How to Spend The Weekend in New Orleans
One of my most popular posts was “5 Marvelous Trip Ideas from the East Coast” and recently I took my own advice and booked a flight to one of the listed cities: New Orleans!
You can accomplish a lot in 3 days! And we do not even drink – contrary to myth, New Orleans is SO MUCH MORE than Bourbon Street!
So what did we accomplish in 3 days?
Having café and beignets… more than once
Popping into random restaurants to eat jambalaya, gumbo, seafood, and rice and beans; there was always live music no matter where we went!
Walking around the French Quarter and learning about the Creole history
Taste testing hot sauces at Hot Sauce Stores – including “the world’s hottest hot sauce” (we had to sign a waiver!)
Happening upon a wedding at night exiting the St Louis Cathedral and joining in the crowds dancing behind the marching band
Window shopping on Royal Street, in the French Quarter, lined with artists’ shops and galleries
Catching a street show of hip hop dancers performing on Bourbon Street at dusk
Driving out to the old plantations that line the River Road
Spending hours at the World War II Museum
Gawking at the Mardi Gras floats and artists at work at Mardi Gras World, a working warehouse where props and floats are designed for movies, companies (Chick-Fil-A!), and of course Mardi Gras
Peeking inside the Voodoo Museum
Taking one of the famous streetcars – the USA’s oldest operating streetcars – up the main thoroughfares and enjoying the ride
Sampling “mufaletta”, the city’s Italian deli sandwich smothered in olive relish
Getting caught in a rainstorm at City Park – the equivalent of NYC’s Central Park, where you can rent kayaks or bikes and follow the meandering lakes lined with trees dripping with Spanish moss
And all this in just 3 days! I promise we had plenty of time to sit and people-watch and to enjoy our coffee and non-alcholic beer (Mr TravelObservation does not imbibe).
Read on for my 3 Day Guide to New Orleans , tried and tested by me!
DAY 1: Arrival in the evening
I took advantage of Allegient Air’s direct, non-stop flights from Pittsburgh to New Orleans – flights leave three times a week, so I flew down on Friday evening and came back Monday evening. The flight time is less than 2.5 hours, so it’s a very easy trip. Of course, Allegient’s super budget policy (paying extra to print out a boarding pass, not having advance seat selection unless you pay, etc) may take some people by surprise, but do the math ahead of time and just know that you’ll be shelling out more money than the initial advertised fares. BUT it still worked out to be 50% cheaper than flying any other competitor airline, AND Allegient is the only airline that flies there direct.
Our flight arrived in New Orleans shortly after 6pm and we picked up a rental car to drive to our first hotel. Renting a car and parking is not really recommended for a New Orleans trip, as you’ll pay very high prices for city parking. But, our first hotel was located in Gretna, right across the bridge from the French Quarter, with free parking, and we knew we wanted to visit the plantations the next day, so our plan was to rent the car for 24 hours only and then move into the French Quarter for the rest of the weekend.
For our first evening we stayed at Marriott Courtyard Gretna – I had a free night certificate to use up. The Courtyard was easy to find, clean, with no issues and free parking
We checked into the hotel, left the car there, and called an Uber to take us across the bridge to the French Quarter to look for food. (Parking in the French Quarter would have been $30 and up!) We had a wonderful Uber drive that took us on a longer route to show us some key points of the French Quarter and who dropped us off at the “end” of the Quarter so we could walk
down the length while looking for dinner.
We ate dinner at The Original French Market Restaurant and Bar and had delicious jambalaya and a seafood platter. We walked around for a bit afterwards, enjoying popping into some of the open stores (including a memorable taste test at a hot sauce store!), walking along the banks of the Mississippi, and wrapping up the evening with café au lait and beignets – fried pastries – at the iconic Café Du Monde (it’s open 24 hours!). Just go right in and sit down – someone will be around to take your order eventually.
DAY 2: THE PLANTATIONS
The next morning we checked out of the Courtyard and drove down the River Road – the road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge is packed with plantations that are still open to the public. There are many tour companies that will take you here, but since we had the car for the day it was much more affordable to just drive ourselves and be spontaneous with our schedule. I picked the most well known plantations, Oak Alley and Lara, to visit. We probably could have squeezed in a third(we ended up finishing around 2pm) but it’s hot in Louisiana in July, and walking around does take a toll on your energy.
I really enjoyed our day exploring the plantations and think it’s a shame that this activity is often tacked on to travelers’ itineraries as something to do only “if you have extra time.” While it’s true that there is a ton of things to see in New Orleans proper, the history and culture of the plantations should not be underestimated. I learned more about the significance of Creole culture by visiting Lara Plantation than I did at any other local New Orleans site.
We received significant discounts for entry at all attractions in New Orleans, including the plantations, by using Mr TravelObservation’s military ID – in fact, I would say New Orleans is one of the best cities to visit with a military ID outside of Washington DC. There were also always discounts for student IDs and AAA as well, so something to keep in mind if you’re hoping to score a bargain.
Oak Alley is named because someone planted twenty four oak trees leading up to the house and 100 years later these seedlings have grown to be stunning guardians of the entrance to the plantation. Oak Alley is a popular plantation because it looks most like what people envision plantations – much more like Tara, from Gone With the Wind, than working farmhouses , which is what many plantations actually were. Entry includes a guided tour of the house by hoopskirted volunteers, and the grounds are well preserved and contain exhibits and replicas of slave quarters and other buildings. There is also a restaurant and bar on site if you would like to partake in refreshments.
Lara, A Creole Plantation (its official name), is just a few minutes’ drive down the road, which is why it’s so often packaged together on the tours. Lara is where history really springs to life. One of the last owners of the plantation left her memoirs and there are also extensive records in France of the plantation business, so the tour guides have an impressively extensive amount of research to draw upon. The tour guides are incredibly adept at bringing the history of the house alive, and make you become invested in the characters they talk about. They weave a story about the plantation’s history, the matriarchs, the grandparents, the descendants, the slaves, naming each out loud and reminding you from room to room of sleeping arrangements, gossip, political arguments, family feuds, and dynasty arguments. An excellent explanation of Creole culture and the French influence also helped cement a greater understanding of why New Orleans is truly a city slightly apart. I found New Orleans to almost be a tale of Quebec gone wrong – French language was outlawed in the 1920s and almost no young people speak French today, but our guide told us his grandfather still only speaks French at home and remembers what growing up in a predominatly French Creole Catholic culture was like. Our guide was learning French in order to communicate better with his grandfather and to be able to record more historical memories.
We left the plantations in the afternoon and drove to the airport to drop off the car, then took a taxi into the French Quarter to move into our new home, the InterContinental New Orleans.
As a Platinum Ambassador I was treated graciously to a balcony room upgrade and free breakfast. The hotel is located just outside of the French Quarter (it’s just a few blocks away from Canal Street, the official border of the French Quarter) and was within walking distance of most attractions, including the World War II Museum. Staff were superb and professional, and I would have no problems recommending this hotel to anyone for their stay.
Since we had skipped lunch in favor of returning the car early, we set off on foot to find a late lunch/early dinner. We accidentally found ourselves on Bourbon Street, and had a delightful meal at Bourbon House – I had an outstanding salad topped with grilled peaches and blue cheese.
Later that evening we returned to the French Quarter to people-watch in the evening – although we were tired from the hot sun during the plantation exploring, we were rewarding by stumbling upon a gorgeous wedding exiting the Cathedral surrounded by a trumpet band and dancing guests. Bystanders even joined in to follow the group down the street.
DAY 3 (SUNDAY)
The next morning after a buffet breakfast at the InterContinental we walked to the National World War II Museum. (It’s actually opposite a little building called the Civil Mar Museum, so if you want to combine these two on the same day that would be a good idea. We did not visit the Civil War Museum due to time constraints but by all accounts it’s quite an interesting place for history aficionados.)
Millions of dollars have been poured into the War War II Museum and it shows – the museum stretches across four buildings! For instance, after buying your ticket, you’re shepherded onto a realistic looking train platform simulating sending the troops off to war. A short intro video introduces you to the war and the museum, and instructs you how to register your dogtags – throughout the museum, you’ll have the opportunity to touch your dogtag to various exhibits and hear/read the story of the real-life soldier that’s been assigned to you.
Real tanks, airplanes, and other equipments are scattered around the bottom floor. The Museum has several sections as well as several temporary exhibits – for instance they have permanent exhibits on the Road to Tokyo and the Road to Berlin. The exhibits are outstanding – for instance, in the section about conquering Berlin, the entire exhibit simulates a bombed city – piles of rubble are everywhere, shadows of broken buildings flicker against the ceiling, and airplane sirens sound overhead .
The Museum website is extensive so I won’t repeat a list of their exhibits, but suffice to say that we spent 5 hours here and still could have seen more. I recommend purchasing the complete ticket which gives you access to a film narrated by Tom Hanks and a submarine simulation – both are excellently done, although you should be warned that there is simulated gunfire and explosions in both these activities, for those with trauma triggers or sensitive children.
The museum has several dining options, so if you need an energy recharge, just have a meal and you’ll feel better in no time!
The National World War II Museum was one of the highlights of my visit to New Orleans, and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit it again on a future visit.
After our museum visit ended, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World. We did walk there from the Museum (20 minutes), but it’s in the opposite direction of the French Quarter, so you do end up quite far away from central New Orleans. They have a free shuttle because of this distance (it’s right next to the New Orleans cruise port), but we chose to take an Uber home at the end of the trip which was more convenient. But if you do wish to visit Mardi Gras World from your hotel, call and ask about their free shuttle or take public transportation – it’s just too hot to really walk for more than 15 minutes or so in the city in July, unless you’re especially brave.
Mardi Gras World was stunning and a great spontaneous find. It’s one of the 13 warehouses across the city where artists work all year building floats and props for the Mardi Gras parade. The company also makes props for organizations and films – we even saw Chik-Fil-A cows being made!
Entrance includes a short guided tour, and after the tour you’re allowed to wander around the warehouse as long as you like. There is also a short video (followed by slices of King Cake!) and everyone gets the chance to try on a Mardi Gras costume for photo opportunities! It’s slightly cheesy but all in great fun. I really enjoyed our visit because we learned so much more about the origins of Mardi Gras and the pride the city takes in this cultural tradition. It made me want to return to experience Mardi Gras myself, when I’ve always sworn that that would be the worse time to visit for a non-crowd-loving person like myself.
Since it was Sunday, the warehouse wasn’t very busy, but during normal weekdays you can see all the artists working on the floats. It was incredible to see the process – from an artist’s sketch to conception. Huge foam blocks are sculpted into the desired shape, then covered in papier mache and painted. We were also about to see how props can be reused every year if they are repainted and refinished – a prop previously used as Michael Jordan’s head, for instance, was being resculpted into President Lincoln’s head. The entire experience was very colorful and very interesting, and I’m glad we added it to our day.
In the evening, although we had sworn to avoid Bourbon Street, a friend convinced us to at least take a stroll down Bourbon Street “just to see.” We went at dusk, so that at least it wasn’t nighttime and fullfledged craziness, and walked down the length of Bourbon Street. To get to our starting point first, though, we walked down Royal Street – and what a delight it was! Old French buildings with balconies and stunning art galleries, artisan stores, high-end shopping boutiques, and photographers’ studios. I recommend strolling down Royal Street whenever you want to feel truly immersed in a sophisticated, proud city’s life – it had a wonderful easy going ambience and each store front was just lovely for window shopping and for exploring the different art purchases. Once we got to the end of Royal Street, we crossed over to parallel Bourbon Street to walk down Bourbon to exit the French Quarter. We didn’t regret walking down Bourbon Street as we were treated to a live breakdancing show set up in the middle of the street and joined the crowd in applauding some incredible flips and turns.
Dinner was at The Jazz Café, which we had scoped out the night before. Almost everywhere in New Orleans appears to have live music, so it wasn’t hard to just stumble upon an inviting dining establishment with a vocalist and/or guitarist strumming away. We had some more traditional fare – I had rice and beans – and listened to a wonderful jazz vocalist.
DAY 4 – MONDAY
As our flight didn’t leave till the evening it was great to know we still had a good point of time to keep exploring the city. We took the streetcar to the end of the line to City Park, New Orlean’s 1,400 acre equivalent to NYC’s Central Park. This was a wonderfully relaxing excursion, away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The City Park is also where New Orleans Art Museum (NOMA) is located, if you’re so inclined. There’s a free sculpture garden affiliated with the museum that we walked through, and it was so beautiful to see the winding little lakes and waterways that visitors were kayaking through as way to see the park (bikes and kayaks are available for rent). The park has many old trees covered in Spanish Moss, trailing their branches in the water, and there’s a sense of peace and calm. The park also has an utterly delicious café, so we sat and had beigets and café au lait one more time (I would say these beignets were even better than Café Du Monde’s, as I liked that they did not come smothered in powdered sugar). We also tried mini muffaletta, another New Orleans original – sandwiches with Italian meat fillings smothered with olive relish.
We were going to visit one of the famous graveyards next, as it was close to City Park, but after some discussion found that neither of us really wanted to see them aside from being told “it’s necessary to do it on the trip” by others. We decided to leave the graveyards to another time, and took the streetcard back into the French Quarter, where we visited the Voodoo Museum.
The Voodoo Museum is quite small – only about two rooms in what may be someone’s living quarters, but it’s stuffed to the gills with various objects and paintings and signs. It was almost a bit too stuffed, as I would have preferred a person telling me information rather than trying to read the hundreds of tiny signs scattered around, but it was still an interesting stop. Having lived in West Africa I was mainly interested in finding out what beliefs had crossed over from Africa to New Orleans; while Mr TravelObservations was fascinated by the very real influence on the city’s history. On the plane ride home, I did read a book about New Orlean’s voodoo, and I found this helpful to put into context many of the characters’ names the Museum signs referenced.
We also had wanted to visit the Presbytere, where a small exhibit about Hurricane Katrina exists, but it was closed on Mondays. Note to self, check museum times if there is something you absolutely want to see!
We ate our final lunch at Pere Antoine, where I had my first Pimms Cup drink (it was delicious!) and ate jumbalaya one last time. Then it was back to the hotel to collect our luggage and take a taxi to the airport. After such an exciting weekend, it was nice to have a short, direct flight from New Orleans straight to Pittsburgh!
We managed to see quite a lot on our three day trip to New Orleans – and there’s still so much we didn’t do, such as a bayou tour, the Presbytere museum, multiple jazz performances, the Audubon zoo, a graveyard tour, and more. New Orleans far exceeded our expectations, and we certainly had a wonderful long weekend there. The people-watching, the joie de vivre, the delicious food, stunning old architecture, historical plantations, and complete differentness from any other city we’ve visited in the USA makes New Orleans a great destination if you’d like a weekend getaway!