New Orleans might not be the first place that comes to mind for a family vacation, but if you’re looking for something different, add it to your list.
Last April, we visited during Easter break with my sister and cousin’s families (kids ages 10, 12, 15, 17) for a change of pace from a Florida routine.
New Orleans has a vibe all its own. While it might have a reputation as a party town, it’s also a city with a deep history, a diverse melding of cultures, glorious food and unbelievable music all wrapped in a package that wasn’t a sanitized stay at a resort. In other words, the kids experienced life in all its quirky and gritty glory and came home with memories that will last a lifetime.
With a rule of “warm and cheap,” we were able to book a reasonable flight and hotel, staying at the Marriott Renaissance New Orleans Arts Warehouse District on 700 Tchoupitoulas St. The rooftop pool was perfect for the kids — and adults indulged in the daily free happy hour punch. Scrumptious chocolate beignets and strong coffee at the on-site café ensured ideal accommodations.
Mardi Gras World
The New Orleans Mardi Gras Museum
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl.
Who doesn’t love a good party? Mardi Gras history is told through a brief film at Mardi Gras World. (1837 is the first documented Mardi Gras.) While everyone knows Fat Tuesday is the big Mardi Gras parade, you’ll learn there are actually a variety of parades and balls — hosted by “krewes” — leading up to the big day.
The film is followed by a guided tour of the giant warehouse (one of 12) that stores floats for the parades. Sometimes visitors can even see artists working on floats.
While at the museum, you can dress up in Mardi Gras costumes, eat king cake (a delicious pastry that hides a lucky baby charm), shop for masks and beads and learn about the three colors of Mardi Gras: Purple (justice), gold (power) and green (faith). We loved this amazing place.
More Mardi Gras:
The spooky side
Kids love to be scared, right? Well, New Orleans is the place for them.
Marie LaVeau’s House of Voodoo (739 Bourbon St.) is in the historic French Quarter. Visit during the day before all the partiers show up. Marie LaVeau’s is creepy and features lots of weird things for the kids to check out, like tribal masks, creepy statues from around the world and charms.
Of course, a city as old as New Orleans features plenty of ghost tours, including Haunted History Tours (featured on the Travel Channel, among others). We didn’t have time to do a ghost tour, but this company would be our choice.
However, we did visit a New Orleans cemetery: the famous Lafayette #1, which is also known for being the most filmed cemetery in New Orleans. There are guided cemetery tours you can pay to take, but we used our phones for a self-guided one. The kids followed directions and discovered the famous residents, artwork, stories and more on their own. From how the bodies are buried to who is buried, the tales are fascinating.
Lo and behold, there was the tomb of Judge John Howard Ferguson (of Plessy vs. Ferguson fame, the 1896 Supreme Court separate but equal case). The nephew declared, “Hey, we learned about him in school.” Yep.
Make the trip to this cemetery an adventure by taking the famous New Orleans trolley into the Garden District along St. Charles Avenue. Find info on New Orleans cemeteries at saveourcemeteries.org and walking tours at freetoursbyfoot.com.
Food and music, all in one place
One of the oldest thriving open air markets in the United States is the French Market (700-1010 Decatur St.).
The market features some touristy stuff like T-shirts, but also interesting artwork, crafts and outstanding food stands. We chowed down on warm “shoe soles,” a delicious pastry coated in chopped pralines that looks just like its namesake.
While shopping, we were drawn back to the street to see high school kids rocking New Orleans jazz and blues while raising money for their school. We couldn’t throw our money in the teacher’s cardboard box fast enough.
Nearby is the Market Café. The historic restaurant serves Creole and Cajun cuisines. We were lucky to be in season for boiled crawfish, so the nephew and I dug in! Messy but good.
Also near the French Market is the famous Café Du Monde (800 Decatur St.). Lines begin early here for the famous beignets, but they did move pretty quickly. Evidence of their popularity: Powdered sugar from their to-go bags covers the ground in nearby Woldenberg Park.
More to savor
From dives to high-end eateries, you can’t go wrong in a city with such a rich food tradition. We loved that kids were treated like adults wherever we went, and that the kids dove right in with adventurous choices. Some of our favorites:
Cochon Restaurant (930 Tchoupitoulas) was recommended. We loved the funky menu, drinks and flaming pig logo.
The Palm Court Jazz Café (1204 Decatur St.) features an old-school menu and entertainment from a live big band of musicians in their 70s and 80s. Eccentric owner Nina Buck walks among tables and dances with guests.
At the dumpy and famous Port of Call (838 Esplanade Ave.) we wolfed down outstanding burgers with signature baked potatoes (no fries here!).
And at the equally low-key Mother’s (401 Poydras St.) the nephew was mesmerized by the spectacular baked ham, a specialty of the joint.
The kids’ favorite place was Willa Jean (611 O’Keefe Ave.) owned by famous NOLA chef John Besh and run by pastry chef Kelly Fields. The food was outstanding (yes, fried chicken sandwich on a homemade roll, we mean you), but the desserts were unreal. The kids loved the warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies — served with milk and a beater with cookie dough.
On Easter Sunday, we dined at Vessel NOLA (3835 Iberville St.), a converted church that serves creative Creole cuisine.
Another rich tradition: New Orleans Snowballs. Enjoy them at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz (4801 Tchoupitoulas St.) or Plum Street Snowballs (1300 Burdette St.), around since 1945.
Sounds of New Orleans
New Orleans is a relaxed city, and taking kids into bars to hear music is perfectly acceptable until about 10 or 11 p.m. But plenty of music starts much earlier.
On the famous Frenchman Street we checked out The Maison (508 Frenchman St.) after dinner one night. The place also serves food, and we saw several families with kids eating and listening to the live music. BB Kings Blues Club (1104 Decatur St.) runs music all day starting at 10, 11 a.m., or noon. All ages are also welcome at the famous Preservation Hall (726 St. Peters St.).
Take a swamp tour
Several companies operate swamp tours (via motorized boat or kayak). The nephew and I toured with Canoe & Trail Adventures, led by Louisiana naturalists. We kayaked through the wetlands and learned about the fascinating eco-systems of a bayou. The highlight was the unexpected sighting of One-Eyed Joe, the resident alligator. Cost was $65 per adult ($35 child), and includes water, snack, waterproof cases and drop off/pickup ($15 more). We added a Po-boy lunch option.
Easter Sunday bonus
New Orleans throws a fantastic celebration for Easter. We headed to Jackson Square, site of the historic Saint Louis Cathedral. As is a tradition, folks hide Easter eggs for kids to find throughout the park.
There are three parades throughout the day. The historic French Quarter parade leaves Antoine’s Restaurant at 9:45 a.m. and ends at the cathedral at 11 a.m. It’s followed by entertainer Chris Owens French Quarter Parade at 1 p.m. Later in the afternoon is the Gay Easter Parade. All are family-friendly fun and feature outrageous Easter bonnets, and lots of trinkets for the kids. In front of the cathedral, street performers mesmerize folks waiting to get in for mass, and later in the afternoon, community groups serve Easter meals to the less fortunate.
Spicy day trip
If you have the time, rent a car and head to Avery Island (about a 2.5 hour ride), home of Tabasco, to learn the story of the McIlhenny family’s famous invention.
You can tour the facilities and museum, where you’ll learn that the recipe only consists of three ingredients: salt, hot peppers and vinegar. You’ll see salt oak covered barrels in the warehouse fermenting the mash used to make the sauce. Visit the Jungle Garden and take a Bird City Tour. The shop sells everything Tabasco. Also available are culinary tours, a private tour and cooking classes with lunch.
More to do…
We ran out of time, but there are lots more things to do. Here are a few: