Cool Things to Do in New Orleans This Winter

Mardi Gras is on the way—and so are a lot other fun, seasonal events and activities.

The most magical time of year is upon us here in New Orleans. No, not the winter holidays, though no one can deny the picturesque beauty of the Roosevelt all decked up in lights, or how charming it is to see the tiny wreaths on all the streetcars. Instead, we’re talking about winter, when Christmas festivity rolls right into Carnival season before Mardi Gras ends and we kick off the slightly-more-buttoned-up weeks of Lent. Sound like a lot to keep track of? Never fear. We’ve got the full guide to everything you need to know about enjoying the first few months of the year in the Big Easy.

Now, it’s time to plan your Mardi Gras costume, chow down on your favorite king cake and prepare to enjoy the last gasps of cold air before spring—and festival season—arrives.

People Admiring Immersive Van Gogh
Van Gogh: Immersive Experience | Fever

Immerse yourself in the work of a master

Central Business District
The countdown is on until the “Van Gogh: Immersive Experience” wraps up its New Orleans stint in April and heads elsewhere. The widely acclaimed artistic experience turns the Scottish Rite Temple downtown into what feels like a live version of Vincent Van Gogh’s masterpieces. With projections and musical accompaniment, visitors get to step into his works, or don a virtual reality headset to “walk” through the spaces that inspired them. And for the more flexible Van Gogh fans, you can even visit on some Saturday mornings for yoga in the space before touring the entire exhibition.

Find a Fish Fry

Once the heady, sparkling opulence of Carnival is behind us, New Orleans is ready for a bit of a detox. Thanks to the city’s deep Catholic heritage, it’s pretty easy to find that most delicious of Lenten traditions—a fish fry. As Mardi Gras wraps up, the local newspaper usually runs a list of some favorites, but they’re frankly not all that hard to find. Local churches, Knights of Columbus halls, and community organizations throw flyers up throughout the season to advertise their meals, which typically include an option or two for sides, sometimes a specialty, like stuffed crabs or fried shrimp, and price points below $20 per person.

Addis NOLA's injera and more
Addis NOLA | Addis NOLA

Revisit Black History

February is Black History Month, but anytime is a good time to revisit some of the city’s most special museums and cultural touchstones dedicated to Black experiences here. Pay a visit to Congo Square, located in Armstrong Park, where long ago enslaved Africans would spend a Sunday afternoon drumming and laying the groundwork for American music history, or swing by Studio Be, where artist Brandan Odums pays homage to Black stories and figures of today and long ago. Grab a meal at Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, which was home to early Civil Rights Movement planning, or try Ethiopian food at the new location of Addis NOLA on Bayou Road. Finally, spend a day at the Le Musee de F.P.C., which celebrates the history of free people of color.

House Decorated for Mardi Gras
Mardi Gras | Getty Images

Head to a parade to celebrate Mardi Gras

One of the most common misconceptions about Mardi Gras is that it’s just a single day or weekend long. In fact, the holiday is celebrated throughout an entire season, which spans from the Epiphany, or Kings Day, on January 6, through Mardi Gras, which is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Though the date shifts everywhere with the Christian calendar, in 2023, it’ll be February 21. That means you’ve got more than 40 days of joy. Check the visitor’s bureau website for the full parade calendar, but here are a couple guidelines to see you through: Full-blown costumes or a touch of the wacky, colorful or outlandish, are always welcome. Most parades are family-friendly, but some, such as Krewe du Vieux, are best left for adult enjoyment. The busiest days are the season’s final Thursday through Mardi Gras; plan now if you mean to visit then and need a hotel or dinner reservations.

Miss Universe Crowning
Miss Universe Pageant | Getty Images

Spot a queen

Shine up your tiara and grab the lip gloss—it’s queen season in New Orleans. Well, in truth, it kind of always is, thanks to the fabulous drag queens who make their rounds at clubs like the All Ways or during regular brunch shows at the Country Club, but in January, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center will play home to the Miss Universe pageant. Though tickets to the big night itself are already sold out, you can still grab spots for the preliminary events and dress rehearsal.

Ogden Museum of Southern Art
Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Various locations
If you’re a local, it can get costly to visit New Orleans’ major cultural institutions, especially if you’re bringing a group. But don’t worry—that’s one of the key benefits of the New Orleans Public Library’s Culture Pass, which allows free access for two adults and up to seven kids to a number of the city’s cultural institutions, including the Hermann-Grima House, the Gallier House, the National WWII Museum, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Art, the Audubon Zoo, and the Audubon Aquarium. You do have to book the passes ahead of time, but the library finally took the program digital, so you can do so online.

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

City Park
Spend a couple of hours taking in the weird and wonderful installations at the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which is part of the New Orleans Museum of Art. It’s a world-class collection that received an update in 2019, doubling the amount of art on view and carving out a pretty amazing pathway that’s as much of an experience as the artwork it meanders past. The park offers as much fun for art snobs as it does for folks looking to update their Instagram with artsy shots.

French Quarter
Yes, Okay, 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. Pro tip: Beat all the lines by visiting the City Park location after a walk through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden or a stop by the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Woodlands Conservancy
Woodlands Conservancy

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.

Audubon Park
Audubon Park

Audubon Park
New Orleans’ open container laws mean you can swing into almost any local corner store and snag a few walking drinks or take some bevs to go from a local bar or restaurant. Take advantage of this luxury with a boozy picnic at The Fly, the grassy, mostly undeveloped strip on the river’s edge of Audubon Park. It’s the perfect way to enjoy a lazy afternoon watching the ships roll down the Mississippi. Bring sandwiches from St. James Cheese Company or Gracious Bakery, both stashed just a few minutes away by car.

Miss River
Miss River

Various locations
Whether you're new to town or you've lived here for 30 years, it's no mystery that New Orleans sports one of the most vibrant culinary landscapes in the world. That means amazing new restaurants opening every month. We've rounded up the best restaurants in town to help you out along with some classics that turned the city into the culinary mecca it has become, so loosen that belt buckle and get to it.

Abita Mystery House
Abita Mystery House | Malachi Jacobs/Shutterstock

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 $5 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.

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 $6 and won a James Beard Award. No-brainer.

crescent park
Crescent Park

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.

Garden District Book Shop
Garden District Book Shop

Nerd out at a local bookstore

Various locations
Often lost in the clamor of the Crescent City’s bustling nightlife is New Orleans’s rich literary history. Numerous legendary authors like Tennessee Williams, Fatima Shaik, John Kennedy Toole, and Anne Rice have made our endlessly inspirational town their home over the years, and things never really slowed down. Visit local indie outlets like Garden District Book Shop, Community Book Center, Blue Cypress Books, and Octavia Books for excellent selections and fantastic recommendations from knowledgeable staff. And if you’re in the French Quarter, you can walk to Beckham’s Bookshop, Arcadian Books & Print, and Faulkner House Books for even more bookworm fun. Plus, if you’re here in March, bookworms can find like-minded brethren at the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University, or the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival in the French Quarter. (Bonus points if you enter the “Stella” or “Stanley” yelling competition.)

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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.