Mention New Orleans to most people and it will conjure visions of drunken escapades and debauchery, not exactly the ideal place for a family vacation. But the reality is, New Orleans is more than a city, it’s a way of life. It is a place steeped in culture and history and offers a unique opportunity to learn more about the history of this part of the United States, as well as the impact and influence that the people of New Orleans have had on the country. Failing to peel back the layers and learn more about this unique place means missing what it means to experience New Orleans. There are countless family-friendly experiences for everyone in your group!
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Where is New Orleans?
New Orleans is located on a unique bend in the Mississippi River, not far before the river finds its way out to the Gulf of Mexico along the Louisiana coastline. This location made the city a key entry point for immigration and trade as both goods and people made their way from the port far upriver. Both elements, trade and immigration, had a direct impact on the identity of this place: the culture, food, architecture, and customs of the city and the surrounding area.
Why New Orleans?
I’ve heard New Orleans referred to as dirty, smelly, loud, and crass. I can’t pretend this city is winning awards for cleanest streets or air, but the reality is that the grit and rawness of the city are what really bring it to life. This is a place to saturate all your senses. At the heart of it are some of the friendliest people you will come across in your travels, who are proud to call New Orleans home and happy to share it with your family.
What does New Orleans have for families to do?
Culture and Education
This is a place where you can let your kid really soak up the sights and sounds. You don’t need to worry about being too loud or dressing your best. If you see a Second Line parade marching down the road – join them! Hear some amazing street musicians or performers? Be sure to enjoy the show (and drop a tip!). Don’t let yourself be bound by schedules in this place; the best way to enjoy this city is to set aside any preconceived notions and go with the flow.
It doesn’t matter what time of the year you visit New Orleans, a trip over to Mardi Gras World allows you and your littles to immerse yourself in the whimsy and artistry that make up the extraordinary parade floats. The tour begins with a family-friendly overview of Mardi Gras history and a taste of traditional King Cake. Learn how these magical floats are created and if you are lucky, you’ll get to see some artists at work and have the opportunity to talk with them in person. Get inspired!
The National World War II Museum is a relatively new museum (opened in 2000) and is packed with technology-enhanced exhibits, hands-on learning, war artifacts, first-person accounts, and both replicas and restored military vehicles of all sizes and types. There is a 4-D movie presentation, narrated by Tom Hanks, that is very much worth taking time to see. From an educational perspective, this is not just a museum for history buffs. There is a focus placed on STEM innovation and engineering, with the opportunity to watch restoration work happening live. For those interested in the arts and journalism, the content around propaganda, war documentation, and the role of journalism in storytelling are exceptional.
One of the most memorable and meaningful experiences during one of my many visits to the museum was an interaction with a lovely World War II veteran who sat with my son and regaled him with war stories, shared some sad ones with us, and was so generous with his time. If you see veterans during your visit, take time to thank them and if they are willing, spend a little time with these national treasures. You will not regret the time spent.
The museum is very large with multiple buildings, so I would encourage visitors to acquaint themselves with the “Know Before You Go” information available on the museum’s website in advance.
3. National Parks
The National Parks Service provides some of the best family-friendly experiences, and New Orleans is no exception. The city of New Orleans boasts 2 unique National Parks: New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park and the French Quarter Visitor Center. Unlike traditional nature-rich National Parks, these 2 are in the heart of the city and focus on the unique aspects of the city’s culture and history.
The Jazz National Historical Park is full of hands-on learning about the history of jazz, and the instruments, and includes an opportunity to complete a Junior Ranger learning badge for the littles.
The Visitor Center, also run by the National Park Service, focuses on the rich culture, history and traditions of the area, as well as some information about the greater area around New Orleans, including the wildlife and ecosystems. I think this Visitor Center is a *must-visit* stop, and if it’s your first visit to New Orleans, drop this one at the front end of your trip. You will quickly get familiarized with terms like “Creole” and “Cajun”, which are imperative to understanding the food, music, and people of the area. The displays at the Visitor Center will give you a deeper and richer understanding that will prove invaluable to the rest of your New Orleans experience.
The Mississippi River played a pivotal role in US trade commerce for over 300 years, and New Orleans is a critical piece of this story. Without continued river trade, New Orleans would likely never have grown and thrived. At the southwest side of historic Jackson Square, you’ll cross Decatur Street and find steps that will take you above the street level, to Washington Artillery Park. This picture-perfect location gives a beautiful view of St Louis Cathedral as you look back toward the Square. Once you face forward though, you will quickly realize the fast pace of the traffic along the Mississippi River (and be sure to practice spelling the river name with your kids!).
The best way to experience the river is on it, and the Steamboat Natchez offers a short sightseeing afternoon cruise that is perfect for kids. Drinks and snacks are available for sale. You can spend your time inside where there are likely to be live music performances, but the real treat is spending your cruise standing out on deck. Be sure to change sides so you can watch the action over the levies as well as on the river itself. You are likely to pass barges and various other ships carrying all types of cargo that could be headed to many parts of the US. Don’t end your ride without peeking below deck at the old-style steam engines and keep your ears open for the antique steam whistle to blow!
What is more exciting and a better way to learn about history than to immerse yourself in it! I was so excited to find this amazing company than specializes specifically in tours that bring history to life for kids. The team have a strong foundation of educational backgrounds and it really shows in their presentation of the information to the kids. Costumes! Duels! Legends and ghosts! There is an assorted line up for various ages. Absolutely excellent way to bring New Orleans history to life for your wee ones.
6. Food Tour – Little Kids Version
“There are two times of day in Louisiana ~ mealtime and in between“.
– Local Saying
New Orleans is one of the best places to really expose your kid (and maybe you also!) to some incredible new tastes and flavors. You can visit an assortment of restaurants and cafes and simply order different dishes to try. At a minimum, try some of the basics like red beans and rice, muffuletta sandwiches, beignets, pralines, gumbo, and crawfish etouffee. Dishes are typically rich in flavor, but not spicy, so embrace these family-friendly options. And while you’ll notice an assortment of hot sauces on the table at most New Orleans eateries (because folks from Louisiana take their hot sauce seriously!), add these at your discretion.
Alternatively, you can join a formal food tour that is very inclusive and family-friendly. Tours are typically organized to order smaller portions for you to try at an assortment of restaurants. You’ll usually walk between locations and the guide will share the history of both the location and the food origins as you travel between spots.
New Orleans streetcars are one of the oldest continuously running in the world. Today there are 5 different lines that are easily accessible and family-friendly. The routes provide a fun way to visit other neighborhoods outside the French Quarter at a minimal expense. At the time of writing, the cost is $1.25 per person, per ride. Be mindful, you need to have exact fare for your group as drivers do not have change.
8. Music at Preservation Hall
No trip to New Orleans is complete without taking in a live music performance, but some may not be comfortable with more bar-style settings. Preservation Hall is like having world-class jazz musicians come and perform in your living room. Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the house band has been performing here since the 1950s. Multiple awards and records later, the music is still guaranteed to get you out of your seat, clapping your hands, and tapping your toes.
Note that there is limited seating; the venue is primarily standing room only due to the small intimate size. Kids are welcome (and encouraged) to come grab a seat on the floor along the front, a great opportunity for them to see the skills of these talented musicians up close. Performances regularly sell out, so I highly recommend booking tickets online in advance of your visit.
How to get to and around New Orleans?
The Quick Details
- Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) was recently revamped and currently has service from major US hubs from most major carriers. The remodel has resulted in a lovely airport with lots of choices for food at different price points, water bottle refill stations, and shopping options for last-minute New Orleans-specific souvenirs.
- If you aren’t renting a car, you can easily grab a taxi immediately outside the airport. If you are looking to use services such as Uber and Lyft, you’ll need to follow the signs for “App Based Ride Services” to the appropriate pick-up area for these drivers.
- Accommodations: There is no shortage of options for accommodations in New Orleans, from luxury and boutique hotels to chain hotel options in all price points, condos, and AirBnbs. Positioning yourself in or around the French Quarter will prove more economical from a transportation perspective and most of the recommendations listed in this post will be accessible by foot from this area or you can easily leverage short taxi rides as needed.
- When to Visit: New Orleans is great to visit at any time of the year, with very mild temperatures from October through March. Temperatures in the summer months (June through August) can be hot and humid, so refillable water bottles are a must. Bring a lightweight raincoat, particularly in March and April, for spring showers that typically pass fairly quickly.
- Transportation: Generally, I don’t believe you need a rental car for your New Orleans experience. Parking in New Orleans can be challenging and hard to find. Parking at hotels can be very costly. The area in and immediately around the French Quarter is very walkable but be prepared with comfortable shoes.
- Safety: New Orleans is a large busy city and much like others, there are challenges with affordable housing, social welfare support, and employment opportunities. This does not, however, take away from the ambiance and the rich heritage that New Orleans has to offer from a tourist perspective. Be mindful of pickpocketing, choose well-lit areas at night, and take care of valuables, as you would in any large urban setting.
- Special Events:
- It’s impossible to think of New Orleans without thinking of Mardi Gras, and most people associate this experience with all-day drinking and flashing for beads. However, it’s important to know that Mardi Gras, for those who reside in New Orleans, is actually a family experience. While I would discourage you from bringing kids to the Mardi Gras celebration in the French Quarter on Fat Tuesday itself, the assortment of parades and celebrations in the various unique neighborhoods of New Orleans are very family-friendly and great fun! One of my favorites is put on by the Krewe of Barkus. Dogs in cute costumes, does it get any better?!
- The Christmas Season is an incredible time to consider visiting New Orleans. There are countless family-friendly traditions and celebrations unique to the area. Bonfires on the levee, holiday home tours, unique menu offerings, and endless light displays across the city.
With all of this to offer, who is ready to book their trip to New Orleans and bring the kids along? Have you brought your kids to New Orleans previously and, if so, what did you love the most? I look forward to hearing about your New Orleans adventure! Happy Roaming!