Essential New Orleans:
Top 10 things to do

Although any list of the best things to do in any city is by nature subjective, there are always some universal must-sees.

My list of the top 10 things to do in New Orleans is a hybrid of the two, a collection of sights that will satisfy both mainstream and niche interests. Prices range from free (Jackson Square) to not cheap (city bus tour).

New Orleans is one of the best walking cities in the world, so if you're staying near the French Quarter, or even a little farther away, you'll find it's easy to walk everywhere. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

1. French Quarter

If ever there was a city that shouted "Instagram," New Orleans is it. And within this city, your most iconic shots will come from the French Quarter, with its ornate 18th-century buildings and ironwork balconies. This oldest part of New Orleans is also the city's most famous attraction.

Royal Street at Dumaine in the French Quarter.

Stroll along the Quarter's 80 or so square blocks and you'll find something for everyone: Restaurants and bars (a lot of them!), boutiques and souvenir shops for shoppers, and live music all over.

Night-time bar scene on Bourbon Street in November. 

Bourbon Street is the heart of the French Quarter and it's pretty much the only street that's open for business after dark. It's slightly run-down by day, and can be more than a little seedy by night -- but it's all part of the area's character. No need to worry, though: There's always a strong police presence, with plenty of officers on horseback keeping an eye on revellers.

Diners at a restaurant on Bourbon Street get a surprise visitor during their meal.

2. Cafe du Monde

Cafe du Monde
A trio of beignets costs $2.73 plus tax.

After the French Quarter and Bourbon Street, having a beignet at this NOLA institution is probably No. 1 on many tourists' lists. What you might not know is that Cafe du Monde's only food item is the beignet (except for coffees), and they're so good the restaurant has been serving them for 150+ years and in fact is now a chain. The French Market location in the French Quarter is the original location. A trio of beignets will cost about $3; order at the window and a server will bring your beignets to you.

Cafe du Monde
The original Cafe du Monde, the French Market location.

MORE: Best restaurants in New Orleans

3. Frenchmen Street

Spotted Cat
There's some great music coming out of the Spotted Cat.

If the raucous rowdiness of Bourbon Street is too much for you, head to Frenchmen Street; it's at the northern border of the French Quarter and it's where the locals go to escape from tourists. The jazzy part of Frenchmen Street isn't all that long -- just a couple of blocks -- but its restaurants and live music venues come to life after dark. If you're there during the daytime, you can find live jazz at the Spotted Cat.

4. Jackson Square

Jackson Square
Jackson Square, with St. Louis Cathedral as its centrepiece. The Mississippi River is directly behind me.

This historic landmark is one of the best places to spend an afternoon people-watching and window-shopping. You'll find face-painters, magicians, jugglers and street performers of all kinds here, most of them working for tips. There are a myriad of shops for browsing. The New Orleans waterfront on the mighty Mississippi is a great spot to take a stroll; it's also the spot where many river and land tours start. And don't forget to check out the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest in North America. It's open free of charge to the public for viewing and for those who want to take part in a Catholic mass.

St. Louis Cathedral
The interior of St. Louis Cathedral.

5. Second line parade

I've heard of tourists who check the wedding and obituary sections of newspapers, hoping to find announcements of second line parades. "If it's in the paper, it's practically an invitation to join in," one person declared on Facebook. I wasn't sure if this was true, but I was prepared to do the very same thing because I wanted to see one. Thankfully, it didn't come to that; we saw a wedding second line parade right before us just as our Uber dropped us off at our hotel. It's totally a fluke thing, but do try to see a second line parade if you can; it's such a New Orleans tradition.

5. Swamp tour

Cajun Encounters
The Cajun Encounters Honey Island Swamp tour.

The swamp tour is one of those New Orleans "musts," in my opinion. Here's where you can see gators and raccoons and hogs and all kinds of avian life. If you're from Canada, as I am, you'll be seeing a lot of these creatures for the first time. If you're lucky, you'll get an awesome guide like we did, a man who appeared to be of retirement age, but who has a passion for the land and a ton of information to impart. Our hotel recommended the Cajun Encounters swamp tour, and this company has my huge thumbs-up also. The tour company offers pickup and drop-off to and from various downtown hotels.

Cajun Encounters
There are gators everywhere. Guides lure them to the boat using bits of wieners on long sticks.

Cajun Encounters
I didn't expect to see so many raccoons. They're all well fed, eating the wieners served up by tour guides!

6. Plantation tour

Whitney Plantation
The front of the "Big House" at the Whitney Plantation.

If you're going to do a plantation tour -- and this is another "must," in my opinion -- I highly recommend visiting the Whitney Plantation. It opened in 2014 and is the only plantation in Louisiana that's told from the viewpoint of the slaves, and what you'll see and learn is both eye-opening and heartbreaking. The owner of the Whitney bought the plantation some years ago with a plan to flip it and make some money, according to our guide. But then the owner found a box of slave documents in one of the buildings, and knew this history had to be preserved. He then spent millions of his own money converting the plantation so that it could be opened to the public, to ensure this history would never be forgotten. Even more cool, the owner is still alive and can sometimes be seen wandering around the grounds. You'll need a car to get to the Whitney, and Uber doesn't come here. Do as we did: Rent a car for the day, take a trip to Baton Rouge (see No. 10), and stop in at the Whitney en route. Reservations are recommended so you don't get sold out. Also, cover up and have your mosquito repellent ready ... the skeeters here are big enough to pick you up and carry away.

Whitney Plantation
This structure is two homes. Anywhere from three to 10 slaves lived on each side; they may or may not have been related.

7. New Orleans city tour

Our bus tour stopped at one of the above-ground cemeteries in New Orleans.

If all you want is a taste of the city, a bus tour is the best way to get a good sampling. Our Gray Lines bus tour was good, though not cheap at $44 USD per person. But we learned a lot of interesting history, stopped at an above-ground cemetery, visited the awesome City Park and saw some cool neighbourhoods including the posh Garden District and the historic Faubourg Marigny area. If we'd had more time, we would have visited some of these areas on our own after we did the bus tour.
Budget travel: If money is tight, consider taking a streetcar tour of the city. The St. Charles trolley line in particular will take you on a tour of the lovely homes of the Garden District, and it will only cost $1.25. Also, it's just really fun riding the streetcar with the locals.

The original streetcars of the city now run alongside cars on the streets. The streetcars are a great, cheap way to see NOLA.

It'll cost you $1.25 to ride the trolley, though there are also longer, multi-use passes for purchase.

8. Go to a sports event 

New Orleans is a huge sports town so there are a ton of choices if you're so inclined. We went to an NFL game (Rams vs Saints) at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome (capacity about 75,000) and an NBA game (Bulls vs Pelicans) at Smoothie King Center (capacity about 18,000). Both were huge fun. I'm not a sports fan but, oddly, I do love going to sports events, oohing at the venue, eating my hot dog and nachos and, in this case, fist-bumping with strangers and proclaiming "Who dat!" Even for a non-sporty person like me, the Superdome is truly a sight to see. I especially liked the steep pitch of the stadium, so that even if your seat is quite high up, your viewing angle is still excellent.

The truly cool Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Note the fantastic roof.

9. National WWII Museum

The National WWII Museum comprises five buildings.

The National WWII Museum is one of those sights that all of the fellow tourists we spoke to in New Orleans said we had to see. Still, we weren't convinced, and we left it until our last day as one of those things we'd visit if we had time. Wow, what a mistake to not have moved this to the top of our list! The historical exhibits, the films, the first-person accounts, the artifacts, the 4D movie narrated by Tom Hanks are so poignant and compelling even if you don't personally know anyone who's been through the Second World War. Those young boys who fought for our freedom were so courageous, and it's horrifying to imagine how scared they must have been, and the atrocities they endured. We spent four hours in the five buildings of the museum and only left because it was about to close. We felt a bit squeezed for time at the end as we rushed to see everything before it closed. Give yourself time to see this properly.

One of the many compelling exhibits of the National WWII Museum.

10. Visit Baton Rouge 

The Louisiana State Capitol, which has a 360-degree observation deck on the 27th floor.

I don't think a trip to the Big Easy is complete without a visit to Baton Rouge, especially when it's so close to New Orleans. Baton Rouge, the Louisiana capital, is only a 75-minute drive east, and it's a great day trip. We combo-ed our visit with a stop at the Whitney Plantation (see No. 6) and it was a perfect itinerary. In Baton Rouge, visit the Louisiana State Capitol and visit its 27th-floor observation deck (free!). We also enjoyed driving through the stately and sumptuous grounds of Louisiana State University, and the city's Riverfront is a beautiful way to while away some time. We ended our day with a fabulous meal at Roux 61.

View of the Louisiana State Capitol grounds in Baton Rouge from the 27th-floor observation deck.

MORE: New Orleans' best restaurants


Check out my Instagram, @JuanitaNg.