New Orleans is often thought of as a crazy party town, the exclusive domain of intoxicated adults and, to be frank, the Big Easy does nothing to downplay its seedy reputation. That said, the mystical city on the banks of the Mississippi River has much to offer families, too — from jazz to ghosts, steamboats to American history, and of course, beignets! So much all-ages fun awaits, in fact, that New Orleans should not be overlooked as a family vacation option simply because of its decidedly risqué veneer. Here’s how to spend a magical weekend in the Big Easy with kids.
Where to Stay
Location is everything everywhere, but this is even truer when visiting NOLA as a family. There are several hotels in the French Quarter and many of them are quite lovely, but we don’t suggest a stay there. Long, loud nights and general depravity is okay to pass through, but to be embedded in the middle of it with young children isn’t the move to make. Instead, look to the JW Marriott Hotel New Orleans, just a stone’s throw away, on Canal Street. It’s clean, comfortable, classy and an incredibly short walk into (and away from) the French Quarter fray.
Your first order of business in New Orleans should be grabbing a bite at Mr. B’s Bistro in the Quarter. Order the bacon wrapped shrimp and grits, easily one of the great meals in America. Then prepare to have your heart melted and mind blown by the Preservation Hall All-Stars inside what is arguably the most storied room for live music in the country. Book advance tickets to guarantee you and your kids the best seats right up front in the tiny house. You’ll be an outstretched arms away from the players, and your kids will marvel at the classic, Big Easy jazz being performed. Being inside Preservation Hall is a transcendent musical experience and shouldn’t be missed. After the final trumpet toot, make a right out the door into the neon-illuminated evening onto St. Peters and immediately hang another right on Royal St. This route avoids Bourbon Street and all that Bourbon Street at night entails. Six blocks later, you’ll be back at the JW Marriott to tuck the kiddos into bed with Louis Armstrong tunes still playing in your head.
On day two, awaken with the tastiest of New Orleans treats: fresh warm beignets! Every one of your well-meaning Facebook friends will demand you go to Café du Monde, but you’ll get the opposite advice here. That’s the famous place for a warm beignet, but my family found it dirty and unpleasant, and, frankly, the beignets weren’t nearly as delicious as the nearby French Quarter alternative, the more subdued Café Beignet.
With bellies full of powdered fried dough, head over to the stunning WWII Museum. What began as a stand-alone D-Day exhibit has blossomed into a modern, mesmerizing and thoroughly interactive examination of the entire conflict, with many educational and hi-tech entertainment opportunities for even the youngest of children.
Next, book a late afternoon ‘Spooky’ French Quarter kids walking tour to get a sense of the magic and mayhem once, and possibly still, present in this enchanted city. Don’t worry, there’s nothing too haunted on this tour that’s perfect for grade school aged kids.
On your final morning, make your way by car or shuttle to Slidell, just on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, for Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tour. You and your kids will get safely up close to alligators amidst dramatic cypress trees deep in the swamp. It’s a one-of-a-kind tour in a one-of-a-kind place. If being inches away from the pearly whites of real gators in the wild doesn’t scratch your kids’ animal itch, there’s always the famous Audobon Zoo. And really, no visit to NOLA with kids would be complete without a swing through the place where “they all asked for you.”
Finally, New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward: I didn’t want to be a disaster tourist while visiting New Orleans with my kids, but I felt a need to see and photograph a bit of the Lower 9th Ward, the area devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and I also wanted my daughters to feel the immense lose suffered there — it’s a piece of American history we shouldn’t ignore. If you’re renting a car during your NOLA weekend with kids, take the short drive from the French Quarter, stop at The Joint to enjoy BBQ with locals, and spend a few moments driving the streets that 10 years ago were overrun with river water.
— Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is an at-home dad of two pre-tween daughters. He writes about parenthood, family travel and all things childhood on his site OutWithTheKids.com. He considers himself one of the luckiest guys in the world. Jeff also writes for PBS.