Don't Miss in New Orleans
To see some of New Orleans' prettiest homes, take the St. Charles streetcar into the leafy Garden District, with its many live oak trees and stately mansions. Once home to new-money Yankee entrepreneurs shunned by the French Creoles in the Quarter -- and now a base for celebrities such as Sandra Bullock and John Goodman -- the Garden District is primarily a residential area with gorgeous architecture and fun shopping on Magazine Street, which features small, unique shops selling antiques, secondhand books, art, fashion and luxury items. Walking tours, either with a group or on your own, usually include a stop at Lafayette Cemetery, the setting for numerous movies and Anne Rice's vampire books. The author used to own a home a few blocks away, which plays a role in her novel "The Witching Hour."
Wandering Jackson Square (between Decatur, Chartres, St. Peter and St. Ann streets), with its cast of ragtag tarot card readers, buggy drivers and street artists, is a definitive New Orleans experience. The iconic statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse, with St. Louis Cathedral looming in the background, might be the one photograph no tourist can resist. Surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence and filled with banana trees and flowering shrubs, the small green park was once a training ground for the military. Rechristened to honor Jackson's triumph over the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson Square is bordered by a flagstone pedestrian mall dotted with shops and street artists.
Make time to stroll Royal Street, a shopping mecca that runs parallel to Bourbon Street, just three blocks from the river. Although known for its concentration of antique shops and art galleries, there's a little bit of everything on this thoroughfare, from well-known bars such as the rotating Carousal in the haunted Hotel Monteleone to funky little boutiques and bars. The mix of artwork is just as quirky. The Rodrigue Studio (721 Royal) showcases the iconic Blue Dog in all manner of settings, while Painted Alive (827 Royal) is devoted to artist Craig Tracy's adoration of fine art painted on the human form. There's a culinary antiques store, a shop proffering military hardware and the list goes on. It's great fun, even if you're not a shopper.
Countless walking tours are offered in the Quarter, with themes as varied as ghosts and voodoo, and art and architecture. A few to check include a haunted history stroll (504-861-2727), cemetery tours (504-525-3377) and a scandalous cocktail tour (800-979-3370). A free tour offered by the National Park Service includes a dose of history and visits several areas within the French Quarter.
Spanning the length of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street is known the world over for its strip joints, tacky souvenir shops and concentration of bars and live music venues. Expect mostly tourists along this stretch of town, with the usual collection of drunks and amateur drinkers on weekends and anytime a convention is in town. Thanks to the city's open-container laws (it's legal to walk around with a drink in a plastic cup), the street is packed with tourists drinking potent hurricanes, hand grenades and "Huge Ass Beers" from the Steak Pit at Bourbon and Toulouse. While it's fun to experience the scene at least once -- taking in the party, popping in and out of music venues -- don't define New Orleans by this hopped-up, endless party. As a rule, eat elsewhere.
In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall is a premier venue for straight-ahead jazz and brass dating to 1961. One of the few all-ages music venues in the Quarter, there is jazz nightly from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. If you're lucky, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, cultural emissaries for New Orleans jazz around the country and the world, will be off tour and in the house. (726 St. Peter Street; 800-785-5772)
With a few days to explore, reach beyond the grace and sass of the French Quarter to Faubourg Marigny, an original Creole neighborhood that's now is home to nightclubs, bars and restaurants frequented by more locals than tourists. There, you can hear traditional jazz from patriarch Ellis Marsalis, who plays every Friday at Snug Harbor with his trio (626 Frenchmen Street; 504-949-0696), and see an incredible collection of jazz memorabilia at the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Avenue; 504-568-6968; open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; free). Items on display include Louis Armstrong's cornet, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet with its famous "bent" bell and some 10,000 photographs dating to the 1950s. You'll be just across the street from the French Market, with its clean public restrooms, inexpensive food kiosks and endless souvenir options -- a great stop before you head back to the ship.
Explore the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, located in the historic U.S. Custom House on Canal Street. This is a cool museum all about bugs, butterflies and everything creepy-crawly. See the world from a bug's perspective as you wander through a mysterious Louisiana swamp and a butterfly-filled garden. The museum boasts more than 75 live and interactive exhibits in addition to thousands of mounted specimens. (423 Canal Street; 504-524-2847; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $16.50 adults, $12 children 2-12)
Located in historic Uptown New Orleans, the Audubon Zoo can be accessed by the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line, which stops in front of Audubon Park, Nola's version of Central Park, complete with jogging paths, gardens and sports fields. At the zoo, you'll find an exotic mix of animals from around the globe, engaging educational programs, hands-on animal encounters and lush gardens. Two natural habitat exhibits are worth a look: the award-winning Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle. (6500 Magazine Street; 504-861-2537; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $17.50 adults, $12 children 2-12)
The Audubon Institute's Aquarium of the Americas features an IMAX theater in addition to its marine life. (1 Canal Street; 504-565-3033; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $22.50 adults, $16 children 2-12)
Ticket packages for the zoo and aquarium are available.
The growing museum district around Lee Circle will interest art-lovers. The handsome Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street; 504-539-9650; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday, after-hour concerts Thursday nights; $10 adults, $5 children 5-17) features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street; 504-528-3805; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; $8 adults.) across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture.
Even in a city as full of cultural gems and attractions as New Orleans, the National WW II Museum stands out from the crowd. Originally named the National D-Day Museum and located in New Orleans because the flat-bottomed Higgins boats used in the invasion were made there, this museum is a must-see for every history buff. Besides extensive and interactive exhibits on the Pacific and European theaters, the museum includes a special section on the Normandy invasion and thousands of 3D artifacts, representative of the war years both at home and overseas. From the "steel pot" helmet to the impressive Sherman tank, the museum's artifacts bring the people and places of World War II into sharp focus. On a lighter note, enjoy the retro 1940s vibe in the American Sector, a canteen tribute to 1940s comfort food, and the Soda Shop for hand-crafted sodas and quick bites. Grilled pimento cheese, anyone? (945 Magazine Street; 504-528-1944; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $23-$33 adults, depending on how many exhibits you see, $20-$30 for seniors, WWII veterans free)
Although heavy plant growth has ended canoe trips into Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, the park is still a prime place to spot alligators, egrets, turtles, blue herons, bald eagles, moss and more. Located 20 minutes from downtown in Marrero, the park offers wetland hikes and ranger talks. Mosquito repellant is a must. (6588 Barataria Boulevard; 504-589-3690; open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday)
With another 20-minute drive from downtown, you can visit the gators at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban refuge in the U.S. Walking trails offer great wildlife and bird-watching. Daily one-hour and 45-minute boat tours are offered along the refuge canals, and free staff-led interpretive programs each weekend include canoe tours, bird-watching trips and explorations by bike and trail. (61389 Highway 434; 985-882-2000)