Standing on the corner of Bienville and Decatur Streets in New Orleans, we witness the saintly Krewe of Joan of Arc parade through the French Quarter on the Twelfth Night. Sandwiched between my husband and our three kids along with a massive crowd of festive spectators fringing the streets, I watch, entranced, as the whimsical procession retells the story of Joan of Arc’s life right before our eyes.
A sliver of European history swirls with medieval fantasy as costumed characters harkening back to 1400s France parade through the French Quarter –– a colossal, crimson-winged dragon looms above marching saints, bagpipers file behind Joan’s knights, glowing angels and flaming heretics follow ghastly drummers, and Joan of Arc rides through the night sky on horseback.
As confetti shoots from a cannon, flickering down in the moonlight, and our kids’ arms brim with heaps of trinkets, candles and candies given to them during the more than half-hour procession, I can’t help but fall deeply in love with New Orleans.
It was just a happy coincidence that the timing of our trip overlapped with the kick-off of New Orleans’ carnival season –– Mardi Gras Day falls on Feb. 21 this year, but Twelfth Night marks the official start of Carnival Season. Every January 6 in New Orleans, the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc parades in honor of Joan of Arc’s birthday, celebrating the sword-wielding teenager who saved the French city of Orléans from siege six centuries ago. (Yes, it also marks the first official day of the year to enjoy King Cake).
Mardi Gras draws droves of visitors to New Orleans each year, but it was actually the New Orleans Saints that brought our family to the Crescent City early last month. Our middle son has been a devout New Orleans Saints fan ever since he discovered football. Even though none of us had ever been to New Orleans before, his loyalty to his favorite team has claimed a vivid presence on his bedroom walls, adorned with Saints banners, and in his closet, where Saints jerseys and hats make up a healthy percentage of his wardrobe. This Christmas, Santa snagged five seats to the Saints’ last game of the season, sparking our family’s week-long trip to NOLA.
Unfortunately, the Saints didn’t win, but all five of us returned as big fans of New Orleans. A magical mix of spontaneous celebrations, a deep-rooted culture and history, endless musical entertainment, craveable Creole and Cajun cuisine, and colorful architecture, there’s a lot to love about NOLA. And although the Big Easy has long been known as a playground for the 21-and-up crowd, I couldn’t imagine having as much fun as we did without our kids along for the trip. If you’re contemplating a family vacation to NOLA, here are 10 highlights from our first –– but definitely not last –– trip.
Discovering the Sounds of Music with French QuarTour Kids
We started our first day in New Orleans by booking a “Sounds of New Orleans Music Tour” with French QuarTour Kids –– a women-owned, teacher-led tour company that offers a variety of affordable walking tours specifically geared to kids of all ages. Our kids, who range in age from 8 to 14, were captivated during the nearly 2-hour walking tour and learned so much about New Orleans and its history as the birthplace of jazz. On our 12-block walking tour of the French Quarter, we strolled through Armstrong Park and historic Congo Square, heard a brass band’s impromptu performance on the streets before 10 a.m., and learned the stories behind the pioneers of jazz like Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino. www.frenchquartourkids.com.
Listening to jazz at Preservation Hall
Between our three kids, electric and acoustic guitar, piano, saxophone and trumpet are all instruments played (loudly) in our house, so experiencing live jazz was at the top of our NOLA bucket list. But we quickly realized that most venues offering live jazz are 21-and-up. Preservation Hall –– the historic and intimate venue that puts on authentic New Orleans jazz concerts nearly every night of the year –– is the exception, and in my opinion, the number one thing you should do in this city no matter your age. Don’t expect food or drinks at this no-frills venue (no pictures or videos are allowed inside, either). Instead, you’ll purchase tickets for a seat on a wooden bench or to stand in the back, and you’ll leave with one of the most memorable musical experiences of your life. We listened to traditional New Orleans music from the Preservation Legacy Band featuring Gregg Stafford, one of the most talented American jazz trumpeters of our time. www.preservationhall.com
Riding the streetcar to explore City Park
The most fun (and cheapest) way to get around New Orleans is by streetcar, and four downtown lines will transport you to some of the city’s top attractions for just $1.25 –– or you can buy one-day ($3) or three-day ($9) “Jazzy Passes” for unlimited rides. We hopped on the bright red Canal Streetcar Line, a 5.5-mile route that ends at City Park –– a 1,300-acre playground that’s one of the largest urban parks in the country and is home to the largest grove of mature live oaks in the world. Here, we spent a sunny afternoon soaking in art at the New Orleans Museum of Art, strolling through more than 90 sculptures at the free Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, and playing at the Louisiana Children’s Museum. But City Park offers a full day of entertainment for the whole crew –– walk through botanical gardens, see stories come to life at Storyland, play mini golf and more. neworleanscitypark.org
Visiting the animals at Audubon Zoo
There are hundreds of zoos across the country, but New Orleans’ Audubon Zoo earned a top spot on our family’s list of favorites. Not only did it keep all of our kids (including our teenager) entertained for the better part of the day, but more importantly, the animals appear genuinely content and well-cared for here. Situated in Uptown New Orleans and home to more than 2,000 animals, Audubon Zoo’s crowd-less, shady paths and well-designed exhibits put you up close to an array of species spanning alligators and red foxes to tigers and elephants. We couldn’t tear ourselves away from the adorably entertaining family of Sumatran orangutans –– and found it impossible to contain our laughter watching little Roux, who just celebrated his first birthday on Christmas Eve, comically rebel against his mother and pester his father. audubonnatureinstitute.org
Tasting the flavors of NOLA
In New Orleans, you are always planning your next meal. Breakfast is the easiest decision you’ll make: beignets and café au laits from Café Du Monde. There are multiple locations scattered across the city, and when the line for a table is too long (like it often is at the popular location near Jackson Square), walk around the back to the to-go window and you’ll be sinking your teeth into the sweet, powdered-sugar goodness within 10 minutes. Ruby Slipper is a great foodie spot for brunch –– try the bayou shrimp benedicts sautéed with pork tasso and creole tomato sauce served over poached eggs, fried green tomatoes and buttermilk biscuits. For a quick and casual local lunch, step into Johnny’s Po-Boys (511 St. Louis St.; 504-524-8129), a counter service po’ boy joint since 1950 serving a variety of giant and delicious alligator sausage, fried shrimp, fried oyster, and crawfish po’boys, to name just a few. While it might feel a tad touristy and the ambiance is underwhelming, the charbroiled oysters at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar are requisite. Mother’s is a locally-loved institution, and Napoleon House, which has been in the French Quarter since 1914, serves up delicious (and affordable) dishes of red beans and rice, creole jambalaya and seafood gumbo. Looking for a nice dinner out and don’t mind splurging on the bill? We loved Restaurant R’evolution in the French Quarter, as well as the French-inspired cuisine at Lilette on Magazine Street, where I command you order the potato gnocchi with sage brown butter cream, the Louisiana crab claws and the sauteed halibut.
Splitting our stay
Whenever we’re staying somewhere long enough to move around, I love to experience the same city from different angles. We started our week in the French Quarter, booking two adjoining rooms at The Westin New Orleans, situated on Canal Street and perched above the wide and meandering milky brown Mississippi. Not only did we have plenty of space accompanied by breathtaking river views, but staying at The Westin also came with the added perks of easy access to a walking and jogging path along the river and a fully-equipped fitness studio just above us. We were within walking distance to the best restaurants and attractions in the French Quarter, but when the kids were exhausted after a marathon day of exploring, we could also cozy up with a movie and room service. The Westin New Orleans
We finished our week by experiencing a quieter side of New Orleans just a brief ferry ride across the river. Algiers Point, also known as Old Algiers, is a storybook historic neighborhood where we rented a beautifully renovated shotgun home. We loved staying in this quaint, charming neighborhood where we could start our mornings running on the path along the river, walk to get coffee or meals and experience the slower, less hurried vibe of NOLA. If you do decide to stay in Algiers Point, Tout de Suite Café or Congregation Coffee Roasters has amazing craft coffee and breakfasts; fill up on Mexican flavors at Barracudas, a neighborhood taco stand and margarita garden; or try Tonti’s Hand French Bistro, a brand new neighborhood gem serving mouthwatering French dishes like saffron mussels, croque madame and salad niçoise. (There’s a neighboring playground for the kids while you finish your glass of French wine).
Spying gators and wildlife on a Swamp Tour
As I was surveying a few friends who grew up in New Orleans about what to do during our week in the Big Easy with our kids, venturing out on a swamp tour was a unanimous must. We set out with Cajun Encounters –– the tour company is a member of the Louisiana Nature Conservancy and remains committed to showing guests an intimate look at swamp creatures in their natural habitat without impacting the environment. There’s pickup service from the French Quarter, but expect an hour charter bus ride both to and from the city to get to Honey Island Swamp, which is located in Southeastern Louisiana. We were warned that it’s rare to see alligators in the winter, unlike the hot summertime months when the murky waters teem with the large reptiles. However, we glided through the swamp on a small, flat-bottomed boat on a warm and sunny January afternoon and were lucky enough to see about a dozen alligators, including a few 8- to 10-footers that swam right up to the boat. We also got up-close views of wildlife ranging from egrets and blue heron to water snakes and raccoons. www.cajunencounters.com
Wandering through JAMNOLA
Soak in all of the joy, art and music that New Orleans is famous for at JAMNOLA. This Crescent City-themed colorful fantasy funhouse reminded us of a more scaled down, intimate version of Meow Wolf Denver with its vibrant, immersive exhibits created by more than 30 local artists. But the experiential pop-up offers a more personal experience, thanks to timed-entry tickets that allowed us to wander freely without anyone else around. We explored a series of experiential rooms, where we posed in a boiling pot and played the piano with life-sized crawfish, disco danced past a bejeweled alligator, and snapped selfies with iconic larger-than-life faces of jazz. Jamnola.com
Capturing a Bird’s-Eye “Vue” of NOLA
There’s no view of New Orleans quite like the 360-degree vistas offered at 124 meters (that’s 34 stories) up in the air. Vue Orleans, located on Canal Street above the Four Seasons Hotel, offers an interactive and immersive experience featuring state-of-the-art technology designed to familiarize you with the city’s past. For about $25 per person, you’ll get a crash course on 300-plus years of New Orleans history and culture accompanied with unparalleled aerial views of the Crescent City. Expect everything from life-sized surround video panels designed to give you a personal concert to touch-less viewing stations put you face-to-face with historic figures like Tillie Karnofsky, the Jewish immigrant and early supporter of Louis Armstrong. More at https://vueorleans.com/.
Rooting for NOLA’s home teams
There’s no doubt New Orleans is a sports destination, holding some of the most locally-loved home teams in both the NFL (the Saints) and NBA (the Pelicans) –– plus the Jesters, their semi-pro soccer team. Whether you’re a dedicated lifelong fan like our son or just there to cheer on the home team, in New Orleans, it’s more about enjoying the game than it is about the score. We might have witnessed a loss, but we came back with a better prize: A newfound love for a truly magical city filled with so many gems that we’re already planning our trip back.
If You Go
Several airlines offer nonstop flights from Austin (AUS) to New Orleans (MSY). I found $140 direct roundtrip flights on American Airlines so our family of five was able to travel there and back for less than $750 in early January. If you drive, it’s about 8 hours each way.
For a family-friendly stay in the French Quarter, I can’t recommend The Westin New Orleans enough. For a more secluded, quieter neighborhood experience just a brief ferry ride across the Mississippi from the French Quarter, we loved this beautifully restored shotgun Airbnb home we rented in Algiers Point.
Everything listed above plus the National WWII Museum, which we ran out of time to experience in full, but is a sprawling world-class history museum and considered the number one attraction in New Orleans that retells “the story of the war that changed the world.”
Eat & Drink:
For breakfast, go to Café Du Monde for beignets and café au laits. For brunch, try Ruby Slipper or Brennan’s (home of the original bananas foster). Go to Johnny’s Po-Boys (511 St. Louis St.; (504) 524-8129) for a quick counter-service lunch. Get the charbroiled oysters at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant & Oyster Bar. Mother’s is a locally-loved staple. Napoleon House is a French Quarter institution. For fine dining, try Restaurant R’evolution or Lilette. In Algiers Point, head to Tout de Suite Café or Congregation Coffee Roasters for craft coffee and comforting breakfasts, for lunch or dinner try Barracudas or Tonti’s Hand French Bistro, or grab a beverage before the ferry at Dry Doc Café (133 Delaronde St.; 504-361-8240).