It’s Mardi Gras time! I hope you got a piece of king cake yesterday. We visited the home of the celebration, New Orleans, Louisiana this summer and found lots of historical sites to visit and fun things to do with kids in the Crescent City.
Founded in 1718 by the French, New Orleans became part of the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. It quickly became an important cargo port because of its location along the Mississippi River, with its importance growing in the years leading up to the Civil War. It was the site of the US’s largest slave market, and its antebellum economy was built on the backs of the enslaved and the products they produced (sugar cane, cotton, rice).
During the Civil War, New Orleans fell to the Union early in the war – 1862 – which spared it the devastation seen in other southern cities in the later war years. One of my favorite people to study, Union General Benjamin Butler, was the military governor installed to control the former Confederates. The women of New Orleans decidedly did not like him or the Union troops and made their dislike known by throwing the contents of their chamber pots out the window onto the heads of soldiers and through other means of harassment. Butler then issued orders, saying any woman who did so would be considered a “woman of the night” – a prostitute. That stopped the shenanigans and was much discussed throughout the south. This edict contributed to his nickname – the “Beast” Butler.
After the Civil War, New Orleans’ financial importance decreased as railroads became the major way to ship goods, and it has undergone major challenges from Civil Rights struggles to Hurricane Katrina to poverty in modern times. The population of the city, always a mixture of races, languages, and cultures, has continued to grow in cultural importance as this confluence of styles made for a unique heritage. Even today, New Orleans is known for its distinctive music, cuisine, and style, a place unlike anywhere else in America. As they say in The Big Easy, Laissez les bons temps rouler – let the good times roll.
New Orleans is a captivating city to visit and while some of its most sought-after tourist activities are definitely not family-friendly, it can still make for a fun vacation with kids. I’ll cover some of the highlights below but I’m only scratching the surface of things to do in the city.
The French Quarter
The French Quarter is the biggest tourist part of New Orleans. Containing Bourbon Street and many of the restaurants and historic sites that you picture, this is the main area you’ll want to see. As long as you stick to the main streets and visit during daylight hours, the sites should be fine for kids and families. However always be aware of your surroundings and hold tight to little ones’ hands in these crowded areas.
The most beautiful square in New Orleans is the heart of the city. At the center is a statue of Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans, part of the War of 1812, in January of 1815. While his later achievements are problematic, what he did here showed the world that America was a real country and we could defend ourselves. He cobbled a militia together from farmers, frontiersmen, and privateers (including a local legend, pirate Jean Lafitte) to defeat the British. My favorite part of this statue is the engraving on it: “The Union Must and Shall be Preserved.” Imagine the Union soldiers coming into the city, this vanquished Confederate city, and seeing those words. It had to be powerful.
Be sure to stand atop the levee across from the square to take in a beautiful view of the Mississippi River.
Around the square are some of the most beautiful buildings in the city, from the St. Louis Cathedral (built in the 1850s) to several state museums. The church is usually open and we peeked in at its beauty.
The Cabildo is a beautiful Spanish colonial building where the transfer of Louisiana to the United States took place in 1803. It now is a state history museum full of artifacts and items from Louisiana’s past. The Presbytère on the other side of the church is a state museum dedicated to Mardi Gras and hurricanes. We didn’t get a chance to visit on this trip but they’re both high on my must-see list for our next visit!
Don’t miss an enchanting street just off the square called Pirate’s Alley. While it can’t be proven that pirates actually congregated here (why would they with the Cabildo serving as the prison!), it is still a lovely little street that is very important in literary history. Now a bookstore aptly named Faulkner House Books fills the house where William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay (which of course I had to buy there!).
The square is also where you can hire a horse and carriage for a fun way to see the city. Kids will love this experience! Whether you do a traditional tour or a night time ghost tour, don’t miss it! It’s a great way to see more of the city that would be too hard to walk to, especially for little ones, like the infamous LaLaurie Mansion.
The square is also the home of two must-see restaurants – Café Du Monde for its amazing beignets (be prepared for a wait!) and Muriel’s Creole restaurant. My kids loved the food here and especially loved learning about its ghostly inhabitants! There’s a great kids’ menu for even the pickiest of eaters.
French Market area
Just north of Jackson Square is the French Market with lots of little shops and restaurants in an enclosed arcade. Your kids will love the Little Toy Shop! We enjoyed wandering its shops and stumbling upon statues like this amazing one of Joan of Arc, the maid of Orléans in France. It is a stunning statue and one that will fascinate your kids!
A must visit in this area is Central Market, THE place to get a famous New Orleans muffuletta (currently closed for hurricane damage).
A walk down Royal Street will take you by some of the best art galleries and tourist shops in the city. I recommend using this street for navigation instead of Bourbon Street. There are so many unique shops to see – including a police station in a former church where you can use a vending machine to get a NOLA police souvenir shirt (at the corner of Conti and Royal)! It’s my son’s favorite souvenir from our trip!
This area is a great place to stay, just far enough out of the hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street but close enough to walk to the sites. We stayed at the historic Hotel Monteleone, built in the 19th century, and loved its impressive lobby and carousel bar. Opt for a suite if you can since the classic rooms are a bit small.
There are lots of great restaurants in this area as well, including the famous Brennans, Arnaud’s, Antoine’s, and Galatoire’s. We ate at Galatoire’s and enjoyed the experience (although the turn onto Bourbon Street was eye-opening!). These higher-end restaurants would be more difficult with younger children but older middle school/teens are fine. Go earlier in the night with younger children and note that some require jackets so be sure to check before your trip.
We didn’t spend much time along the riverbank but it does have some great things for children, including the Audubon Aquarium.
There’s also the French Quarter Visitor Center of the Jean Lafitte National Park located along Decatur Street near the riverwalk.
We loved our brunch at the Ruby Slipper Cafe (multiple locations including one near the riverbank). Kids will love the french toast bites and adults will love the bananas foster pain perdu.
The riverbank also leads you to Canal Street which is a main thoroughfare in the city, said to be the widest street in America. Kids will love the fun streetcars going down its middle! It’s where you’ll find a dichotomy of New Orleans, fancy hotels (like the new Ritz-Carlton) alongside pockets of poverty and homeless. In our short stay, we only ventured onto it once and that was enough! I don’t recommend staying near Canal Street with children, choose a hotel deeper into the French Quarter but away from Bourbon Street or stay south of Canal.
South of Canal
We didn’t spend much time south of Canal except to walk to the amazing National WWII Museum, an absolute must-see on any trip to New Orleans. Be sure to read my review before your trip so you can plan your visit! And even if you don’t go in, be sure to check out the statues out front as you walk around the neighborhood.
There are other historic sites to see in this area, including the beautiful Lafayette Square. My kids loved wandering its paths and looking at the various statues, including these impressive ones of Henry Clay and Benjamin Franklin.
This area is home to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and to the New Orleans sports arenas so if you have a NFL or NBA fan, be sure to drive around the superdome area. A cool museum is here on the riverbank, Mardi Gras World. It’s a fun place to take kids to see the behind-the-scenes of Mardi Gras.
You’ll find lots of hotels south of Canal, including usual family-friendly ones like the Intercontinental.
We ate at the museum but there are some great restaurants in this area, like Cochon.
I’m so glad we got out of the main part of the city and took a guided tour of the Garden District. It gave me a completely different view of New Orleans – one that I absolutely loved!
The Garden District is a residential area known for its historic mansions and celebrity residents. It is hard to know what you’re seeing without a guide so I recommend hiring one, especially with kids. We used La Vie Orleans Tours and it was fantastic! Our guide knew so much about the history and culture of the area and knew where all of the best celebrity houses were as well. Our kids loved seeing a Pelicans basketball star’s house and the house where Peyton and Eli Manning grew up. Not to mention Drew Brees’ house!
He showed us homes that have appeared in movies and homes that are full of history, such as the house where Federal officers lived during the Civil War. Colonel Short’s Villa has some of the most amazing ironwork on its fence that I’ve seen – cornstalks and morning glories.
We walked around the Garden District for an hour and then hopped in a car to see Tulane University and the famous Metairie Cemetery. It was a memorable experience!
Other sites to see include the Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 where scenes from Interview with a Vampire were filmed. It’s quite eerie and atmospheric!
The Garden District has tons of quaint shops and restaurants. We stumbled upon the La Boulangerie on Magazine Street and had a great lunch. The most famous restaurant here is Commander’s Palace which may be too fancy for dinner with little kids but is open for lunch.
For shopping, don’t miss the excellent Garden District Bookshop on Prytania Street with its vast selection of local books and knowledgeable staff. Magazine Street is known for its 6 miles of shopping.
If you don’t have a car, the Garden District is just a trolley ride away from the French Quarter. Kids will think it’s so fun to ride on these open-air trolleys!
Outside the city
There are lots of great historical sites outside of the city center.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve: This national park is truly like no other in the country. You can explore wetlands and see the site of the Battle of New Orleans all as part of this park.
We opted to take a private tour to the park’s bayou south of the city for a swamp tour (by we, I mean my husband and kids!). They absolutely loved taking an airboat out into the swamp to see live alligators in the wild. They even got to hold a baby alligator! It made a huge impression on them and was their favorite thing they did in the city! The guide picked them up at our hotel and brought them back so no car is needed. Note that it is a half-day tour so plan accordingly.
Chalmette Battlefield where the Battle of New Orleans took place in 1815 is also a part of the park but we didn’t get to visit as it was closed during our stay. It’s on my list to visit on my next trip! It has a visitor center where you can learn more about the battle and reconstructed ramparts. It’s only 7 miles from the French Quarter and accessible only by car.
Plantations along the Mississippi River:
Much like Virginia’s Route 5, Louisiana has several former plantations open to the public, and I’m happy to say that most now cover both the owners and the enslaved who once toiled there. Be sure to check the status of the plantation before your visit – some remain closed due to hurricane damage.
I chose to visit Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, about one hour west of New Orleans.
This house has been on my bucket list to visit for decades as its majestic columns and expansive porches are easily recognizable. The house tour is guided and appropriate for older elementary kids and up. It lasts about an hour and covers the lives of both the owners who grew wealthy from the sugar and rice crops and the enslaved who worked under the unrelenting sun to produce these crops. The tour was one of the best I’ve taken in the way it covers both. The guide did a great job at talking about how each person on the plantation contributed to its economy and how they interacted.
The plantation also has an extensive slavery exhibit and formal gardens.
Its long walk from the Mississippi River is one that’s been seen in countless photos and movies.
You can even stay on property at the cottages!
I really wanted to visit Whitney Plantation, just a few miles from Oak Alley, but it was closed on the day I was there. It is a unique plantation in that it focuses exclusively on the enslaved story, and I’ve heard it’s quite moving. Next trip!
Also nearby is the Laura Plantation, a Creole plantation. All three of these plantations are within a short drive from each other and about an hour from New Orleans. Closer to the city is the Destrehan Plantation.
Other fun activities with kids
My kids also loved the thrill of driving over the massive Lake Pontchartrain while singing one of our favorite songs about it (George Strait’s Adalida!). We just went over the section on I-10 but if you take the causeway bridge, it’s the longest continuous bridge over water in the world!
New Orleans is a playground for adults and children alike. It’s a city like none other in the country, and its unique history and culture make it a fun and interesting place to visit. Your kids will have a good time just walking on so much history! Add your favorite New Orleans sites or books in the comments below!
- New Orleans is a large city and has experienced an increase in crime over the last two years. Stay in well-lit areas and don’t venture out at night with kids, especially near Bourbon Street.
- Stay in the French Quarter to easily walk to most sites but plan walking routes that don’t take you down Bourbon Street.
- Parking is not cheap or readily available so use your car sparingly. We only used it one day when we went to the Garden District and drove to the plantations.
- Check with the high-end restaurants as to the dress code and/or appropriateness of young children.
- Much of the fun is walking around the French Quarter but note the sidewalks are not even and could be difficult with strollers. The streets are similar to what you see in big cities, grimy, dirty, etc. so be sure to hold on tight to little ones’ hands.
- Three days is plenty to see the major sites and get a flavor of the city.
- Be sure to consult the tourism bureau’s website to help plan your trip!
Books to Read:
There are so many books set in New Orleans, it’s hard to pick favorites! Here are my top recommendations. Note pictures are Amazon affiliate links.