Whether called the Crescent City, the Big Easy, the City that Care Forgot, or simply NOLA (short for New Orleans, Louisiana), the city of New Orleans bears a mystique that goes far beyond simple southern charm. It certainly has that charm. But there’s something more. Something alluring. Something extravagant and earthy. Something that attracts people from all over and brings them to New Orleans.
Perhaps that something more is the almost palpable joie de vivre — an exuberant enjoyment of life — embodied in the people of New Orleans. Despite living below sea level, enduring the brutal and lengthy summer heat and humidity, and suffering the almost constant threat of floods and hurricanes, by and large the people of New Orleans stay. They don’t move away. The mystique of the city captivates us all.
New Orleans is known for its food, its music, and its parades, all of which perfectly portray the extravagant and earthy spirit of New Orleans. It’s not surprising that the annual event that draws the biggest crowds to the city is Mardi Gras. Keep in mind that in New Orleans, Mardi Gras isn’t just a day — it’s a season. For the final two weeks of that season, the city sees the number of out-of-town visitors swell to upward of 1.4 million.
Those final two weeks are when the pageantry happens … when ornate floats parade down local streets as crowds scream, “Throw me something, mister,” hoping to catch Mardi Gras beads, doubloons, or some other gaudy trinket. Mardi Gras has been called “the greatest free show on earth,” and if you have never experienced it, you might want to put it on your bucket list.
Besides Mardi Gras, other annual events draw sizable crowds. Every year in April since 1984, the French Quarter Festival pulls together food and music into what is called “the world’s largest jazz brunch.” The four-day outdoor event brings together 1,300 musicians performing on 22 different music stages spread throughout the French Quarter and its boundaries, along with more than 60 local restaurants that set up shop under tents for the festival. The French Quarter Festival drew 760,000 people in 2016.
And then there’s Jazz Fest. The last weekend in April and the first weekend in May each year, the internationally renowned music festival — officially named the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — spans two weekends and draws an average crowd of 460,000.
The food and music events certainly attract big crowds. However, much of the annual tourism is made up of individuals and families traveling to New Orleans for business, vacation, or leisure. In 2016, TripAdvisor named New Orleans one of the “7 Best Family Getaways in America.” New Orleans was No. 1 on the list! As a fellow Catholic and a local, I want to share with you some inside tips for traveling to my city with your family.
Stepping back in history
There’s no place like the French Quarter to experience the long Catholic history of New Orleans. With its French, Spanish, and Creole architecture, stepping into the French Quarter is like stepping back in history at least 200 years. When visiting the French Quarter, there are a few places you will want to visit with your family for a boost in faith while also learning a little history at the same time.
St. Louis Cathedral
615 Pere Antoine Alley
In the heart of the French Quarter, crowning the top of Jackson Square, looms the impressive facade of the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States. The original church building, built in 1727, stood for 60 years until it was destroyed by fire in 1788. Construction began immediately on a new building, which was completed and dedicated in 1794. Additions have been made throughout the years, but the building that stands today dates back to 1794. The exterior is impressive, but don’t be content with just looking at this cathedral from the outside. The real beauty is to be found inside.
The cathedral is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., with daily Mass celebrated at 12:05 p.m. Brochures for a self-guided tour are available at the entrance for a $1 donation. Visitors can frequently get an impromptu tour from volunteer docents when available.
Worth noting: St. John Paul II visited the cathedral on Sept. 12, 1987, during his second trip to the United States as pope.
The Old Ursuline Convent
1100 Chartres St.
Just down the street from St. Louis Cathedral, on the corner of Chartres Street and Ursulines Avenue, stands the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley: the Old Ursuline Convent. On more than one occasion in the city’s history, the Ursuline nuns and their devotion to Our Lady under the title Our Lady of Prompt Succor (from the French, meaning “quick help”) are attributed with saving the city. During the great fires of 1788 and 1794, which together destroyed more than 1,000 buildings, the area surrounding the convent remained untouched by flame. Later, in 1815 during the great Battle of New Orleans, the city’s clergy and citizens joined the nuns in imploring the protection of Our Lady of Prompt Succor against the invading British armies. The victory of Gen. Andrew Jackson is attributed to Our Lady’s intercession. To this day, on Jan. 8 each year, the archbishop of New Orleans celebrates a Mass in thanksgiving to Our Lady of Prompt Succor for her protection. Today the Old Ursuline Convent is a museum.
St. Patrick’s Church
724 Camp St.
Located just a few blocks outside the French Quarter, you’ll find St. Patrick’s Church. Many locals refer to it as “the other cathedral,” and it is much sought after for weddings because it is quite possibly the most ornate church in the city. The parish was established in 1833, and construction of the church building was completed in 1840. That same church building still stands today. Weekday Masses are at 11:30 a.m. and noon. At 9:30 a.m. on Sundays, a Gregorian Latin Mass is offered. You can find the full schedule, along with the history of the church, on its website.
Venture a little beyond the French Quarter and the Central Business District into the Irish Channel/Lower Garden District area, and you will find a most impressive gem of a church. It’s not as beautiful on the outside as St. Louis Cathedral, but walk through its doors and you’ll find a church interior that is truly breathtaking. The centerpiece over the main altar depicts Our Lady being assumed into heaven while simultaneously being crowned by the Holy Trinity as Queen of Heaven and Earth. Attached to the church is the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, known as the “Cheerful Ascetic.” Beatified in 2000 by St. John Paul II, there have been many miracles attributed to Bl. Seelos’ intercession, both during his life and after his death. His remains are enshrined in a sacred reliquary, which in turn is encased behind protective glass.
Catholic culture, history, and living faith are indeed evident throughout the city, but the city also offers plenty of opportunities for families to rest, relax, learn, experience conviviality … and eat around the table!
Good ole family fun … N’Awlins’ style
Café du Monde
800 Decatur St.
No matter the ages of your kids, no day in New Orleans should begin without coffee and beignets at Café du Monde. The original location in the French Quarter, just across the street from Jackson Square, is the perfect place to start your day. Since 1862, Café du Monde has been serving up steaming cups of café au lait (coffee with milk) and piping-hot beignets (pronounced ben-yays) lavishly topped with powdered sugar. (Tip: You probably don’t want to wear black on your first visit.) Beignets are light, airy squares of fried dough, in the same family as the donut, and kids love them. They’re a bargain, too. You get three beignets per order for only $1.35. But be careful: They really are piping hot! We like to carefully tear open each beignet to allow them to cool a bit before eating.
Also, remind the kids: No breathing in while taking a bite! Inhaling powdered sugar is guaranteed to create a cough that will cover the other family members in powdered sugar! And make sure you supply your kids with plenty of napkins. There’s a dispenser on every table right next to the extra shaker full of powdered sugar! If you want to make different plans for breakfast, no worries. Café du Monde is open 24/7 (with the exception of closing at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve and reopening at 6 a.m. on Dec. 26); you can always stop by for a late-night snack. Make sure you bring cash, though — no credit cards are accepted.
Another throwback to a bygone era is the fully functional streetcar public transportation system. Streetcars have been in operation in New Orleans since 1835. They were originally steam-powered cars and later developed into horse-drawn cars. The latest evolution of the streetcar came about in 1923, producing wooden cars that still run on rails but are powered with electricity from an overhanging system of electrical wires. Riding the streetcar is a thrilling experience. The breeze from the open windows and the clickety-clack sound of the tracks can be so mesmerizing that you might forget to get off at your stop. In addition to being fun, the streetcar is also functional and affordable.
You can travel up and down Canal Street, along the Mississippi River, or out of the downtown area into the Garden District, all the way past the Audubon Zoo and up Carrollton Avenue. There are plenty of restaurants in the Riverbend area where the St. Charles and Carrollton avenues meet. The streetcar fare is only $1.25 a ride, and kids 2 and under ride free. (Tip: You can buy a one-day “Jazzy Pass” for $3 or a three-day pass for $9.)
If you plan to stay only in the French Quarter and downtown areas, then the Riverfront line is your best bet. It travels a two-mile stretch along the Mississippi River and makes several stops at key locations between the French Quarter and the New Orleans Convention Center. You can find streetcar schedules and maps online.
600 Decatur St., Suite 308
In the French Quarter, at the foot of Toulouse Street at the Mississippi River, you’ll find the dock of the Steamboat Natchez, one of only five true steamboats left in operation in the United States. A cruise aboard the Steamboat Natchez will take you back to a time when life was slow and graceful. Live jazz is featured on all the cruises, and passengers are also treated to a calliope concert. The Steamboat Natchez offers a few different cruise packages, including a nighttime Dinner Jazz Cruise and a Sunday Jazz Brunch Cruise. You can find all the highlights, schedules, and prices of available cruises on their website.
Audubon Nature Institute
The Audubon Nature Institute provides abundant opportunities to explore nature in New Orleans through its four attractions spread between the French Quarter and Uptown.
Located at 1 Canal St. on the outskirts of the French Quarter, the Aquarium of the Americas features more than 15,000 sea-life creatures and offers creative ways for visitors to get eye-to-eye with many of them, including the 30-foot-long Caribbean reef tunnel that gives visitors the feeling of being underwater with sea life teeming all around. The aquarium also offers several interactive activities — including a chance to pet a shark!
Adjacent to the Aquarium, the Entergy Giant Screen Theater boasts one of the biggest screens in the Gulf South, utilizing state-of-the-art 4k digital projection systems and Dolby Atmos multidimensional audio. The theater provides larger-than-life movie experiences, with its movie lineup changing regularly.
I’m not really into bugs, but you and your kids might be. If so, you will want to check out the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium located at 423 Canal St. It’s the largest free-standing museum in the United States devoted to the 900,000-plus known species of insects. Let your imagination run wild with some of the features of this attraction guaranteed to give you up-close-and-personal insights into the life of … well, bugs. The museum features an exhibit that shrinks you down to the size of a bug so you can see life from their perspective, a cooking show that offers an adventure in — gulp! — eating, a swamp exhibit featuring insects and arachnids native to Louisiana’s swamps, a multisensory theater experience, and a recreated Japanese garden filled with free-flying butterflies.
Moving Uptown, located at 6500 Magazine St., you’ll find the award-winning Audubon Zoo, presenting 58 acres of animals in their natural habitats. The beginnings of the zoo date back to the 1884 World Exposition, which was held in Audubon Park. Some of the most popular animals are a Komodo dragon and a rare white tiger named King Zulu, but my favorite exhibit is the real swamp with its 14-foot alligators and black bears. Luckily, there is an air-conditioned restaurant close to this particular swamp, just in case you get hungry or want to cool down.
A cemetery tour might strike you as morbid at first glance, but the cemeteries of New Orleans are quite unique and captivating. New Orleans is under sea level, and anything buried in the ground has a very good chance of resurfacing. All it needs is a little help from, say, a flood. Not a good thing for a cemetery, as you might suspect. So the solution in New Orleans are cemeteries lined with above-ground crypts and mausoleums. They look like — and are actually called — “cities of the dead.” The unique style of New Orleans’ cemeteries and the countless ghost stories associated with the city make a cemetery tour very tempting indeed.
The oldest and most renowned cemetery is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. It’s within walking distance of the French Quarter. With any kind of “tour,” there is always the chance of individuals intentionally (or unintentionally) disrespecting the dead, so a few years ago the Archdiocese of New Orleans (who owns most of the cemeteries in the city) established a number of parameters to help protect the dignity of the dead and the history of their burial places. Before you plan your tour, be sure to check out the schedule and hours of operation. You can find that information online, along with a list of licensed cemetery tour operators for those who want to take a guided tour.
Swamp tours might not be as spooky as cemetery tours, but they can be scary. Many of the swamp tour operators around New Orleans know the swamp like the back of their hand, and they guarantee you’ll get as close as you dare to a gator. A list of available swamp tour companies can be found online.
Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Place
Not traveling to New Orleans in the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday but still want to experience something of Mardi Gras? Then a visit to Blain Kern’s Mardi Gras World is in order. On the Mississippi River, just outside the Central Business District, sits what looks like a series of warehouses. But don’t let the view from the outside fool you. More than 80 percent of all the Mardi Gras floats that roll down New Orleans’ streets each year are designed, made, and stored in those warehouses. Touring Mardi Gras World opens up the opportunity to get an inside view of what Mardi Gras is all about.
You can try on Mardi Gras costumes and get close-up views of the magnificently decorated floats, some of which are so huge they can carry more than 200 masked riders. It’s a fun tour that’s also educational. You’ll learn about the many traditions of Mardi Gras, such as king cake, the parades, the krewes, the balls, and of course, the music. King cake and New Orleans coffee are served to give you a real taste of Mardi Gras. Details on tours are available on their website.
Family-friendly must-try eateries in New Orleans
Cafe du Monde, 800 Decatur St., CafeduMonde.com, Cafe au lait and beignets. Open 24/7. Cash only.
Central Grocery & Deli, 923 Decatur St., CentralGrocery.com. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week; home of the original muffuletta sandwich, a must-try!
Johnny’s Po-Boys, 511 St. Louis St., JohnnysPoBoy.com. Open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Classic New Orleans po-boys.
Warehouse District / Central Business District
Cochon Butcher, 930 Tchoupitoulas St., CochonButcher.com/New-Orleans. A butcher shop, a sandwich counter, and a wine bar all mixed together, Cochon Butcher is inspired by old-world meat markets. Butcher specializes in house-made meats, terrines, and sausages. Small-plate-style menu easily allows you to order several things for the table for all to share. This is one of our favorite frequent stops.
Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, 2301 Orleans Ave., DookyChaseRestaurant.com. Open for lunch Tuesday to Friday and open for dinner on Friday. Classic New Orleans fare served buffet-style and prepared by world-famous Chef Leah Chase, the inspiration behind Disney’s The Princess and the Frog movie. Chase can still be found working magic in the kitchen at the age of 95!
Liuzza’s Restaurant & Bar, 3636 Bienville St., Liuzzas.com. Homestyle cooking. Classic neighborhood restaurant serving everything from fried pickles to a “Frenchuletta” (a muffuletta served on a po-boy loaf). Also serves the coldest beer in town … in large frosty fishbowl mugs!
Parkway Bakery and Tavern, 538 Hagan Ave., ParkwayPoorBoys.com. Famous stop for po-boys of all kinds. I love their shrimp po-boy, but the last sandwich I got from Parkway was a blackened alligator po-boy. C’est magnifique, cher!
Mandina’s Restaurant, 3800 Canal St., MandinasRestaurant.com. Try the shrimp remoulade. It’s a generous portion, enough for two to share.
Uptown / Garden District / Riverbend
Mahony’s Po-Boys, 3454 Magazine St., MahonysPoBoys.com. Try the peacemaker po-boy, a “whole loaf” fried oyster po-boy, dressed; add bacon.
Ye Olde College Inn, 3000 S. Carrollton Ave., CollegeInn1933.com. Across the street from Notre Dame Seminary, Ye Olde College Inn is a true New Orleans farm-to-table restaurant. You can have dinner here, then step next door to Rock ’N’ Bowl for a bowling experience like no other.
Brigtsen’s, 723 Dante St., Brigtsens.com. Open for dinner Tuesday to Saturday. According to the Times-Picayune, “Brigtsen’s is … the place against which all other restaurants serving South Louisiana cuisine have to be measured.” Chef Frank Brigtsen got his start under the late world-famous Chef Paul Prudhomme and was present when the first “blackened redfish” came off the skillet and onto the plate.
Frankie & Johnny’s, 321 Arabella St., FrankieandJohnnys.net. Classic neighborhood restaurant serving seafood and Italian. Try the seafood-stuffed artichoke!
Pascal’s Manale Restaurant, 1838 Napoleon Ave., PascalsManale.com. In business for more than 100 years, you should try the barbeque shrimp. Just make sure you have plenty of French bread on hand to sop up the juices!
One-of-a-kind culinary experience
Langlois, LangloisNola.com. For something a bit different and very exciting, try Langlois, a “traveling food show” where the best of New Orleans and Louisiana food is brought to you. Named after Madame Langlois (lang-WAH), the “mother of Creole cuisine” who was the cook for Sieur de Bienville, the French governor of Louisiana (1701–1743), Langlois takes you on a journey through the history and ingredients of Louisiana’s unique food culture. Their work and their name are fitting since Madame Langlois is credited with teaching the first recorded cooking class in North America. Highly recommended!