snacks from $6-15. Oh, and did we mention the champagne sabering on Fridays at 5pm? Yeah, there’s that, too.  

Nosh on beignets at Café du Monde

$
French Quarter
Yes, OK, it’s swarmed with tourists, but for less than $5, it’s an iconic New Orleans experience, and you're probably going to love biting into a beignet no matter where you're from. Locals know to hit it up as far away from the breakfast rush as possible -- and to bring cash when they go. There’s also a to-go window on the side farthest from Jackson Square, so head there for the quickest service before taking your sugar-filled bag of fried dough to the Moonwalk (that’s the paved pathway) along the Mississippi River. 

See the city by bike

$
Various locations
New Orleans was a little late to the game on jumping on to its bike share program, but we finally have one, so download the app and hop on. You can either make your own route (just be wary of the bike share program’s map; you can’t go just anywhere in the city) or ride along with the weekly NOLA Social Ride. One note: The city planned to upgrade to electric bikes in January 2020, so keep an eye out for some changes to the bike share program. 

Get squicked out at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

$
French Quarter
Easily one of the Gulf Coast’s most interestingly tiny, hyper-specific museums, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is home to rows upon rows of jars that once held opium, cocaine, leeches and all manner of snake oil, plus oodles of ooky surgical implements and lots of fascinating historical info about the connection between the history of the pharmacy industry and the history of cocktails. (Yes, they’re totally connected!)

Eat a snowball at every possible opportunity

$
Various locations
After around Easter-ish, when the weather turns from warm to really warm, the city’s ubiquitous snowball shops start opening up all over, and frankly, they’re almost better than air conditioning for cooling off. Get yourselves to Hansen’s, where ol’ man Hansen invented the original ice-shaving machine (which distinguishes snowballs from their far inferior crushed-ice cousin, the snow cone), and you probably oughta make time to hit up Plum Street as well, and maybe ... well, just try them all of them. You won't regret it. 

Visit World War II bunkers

Free
West Bank
While New Orleans is well-known for the National World War II Museum -- and for good reason -- those who want an up-close look at some real World War II relics can head to the Woodlands Conservancy on the West Bank. Here, strap on your hiking shoes for a walk into the woods to find 10 ammunition magazines that stored ammo and other explosives during WWII and the Korean War. While there, enjoy the quiet walk and easy hike through one of the area’s last bottomland hardwood forests. 

Get some beers and head to The Fly

$
Audubon Park
Look, it’s no big deal for us locals, but odds are if you're not from around here, if you want to drink outside, you have to do it out of a brown paper bag or a hip flask. Our open container law is a simple New Orleans joy that feels like pure luxury to outsiders, and a boozy picnic at The Fly -- the grassy, mostly undeveloped strip on the river’s edge of Audubon Park -- is the perfect way to enjoy a lazy afternoon of watching the ships roll down the Mississippi. You won't be alone. All of us locals will be doing the exact same thing. Bring sandwiches from St. James Cheese Company or Gracious Bakery, both just a few minutes’ drive away.

Bar Marilou
Bar Marilou | Courtesy of Rush Jagoe

Try any of NOLA's best restaurants

$-$$$$
Various locations
Whether you're new in town or you've lived here for 20 years, it's no mystery that New Orleans has one of the most vibrant culinary traditions in the world. That means amazing new restaurants opening every month, catering to all manner of cuisines, budgets, or proclivities. We've rounded up the best restaurants in town to help you out, including a regularly updated list of best new openings. Either way, be wary of long lines at French Quarter restaurants, Cafe du Monde notwithstanding -- not all are worth the wait. 

See creepy taxidermy at the Abita Mystery House, followed by craft beer

$
Abita Springs
This bizarre roadside museum is basically just a massive collection of vintage arcade machines, odd folk art, cryptotaxidermy, all other manner of weird junk. It costs just $3 to visit, and it’s the bargain of a lifetime. While you’re up there in Abita Springs, you may as well also hit up the Abita Brewery for tours -- free if you go on the self-guided ones -- and tastings. If you’ve got yourself a designated driver, get the full experience by checking out other local North Shore brews from Old Rail and Chafunkta.

...Or sip your craft beer right in town at Courtyard Brewery

$
Lower Garden District
Courtyard Brewery is a favorite hangout for New Orleans craft beer fans, though it’s far from pretentious. And unlike Abita Brewery it doesn't take a drive out of town to get there. At Courtyard, you can down a pint or three of the city’s best microbrews while noshing on something from a rotating lineup of food trucks and enjoying the buzzing, friendly scene.
MORE:For all things courtyards and booze, check out the best bars in NOLA.

Catch live comedy almost any night of the week

$
Various locations
It might not be as well-known as the scenes in Chicago, LA, or New York, but New Orleans has a huge and hilarious range of stand-up comedy almost every night of the week. This includes both a solid slate of local talent and nationally famous comics who come here to test out new material, occasionally popping up for surprise sets. Specific listings are available online, but expect to find comedy at least once or twice a week at venues like the Hi-Ho Lounge, Twelve Mile Limit, and the Dragon’s Den

Explore local theater

$-$$
Various locations
New Orleans’ local theater organizations offer everything from traditional productions put on in proper spaces with things like real chairs to more experimental offerings. Check the calendars for Southern Rep Theater, the NOLA Project and Goat in the Road Productions, or, if you’re here in the spring, see if your visit coincides with the New Orleans Giant Puppet Festival for something truly unique.

Look east for Vietnamese food

$
Various locations
Most people know about New Orleans’ European and African-descended communities, but it’s less well-known for its active Vietnamese population. With huge pockets of immigrants and their descendants both in New Orleans East and on the West Bank (across the river), there are Vietnamese restaurants a-plenty offering pho, banh mi, and all other manner of traditional delights. Head over to Dong Phuong for its meaty, pickly banh mi on damn-near perfect French bread. It costs less than $5 and won a James Beard Award. No-brainer.

snake and jake's
Scott Gold/Thrillist

Drink at any of our magnificent dive bars

$
Various locations
The thing about dive bars elsewhere in the world? They’re bad. And kind of gross. And not really fun. New Orleans dive bars, though? They’re fabulous and fun and wholly unique. And yes, OK, sometimes kind of gross. But there's nothing more authentic and more New Orleans than Snake and Jake’s at around 3am on a Tuesday in July -- just sayin’. Happy hour is also a perfectly reasonable time to go, but few Tulane or Loyola students make it out of their college experiences before seeing the sun come up as they stumble out of the doors here. (Trust us: The Revivalists even sang about it.) 

Take a day trip for any of Louisiana's best festivals

$
Various locations
In the smaller cities and towns spread across South Louisiana, festivals are a favorite springtime and early-summer occurrence, and every town seems to have one. Ponchatoula’s got the Strawberry Festival, Breaux Bridge has the Crawfish Festival, and Mansura’s roasting up pork at the Cochon de Lait Festival. Also worth considering: the Baton Rouge Blues Fest and the world music-focused Festival International in Lafayette, both in the spring during otherwise busy weekends for New Orleans festivals. Whatever weekend, there’s almost definitely a day trip-worthy food fête within easy driving distance, so be sure to look.

Enjoy art and music after hours at the Ogden Museum

$
Central Business District
On Thursday evenings from 6-8pm, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art offers free live music in their museum, which also houses one of the finest collections of Southern Art in the world. Thursday afternoon and evening tickets are free for Louisiana residents and just $13.50 for out-of-state residents, which makes it a great bet for visitors and locals alike.

Visit the Audubon Aquarium, Zoo, or Insectarium

$$
Various
New Orleans is lucky to have the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the zoo (Uptown), the aquarium, and insectarium (both in the French Quarter). Each location offers your usual finds, like adorable tuxedoed penguins at the aquarium and a beautiful butterfly garden at the insectarium, but each is also outfitted with local creatures, like the zoo’s alligator habitat and the exhibit dedicated to New Orleans’ most notorious house-eaters, the Formosan termites. It can get costly to visit if you have a group, so locals would be wise to take advantage of the New Orleans Public Library’s Culture Pass, which allows library card-holders free access to a number of the city’s cultural institutions, for two adults and up to four children, with advance registration.

Honky-tonk your way across town

$
Various locations
Nestled into the nooks and crannies of bayou country are some of the world’s finest roadhouses and honky-tonks, and they pull from the finest pool of local talent in the Deep South, so grab your friends and your dancing shoes and hit one up. Don't expect to spend too much money, but do expect to have lots of fun and drinks aplenty.

Hit the (jazz, boozy, burlesque, or standard) brunch circuit

$-$$$
Various locations
Here's the thing: New Orleans has perfected the art of day drinking and therefore does brunch better than anywhere else in the world (don’t @ us, New York), so help your guests sample the best of the best at one of our many spectacular brunch spots in the city. Whether you're a vegetarian on a budget (Sneaky Pickle), searching for one of our famous jazz brunches (Muriel's), or want a Creole cottage experience (Atchafalaya), the city will provide.

Try all the new discounted restaurants you can at COOLinary

$-$$$$
Various locations
Let your guests get adventurous with you and try out some new restaurants during the summertime COOLinary event. COOLinary is a month-long menu discount promotion that runs in August, which is typically New Orleans’ hottest and therefore slowest month. Enjoy the low prix fixe prices (around $20 for starters, $35 for entrees), chefs at their most creative, and the new favorites you might not have otherwise considered all August long.

Get to Tipitina’s for local music

Free
Uptown
Every summer, Tipitina’s has offered free Fridays with local acts like Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, or Khris Royal. This annual tradition gives locals a funky way to shake off the daily heat. Just don’t forget to tip the bartender.

Pay tribute to Leah Chase at the legendary Dooky Chase's

$$
Tremé
Chef Leah Chase was a New Orleans icon: civil rights legend, businesswoman extraordinaire, mentor to many, inspiration to many more, and world-class chef. For over 65 years, she cooked up classic Creole comfort food at the Tremé restaurant she operated with her husband since the 1940s. The Crescent City unfortunately lost Chase in 2019, but her legacy lives on at her incredible restaurant. Lunch is served buffet-style and always includes red beans and rice, sausage, and plenty of decadent Creole delicacies. Eat until you can’t eat anymore while enjoying the African-American art that covers the walls.

Catch classic jazz at Preservation Hall

$$
French Quarter
You can never, ever go wrong with a show at the legendary Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. There’s really nothing else like it in the city -- a simple room filled with benches and one of the best horn ensembles in the world, enthusiastically belting out an intimate, guest-focused concert several times per night, every night of the week. Tickets are $20 and are first come, first served. Because it’s a music-only venue (they serve no alcohol, but folks standing in line are free to send an emissary to the nearby Bourbon Street institution Pat O’Brien’s bar), it’s kid-friendly -- a rarity for indoor live music in NOLA.

Eat crawfish literally everywhere

$$
Various locations
Springtime means crawfish in these parts, and if you can swing an invite for yourself or your guests to a backyard crawfish boil while they’re in town (or find a free one at a bar somewhere), that’s the best choice of all. The social nuances behind devouring a ton of crawfish together are as key to the experience as the food itself. If you can’t, head on over to Bevi Seafood or Clesi’s, both in Mid-City, and just do it up as a small group.

Visit the Whitney Plantation

$$
St. John the Baptist Parish
The reality is most plantation tours omit the brutality that made the plantation lifestyle possible for the wealthy few. The Whitney Plantation turns this on its head, and instead is dedicated to the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the experiences of enslaved people on Louisiana’s many plantations during the pre-Civil War era. It’s a deeply sobering but beautiful testament to the resilience of a people and their culture.

Get lunch (and dirt-cheap martinis) at Commander's Palace

$$$
Garden District
The three-course, prix fixe lunch at Commander’s Palace, with prices starting under $20, has to be one of the best five-star gourmet meal deals on the planet. It also happens to be one of the best places to get turtle soup -- one of the city’s most quintessential must-try foods. Throw back a couple of its signature 25-cent martinis and you’ll spend the entire lunch murmuring, “Why do I only do this when guests are in town?” You’ve got a limit of three of those bad boys, which, as the menu will tell you, is quite enough. 

Get a (spectacular) Italian dinner at Mosca's

$$$
Avondale
Sicilians and Neapolitans immigrated to New Orleans in numbers only matched by New York and New Jersey around 1900. This family-owned roadhouse restaurant is kind of in the middle of nowhere, over on the West Bank, and was a mafia hangout in the post-WWII era. Though the mobsters are gone (as far as most can tell), the look of the place remains blissfully old-school, as does the simple, decadent menu. It’s short enough that if there are enough of you, you can order it all, but if you must choose just one thing, order their chicken a la grande with spaghetti -- oily, rosemary-studded, and smothered with enough garlic to keep you vampire-free for a week -- it’s one of the more delicious things you’ll ever eat.

Satisfy your sweet tooth at Angelo Brocato’s

$-$$
Mid-City
Traditional New Orleans cuisine tends to focus on the savory, but Angelo Brocato’s has long been the not-so-secret answer for something sweeter. Since 1905 (1905!), this family-owned Italian bakery, gelato parlor, and coffee shop has been a Crescent City staple with unbelievably delicious traditional offerings like Napoleons, cannolis, macarons and biscotti alongside the best cup of espresso in town. The space itself looks largely unchanged from its early days, which is to say, it’s cute but often cramped with lines stretching out the door most weekend nights. But trust us -- the tart lemon ice is well worth the wait. Don’t forget to pick out enough house-made cookies to fill a box before you head out.

Get your jam on at Music Box Village

$
Bywater
Tucked away at the edge of the Bywater near the Mississippi River, the Music Box Village is one of the oddest -- and most enchanting -- spots in town. Opened in 2016, the gorgeous, tree-shaded enclave hosts a number of incredible Rube Goldberg-esque contraption “homes,” which visitors are free to experiment with to create all manner of sounds, from delicate windchimes to eerie, PVC pipe-borne howls. Equal parts park, jam space, performance venue, Music Box Village is a must-see if you’re in town during the spring or fall months. Make sure to check its seasonal calendar, too, as the project has hosted an array of legendary artist and musician residencies over the past few years, ranging from Peaches to Thurston Moore.

Stay cool with a drink in hand inside Broad Theater

$-$$
Mid-City
Look, the weather isn’t always ideal here. No one will blame you if you need a couple hours’ reprieve in a dark, air-conditioned space. The locally owned Broad Theater hosts all kinds of films, from art house releases to the latest Marvel entry, and features a great bar and in-house snack selection to elevate the whole experience. What’s more, the tickets and concessions are affordably priced -- when was the last time you could say that of your mega movie chain back home? Grab a specialty cocktail, a sanely sized box of popcorn, and enjoy a small oasis before you return to the sweltering city.

Nerd out at a local bookstore

Free-$
Various locations
Often lost in the clamor is New Orleans’ rich literary history. Numerous legendary authors like Tennesee Williams, Fatima Shaik, John Kennedy O’Toole, and Anne Rice have called the town home over the years, and things never really slowed down. Local indie outlets like Garden District Books and Octavia Books regularly host hidden gem author readings and book release parties, so bibliophiles would do well to always check the stores’ calendars to see who might be stopping by for a signing or Q&A. 

Exercise (or just drink) at Crescent Park

Free
Bywater
City Park is generally -- and rightfully -- the space most associated with outdoor activities in New Orleans, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option offered in town to soak up the sun. Located at the edge of the Bywater and French Quarter, Crescent Park is a miles-long stretch of walking and bike paths providing picturesque views along the Mississippi River the entire way. The park is perfect for those of you (the insane ones) looking for places to workout during your visit here, but with New Orleans’ lax open container laws, it’s just as easy to grab a bottle of wine or six-pack and scoff at the healthy from a bench alongside the river.

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Chelsea Brasted is a freelance writer in her hometown of New Orleans, who formerly worked for The Times-Picayune as an arts and entertainment reporter and city columnist. Follow her on Twitter @cabrasted to find out how actually cool she is.