Still mulling over travel plans for spring break? Consider New Orleans (a/k/a NOLA, the Big Easy, the Crescent City or “N’awlins” – but never “New Orleens”). New Orleans has a distinct personality, incomparable to any other American city, and in my opinion should be on everyone’s travel bucket list. Not unlike Las Vegas, New Orleans has a reputation as an adult destination, and, to some degree, that reputation is well earned. In actuality, though, the city has much to offer a family seeking to get away. As a native of south Louisiana, I have spent time in New Orleans with my husband, with other couples, and with girlfriends, but some of the very best trips have included our 4th Grader, and spring is our favorite time to visit.
It’s an easy flight to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY). (If you can make the dates work for you, Spirit Airlines routinely offers non-stop flights from RDU to MSY for well under $100 round trip!) The heart of New Orleans is an Uber/Lyft ride away, or rent a car if you are planning on exploring beyond the city’s watery borders (see the Venture Out! discussion below). We prefer to stay in the French Quarter, but the Central Business, Arts/Warehouse, and Garden Districts are popular options as well.
Once you settle in, take to the streets to enjoy some of the many family-friendly activities New Orleans has to offer and laissez les bons temps rouler! (“Let the good times roll!”) I’ve listed some options below, based on our own experiences and the recommendations of friends who are raising children there.
Eat! Any discussion of New Orleans must start there.
Any discussion of New Orleans must start there. New Orleans is world renowned for its cuisine, and I won’t even begin to make restaurant recommendations here (that would take an entirely separate blog and then some). But don’t miss beignets and coffee and chicory at Café Du Monde near the French Market (the oldest of its kind in the United States). While there may only be one must-visit location for beignets, you can pick up tasty pralines (“prah-leens” – never “pray-leens”), a confection commonly made with sugar, cream and pecans (“puh-kawns” – never “pee-cans”) at several locations around town. The easiest is probably to pick them up from Aunt Sally’s, a few doors down from Café Du Monde. (Bring one back for me!)
Spend an afternoon in and around Jackson Square.
After you’ve had your beignets, head across Decatur to Jackson Square, full of street musicians, artists and other performers. My daughter’s favorite activity in New Orleans has to be dancing along to the soundtrack of Jackson Square. Have a look inside the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, and then head back across the street towards the levee. Find a sunny patch of grass to “pass a good time” enjoying the sounds of the river and the French Quarter in stereo. When you’re ready to explore the rest of the French Quarter, French Quartour Kids offers teacher-led tours, broken down by age group and interests.
Pay Homage to the Greatest Generation.
Especially if you have older children, do not miss the National World War II Museum, a Smithsonian-affiliated facility focusing on the American experience in WWII, including a 4-D short film produced and narrated by Tom Hanks and featuring an all-star cast.
Get on the Water.
Take a ride along the “Mighty Mississippi” on the Steamboat Natchez. For a more budget-friendly option, take the Canal Street Ferry over to Algiers and back. For only a few dollars, you’ll enjoy a great view of the skyline. Go sailing on Lake Pontchartrain. Take a bayou kayak tour.
Get Your Groove On.
You’ll be a bit too early for this year’s Jazz Fest, but don’t miss out on the opportunity to immerse yourself in the music scene in the Birthplace of Jazz. All ages are welcome at the landmark Preservation Hall (shows start as early as 6 PM, and children under 5 are free).
Enjoy the Audubon Treasures.
John James Audubon (1785-1851) was an American ornithologist (bird expert), naturalist, and painter, best known for his work in The Birds of America. He was well-traveled, but developed an affinity for the state of Louisiana and for the city of New Orleans, saying, "The state of Louisiana has always been my favorite portion of the union." (Mine too, John.) A number of New Orleans institutions bear his name. Spend some time in a “Louisiana swamp” at the Audubon Zoo, ranked among the top zoos in the nation. The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas features four major habitats – the Mississippi River, the Gulf of Mexico, the Amazon, and the Caribbean (including a walk-through tunnel highlighting the Great Maya Reef). The Audubon Louisiana Nature Center offers an enclave of nature trails in the middle of the city (and a planetarium!). The Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium is the largest insectarium in the United States and might be especially appealing to lower Grammar School students studying insects (or rising 9th Graders who will take on the insect project next school year). Audubon Park, famous for its live oaks, is located Uptown.
Explore City Park.
The 1300 acre City Park is delightful on its own – offering recreation, Storyland with larger-than-life sculptures based on storybook characters, and a small amusement park featuring an historic carousel. But it is also the new home of the Louisiana Children’s Museum (packed with interactive exhibits for children), the New Orleans Botanical Garden (offering a wide variety of programs for the entire family), and the New Orleans Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden (an oasis of fine art, with works by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse, Monet, and Georgia O'Keeffe, the museum also offers children’s art classes). City Park will host its annual Easter Egg Hunt on the first weekend of Spring Break (and they provide the baskets!).
Take a Ride Uptown.
The St. Charles Avenue streetcar is the oldest continually operating street car in the world. Add your children to the list of those who have been riding this line since 1835. The ride offers views of the Garden District’s unique architecture and glimpses of Tulane University’s picturesque campus.
Learn about Mardi Gras.
The city will have long cleaned up from Mardi Gras by the time Spring Break rolls around, but you can still enjoy a bit of this tradition. The lovely Presbytère Museum on Jackson Square has a permanent exhibit on the history of Mardi Gras, and, in Mardi Gras World’s massive warehouse, you can try on costumes and see how the floats are constructed.
Cheer on Zion!
Any Duke basketball fans in your family? Zion Williamson is in his rookie season with the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Pels just so happen to be on a stretch of home games over Caldwell’s 2020 Spring Break (playing on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights of that week at Smoothie King Center – a/k/a “The Blender” – with tickets as low as $9).
Looking for a little lagniappe (“a little something extra”) to add to your family’s visit to New Orleans? Within a half hour’s drive or so, you can find a guided airboat swamp tour or a National Park Service nature preserve with cypress trees, wildflowers and alligators that you can explore on your own. There are guided tours of the River Road Plantations, stretching between New Orleans and my hometown of Baton Rouge, but you can certainly explore this area on your own with a rental car. One of these, Whitney Planation, exclusively focuses on authentically presenting the lives of enslaved people in the antebellum South (perhaps a good choice for 5th Graders studying the Civil War – read reviews to know what to expect). The beaches and sport fishing of the Mississippi Gulf Coast are only an hour and a half away. Or drive a couple of hours from New Orleans to Louisiana’s Acadiana region, the epicenter of Cajun cuisine and culture, where you can partake of boudin, jambalaya and crawfish (Easter is prime crawfish season), dance the night away at a “fais-do-do” (a dance party named after the Cajun French “go to sleep” command parents would give to their children so that the parents could join in the merriment), or tour the Tabasco factory at Avery Island.
There is so much more for a family to see and do on a trip to the New Orleans area (I haven’t even mentioned shopping, whether at high-end malls or a small bookstore or toy store). I hope that I’ve shared enough to convince you that New Orleans can be a family-friendly vacation option and that you should go (or geaux, as we would say).
If you do, you just might find that, like me, you know quite well “ . . . What It Means to Miss New Orleans”. (Remember when I said “never New Orleens”? The one exception is if you’re Louis Armstrong needing to make a song rhyme. “Never pray-leens” and “never pee-cans” have no exceptions, cher.)