A family visit proved that this Louisiana city is a great place to take the kids. Share a steamboat ride, swamp tour, cemetery romp, evening of jazz and some fresh beignets with the Munsons on one of their All-Time-Favorite vacations!
New Orleans: the name conjures images of open sidewalks, bars, raucous Bourbon Street revelers, riverboat gaming, and notorious old red light districts. Yet, this painted lady with a checkered past has a kinder, gentler side. New Orleans, Louisiana is a great place to take the kids.
Wholesome diversions for the family abound — a world-class zoo, an excellent aquarium, streetcars and carriage rides, child-friendly museums, and fun excursions into bayou country. While visiting relatives there for six days, my children Ned (age 11) and Ellen (age 8) were thoroughly amused from morning until bedtime.
Tour The City By Land, River or Swamp
To orient ourselves, we enjoyed a leisurely carriage ride through the French Quarter, a ferry run on the Mississippi, and $1.25 streetcar trips into other parts of the city. Lining Decatur Street near Jackson Square are dozens of horse-and mule-drawn carriages, patiently awaiting rubberneckers from out of town. Our carriage employed an agreeable mule and an amiable driver who gave an entertaining, 30-minute spiel on the fascinating history and legends of the Vieux Carre. During the ride, we learned that much of the lovely architecture with fine iron latticework in the French Quarter is, in fact, Spanish rather than French. And while ambling along the charming, sleepy streets, we took note of attractions to visit later during the district's livelier hours.
Scenic steamboat rides up and down the Mississippi are available from $15-$40 for adults, half-price for children, depending on the amenities and duration of cruises. However, the entire family can enjoy an Old Man River experience free of charge on the city-operated Canal Street Ferry which runs from the Riverwalk to the Victorian-era town of Algiers on the opposite bank.
The Regional Transit Authority offers another way to save money on transportation: VisiTour Passes ($5/D, $12/3D) allow unlimited rides on streetcars and bus lines. Hotels and retail centers throughout the city sell this pass.
The Swamp Tour got top billing from both of my children. Numerous boat excursions are available within a 45-90 minute drive from downtown. These trips feature alligators lolling in their natural green habitats, an occasional real snake stretched along a tree limb, snow-white egrets, and other interesting South Louisiana wildlife. Depending on the tour, running commentaries are provided by colorful backcountry, Cajun-style tour guides or by Ph.D. types who specialize in wetland ecology. Our guide Bubba, of the former variety, knew the 'gators (his "employees") by name, including baby Elvis who joined us in the boat. He rewarded them with buoyant white marshmallows while telling us that the sex of baby alligators is determined by the weather! If the heat in the alligator egg's nest exceeds 90°, all the eggs will turn out to be boys. If the nest temperature drops below 90°, li'l girl 'gators will emerge.
For adults as well as children, a visit to the Audubon Zoo (866/ITS-A-Z00: Open daily 10:00am to 4pm Tuesday through Friday and until 5pm on Saturdays and Sundays) is a treat not to be missed. This spacious park is an "urban Eden" in the city's graceful, turn-of-the-century Garden District. Huge live oaks, some hanging low enough for climbing, line the pleasant walkways that border habitats of animals from seven continents. Highlights include a rare white tiger in the "Asian Domain" and equally rare white alligators in the award-winning "Louisiana Swamp" exhibit.
On the festive New Orleans riverfront is the Aquarium of the Americas (800/774-7394: Open Tuesday through Friday 10:00am – 4:00pm, Saturday and Sunday until 5pm), one of the country's best. The large building houses some 60 separate exhibits featuring more than 7,000 aquatic creatures; major areas represented include the Mississippi River, Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Reef, and the Amazon River Basin. A boat ride to the Audubon Zoo (with combination admission tickets) is available.
A trip to the Big Easy would not be complete without sampling the renowned music and food of this exciting city. For an unforgettable evening of authentic jazz and old-time Dixieland music, make a pilgrimage to Preservation Hall (504/522-2841: Open nightly 8pm to 11pm) in the French Quarter. Children will love the toe-tapping tunes and time-mellowed musicians, especially when youngsters are rested and fed. Begin lining up at least a half hour before the 8 p.m. performance to assure a good seat on the floor or on a bench in this ancient, decrepit little music hall.
For a little night music, visit New Orleans' great graveyards. Impressive crypts in mysterious settings house heroes as well as voodoo queens. A cautionary note: the ghosts are generally benign, but some of the locals are known to ambush unsuspecting tourists in cemeteries for spare change. Therefore, it is best to join Magic Walking Tours (504/588-9693), who offer cemetery, voodoo, haunted house, vampire and ghost hunt tours for a nominal charge.
A drive outside the city to some of Louisiana's elegant old plantation houses offers more ghost stories, mammoth live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and romantic settings which have figured in such major Hollywood movies as Interview with the Vampire.
Fantastic Dining For All Tastes
New Orleans Cuisine is legendary, and dinner at a fine restaurant can bore a hole of legendary proportions in the family's vacation budget. Less expensive dining alternatives are available, though. Warm, melt-in-your-mouth beignets with coffee or hot cocoa start the day in a perfect way al fresco, or a muffuleta sandwich, a lunchtime tradition, at Cafe du Monde (800/772-2927) in the French Quarter, where street music fills the air. Cafe du Monde is open 24 hours, but is closed on Christmas, and for hurricanes.
Children adore the city's famous "po' boy" sub-like sandwiches and the luscious snow cones of many exotic flavors, found along the River Walk, a favorite strolling place for families. Local street vendors sell good hot dogs with a variety of condiments. Nutritious rice-based dishes (rice n'cabbage, rice n'gumbo, rice n'red beans, etc.) are fairly economical and are widely served.
Inexpensive sit-down dinners with a Creole flair can be enjoyed throughout the city. File gumbo, barbecue ribs, several varieties of Creole pralines, and numerous pies and confections can be ordered up at super-low prices a few blocks from the French Quarter at The Praline Connection, 542 Frenchmen Street (504/943-3934).
If You Have A Few More Days
Family options abound for those with more time. Sports-minded youngsters will enjoy a tour of the Louisiana Superdome and Civic Center, site of Sugar Bowls and home of the New Orleans Saints football team.
You may want to avoid the wild spring Carnival season with young kids, but the Mardi Gras Museum of Jefferson Parish in Kenner (504/468-7231: Open Tuesday through Saturday from 9am to 5pm) is the next best thing to actually experiencing a real Mardi Gras. It features moving floats, a giant cake display and tasting, lively music and Mardi Gras video footage.
The Louisiana Children's Museum (504/503-1357) is open Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30am to 4:30pm and Sunday from noon to 4:30pm; also open on Mondays in the summer. LCM is a "Please Touch" museum with many hands-on exhibits for children up to age 12.
When should you go? Mild winters and early, flower-filled springs make New Orleans a year-round tourist destination. Although summer can be brutally humid and hot, hotels with pools can provide some respite for children between sightseeing ventures. Note that year-round, baseballs hats and sunscreen are a must for lengthy outdoor activities.
For more information and lodging recommendations, contact the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, 2020 St. Charles Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70130 (800/672-6124, 504/566-5011). Another helpful resource is www.neworleansonline.com.
After six days of touring and hanging out in the Crescent City, my children gave New Orleans the ultimate compliment: this trip ranks right up there next to Disney World on our list of All-Time Favorite Vacations. What more can you say?
Days Away With The Family
by Kyle McCarthy
Consider a daytrip down River Road to see some of the south's beautiful plantations. Favorites are Oak Alley (225/265-2151), where films ranging from Olivia de Havilland's Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte to Tom Cruise's Interview with the Vampire were shot. The restaurant and cemetery tour there are highly recommended, but you will probably have to wait in line for admittance. Nearby is Laura Plantation (888/799-7690), voted the 2007 Top Louisiana Travel Attraction, close enough to be visited in the same day. There are no self-guided tours, but guided tours are available from 10am to 4pm daily. Film and Margaret Mitchell buffs will want to drive farther to Nottoway (866/527-6884), the lovely plantation where Gone With The Wind was filmed. There are slave quarters, some original out buildings and even a few rooms to let here.
Alternatively, make an excursion to Lafitte, Louisiana, across the river from NoLa, where you can take the kids to the Bayou Barn (800/862-2968). Every Sunday afternoon, the Cajun music, barbecues and dancers catch fire, promising an unforgettably Southern style of fun for all who attend.
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