Planning a trip to New Orleans? Great choice! Today I’m sharing everything you need to know before visiting New Orleans for the first time.
Nicknamed the “Big Easy”, New Orleans is known for its round-the-clock nightlife, buzzing live-music scene, and spicy Cajun and Creole cuisine. Or as the locals say, “laissez les bon temps rouler” – let the good times roll!
This is definitely one of the most unique and fascinating cities in the United States. If you’re visiting New Orleans for the first time, today I’m sharing tips and tricks to help you have an amazing trip.
With nearly 11 million visitors in 2017, it’s easy to see why this is such a popular travel destination.
This was my first trip to New Orleans and I got the chance to experience the city during Mardi Gras celebrations. My sister and I had a blast while we were in town and found it safe to visit.
Let’s be honest though, whenever you’re visiting a new city, the last thing you want to do is fall for a tourist scam.
If you want to enjoy an authentic trip to New Orleans, getting tricked by a silly tourist trap can leave a bad taste in your mouth. Am I right?
Today I’m sharing the do’s and don’ts in New Orleans so you can plan your trip like a pro.
Use these New Orleans travel tips to help you avoid making these common travel mistakes and maximize your time in the Big Easy!
What do I need to know about traveling to New Orleans?
Best time to go: February through May is the best time to visit New Orleans when the weather is mild and the celebrations are happening.
If you’re not interested in Mardi Gras, December and January are also good times to visit.
If you’re visiting in the spring, check out the New Orlean’s Jazz & Heritage Festival, which happens during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.
Best area to stay: The French Quarter is the best area to stay for first-timers. If you want to avoid the crowds, consider staying in the Garden District or Central Business District.
Best way to get around: Walk around the French Quarter or ride the streetcar. There’s no need to rent a car while you’re in New Orleans. You can also take a taxi, especially if it’s late at night to stay safe.
If you want a unique experience, ride the historic Steamboat Natchez down the Mississippi river.
Top 5 things to do in NOLA: New Orleans Swamp Tour, The National WWII Museum, take a guided Cemetery Tour by locals, explore the French Quarter, and check out St. Louis Cathedral.
What’s New Orleans known for? New Orleans is famous for its unique music, Creole cuisine, its annual Mardi Gras celebrations, the French Quarter, and it’s nightlife on Bourbon Street.
Best things to do in New Orleans for first-timers
If you’re visiting New Orleans for the first-time, here’s the top 10 things you must do. Some of these attractions are free with the New Orleans Pass.
- Explore the French Quarter – FREE
- Listen to live music on Frenchmen Street – FREE
- Ride the streetcar to the Garden District – Small fee for the streetcar
- New Orleans Swamp Tour
- The National WWII Museum
- Go on a guided Cemetery Tour
- Paddlewheeler Creole Queen Cruise
- Take a tour of The Cabilo
- See Mardi Gras World
- Check out St. Louis Cathedral – Small donation fee
Where to stay in New Orleans?
When visiting New Orleans for the first time, the best neighborhoods to book your hotel accommodations are:
If you’re traveling on a budget, these are the best affordable hotels in New Orleans:
If you want to splurge on a luxury place, consider these luxury hotels in New Orleans:
- Hotel Mazarin (located in the French Quarter)
- The Roosevelt Hotel New Orleans (a 15-minute walk to Jackson Square)
- The Eliza Jane, in The Unbound Collection by Hyatt (located on the popular Magazine Street)
1. Take advantage the GO City New Orleans Pass
Visiting New Orleans for the first time can be stressful. New Orleans is a big city and there’s lots of fun things to do and see.
It can be challenging to plan New Orleans itinerary and determine which attractions to spend your money on.
The best way to save money on New Orleans attractions:
Getting the most bang for your buck is my #1 priority when planning a vacation and the GO City New Orleans Pass was rated the #1 New Orleans tourism pass by TripAdvisor.
They’re also recommended by Expedia and the GO City New Orleans Pass currently has a TrustScore of 4.4/5 on Trust Pilot.
Many people have already used the GO City New Orleans Pass for their NOLA trip and posted happy reviews.
With the GO City New Orleans Pass, you can save time, money, and enjoy stress-free sightseeing. But don’t just take my word for it. Check out these Get Your Guide reviews.
Buy the pass online to save extra money off the retail price. To buy the New Orleans Pass, click here to go to the official website.
Hurry! Buy your New Orleans Pass now before prices increase in March. Passes are valid for 2 years from the date of purchase.
Here’s what’s included in the GO City New Orleans Pass:
✓ Pick from over 25 New Orleans attractions
✓ Valid for up to 5 days
✓ Save up to 56% on ticket prices
✓ Mobile pass option
The GO City New Orleans All-inclusive pass is a pre-paid sightseeing card which gives you FREE entry to the city’s top tourist attractions, including:
- New Orleans Bus Tour ($53.50 value)
- Ultimate Swamp Adventures ($26.50 value)
- Paddlewheeler Creole Queen to explore the Mississippi River ($36 value)
Plus, you can use the New Orleans Pass to get free entry to over 25 other attractions, museums, and tours in the city.
How to get your GO City New Orleans All-inclusive Pass:
Step 1: Choose which pass duration you want to buy (1, 2, 3 or 5-day). You can click here to purchase your New Orleans Pass from their official website.
Hurry! Buy your New Orleans Pass now before prices increase in March. Passes are valid for 2 years from the date of purchase.
Step 2: Download your mobile pass instantly using the GO City mobile app. If you prefer a physical pass, simply print your pass at home from your confirmation email.
Step 3: You now have FREE access to any of the 25+ top New Orleans attractions included for the duration of your pass. You can activate your pass anytime within 12 months from the date of purchase.
2. Don’t spend all your time on Bourbon Street
If you’re visiting New Orleans for the first time, then yes – you must check out Bouron Street. Everyone needs to experience this spot at least once in their life.
But many tourists make the mistake of thinking THIS is the place to hang out when visiting New Orleans. I recommend going during the daytime and then leaving. The night crowd can get a little wild.
I know many visitors want to know what to do on their first night in New Orleans. My suggestion is to head down Royal and make your way over to Frenchmen Street. This is where you’ll find the best entertainment in New Orleans.
If you do happen to venture down Bourbon Street after dark, remember to keep your wits about you.
This means keeping your wallet safe (not in your back pocket) and avoiding common tourist scams.
For example, someone on the street might come up to you and say this:
- “I bet I can tell you where you got your shoes”.
- “I bet you $10 if you tell me your first name, I can spell your last name”.
If someone says this to you, politely respond with “No thanks” and just keep walking.
Things to do in the French Quarter of New Orleans:
Mardi Gras World Behind-the-Scenes Tour – Check out the big floats and decorative costumes.
Day Jazz Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez
Traveling can be expensive. One way I like to save money is to get FREE gift cards from Swagbucks. You can get free gift cards to Starbucks, which can be used to cover coffee or breakfast while traveling. If you’re not already a memeber, you can join Swagbucks for free here.
3. Don’t forget to bring your walking shoes
New Orleans is one of the most walkable cities in the USA. There is really no reason to rent a car during your visit, as you can easily access the city’s neighborhoods on foot or by bicycle.
The Hop-On Hop-Off Sightseeing Tour can also be a fun way to experience New Orleans. If you only have 1 day to spend in the city, then this is a great option to see everything on your itinerary.
If you want to take a break, grab a seat at one of the local cafes or people watch in Jackson’s Square.
There’s a good chance that you’ll hear live music playing in the French Quarter, so this is a fun way to unwind between your sightseeing adventures.
Another great way to get around New Orleans is to hop on the streetcar and ride to the Garden District.
For just less than $2, you can enjoy a scenic ride on the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world. Riding this streetcar is a must if you’re visiting New Orleans for the first time.
If you’re interested, consider taking one of these popular walking tours in the city. This can be a budget-friendly way to sightsee.
Best walking tours in New Orleans:
French Quarter Ghosts, Vampires, and Voodoo walking tour
- 2-hour Haunted Cemetery and City Tour at night
- French Quarter walking tour
- Garden District walking tour
4. Don’t carry glass bottles outside of bars
Yes, you can drink in public areas, such as the French Quarter.
However, if you’re drinking in the streets, you must consume alcoholic beverages from a plastic cup. Don’t carry a beer bottle on the streets.
Many NOLA bars offer plastic to-go cups so you can stroll and sip at your leisure. Some restaurants even have walk up windows for quick and easy refills.
If you want an alcoholic beverage after 2:00am or before 12:00pm – you can get one.
Alcoholic beverages are available around the clock in New Orleans. So whether you want a boozy iced coffee or a margarita to go with your eggs in the morning, it’s up to you!
If you’re looking to party in New Orleans, consider going on a Haunted Pub Crawl. This can be a fun way to explore the haunted areas of New Orleans with a drink in hand.
Best food & drink tours in New Orleans:
- *MOST POPULAR* – New Orleans evening jazz cruise on the Steamboat Natchez
- New Orleans French Quarter food tour
- New Orleans combo cocktail and food history tour
- New Orleans drunk history walking tour
5. Don’t forget to check out one of the most-visited tomb sites in the USA
I know it sounds a little strange, but one of the top things to do in New Orleans is visit the city’s cemeteries. While there are a few you can explore, the most popular cemetery to visit for first timers is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is one of the oldest, most famous, and most haunted cemeteries in New Orleans. Plus, it’s just blocks away from the French Quarter, making it easy to access.
In order to protect this historic cemetery, you’ll be required to visit with a licensed tour guide.
My sister and I went on a haunted cemetery and city tour and LOVED our experience. We found it was a great way to learn about the history of New Orleans and the cemetery.
If you’re considering the New Orleans Pass, this tourism card includes a free cemetery tour with French Quarter Phantoms. This can be a handy tourism pass to have if you’re visiting New Orleans for the first time.
Interesting facts about St. Louis Cemetery No. 1:
Opened in 1789 and it’s the oldest and most visited cemetery in New Orleans
The dead are buried above ground to protect coffins from getting flooded and this allowed vaults to be reused
Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Her grave was once the second-most-visited in the USA (Elvis’s was number one).
You can visit Nicolas Cage’s pyramid tomb. While he is alive and healthy today, he commissioned a tomb to be constructed in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1.
Other popular ghost and cemetery tours in New Orleans:
- Ghosts, Vampires, and Voodoo French Quarter Tour
- Night Cemetery and Ghost BYOB Bus Tour
- French Quarter Ghosts and Legend Walking Tour
6. Don’t spend your whole trip in the French Quarter
Don’t feel bad for falling in love with the French Quarter. I spent a lot of time exploring this neighborhood and so does many people who are visiting New Orleans for the first time.
But there’s SO much more to New Orleans that it would be shame if you spent the whole trip in the French Quarter. That’s like going to New York City and hanging out only in Time Squares. Sounds kind of silly right?
Check out these other neighborhoods in New Orleans: Faubourg Marigny, Garden District (my favorite area in the city), Bywater, and Central Business District (Warehouse District).
Want to explore beyond New Orleans? Here are some popular daytrips:
Go on a swamp tour to explore the Bayou
Paddlewheeler Creole Queen cruise
Oak Alley Plantation – Visit for FREE with your New Orleans Pass.
7. Avoid eating at tourist trap restaurants…except for this one
New Orleans is known for its delicious Cajun food and Creole cuisine, but not all restaurants serve quality eats.
To avoid wasting your time and money at a tourist-trap restaurant, I recommend avoiding Bourbon Street or any place that says “The best in New Orleans”.
Take a minute to do a little planning before your trip. Check reviews on Google or TripAdvisor to see if there’s a good restaurant nearby.
PRO TIP: If you’re looking for a fun way to enjoy authentic New Orleans cuisine, consider a food tour. This food tour of the French Quarter gets top reviews. You’ll get to visit world-renowned restaurants in New Orleans and indulge in classic Louisiana food tastings from some of its famous eateries. Learn more here.
The only touristy place that I DO recommend checking out is Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter.
After trying several different spots for beignets in the city, Cafe Du Monde was the absolute best! Don’t forget to try their hot chocolate too – it pairs well with their famous beignets.
Best food to eat in New Orleans:
Beignets – The best beignets can be found at Cafe Du Monde and Café Beignet. The French-style donuts are covered in powdered sugar.
Jambalaya – This is a spicy creole and cajun stew made with chicken, andouille sausage, shrimp, rice, and vegetables. This is one of the locals favorite dishes.
Gumbo – This stew is the official state cuisine of Louisana. It’s made with a meat or seafood stock along with the “holy trinity” of vegetables (celery, bell peppers, and onions). Rice is served on the side.
Crawfish – Also known as crawdads, you are most likely to see these served as a Crawfish boil where they are cooked in a large pot with potatoes, cobs of corn, and cajun spices.
Po’boy sandwich – These sandwiches are served on French bread with shrimp. But you can also get it with ham, turkey, crawfish, or fried oysters.
Étouffée – This is rice pilaf that’s covered with a Blond Roux sauce and served with either shrimp or crawfish.
Red beans and rice – This is usually served on Mondays because it’s made using the ham bone leftover from Sunday dinner.
More fun things to do at night in New Orleans:
- Evening Jazz Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez
- New Orleans: 2-Hour Haunted Cemetery and City Tour at Night
- Dead of the Night Ghosts and Haunts Bus Tour
8. If you go during Mardi Gras, don’t pick up beads from the ground
I went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras celebrations which was a lot of fun. I personally think this is the best time to visit New Orleans. The weather is mild and the city if full of energy.
What to know before visiting New Orleans during Mardi Gras:
Don’t pick up beads that have fallen on the street or ground – Not only can it be dangerous to pick up beads from the ground, but it’s also unsanitary. New Orleans streets can be quite dirty during Mardi Gras festivities. Instead, be a pro and catch beads in the air.
Bring the whole family – Despite what many people think when seeing Mardi Gras represented in the media, it’s actually a popular family event. I saw lots of kids enjoying the parade and they even have some spots that are exclusively “Family Zones”.
No nudity allowed – Mardi Gras is a family event and nudity is not tolerated along the parade routes.
No glass bottles or cans allowed – If you want to drink alcohol, make sure to pour your drink into a plastic to-go cup.
And if you’re visiting New Orleans for Mardi Gras, you must try the King Cake!
Before arriving in New Orlean’s, I had no idea what King Cake was, but we saw it everywhere. So of course we went to several different bakeries to try it. I even ate a King Cake flavored donut!
Mardi Gras isn’t the only popular party in New Orleans. Other popular festivals include the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, French Quarter Festival, and Satchmo Summerfest
9. Frenchmen Street is WAY better than Bourbon Street
Listening to live music is one of the top things to do in New Orleans. After doing some due diligence, I discovered that if you want to experience some authentic New Orleans jazz and brass, then head straight to Frenchmen Street.
New Orleans is a city that runs on music, so even if you’re not a huge fan of jazz music, it’s worth experiencing it at least once. Some of the places I recommend checking out on Frenchmen Street include The Maison, The Spotted Cat Music Club, and Blue Nile.
10. Don’t skip exploring the swamps
New Orleans is a beautiful city, but to get the full experience, I highly recommend doing a swamp tour.
When New Orleans was founded in 1718, it was completely surrounded by swamps and marshes. Today you can get up close to see alligators and other wildlife that inhabit the swamp.
Many companies offer transportation to and from hotels, making it a fun and easy day-trip from New Orleans. If you are considering the New Orleans Pass, keep in mind that this tourism card includes two swamp tour experiences at no additional costs.
Best swamp tours in New Orleans:
- New Orleans: Manchac Bayou Swamp Cruise with Optional Pickup
- New Orleans Oak Alley & Airboat Swamp Combo
- From New Orleans: Full-Day Louisiana Plantation and Swamp Boat Bayou Trip
11. Avoid sightseeing on a Monday in New Orleans
If you’re planning to check out NOLA’s most popular attractions on Monday, such as the aquarium, think again.
Many of these attractions are closed on Monday. This is a mistake many people make when they’re visiting New Orleans for the first time.
Some restaurants are even closed on Mondays in New Orleans. If you’re visiting the city on a Monday, I highly recommend checking to see what’s open and closed so you can plan your itinerary accordingly.
Fun activities to do in New Orleans on Monday:
- Day Jazz Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez
- High Speed 6-9 Passenger Airboat Tour
- New Orleans City Highlights Tour with Transfer
12. Save money by checking out New Orlean’s free attractions
If you’re traveling on a budget, there’s still plenty of ways to have fun in New Orleans without breaking the bank. Below are some of the city’s most popular free things to do:
- Lower Ninth Ward Living Museum
- New Orleans Jazz Museum
- Sazerac House
- Louisiana Children’s Museum (free entry on the second Sunday of every month)
- Jackson Square – a great place to people watch
- Historic New Orleans Collection
- Visit Milton H. Latter Memorial Library
- Check out the French Market
- Take a tour of Saint Louis Cathedral
13. Don’t walk alone in New Orleans after midnight
Like with any major city, it’s important to use common sense and take proper precautions when traveling.
This includes keeping your wallet in your front pocket to prevent theft and not walking alone in the French Quarter after midnight.
If you do decide to stay out late and explore on foot, make sure to have at least one other person with you.
My sister and I traveled to New Orleans in our twenties and felt very safe. We stuck to the main tourist neighborhoods, visited the cemetry with a guided tour group, and educated ourselves about common scams in New Orleans.
How to get from New Orleans Airport to the French Quarter
Louis Armstrong International Airport is the main airport in New Orleans. Below are some options on how to get from the airport to downtown.
Taxi – Taking a taxi or Uber/Lyft is the easiest way to get from the airport to the city. This is usually more affordable than a private transfer.
Taxi rides cost $36 for 1-2 passengers from the airport to the Central Business District or the French Quarter. For 3 or more passengers, the fare will be $15 per person.
Airport shuttle – You can ride the Airport Shuttle New Orleans to and from downtown and uptown hotels, the French Quarter, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, and Cruise Ship Terminals.
Public Bus – The cheapest way to get to and from the New Orleans airport is to ride the pubic bus. The 202 Airport Express bus stops include Elk Place at Cleveland, or the Union Passenger Terminal/Bus Bay 2. Bus fare for this route is $1.25.
Ready to plan your New Orleans vacation? See what hotel deals are available in the area thanks to Booking.com
New Orleans for First-Timers FAQs
What should first-timers do in New Orleans?
First-timers in New Orleans will want to explore the French Quarter. Head down Bourbon Street to check out local pubs, take a cemetery tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and try beignets at Cafe Du Monde.
Ride the streetcar along St. Charles Avenue to explore the Garden District. Listen to the best live music on Frenchman Street and shop in the French Market. If you have time, check out a swamp tour or plantation tour.
What do I need to know before going to New Orleans?
For first-timers, decide if you want to experience Mardi Gars in New Orleans. I recommend going early to see the parades and celebration. Make sure to bring comfortable shoes as New Orleans is a very walkable city.
Even if you don’t like jazz, it’s worth listening to live music at least once in New Orleans. Embrace trying the local food. There are lots of great options available, even for vegans.
What should I avoid in New Orleans?
First-timers in New Orleans should avoid spending all their time in the French Quarter or Bourbon Street. There are many beautiful New Orleans neighborhoods to check out, such as the Garden District. You’ll also want to avoid renting a car since New Orleans is a very walkable city.
Other things to avoid include paying full-price for attractions when you can use the GO City New Orleans Pass, carrying alcohol in a glass bottle on the street, and eating at tourist trap restaurant.
How many days do you need in New Orleans?
I recommend spending spending at least 3 full days in New Orleans. While you could easily spend more than 3 days, this is enough time to see the top attractions and main highlights of New Orleans. If you don’t want to feel rushed, I recommend spending at least 4 or 5 full days exploring the area.
What is the best time of year to go to New Orleans?
The best time to visit New Orleans is between February and May. This is when the weather is mild and Mardi Gras celebrations are happening. If you’re not interested in Mardi Gras, the next best time to visit New Orleans is in December or January.
When should you not go to New Orleans?
The worst time to visit New Orleans is during the months of July and August. This is because the weather is hot, humid and rainy, which can make it difficult to enjoy all the wonderful outdoor activities that New Orleans has to offer.
What is there to do in New Orleans in 3 days?
3 days is just right for first-timers to see the main attractions and sights in New Orleans. I recommend checking out Jackson Square, eating at Café Du Monde, shopping at the French Market, exploring the French Quarter, walking down Bourdon Street, listening to live music on Frenchman Street, riding the St. Charles streetcar to the Garden District, going on a ghost tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, and checking out Magazine Street. If you have time, consider going on a Plantion, Swap tour, or visiting the Audubon Zoo.
Is New Orleans safe to visit?
Yes, it’s safe to walk downtown in New Orleans. Like any major US city, travelers should use common sense and practice general safety tips. This means keeping a close eye on your belongings to avoid getting pickpocketed, staying in the city’s safest areas, and avoid walking by yourself after dark.