We love family travel adventures, and this year we were lucky to get the chance to visit New Orleans, the food lover’s heaven in Louisiana. My husband was in search of the perfect beignet (he found a pretty good Muffuletta and Étouffée while he was on the hunt). Our visit was an unexpected whirlwind. We received well-meaning advice from family and friends- but weren’t prepared for historic NOLA as well as we should have been- and paid the price, as a result. Luckily, our mistakes are your ‘what not to do’ guide for your family vacation!
So, you’re planning a trip to NOLA, but haven’t a clue what to expect on your arrival to the historic city on the Mississippi. You have kids- and this probably makes you more of a planner than a panster when it comes to family vacations- kids seem to do that to you. You may have heard stories. Or seen New Orleans in the news. Or maybe read a vampire story or saw the Originals on television. You’re curious and maybe a little scared. I know where you are coming from because I felt the same exact way. And as the “official” family-vacay planner, I flubbed stuff up and got stuff right, and we all became wiser travelers along the way. So, whether you are planning a fly-by day visit, a weekend adventure, or a lengthy vacation, here are some tips to help you have a better stay in New Orleans
1. Not all areas of New Orleans are safe.
Yup. Your gorgeous hotel with valet parking, sparkling swimming pool, and 4-star dining room may be located a stone’s throw away from a dodgy section of town. If you haven’t booked your hotel yet, call them up and ask about safety and always read the reviews on where you are thinking about staying. Once you arrive, get a city map- one of the touristy ones- (your hotel should have one), and ask the front desk staff or hotel concierge to circle which areas from which you should steer clear. They know and provide this information all the time for their guests. And they are more than happy to help. Your safety is important to them (and their reputation).
2. Parking is outrageous.
From a person who still uses quarters in the nearest city’s downtown parking meters, the thought of paying $20+ for a couple of hours is shocking. If you are coming for the day, make use of the parking garages- there are quite a few, like the one on the Mississippi River end of Canal Street by the aquarium. We were lucky in this respect though, as a fellow travel blogger gave us heads-up warning about the expensive parking, so, clever me, thought- hmmm, hotel with parking is the way to go, which brings us to #3…
3. Your hotel charges extra for parking.
So, you thought you got a fantastic hotel deal- and they have on-site parking. Then you get the bill. $45 extra to park a day?! Suddenly that great deal doesn’t seem so great. You need plan ahead for this one. When booking a hotel, look on their websites for parking fees so you won’t be caught unawares (and you may have to look in the fine print for that little detail ;). Some hotels offer discounted parking rates. Don’t be afraid to ask. And remember- that parking fee is per day- not for your stay. Chances are, it’s valet parking as well- so have some tip money on hand before you show up.
Don’t even bother trying to drive through the French Quarter. The streets are narrow, one-way and filled with pedestrians-all walking, and for good reason. The French Quarter is only 13 blocks long and about 7 blocks wide, and you can comfortably walk from one end to the other with the whole family. Besides, you’ll never find a decent parking space, or you’ll end up in a no-parking area and get towed! Keep your car at your hotel or in the parking garage and hoof it.
Except for early in the morning, just steer clear of Bourbon Street. When the bars are open, there’s a drinking, party atmosphere that stretches into the street. It’s fun when you are with your friends or partner, but not with your children. There are some pretty graphic pictures in the shop-front windows too- images you may not want to subject your kids to- unless you all watch Game of Thrones together..(hey, not judging). So when walking with the wee ones, cross over Bourbon Street quickly and continue on your way. A quick redirection like “Hey, let’s find Pirate’s Alley” or “Look- Beignets!” is a good way to distract those curious minds while you’re passing to the next street.
6. The best time of day for family explorations is the morning.
New Orleans is a city of many walks of life, and there are a lot of people sleeping rough throughout the Vieux Carré, even in the touristy bits. This is sad but unavoidable. Hurricane Katrina changed the face of the city- saying that, there were a lot of people sleeping outdoors in the years prior to that storm.
Wandering after dark? Stick to the well-lit areas and people filled places. Jackson Square seems to be a night time hub- with live music, tarot card readers, and ghost tour sellers all set up in front of the oldest cathedral in North America- St. Louis Cathedral.
Early morning is the best time to take a city stroll. The streets are empty- as everyone else is recovering from the night before- but when you have kids…there probably wasn’t a night before. The shops may not be open just yet, but you’ll be able to avoid the tourist crowds as well. There’s nothing nicer than a family picture in Jackson Square minus a load of strangers photobombing it.
We tried beignets- lots of beignets. From fresh in the morning to late at night. All piping hot and powdered with sugar. Some were filled with stuff like crayfish, others traditional. Our clothes were sprinkled with that confectioner’s sugar that we couldn’t even wipe off- anyone who eats a beignet gets covered with it. But all of those deep fried doughnut-like hot fritters had different tastes- though that may have depended on whether the oil was fresh or not. Best beignet? Cafe Du Monde on Jackson Square, hands-down, but they’ve been making beignets since 1862, so they have had plenty of time to reach this perfection!
8. Cafe Du Monde is open 24 hours.
Yes, you can get your beignet and java fix any time of day. And their coffee is a unique blend of chicory and coffee- it has a woodsy taste which is a bit addictive (kind like those beignets!). Just walk in and grab an empty table- inside or out, depending on your preference, and one of their servers will take your order. You can buy boxes of their beignet mix & that yummy coffee to take home and try to make yourself- but location, location, it’s never the same! Oh yes, this is a cash-only establishment!
9. If you want a nice dinner, you’ve gotta dress the part.
NOLA is old world- and follows the traditions, like dressing for dinner. So if your eye- or stomach- is set on trying some of NOLA’s finer cuisine, make sure you pack a dress or a collared shirt & tie, otherwise, it’s cafe food for you. (Of course, cafe food is not shabby either). But you’ll be pressing your nose up against the glass of those fancier venues, wondering what you were missing. So Sunday best for you and the kids! And make those reservations before your trip! Emeril’s from famous TV chef fame- Emeril Lagasse, and the historic Commander’s Palace are two such eateries worthy of breaking out the fancy clothes and stashing your flip flops for the night. Your taste buds will thank you.
10. New Orleans floods.
On our drive around the gulf coast, I flicked through my Facebook feed and saw people sharing the news of floods. Photos showed people in plastic raincoats wading through water in the French Quarter. I was horrified. Should we turn around and go home? “Too late now,” my husband said, set on his determined course for beignet-heaven. I stayed fixed on the news. This wasn’t the first flood of the year. New Orleans was built below sea level. When we face heavy rain in Florida- which is often, it gets sucked into our sandy ground. When they face similar storms in NOLA, it sits on the streets. They have 24 pump stations that work hard to drain excess water from their city, but at the time I read this, there were several pump stations not working.
We drove through high waters in Mobil, Alabama- so high the muddy brown touched the bottoms over the bridges on the bay. One road was completely under water. But by the time we reached New Orleans, nary a puddle was to be seen. The front desk clerk at our hotel profusely apologized for the flooding- which was odd, as we didn’t see any. We did see one little shop closed due to flood damage, but spent a sunny, dry weekend, otherwise.
We drove through storms in Mississippi on the trip back to Florida- and learned later that night that New Orleans had flooded once again! Try not to plan your trip during the wet weather season. Fall & winter are drier times, and June is notoriously wet.
City of the Arts
Every street has a musician, and the fences of Jackson square are lined with art for sale. It’s like one giant open gallery. New Orleans is the city of jazz. You’ll be surprised at what talent you’ll find- even on a street corner. Tip your favorite musician and artist. They are working for it, not hustling. Urban art decorates building walls and you’ll find statues from Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square, astride his horse to a butcher holding a pork chop in a back alley of shops. Take the time to appreciate the art of New Orleans. Even if it means grabbing another coffee to listen to that trumpet player.
Ten things about New Orleans to help make your stay better. Have you ever been to NOLA? What was your favorite part about this historic city?
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