New Orleans is a small city—but its long, rich history gives it depth.
In its older pockets, like the French Quarter, you’ll find gorgeous 19th-century architecture and landmarks with French, Spanish, and neoclassical influences. A short trip down Esplanade Avenue will take you through the Treme and 7th Ward neighborhoods, which are embellished with shotguns and Creole cottages. At City Park, you can take advantage of the tranquil lagoons, towering oak trees, and New Orleans Museum of Art—as well as the newly expanded Sydney and Walda Bestoff Sculpture Garden.
A few of these sights don’t have free admission, but most of them are walkable from the French Quarter or a quick ride away on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line. For the places Bywater and Lower 9th Ward, you may want to consider a ride-hailing service. And for Algiers Point, the only West Bank neighborhood on this list, you can take the ferry from the French Quarter or drive across the Mississippi River Bridge (a much longer and less scenic trip).
Lower Ninth Ward
Open and free to the public since 2011, this house museum in part of a double shotgun holds a collection of oral histories from more than 60 neighborhood residents. Each of its six rooms, stacked one behind the next in shotgun fashion, captures one time period of the Lower Ninth Ward, from its 19th-century plantation roots to its ongoing recovery. It also has an exhibit of video testimonies from Lower 9th Ward residents who lived in the neighborhood during hurricanes Betsy and Katrina.
Ronald W. Lewis, a curator for the House of Dance & Feathers, maintains this cultural museum behind his personal home. Involved with and fascinated by Mardi Gras culture since he was 13 years old, Lewis made it his life’s mission to collect, document, and showcase the vast histories and culture of carnival-centric groups in New Orleans, including Mardi Gras Indians, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, and Skull and Bone gangs. This museum holds an outstanding collection of books, memorabilia, and masking regalia—which may take hours to explore—and Lewis can tell you the history and importance of each of his artifacts. Open on an appointment-only basis. Admission is free but donations are accepted.
Near the Press Street tracks (a historic site in and of itself, where Homer Plessy’s refusal to sit in a segregated train car sparks the civil rights movement), you’ll find this 35,000-square-foot art exhibit that houses the work of local artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums. Opened in February of 2016, Studio Be is a dimly lit warehouse with four expansive halls filled with murals and light displays. Odums’s space inspires dialogue about social and economic equality in the United States. He uses vibrant spray-painted colors on wooden boxes, desks, lockers, brick and wooden walls, and countless canvases that are often illuminated by a single track light. But you will also find occasional light, motion picture, and crowd-sourced displays throughout this exhibit.
Built in 2015, Crescent Park is the brainchild of an iconic group of architects, including George Hargreaves and David Adjaye, who reimagined the former wharf on Piety Street. The team of architects collaborated to demonstrate the importance of connectivity within communities. This 1.4-mile, 20-acre linear park is nestled between an active railroad corridor and the Mississippi River. It has a towering stairway arch, running and biking trails, and sweeping views of the New Orleans skyline, Crescent City Connection, and the West Bank on its riverside. Near the Piety Street arch, you’ll find a wide wharf turned into an open community area. A three-story concrete wall of the former wharf still stands. And if you’re looking to try out New Orleans’s bike share program, you’ll find hubs roughly a block from the park.
In the the artist-filled Jackson Square sits a gorgeous park with a tribute to former President Andrew Jackson. The equestrian statue commemorates then-General Andrew Jackson, who led a ragtag troop of soldiers to victory during the War of 1812 in the Battle of New Orleans. His call to action saved New Orleans from British invasion.
We love the mixed-use buildings around the square, known as the Pontalba Buildings, which were built in the mid-19th century as row houses and rank among the oldest apartment buildings in the nation. Facing the square you’ll see the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in the country.
Jackson Square is also where the Louisiana purchase took place, in 1803—right at the Cabildo, which was the city’s former seat of government. Artist William Woodward led a successful campaign to have the historic building preserved and restored in 1895. Now a museum, it has two permanent exhibits that chronicle the development of New Orleans. The Cabildo’s sister building, the Presbytère, is also a part of the Louisiana State Museum system. If social history is more your thing, the 1850s house, which has period furnishings, is only moments away in the square.
Many other museums can be found in the French Quarter, including the Old U.S. Mint, the Irish Cultural Museum, the Historical New Orleans Collection, New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, and the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum.
New Orleans makes good use of compact parks. Woldenberg Park is the brick-lined greenspace that traces part of the Mississippi River and ends by the Audubon Aquarium (also worth a visit). Along the trail is a kinetic art installation by artist Yaacov Agam that honors the lives of Holocaust victims. Looking toward the Mississippi River, you’ll see Algiers Point (New Orleans’s second-oldest neighborhood) and likely witness Steamboat Natchez preparing to float across the Mississippi River after a long blow of its resounding horn.
The French Quarter has several old structures that are open for tours. This one dates back to 1745. It’s one of the oldest remaining buildings from the French colonial period—and the oldest in the Mississippi Valley. But there are plenty of older buildings nearby to be impressed by, including Madame John’s Legacy, another French colonial structure that survived the test of time; the Beauregard-Keyes house, a 19th-century Greek Revival home created by François Correjolles; and the Gallier House, an elegant example of Victorian-era lifestyle and design that has mid-19th-century furnishings and luxurious-for-the-time technologies.
New Orleans’s second-oldest neighborhood, Algiers Point, is only a ferry ride away from the French Quarter. This Folk Art and Blues museum is technically just outside of Algiers Point in the Whitney neighborhood. Easily accessible from the Mississippi River trail, the house museum displays sculptures, music memorabilia, and paintings created by self-taught artists, many from New Orleans.
If you hop back onto the Mississippi River Trail toward Algiers Point, you’ll see another amazing view of the New Orleans skyline. From the trail, which sits on top of the levee, you’ll see most of the neighborhood, including the newly renovated Algiers Courthouse, which was built in the late 19th century. Heading toward the Crescent City Connection, you’ll find the Jazz Walk of Fame—a more pleasant version of the trail—that celebrates the lives of several jazz musicians in New Orleans.
Just north of the French Quarter, you’ll find Treme, which is often considered ground zero for jazz. Matter of fact, the neighborhood has a whole park, 32 acres, dedicated to that history. Several sculptures celebrate heavy hitters in music and art, such as trumpet player and bandleader Louis Armstrong and Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Allison Montana. There’s also a section of the park dedicated to Congo Square, which is considered the birthplace of African-American music in New Orleans.
In this cozy house museum, curator Alvin Jackson offers a historical narrative of the interconnectivity of jazz music. Jackson demonstrates how the music developed from West African and Caribbean cultures and evolved in New Orleans through signed documents, original jazz recordings, and rare photographs. He’s knowledgeable on the museum’s unique photographs, instruments, and recorded music—and leads visitors through personal explanations of each item.
Since it opened in 2015, this 2.6-mile linear trail has blossomed with development. Spanning the entire length of Treme, Bayou St. John, and Mid-City, and designed with stormwater management in mind, it has over 500 trees, bioswales, and permeable pavement. The trail is lined with open fields, beautiful wildflower meadows, and eight Blue Bikes hubs. It also runs along the path of the former Carondelet Canal, which was a major thoroughfare in New Orleans during the mid-19th century. (Curbed NOLA has additional must-sees along the trail.)
Central Business District/Warehouse District
While New Orleans is a great place to party, it’s also a wonderful city for learning about history. Beyond its jaw-dropping pavilion, the National World War II Museum has several interactive exhibits on the nationwide impact and military technology of the war—along with oral histories, a 4D “Beyond All Boundaries” feature, and an exceptional 1940s-era diner. This museum is a stone’s throw from the Contemporary Art Center and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art—why not make a day of it?
Across the street from Lafayette Square, you’ll find this three-story marble structure and its gigantic columns. This impressive neoclassical building, designed by James Gallier Sr. and erected circa 1853, was home to City Hall from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. On Mardi Gras day, you’ll find the mayor of New Orleans toasting the King of Rex and the King of Zulu from this structure. To celebrate New Orleans’s tricentennial, the city raised $3 million in private funds to renovate the building’s interior.
Lower Garden District
Plans for this three-acre park date back to the early 19th century, when architect Barthélemy Lafon planned this neighborhood, subdividing the site of a former plantation. Lafon was an admirer of Greek mythology, and named many of the streets after familiar icons. It was supposed to have a coliseum (hence the name), but that structure never materialized. Instead, this park, near St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street, is adorned with oaks, shaded walkways, and magnificent fountains. But don’t think this is the only green space you’ll find here: The Lower Garden District holds Annunciation and Boettner parks, both of which are worth strolls (and surrounded by gorgeous homes).
This part of New Orleans is dotted with exquisite mansions: some that have been in families for generations and remain closed to the public, and others that are open for touring. Particularly recommended are Buckner’s Mansion, stately dwellings like the Women’s Opera Guild home, and the Brevard-Mmahat House (which American gothic fiction author Anne Rice once owned). Luckily, the Garden District is small enough that most of the mansions open for touring are within a couple of blocks of each other, between St. Charles Avenue and Camp Street.
It’s possible to spend an entire day in this part of the city. Conveniently located off of the longest-running streetcar line in the United States, on St. Charles Avenue, this 350-acre space has a golf course, an impressive trail, and towering trees. It’s also home to various birds throughout its lagoons and islands. On the river side of the park sits Audubon Zoo, which has outstanding wildlife and a wonderful Louisiana swamp exhibit. If you’re ending the day in the city, you can find a nice sunset at the Riverview Park (affectionately known as the Fly), which spans the Mississippi River.