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Cool and unusual things to do in New Orleans – how to spend 5 days in the Big Easy

A holiday in New Orleans is a wonderfully vibrant assault on the senses. Culturally colourful, it’s a city built on over 300 years of fascinating stories of the most creative people. And as the proud birthplace of jazz, a break of five days will allow you plenty of time to enjoy the many cool and unusual things to do in New Orleans. 

With a fusion of Cajun and Creole flavours in its dishes, this is a melting pot of French, African and American cultural influences and a mecca for music.

Resting on the Mississippi River, the distinct French and Spanish architecture hints at its cross-cultural and multilingual heritage – it’s no wonder that it is regarded as the most unique city in the United States.

So whatever your motivations for visiting ‘The Big Easy’, here are the key places that you can spend five days in New Orleans, whether you’re a culture vulture or prefer to party.
 

Get in the party mood at these New Orleans festivals

As one of the great festival capitals of the world, there are many cool and unusual things to do in New Orleans. Whether it’s one of the food, music or heritage events held throughout the year.

The Jazz and Heritage Festival at the end of April and early May is reputedly one of the best festivals for showcasing American music styles. Over the years the festival has featured some of the greatest artists from Louisiana including the late Fats Domino, Irma Thomas and Harry Connick Jr.

New Orleans festivals just one things to do while spending 4 days in New Orleans

This year the lineup includes Sting, Aretha Franklin and Common, however, it’s not just about the music either. Hundreds of artisans attend the event to present their traditional and contemporary crafts and sell their wares at the Louisiana and Congo Square African Marketplaces.

Mardi Gras is the event to travel to for fun, frolics and masquerading. The two weeks of celebrations take place every March or April, with at least one parade every day, but the most elaborate take place over the last five days of the festival. These are organised by social clubs known as ‘krewes’ who operate their own float route and will throw all sorts of free items out to the crowds, including green, gold and purple plastic beads, coins and confectionery.

You don’t have to spend the whole two weeks there to get the full enjoyment. Five days in New Orleans, or even four, will provide more than enough time to enjoy Mardi Gras in all its colour, pomp and vibrancy.

Mardi Gras is just one of the New Orleans Festivals

Many travellers who holiday in New Orleans for Mardi Gras, base themselves in and around Bourbon Street for the event. However, most of the major routes are Uptown and Mid-City, working their way along Canal Street and St Charles Avenue.

To get a prime viewing spot you can book a package for one of the balconies to observe the passing parades and enjoy the best food and drink offerings in the city.

Discover tales of the cocktail

Talking of food and drink, it’s believed that the first true cocktail was mixed here in the city, in the early 19th century by a chemist – the Sazerac.

Enjoy a Sazerac cocktail, just one of the things to do in New Orleans

When Antoine Amadee Peychau mixed stomach bitters and French brandy into double-end egg cups known as coquetiers (pronounced koh-kuh-TYAYS), soon it became ‘cocktails’ after the slurring of the words by those who consumed the creative libation.

Since then, the world of cocktail making has resulted in many exotic varieties created here in New Orleans by talented bartenders with creativity and flair for mixology. Local must-tries include the Absinthe Frappe, the Ramos Gin Fizz, the Obituary Cocktail and the Hurricane.

Tales of the Cocktail, held every July at a number of French Quarter locations, is the ideal occasion to celebrate the city’s colourful concoctions with luncheons, parties and cocktail hours.

Tales of the Cocktail event, one of the things to do in New Orleans | Pic Dan Silvers

If you don’t happen to be in town for the event, Hotel Monteleone on Royal Street features the opulent Carousel Bar and Lounge with a revolving merry-go-round of spirits. The whimsical feature is just another of the fabulous things to do in New Orleans and was voted one of the top 20 bars of the world.

Surprisingly, due to its extensive craft cocktails list, Vogue recommends you start out with the Sazerac before you tantalise your taste buds on anything else.

Try the Carousel Bar during your 5 days in New Orleans | Pic Allison Meier

Soaking up the vibes at the best jazz shows in New Orleans

With so much live music in the city every night, visiting the best jazz shows in New Orleans can be quite a big, if enjoyable task. However, trying the weekly residencies at differing venues will be an ideal starting point.

You will discover music at every turn here but start with an evening at the jazz club, Preservation Hall where major stars often perform. Considered the spiritual home of jazz, it’s one of the oldest buildings here, and the rustic, ramshackle touches and charm easily transport you back to the early days of jazz. The venue is open each night with performances every hour from 5pm, with the last performance at 10pm.

Jazz band outside Preservation Hall one of the best jazz shows in New Orleans I Pic Infrogmation

If you’re looking to venture away from the tourist haunts, NOLA’s Backyard Party in the courtyard of Bacchanal, in Bywater, feels cosy and intimate, like you’ve been invited to a friend’s gathering. The comprehensive wine list and amply small dishes provide the perfect accompaniment to the music, which ranges from hot jazz to hard bop.

If Bourbon Street is a little too raucous for you then try the nearby Frenchmen Street. The music is great with everything from blues to jazz, and the crowds here are most likely to be local people.

Or you can head to d.ba. one of the city’s most respected venues and the building itself dates back to the 1880s. With a promising craft beer list, and a different vibe and line up each evening, it’s a great base for a little variety. Staying Uptown? The Maple Leaf Bar comes highly recommended, with every style of music and two-hour-long sets from some terrific musicians including the Rebirth Brass Band.

Louis Armstrong's first cornet on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum | Pic New Orleans Jazz Museum

Before you depart, consider a visit to the New Orleans Jazz Museum to brush up on your jazz knowledge. Highlights include the Louis Armstrong tape box collages, signature musical artefacts and a Women of Note exhibition which traces the role of women in jazz from the 20th century up to today’s music scene.

Things to do in New Orleans – seek out sweets and treats

The French Quarter of New Orleans is one of the more popular places for shopping, with lots of cute and unique boutique stores to browse.

But as any local will attest, the French Market District is the best spot to make a beeline for. The six blocks of stores offer up everything from couture clothing to art galleries. Drop by the farmer’s market on a Wednesday afternoon to catch live entertainment as you browse, or on Saturday afternoons to sample some local food delicacies.

One of the things to do in New Orleans, visit the French Market for everything from clothes to local dishes - pictured is the Cajun Kitchen | Pic MsSaraKelly

If you’re searching for a souvenir for a sweet-toothed loved one from your holiday in New Orleans, Aunt Sally’s Pralines are divine handmade nutty treats. They were first founded in the French Creole community in the early 1900s by the newlyweds, Pierre and Diane Bagur. Opt for the original recipe Creole Praline for the thin and crispy nut variety in original or chocolate flavours. There’s also the thicker and creamier fudge, Creamy Praline available in five fabulous flavours.

Things to do in New Orleans - try Aunty Sally's pralines for a sweet treat

One way to spend five days in New Orleans is shopping till you drop at the city’s outlet stores. Here you can get your designer shopping fix. The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk on the banks of the Mississippi prides itself on its mix of global brands and southern charm. With stores such as Coach and Kitchen NOLA, you’ll be able to treat yourself to a designer bag, and some recipes to take home to extend your New Orleans food experiences.

Great places to eat in New Orleans

Eating out in New Orleans brings with it a unique breadth of flavour and personality. The city’s culinary scene leads the way leaving many other US destinations to follow.

Start at least one of your mornings at Café Du Monde for beignets and coffee to fuel up for sightseeing. The coffee beans are combined with chicory to add more body and flavour to the brew. Chicory is an ingredient originally adopted during the French Civil War when coffee was scarce.

Things to do in New Orleans - try a Coffee and Beignet

Celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse runs a range of restaurants across the US, but his flagship restaurant is here in New Orleans. Emeril’s New Orleans is a huge force in modern New Orleans cuisine with bold and diverse flavours. Having received a huge number of accolades and good reviews since it opened in 1990. Expect menu options from sweet barbecued salmon to the iconic roast beef Po’Boy sandwich.

Chicken Shrimp Sausage Gumbo try the tasty dish during 5 days in New Orleans

You’ll find hundreds of variations of local favourite Seafood Gumbo, a Cajun-Creole combo which is typically an autumn dish served up in the city’s restaurants. There are plenty of options for gumbo but if you want the more traditional variety head to formal favourite, Galatoire’s in the French District. The stew-like dish is packed with crabmeat, shrimp, onion, celery, tomatoes, and okra, but each restaurant will infuse with their own unique ingredients.

The spices don’t only come out to play for lunch and dinner. Bananas Foster is an iconic dessert best sampled at Brennan’s. The fruit is cooked in butter, with brown sugar and cinnamon spices, and rum is then added to flambé the creation and served with vanilla ice cream to create one of the best banana sundaes your tastebuds will possibly ever encounter – or so the critics say.

In the 1950’s, the city was the major port of entry for bananas shipped from Central and South America – hence the fruit appearing in a lot of culinary creations here.

While on holiday in New Orleans opt for the iconic Bananas Foster at Brennan's | Pic Kimberly Vardeman

Restaurateur Owen Edward Brennan challenged his talented chef, Paul Blangé, to include bananas in a new culinary creation and so Bananas Foster was borne. The delicious dessert was named after Richard Foster, a frequent customer of Brennan’s and a very good friend of Owen. Today it’s the most requested item on the restaurant’s menu, and as many as  35,000 pounds of bananas are flambé each year in preparation of the world-famous dessert.

Make the most of your foodie travels, and order dishes based on Louisiana’s seasonal favourites. Order a crawfish in winter; shrimp in spring; tomato and okra in summer; and gumbo in autumn for the freshest of dishes.

For more iconic foods to discover before you travel, check out this post from Eater New Orleans.

Garden District in New Orleans

Head to the Garden District, which was once part of the plantation owned by Bienville, the founder of the city. Tour past majestic oak trees nestled between huge mansions as you travel along Charles Avenue. Book the experience with Gray Line Tours –  the only operator which allows you to tour the interior of the Opera Guild Home.

The tour includes the American section which was constructed in a bid to rival the architectural splendour of the Creoles’ French Quarter. Wander the historic district and marvel at the impressive examples of Greek Revival and Italianate architecture.

Toby's Corner, Garden District in New Orleans is the oldest building in the city

You’ll also find the homes of the former Kings and Queens of Mardi Gras, as well as the residence of celebrated author Anne Rice before you stop by Toby’s Corner, which is the oldest house in the area – built in 1838.

Swamp and bayou tours New Orleans

Louisiana is home to lots of swamps and marshes, and you can also book a Swamp and Bayou Tour for the chance to spot alligators, racoons, egrets and nutria and other natural encounters. Or simply check out the unusual culture and rundown houses around the back bayous.

Discover the swamp and Bayou tours New Orleans

Cemetery and voodoo tours

For a tour with a twist, the Cemetery and Voodoo tours New Orleans reveal all the famous and infamous who are laid to rest in St Louis Cemetery. At the tomb of Marie Laveau – the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans – you will unearth exactly how she was able to be in two places at once. And the tour also charts the evolution of voodoo – which is still a part of the culture here today.

Voodoo is still practised in here as you will discover on a Cemetery and Voodoo tours New Orleans | Pic Beadmobile

New Orleans has been called the most haunted city in America, so if you have an interest in the supernatural, book an evening ghost and spirits tour of the French Quarter.

Stories which have previously featured on The History Channel and The Discovery Channel are brought to life as you tour haunted hotels, the courthouse and even a former slave exchange.

Visit the classic colonial French cemetery during a holiday in New Orleans

It’s also thought that ghosts inhabit the famous Bourbon Orleans Hotel, which has previously enjoyed life as a theatre, the Quadroon Ballroom, an orphanage and a convent. Both staff and guests report regular ghost sightings – maybe you will too, or if you’re really determined you could always check in for a night or two.

Map of New Orleans

Use this downloadable map with the attractions we’ve detailed here to plan your short break in New Orleans.

Where to stay for 5 days in New Orleans

If you’re looking for glitz, Downtown is laden with the bigger hotel chains and casinos, but for hotels with more character and tradition, the French Quarter of New Orleans is where you should set your sights.

Hotel Monteleone – It’s not often you get luxury and history combined, but this hotel was one of the French Quarter’s first landmarks in 1886. With a spa, rooftop pool, elegant interiors and amenities to bring you the comforts of home, it’s an obvious option for a city stay.

The Bourbon Orleans Hotel – If you want the traditional NOLA experience, book a balcony guest room overlooking Bourbon Street, for views of the action below.

The Jung Hotel and Residences – Recently renovated, the Jung offers modern decor and sleek spaces with 17 rooms and 36 residences and it’s the perfect bolthole if you prefer to escape the French Quarter crowds.

Pontchartrain Hotel – This stylish hotel in the Lower Garden District is ideal for a restful night’s sleep, and with its 1940s glamour and the impressive historical aspects which underpin the hotel’s look and feel, it’s a far cry from cookie-cutter style chain hotels.

The Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans – Considered the city’s grand dame of hotels, expect gold accents and crystal chandeliers plus art deco elements for a bygone era interior style that stands the test of time in the luxury stakes. And with a rooftop pool and affordable suites, it’s a classic luxury for less option.

The Drifter, New Orleans – After a hip refurbishment, The Drifter feels like a boutique hotel come country club. The contemporary design, bohemian pool, coffee bar, and minimalist guest rooms complete the retro look. And although in the Mid City, it’s becoming the place to be.

W New Orleans – French Quarter, French Quarter, New Orleans, United States – Set in the more tranquil section of the French Quarter, the secluded courtyard, bold colours and low lighting provide bags of character, and with check-in taking place in ‘living rooms’ with comfy sofas with fruit-infused water to cool off while you wait, no detail has been missed on the service or ambience front.

Ace Hotel New Orleans, Central Business District, Louisiana, New Orleans, United States – This cool, youthful and sassy hotel in the Warehouse District is a prime spot to kick back and relax by the rooftop pool after an evening of dining and jazz in the Big Easy.

Some pictures have been licensed under Creative Commons 2.0Takahiro Kyono, Miguel Discart, Dan SilversAllison Meier, MsSaraKelly, Kimberly Vardeman, Beadmobile and Creative Commons 4.0New Orleans Jazz Museum

About

Lover of all things travel, Lorraine can often be found whiling away hours on Pinterest (so easily done!), looking for new places to visit or new spaces she can make over at home. Throw in a good book, delicious food and wine, combined with great company, and she is a happy soul indeed!

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