Best picks for kids in this surprisingly, family-friendly city
Yes, it’s true. New Orleans has a reputation for being a bodacious, boozy, bead-throwing kind of town. But outside of Mardi Gras (and even during Mardi Gras in some neighborhoods), families will find themselves welcomed with good ‘ole Southern hospitality. New Orleans is buzzing with things to do… and we’re not just talking about the buzz that your kids will get from those sugar-coated beignets! You’ll find plenty of opportunities to experience the food, music, and history that makes this city one-of-a-kind.
1/Mardi Gras... within reason
The picture of Mardi Gras as a 24-7, free-for-all party down Bourbon Street is not entirely accurate. First, let’s talk about what Mardi Gras really is. Mardi Gras is a French term meaning “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday. It’s one last chance to “live it up” before the start of Lent. However, in New Orleans, the term “Mardi Gras” is used more generally to describe the 2-week celebration leading up to Fat Tuesday.
KidTripster Tip: Plan to stay outside of the French Quarter when visiting New Orleans. Pick a hotel in the adjacent downtown area, also known as the Central Business District.
In New Orleans, the celebration is punctuated by parades… lots of parades! Krewes - social clubs that sponsor individual parades - take their turn marching down the streets of New Orleans to the edge of the French Quarter. Along the way, they hurl coveted “throws” into the crowds lining the streets - things like strings of beads, stuffed animals, and glow-in-the-dark footballs; one all-female krewe called Muses even throws bedazzled high heels! It’s all good fun that many New Orleanian families enjoy together. For the most part, the parades themselves are family-friendly. The party-goers “revealing” themselves for beads that you’ve heard so much about… that happens during the late evening in the French Quarter itself, mainly along Bourbon Street, and is definitely not kid-friendly.
Yes, people drink on the street (it’s legal), and many people have too much to drink. You’ll also occasionally smell marijuana in the air (not legal but apparently permitted). But it’s possible to shield your kids from this kind of adult revelry. The parades are several miles long. The farther that you get away from the French Quarter (the end of the parade route), the more families that you’ll find. Frankly, on west side of Lee Circle toward the Garden District, it’s all families lining the streets of residential neighborhoods. That’s where you’ll want to experience the PG-version of Mardi Gras parades.
KidTripster Tip: There can be up to three, back-to-back parades on one day. These parades are slow-moving. If your kids don’t have the patience to sit (or more likely, stand) for hours, you may want to skip the early parades and just attend the last one of the afternoon or evening; it’s typically the headline event. Alternatively, if you have young children, hit the first and maybe the second parade and then head back to your hotel.
KidTripster Tip: Download one of several, free Mardi Gras parade apps, so that you can track the parades in real time. It's important to check the app regularly, as parade times can change due to weather.
KidTripster Tip: You and your family don’t have to be in New Orleans on Fat Tuesday to get the flavor of Mardi Gras. In fact, I suggest that you aren’t. The crowds and the craziness tend to intensify with every passing day. Instead, plan to arrive in the middle of the week before Fat Tuesday and leave by Saturday night.
Mardi Gras not your thing? No worries! There’s plenty of other reasons to visit New Orleans. Keep reading!
2/National WWII Museum
945 Magazine St.
I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of most museums; neither are my kids. So when I say that the National WWII Museum is one of the best museums that I’ve ever visited, I mean it. It does an exceptional job of personalizing World War II. When you arrive, you receive a “dog tag” that allows you to digitally follow the story of one soldier throughout your visit. You also can learn more about the soldier online after your visit. It’s just one of the ways that the museum uses technology and video storytelling to engage visitors.
But I highly recommend that you start your visit by watching the in-house, 4D movie called Beyond All Boundaries, narrated by Tom Hanks. This movie traces the war from Pearl Harbor through the Japanese surrender and alone is worth a visit here. Yes, there’s an extra charge for the movie, but it’s absolutely worth it. It’ll give you and your kids the necessary context for what you’ll see inside the museum and for the war, itself. I promise that your kids will be riveted.
KidTripster Tip: There’s another add-on experience called Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience. In my opinion, this submarine simulation isn’t worth your time or money.
The museum is spread across several buildings. One exhibit hall is dedicated to the campaign in Europe; another hall focuses on the campaign in the Pacific. Both display thousands of artifacts, including the dramatic photo taken just three minutes after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In the U.S. Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, you’ll see military aircraft, but don’t miss the second floor. There you’ll find oral histories of veterans and interactive exhibits that give amazing details about major battles of the war.
It’s impossible to take in everything in one visit, so cut yourself some slack. I suggest first seeing the movie and the Pacific Campaign exhibit and taking a break for lunch. Then visit the European Campaign exhibit and the Boeing Center when you return. And know that the museum is planning for major expansion over the next few years. Cost: Youth $17.50; Adult $27; Beyond All Boundaries $5/person; Final Mission: USS Tang Submarine Experience $5/person.
KidTripster Tip: While there is a restaurant on the museum campus, I’d recommend walking about three blocks to Cochon Butcher (930 Tchoupitoulas St.), one of the best places in New Orleans to sample a muffuletta, a sandwich traditionally made with Italian charcuterie and spicy Creole olive salad on a round, Sicilian sesame bread. Plan to share; the sandwich is huge! Note, this place isn't the same as Cochon, the restaurant on the corner.
3/Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl.
If you visit outside of Mardi Gras, you can still experience its revelry at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. Since 1947, artists and craftspeople have been designing, building, and decorating 500-plus floats in the “den” here for Mardi Gras each year. The tour starts with a video explaining the traditions of Mardi Gras, followed by a tour through the studio. You’re likely to see folks working on the coming year’s floats along with past props that are waiting to be repurposed. Cost: Youth (2-11) $14; Adult $22. Tours start every half hour and last for 1-1/2 hours.
KidTripster Tip: There’s really no reason to rent a car when visiting New Orleans. The French Quarter and waterfront areas are very walkable, and the public streetcars and buses take you wherever else you need to go. Plus, if you’re planning to tour Mardi Gras World, you can just walk to one of the nearly two dozen shuttle stops and simply call for a ride. The phone number: (504) 507-9319.
4/Goodies, gardens & ghosts… oh my!
There is no shortage of tour companies to help you explore the French Quarter and beyond. You’ll find ghost and voodoo tours, cuisine and cocktail (if Mom and Dad can sneak away) tours, plus walking tours of Garden District homes and above ground cemeteries. Which one you choose will largely depend on the age and attention span of your kids.
French Quarter Kids gives walking tours specially designed for young visitors (ages 4-18). Or you may want to do what we did in New Orleans and book a tour with Free Tours by Foot. This company operates in several cities around the country. It’s unique in that you pay what you think the tour was worth at the end. This way, your tour guide is highly motivated to provide you with the best tour experience possible.
While in New Orleans, we took three tours with Free Tours by Foot: the French Quarter Food and History Tour, the Garden District Tour, and the evening Ghost Tour. The tour guides were all native Louisianians who were extremely knowledgeable. While a 2-hour tour may be pushing it for some kids, I think that most will find these tours really engaging. If not, you can always give your tour guide partial payment and leave the tour early.
KidTripster Tip: How much should you pay? The going rate for a 2-hour tour is about $20 to $25 per person, but again, you pay want you think the tour was worth. Bring cash.
KidTripster Tip: Free Tours by Foot’s food tour doesn’t include samples. However, I found the tour companies that do to be terribly overpriced. Instead ask your guide for recommendations and then sample on your own time.
KidTripster Tip: The ghosts tours are most appropriate for tweens and teens. Typically, most ghost stories are preceded by some sort of tale of murder and mayhem that may keep little ones up at night.
One of the joys of New Orleans is rounding a corner and finding a jazz quintet - a really good jazz quintet - playing a rousing version of When the Saints Go Marching In. Onlookers - even sober ones - break into song and begin to dance without warning. Look for street performers in Jackson Square and along Royal Street. Or try to hit one of the free concerts in Lafayette Square (Wednesdays) or Armstrong Park (Thursdays), depending on the season.
You definitely don't want to miss a swamp tour on the bayous of southern Louisiana. Our very exuberant guide from Cajun Pride Swamp Tours lead us to the places where raccoons, turtles, native birds, and even baby alligators live in a privately-owned wildlife refuge about 25 miles from New Orleans. During the spring and summer months, you may have the opportunity to feed an alligator. But the most exciting part for kids? Holding the baby gator that gets passed around the pontoon boat!
KidTripster Tip: Typically, you can be picked up for excursions, again avoiding the need for a rental car; however you may need to walk to a different hotel to meet the shuttle.
KidTripster Tip: Plantation tours also are offered outside of New Orleans. However, our KidTripster Teen found these experiences to be "long and boring."
7/All things Audubon
Reachable by public transportation from the French Quarter, Audubon Zoo (6500 Magazine St.) covers 58 acres and houses 2,000 animals, including big cats, bears, giraffes, elephants, and tigers. But this zoo has something more - the Cool Zoo splash park with a 750-foot lazy river, two sand beaches, water cannons, and soakers. Closed during the winter, you’ll find it indispensable during Louisiana’s hot and humid months. Cost: Youth $21.95; Adult $29.95.
KidTripster TIp: Looking to avoid the crowds? Visit during weekday afternoons.
Also under the Audubon name, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (1 Canal St.) isn’t located at the park but instead adjacent to the French Quarter along the Mississippi River. Favorites here include the walk-through Caribbean reef tunnel, sting ray touch pools, waddling penguins, and rescued sea turtles. Cost: Youth (2-12) $21.95; Adult $29.95.
Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium (423 Canal St.) also borders the French Quarter and is located in the U.S. Custom House. This super interactive museum is the largest one devoted to insects and their relatives. You and the kids can even eat a bug, dished up in the insect kitchen! Bug appétit! Cost: Youth (2-12) $17.95; Adult $22.95.
KidTripster Tip: If you visit during Mardi Gras, cricket king cakes may be on the menu!
KidTripster Tip: As the Insectarium is situated in a federal building, be prepared to go through security.
If you plan to visit all three attractions, purchase the combo ticket. Youth (2-12) $34.95; Adult $44.95.
Photo courtesy: Audubon Zoo
The 1300-acre City Park is a green oasis with a lake for paddleboat rentals, putt-putt course, and various gardens. You’ll also find Carousel Gardens Amusement Park with its antique carousel and 16 other rides, plus Storyland, a Mother Goose-themed playground where kids can meet the Three Little Pigs, the Cheshire Cat, and Snow White. These attractions are geared toward young families. Cost: Youth (36” & under) Free; $4 per ride or $18 for unlimited rides. Admission to Carousel Gardens includes Storyland. Check to see if parks are open in advance of your visit.
Photo courtesy: Storyland
9/Louisiana Children’s Museum
420 Julia St.
In 2019, the Louisiana Children’s Museum will be relocating to a new bright, beautiful space in City Park. For now, the museum is welcoming young visitors in the Warehouse Museum District about four blocks from the Convention Center. The museum is bursting with hands-on exhibits and creative spaces, many with an unique Louisiana twist. If you and your little ones need a break from the humidity or shelter from the rain, this museum is a perfect place to spend a few hours. Cost: $10/person.
Photo courtesy: Louisiana Children’s Museum
10/Music, food & spirits
2372 St. Claude Ave.
Just because you have kids in tow doesn’t mean that you have to skip the jazz club experience. Spotted Cat Food & Spirits is a hip restaurant (and sister property to The Spotted Cat Music Club on Frenchman Street) serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner along with tasty, craft cocktails all day long. Best of all, you’ll be entertained by live music on most Saturday and Sundays, starting at 11 a.m. and on select evenings. The joint is completely welcoming to families, so bring the kids to taste and hear what New Orleans is all about. Closed on Tuesdays.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah collected plenty of beads during her visit - on the parade route not in the French Quarter!
KidTripster Teen writer Jade Thomasson contributed to this article.
Photo courtesy: Spotted Cat Food & Spirits
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.