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New Orleans is Much More than Mardi Gras

Bob Dylan once said, “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.”

When most people think of New Orleans, it’s Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street that often come to mind. But not everyone can get there during this busy time, and that’s ok.

There’s no place in the world like New Orleans. The city has a distinctive culture and flavor all its own. History oozes from every corner, and food is religion here.

Because the Big Easy is filled with so many exciting things to do, it’s an absolutely perfect destination anytime.

Getting around is easy and New Orleans is a very walkable city, but to get the most out of its fascinating neighborhoods, I recommend the three-day unlimited hop on-hop off bus tour. Their guides are knowledgeable narrators with great senses of humor as they regale riders with tales about their incredible city.

Here are some other not-to-be-missed experiences:

Cemetery Tours

Mark Twain once referred to them as “Cities of the Dead” and nowhere is the term more appropriate than in New Orleans.

Cemeteries here are unlike others across the U.S. where the dead are buried “six feet under.” In place of marble and granite headstones set in verdant hillsides, indeterminate thousands of New Orleans’ deceased are buried above ground. (Because most of New Orleans lies below sea level, underground interments are not an option.)

Our favorite haunt, St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 houses in its labyrinth more than 700 elaborate crypts and mausoleums packed closely together separated only by narrow tortuous paths.

Established in the late 1700s, the cemetery, listed on the National Register of Historic Places is the city’s oldest active graveyard and is reportedly the most haunted. Many claim to have seen the ghost of famous Voodoo Queen Priestess Marie Laveau who’s buried in a crypt here.

The cemetery is eerily beautiful, even in the daytime. Due to recent desecration of tombs, the cemetery is now only accessible with a licensed tour guide. These historians share the inside scoop on the graveyard and the mysteries surrounding New Orleans’ restless dead.

Jazz at Preservation Hall

Lots of places feature live music in the Big Easy, but none has the history of Preservation Hall. For more than 50 years, this magical venue has been entertaining the public with the very best of live New Orleans classic jazz.

Established in 1961 to honor one of America’s truest art forms, the hall sits in the heart of the French Quarter and presents nightly concerts known as “jam sessions.”

We found the musical experience to be quite intimate, enjoyable and utterly unforgettable.

French Quarter by Carriage

For hundreds of years, the only way to get around New Orleans was by horse and carriage. Today, mule-drawn surreys still transport passengers through the storied streets of the French Quarter as drivers regale visitors with tales and anecdotes of a bygone era. There was something very romantic about clippity-clopping through history as we took in the city’s charming mansions and Victorian architecture.

There are numerous carriage companies queued up in Jackson Square offering tours of 30 minutes to one hour. Reservations aren’t typically necessary unless visiting during a busy season.

Mardi Gras World

For a behind-the-scenes look at New Orleans’ famous Mardi Gras traditions, we headed to Mardi Gras World, an amazing 300,000 square foot working warehouse on the riverfront. Since 1947, this warehouse has hosted artists and craftsmen designing and building floats for the parades. This is where magic is actually made.

During our guided tour, we met the artists, watched floats being built, tried on fascinating costumes, enjoyed some of New Orleans famous King Cake and learned about the history of Mardi Gras.

Strolling the Garden District

We usually prefer staying near the French Quarter for ease of getting around this magical city. Yet, we’re always spellbound by the laid-back allure of New Orleans’ more residential Garden District.

Getting there is quite simple, either by bus tour or as we did, hopping on the St. Charles streetcar line. Strolling through this charming part of the city felt a world apart from the busier French Quarter. The district is filled with elegant historic 19th century Italianate and Greek Revival homes. Each home nestled among the trees featured perfectly manicured landscapes and seemed to have its own story to tell.

Bourbon Street at Night

Everyone should experience Bourbon Street after dark at least once. Music emanates everywhere from street corners and clubs. And the city lights up like a Christmas tree with all its colorful neon signs.

Yes, visitors to New Orleans tend to let loose on Bourbon Street, but there’s no denying the magical energy, electricity and festivity that fills the air.

Smells of Cajun, Creole and southern cuisine waft from the doors of its eateries. A free-spirited attitude regarding alcohol and fun times reigns supreme. It’s a combination of the vibrant, bizarre and provocative all rolled into one. There’s no other place like it.

National World War II Museum

Why a World War II Museum in New Orleans? The city was the production center for the Higgins Boat, which made the successful invasion of D-Day and island-hopping across the Pacific possible.

So, it’s only natural for the city that enabled our victory to host this incredible historic gallery. The World War II Museum is now affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and is widely considered to be the top, not-to-be-missed attraction of New Orleans.

Like us, every visitor stands in amazement and awe at the thought-provoking displays and artifacts that bring history to life. The museum does this artfully by emphasizing the more personal stories of heroism, tragedy and liberation of World War II.

Beyond all Boundaries—the award-winning 4-D film narrated by Tom Hanks—was a touching documentary that exploded onto the oversized screen in the museum’s 250-seat Solomon Victory Theater. With other high-tech special effects, the moving film stirred patriotic feelings within us. One World War II veteran seated next to us wiped away tears and whispered: “It’s like I was really there again.”

Cocktails at a Revolving Bar

Installed in 1949 at the historic Hotel Monteleone, the classically famous 25-seat Carousel Bar actually rotates around the room and is the only revolving bar in New Orleans.

Famous people like William Faulkner, Truman Capote and many Hollywood actors have been seen imbibing at this bright, whimsical Merry-Go-Round. The bar overlooks famed Royal Street, offering the best people watching in the French Quarter.

One of our favorite signature cocktails here is the Vieux Carre, created in 1938.

Café au Laits and Beignets

Let’s face it: You can’t go to New Orleans and not visit this landmark café.

Since 1862, the iconic Café du Monde has been providing loyal patrons its chicory café au laits and beignets in historic Jackson Square. The beignet (pronounced ben-yay) is a square French doughnut served steaming-hot and covered in loads of powdered sugar.

Part of the experience was having our clothes dusted in white. But, it’s perfectly fine as people knew where we’d been. (Word of caution, you might not want to wear black here.)

Oysters and Po Boys

Hungry clients come here to eat, laugh and have fun in one of New Orleans most famous and iconic dining spots. Yes, it’s always worth the wait at Acme Oyster House, the oldest oyster bar in the French Quarter.

This casual eatery has been serving seafood on checkered-colored tables since 1910. Fresh raw oysters are shucked at the bar as patrons like us knocked back tasty oyster shooters. Garlicky, sizzling charbroiled oysters and seafood po’boys have always been among our favorites.

Each New Orleans visit has given us a new set of stories and experiences. The decadent, tawdry and marvelous Big Easy has a uniqueness all its own. And its magnetic appeal is undeniable.

As they say in New Orleans “Laissez les bons temps rouler.” Let the good times roll.

And they always do.

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