Epic New Orleans Itinerary – Travel Guide to NOLA
A brass band plays on Frenchman street as onlookers gather. A man flings himself out of the club, opens his black satchel and pulls out a trumpet, taking his place in the front and center of the band. The red neon sign of Willie's Chicken illuminates the street giving it and the people a rosy glow. People sway and dance, cheer and laugh. And it's 9:30pm on a Monday. This could only be New Orleans.
New Orleans is my favorite city in the US. It's got character, charm, history, and it knows how to party and eat. After going to New Orleans countless times, I've devised an epic New Orleans itinerary that will ensure you have the best time.
Looking for a guide to Mardi Gras? I've got you covered here!
I grew up going to New Orleans, nearly every year, making the drive down from Dallas. Despite my parents being born in Shreveport, Louisiana, they felt a deep connection to NOLA. And that's what the city does. It draws you in, making you want to get a better look.
“You can live in any city in America, but New Orleans is the only city that lives in you.” – Phil M. Guidry
With the sound of music playing in the bars and streets, the smell of beignets wafting through the air, and Mardi Gras beads still hanging off light polls near pastel colored houses, New Orleans is unlike any other city. It's a city straddled on history and an interesting past, culminating in a melting pot of cultures. From French settlers that founded the Quarter to Hurricane Katrina that nearly washed the city away, New Orleans has history, charm, art, music, and food. There's more to the Crescent City than meets the eye, and it's necessary to take a tour or two to get your bearings.
But despite going to New Orleans countless times, and attending my fair share of Mardi Gras and Jazz Fests, I still had never been on a proper tour. This time, though, we decided to unearth the history of the city, and what I found made me fall in love even more.
Whether this is your first time to New Orleans or you've been before, this 3 day New Orleans itinerary will ensure you see, do, and eat everything that makes this city stand out. What I love about New Orleans is that no matter what kind of itinerary you're after – party, food, romantic, budget, family, or… even haunted, you can find what you love in this guide. So let the good times roll and let's get to it!
I made a map of everywhere I'll discuss below:
- New Orleans 3 Day Itinerary
- New Orleans Itinerary Day 1: French Quarter & A Food Tour
- New Orleans Itinerary Day 2: Learn the History of New Orleans
- New Orleans Itinerary Day 3: Marigny & Bywater + Garden District
- Have some extra time?
- Best Time to Travel to New Orleans
- Is it safe to travel to New Orleans?
- Where to Stay in New Orleans
- What to Eat in New Orleans
New Orleans 3 Day Itinerary
Is three days enough to really see New Orleans? Yes! Because the sites and historic areas are relatively condensed, it's easy to get around and see the top things to do in New Orleans. Of course, you can always stay longer, and, if you have the time, I'll give you some ideas below on what to do.
New Orleans Itinerary Day 1: French Quarter & A Food Tour
Kick your day off by strolling the beautiful French Quarter. You can pop in to Cafe Du Monde or Cafe Beignet for hot and fresh beignets with a cup of coffee. After your sugar rush, peruse the French market, the Shops of the Colonnade. Here you’ll find hand crafted trinkets, jewelry, and other unique sundries.
You'll see local artists selling their paintings on the black fence outside of St Louis Cathedral. Passing through the grounds you’ll see a statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback, hence, Jackson Square, coming up to the tall spire of the cathedral. St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest Catholic cathedral in the USA, dating back to 1727.
Walk over to Royal Street for beautiful antique shops, gorgeous architecture, and art galleries. This area feels very European as the musicians perform on the street and tourists spill in and out of hotels and shops.
To really get a good grasp of New Orleans, you need to taste it. We opted for Dr. Gumbo’s Food and Cocktail tour. I can tell you, I highly recommend this tour. I’ve been on many tours and this one was fantastic. Culinary history, divine food, and you get to walk around the city.
We started at the lovely Red Fish Grill, a Brennan’s restaurant, and I was immediately struck with the oyster themed bar. All the art is handmade and done by a local artist. We started with a classic hurricane, a traditional New Orleans drink. It started because in the old world there wasn’t access to a lot of liquor with the exception of Rum. Pat O’Brien’s (a New Orleans staple) developed all different rum cocktails and started calling one a hurricane because of the vessel is was served: the glass looks like a hurricane lamp.
As we drank, we munched on Boudain balls, pickled onion, fried oyster, and gumbo. Yes, this was just the first stop! The oysters in New Orleans came from a wave of Croatians that immigrated here.
Our next stop was Pepper Palace where you can sample all the spices you like. Spain introduced peppers and spices to the region and the Cajuns used it to cover up the gamey taste of their food. There’s a pepper so spicy here that to try it you have to sign a contract!
To cool things off we went to Napoleon House for a frozen Pimm’s Cup daiquiri. One of my favorite things about New Orleans are the delicious daiquiris. If we’re getting specific, my favorite is a White Russian. New Orleans just does them right! I’d never tried the Pimm’s Cup in daiquiri form before, but it was a delicious and refreshing alternative to the usually syrup-y and sometimes overly sweet drinks.
We ventured over to Leah’s Praline shop, with a 4th generation family owner. Pralines were brought over from France by the Ursuline nuns, who came to New Orleans in 1727. They are named after César, duc de Choiseul, comte du Plessis-Praslin. He had his cook concoct the sugary dessert to help him woo his various love interests. In New Orleans, it’s made with almonds and became one of the earliest street foods in America when emancipated black women sold them.
It was then time for a drink. Tableau is a swanky restaurant in an elegant 3-story townhouse. We sipped on French 75s, a cocktail made with gin, Champagne, lemon juice, and sugar, and ate a charteruire board full of cheese, olives, meat, and crackers.
End the night on Frenchman Street with some jazz and late night chicken at Willie Mae's. You can pop into almost any bar (pictured below is the Spotted Cat) but even the streets are filled with music! Remember, you can legally drink on the streets in New Orleans. I take full advantage of this and like to stroll the streets with a White Russian daiquiri in hand.
New Orleans Itinerary Day 2: Learn the History of New Orleans
Begin the day by catching a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar, the world's oldest continuously operating streetcar! Head to Uptown and head in to any of the magnificent hotels that line the streets. I love learning the history through these beautiful hotels.
Mardi Gras Museum
I am a huge fan of Mardi Gras: the parades, the music, the tradition, I just love it all. Even though I’ve been to New Orleans many times, especially during Mardi Gras season, I wanted to learn more about the history of carnival. Mardi Gras World is a fabulous museum! Every year before Lent, New Orleans takes on a month long celebration complete with parades, bands, and incredible floats. Emanating from the floats are masked men and women who throw millions of beads, cups, and other items (called throws).
The Kern family has been in business for a long time building most of the floats. Made out of styrofoam and fiberglass, artists start to design next year’s floats the day after Mardi Gras ends.
Mardi Gras is a multi-million dollar industry, but it’s not sponsored. The Krewes, these are like clubs and the people who get to ride on the floats, pay dues every year to participate. They also purchase all their throws. Each parade has a minimum of 14 floats (each pulled by a trailer) and 9 marching bands with a maximum of 32 floats. However, Endymion snuck around that rule by putting multiple floats on one trailer.
Some of the parades are traditional, while others are more flamboyant. Muses is a woman’s parade that throws shoes they've decorated. Orpheus was started by Harry Connick Jr, a New Orleans native, and is known for the flowers.
Full guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans right here!
Visit a Cemetery
Many of the cemeteries throughout New Orleans are a treasure trove of the historical past and the above ground tombs make for an interesting sight. I recommend going to Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 which inspired author Anne Rice for the Vampire Chronicles.
I also recommend visiting St. Louis Cemetery No. 3 which was established in 1854 and contains beautiful and elaborate mausoleums and gravestones. Many interesting figures are buried here, including numerous Civil War officers and veterans, and photographer E. J. Bellocq. The architect James Gallier, Jr., erected a cenotaph in memory of his father, who was lost at sea in the Atlantic with his wife.
If you’d like more hair-raising history of New Orleans, I recommend taking a Ghost Tour on Frenchmen Street or Bourbon Street. There are dozens of different stories and you can even walk around the city with a drink in hand as you listen to the harrowing stories.
I recommend taking a bike tour to get your bearings and get a history of your surroundings. We opted for the Freewheelin' ‘Creole & Crescent' tour which took us to the St Louis Cemetery No. 3, City Park, Treme Neighborhood, Congo Square, Esplanade Avenue, and Bayou St. John.
We biked down Esplanade and marveled at the million dollar homes with sweeping porches.
City Park is one of my favorite areas in New Orleans with gorgeous Live Oaks and swaying Spanish moss. You'll find gardens, bridges, and waterways in this large park.
If you have extra time, head to the National WWII Museum which is one of the best in the USA.
End the day with a delicious meal at Arnaud's. Details below about all the best restaurants in New Orleans! Then walk around Bourbon Street with a Hurricane in your hand.
New Orleans Itinerary Day 3: Marigny & Bywater + Garden District
Let's take a look into the heart of New Orleans and explore some of the historic neighborhoods. Marigny and Bywater are funky residential neighborhoods with a strong local feel. The homes here are strewn with bright colors and you can enjoy views of the Mississippi.
Here you'll find a vibrant art scene with interesting galleries, good food, and great music. It's known for the colorful Creole cottages and the Marigny Opera House. The opera house was once a 1853 church and is now a nonprofit performing arts center.
Head to Crescent Park and walk along the promenade and take in the views of he Mississippi, then head to Frenchman Street for some mid-day jazz.
For lunch stop for praline bacon at Elizabeth's in Bywater. After lunch, take a stroll on Magazine Street with some of the best shops for thrifting, antiques, clothing, and more.
We took a guided tour through the lush and wondrous Garden District and learned about its history, the most famous residents' homes, and saw the places that inspired some of the most iconic stories (make sure to be on the lookout for the Benjamin Button House!).
The homes here are some of the most impressive with huge trees, large wrap-around porches, and ornate columns with Greek revival architecture. This is a good way to not only learn the history of New Orleans, but Louisiana as a whole.
End the day at the beautiful Commander's Palace for great cocktails and food.
Have some extra time?
Here are a few other options you can add on to your time in New Orleans. The Whitney Plantation is a beautiful property that focuses on slavery and the impact it has still today. Yes, the mansion is beautiful, but the tour does a good job balancing the horrible aspects of plantation life.
Check out some of New Orleans signature art. Dr Bob is an original New Orleans folk artist, whom is famous for his trademarked art work and you'll recognize some of his art at many restaurants and homes.
I also love visiting Audubon Park for a small oasis of trees and jogging paths.
But truthfully, if you have extra time, take time to eat! There is just so much good food here.
Best Time to Travel to New Orleans
New Orleans is in the South and it can be a bit muggy and hot in the Summer months. If you want to avoid the crowds then Mardi Gras (February) might not be the best time for you to go. Winter is lovely since all the hotels decorate their gorgeous interiors with lights.
Spring and Winter are my favorite times to visit New Orleans. In Winter the hotels deck out for Christmas and it's fun to just pop from hotel to hotel to take a look at the elaborate decorations.
Is it safe to travel to New Orleans?
New Orleans is a major city, so the big city issues are there. But all in all, New Orleans is safe. Whenever you travel you should be aware of your valuables and take precautions at night. Just like you would act in any other city.
Bourbon Street can be particularly raucous at night with partygoers and late night clubs, especially since drinking is allowed on the streets.
Where to Stay in New Orleans
New Orleans has some of the best historic hotels in the world. And some of the most beautiful, too. I recommend staying in and around the French Quarter. That way you can walk out your door and grab a coffee and beignet or pop on to a Streetcar. The Quarter is literally bursting with life and color. I love walking the streets and peeking in to the antique and chandelier shops.
The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery
Now a boutique hotel, this beautifully redone building was once a warehouse for coffee in 1854 and then provided essentials for the booming shipping industry. It has a beautiful and comfortable interior and a critically acclaimed restaurant, Compere Lapin. I loved the rich mix of hardwood floors, greenery, and leather touches. I also like the prices here as it's not too expensive but still lovely.
This hotel is the best of both worlds: comfortable, perfect access to the city, and retaining its old history and charm.
Some of the hotels have such an interesting story, even if you don't stay there, go inside to see the gorgeous interiors and hear a story. Once, during Christmas we walked around the Roosevelt and were fascinated by a particularly striking wooden carved clock. We learned that this is a 19th century timepiece known as the “Paris Exhibition Click” carved in 1867. Nicolas Cage bought the clock but left it in one of the antique shops, intending to pick it up later. After seeing it, the Roosevelt hotel asked to buy it and now it remains in the lobby of the hotel. See, you can't help but unearth history everywhere you turn!
One of the most gorgeous hotels, inside and out. Located on Royal and Iberville street, you're in the heart of the action and can easily go to one of my favorite restaurants across the street, Mr. B's Bistro. Of course, you have to stop inside to get a drink at the Carousel bar in the lobby. It's a revolving bar where you can enjoy a hurricane (a classic New Orleans cocktail) as you move around the room.
What to Eat in New Orleans
To me there are two places where your food options are so good, you almost cannot go wrong. Those places are Paris and New Orleans. Every time I go people give me dozens upon dozens of recommendations of where to eat. The good thing is there is so much good food you'll almost always find a good place to eat. But I'm still going to give you my recommendations!
Creole vs Cajun food – which to choose? You’ll often here these words intertwined, but there is a difference. Creole comes from the French, and tends to be more delicate, upscale food. Cajun is spicier and known for packing a punch. If you’re looking for a good fusion, check out Commander’s Palace. This is also a great place to have a drink.
Arnaud's – My highest recommendation has to go to Arnaud's. It's a New Orleans original, with traditional Creole cuisine, an exquisite bar, divine food, and a jazz lounge. Arnaud's is fine dining, but because this is New Orleans, you can get away with dressing fairly casual. Located in the heart of the quarter on Bienville street you'll find Arnaud's is always buzzing with locals and tourists. Opened in 1918, it still has all the charm from the early days.
Start off your evening with a French 75, the restaurant won a James Beard award for their cocktails, at the lovely and intimate, aptly named French 75 bar. Once you've loosened up, head to the dining room. The staff here is some of the best ever. Friendly, fun, and knowledgeable. You'll start with delicious Leidenheimer bread. If that sounds German, it's because it is! George Leidenheimer came to New Orleans from Deidesheim, Germany, and founded the bakery that bears his name in 1896. Originally Leidenheimer baked the heavy, dense brown breads of his native Germany but it was by producing New Orleans French bread, with its crisp crust, that Leidenheimer found fame. The bread is still made with the same time-honored process and, as the waiters at Arnaud's will tell you, every crumb is good luck.
We had oysters of every kind, crab claws with warm butter for dipping, gulf fish stuffed with veal, crab, and crawfish. For dessert we just couldn't decide and had chocolate toffee and bread pudding. But the cherry on top was the best drink I ever had: Cafe Brulot. It's worth it to order this after dinner drink for the show alone. You'll watch as the wait staff light on fire orange peels and drizzle orange liqueur, brandy, and coffee, over cloves and cinnamon. If you're short on time, head to Arnaud's just to try this drink. I'd like to buy a candle that smells just like this.
Bonus: there is a small museum in the restaurant! Here you can learn the fascinating history of Arnaud's, New Orleans, and get a taste of how this restaurant started with a French wine salesman. There's also a strong history with Mardi Gras as Germaine, the successor and daughter of Count Arnaud, was queen in a record twenty-two Mardi Gras parades- more than any woman in history!
It's a stunning restaurant with great food and history to boot.
Cafe DuMonde – this is a New Orleans must! Stroll through Jackson Square and eat hot and fresh beingets as jazz music plays. Don't forget to grab a Cafe au Lait while you're at it.
Antoine's – This is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in America! Since 1840 they've been serving up oysters Rockefeller in style. This is a beautiful restaurant day or night, but lunch specials include a three course Creole lunch and cheap martinis.
Brennan's – An iconic pink building boasts some of the best cocktails and breakfast in the city. The dining room is a maze of colors and patterns and the perfect place to escape the rush of the crowds. Try the Banana's Foster. Also try Red Fish Grill for seafood gumbo and Boudain balls.
Galatoire's – A fine dining essential in New Orleans. You might have to wait since there are no reservations but it will be worth it for the Galatoire goute- a crabmeat maison and shrimp remoulade. Mouthwatering! This is fine dining and jackets are required.
Turkey & the Wolf – This is a casual and delicious sandwich shop that’s relatively new in New Orleans. With inventive cocktails and sandwiches like the friend bologna with potato chips, it’s the perfect place to fill up for a day of exploring. There is often a line but it moves quickly.
Mandina's – Once a corner store, they serve up no-frills comfort food. I love the po-boys and am always surprised by the pasta dishes.
Camellia Grill – One of my personal favorites, set in this small, diner-style eatery from 1946. Waiters wear bowties and you can sit up at the semi-circle to order pie, burgers, and more.
Maypop – This inventive restaurant offers a Southern-Asian fusion in a modern restaurant. If you want to try something a little different I highly recommend checking out this gem!
Willie Mae’s – A restaurant popularized by the Food Network, you’ll find delicious fried chicken and corn muffins that are the perfect antidote to late night booze drinking.
Mother’s – Cafeteria style food with great muffaletas and breakfast served all day. These are hearty portions, I recommend getting Ferdi Special.
Acme Oyster House – There will most likely be a line. But this is New Orleans prime spot for oysters and is worth the wait.
Elizabeth's – Southern cooking located in Bywater. We ordered decadent praline bacon and stuffed squash.
The Chloe – A brand new restaurant and hotel in New Orleans that is already getting tons of critical acclaim. Fine dining with modern Creole cuisine in a gorgeous setting, this is on the top of my list to try next!
See my full guide to Mardi Gras here!
Despite going to New Orleans again and again, I can always come back and discover something new. The city is vibrant and rich in history, culture, music, and food. What’s not to love?!
Thank you to New Orleans for having me experience the city like never before! All thoughts and opinions are my own.