In my pre-kids days, I visited New Orleans for its Jazz Festival (got to see the legendary B.B. King!) and Mardi Gras, with a bit of debauchery along Bourbon Street. Now that I am older and wiser, I wanted to take in the city for a weekend with my kids. Would NOLA welcome kids? Yes, she did; with open arms.
Established by French settlers in 1718, French architecture still stands, despite Hurricane Katrina’s best efforts to destroy the city more than a decade ago. The city is decorated with wrought-iron balconies, courtyards filled with fountains and lush vegetation, and cafes with open fourth walls perfect for people watching. American influences are more evident as the city spreads beyond the French Quarter, with Italianate and Greek Revival homes scattered throughout the Garden District.
We stayed between the French Quarter and the Garden District at the Loews New Orleans located on Poydras Street, just across the street from Harrah’s Casino. This four-star hotel provided the perfect combination of kid-friendliness and luxury, all at bargain prices. Each room features beds enveloped in down, a sitting area with a sleeper sofa and comfy chairs, a desk area, two televisions, and room for us to spread out. Overlooking the Mighty Mississippi River, the staff always remembered our names, and the turn-down service with jazz playing prepared us for a night of sweet dreams.
Our family visit began where most people begin a tour in New Orleans: the French Quarter. This infamous area is actually the original settlement of New Orleans, and sits on the highest land in the below-sea-level city, which spared the streets and buildings from too much damage. It’s also a friendly place for families during the day. (But stay clear at night when with little ones, as the parties go year-round.)
As we arrived in Friday night, we checked straight into our hotel. The airport is a bit of a distance from the heart of the city and my tired kids just wanted to go to sleep. So, our first start on Saturday morning was one of the French Quarter’s landmarks, Cafe du Monde, which dates back to 1862. Cafe du Monde is a must-stop destination for its world-famous powdered sugar-covered beignets, which leaves diners with a tell-tale layer of white dust on their clothing. (You’ll have to walk across a floor covered in it, as well.)
Once we inhaled these tasty (and oh-so-fattening) treats, we made our way to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, located just along the river. With the evacuation of the city and the loss of power after the hurricane, the aquarium was hard hit, losing much of its water life. (Survivors were sent to other aquariums until it reopened a year after the hurricane.) Today, visitors would never know the aquarium had been closed, as it wows with more than 7,500 species and the facility’s trademark glass tunnel, where guests walk beneath swimming stingray, angelfish and other tropical beauties as a pool of light reflects through, giving the sensation of being underwater.
After some “oohs” and “aah,” it was time for some nourishment, so we wandered back into the quarter for lunch at Muriel’s, housed in an iconic corner building that overlooks St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. The park was bustling with horse-drawn carriages, sidewalk artists and street performers offering a bit of New Orleans jazz and blues for passersby. The cathedral, which still accepts worshippers and tourists alike, was built in 1794 and remains the oldest church in the country. Beside the cathedral is the Presbytere, home to the Mardi Gras World museum. Fun for children, the interactive museum features colorful Mardi Gras costumes and floats, as close as my kids are going to get to Mardi Gras until they are old enough and able to get themselves there on their own.
While Jackson Square features many touristy shops, beyond the square and deep into the heart of the French Quarter remain unique shops (voodoo, anyone?), antique stores and art galleries. My daughter loves ghost tours, so we elected to do one of the earlier, and less-frightening tours to uncover the deep, dark secrets of the city. We learned of ghosts haunting hotel corridors, voodoo priestesses, and mysterious deaths of notable members of NOLA’s old high society. Following hours of walking, we ended our evening by filling up with a traditional New Orleans’ dinner at the Gumbo Shop on St. Peter Street. Housed in a building that dates back to 1795, what the restaurant lacked in ambience, it more than made up for with delicious Creole dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya and étouffée.
The next day promised another day of discovery for my family. Catching a shuttle to the Garden District, we joined a walking tour of the neighborhood that is accurately described in literary works as a lush, overgrown area of towering oaks and draping moss. The city’s wealthy residents were the first to build in the Garden District years ago, and no more than four homes were allowed on each block. The wealthiest landowners, fearing diseases associated with the French Quarter, purchased an entire block and built homes squarely in the middle to ensure distance from their neighbors. Today, the district still features some of the most majestic and architecturally signifiant homes in the country. Storied streets lead to the homes of New Orleans’ famed residents, including former resident Anne Rice, whose former home features a wrought-iron fence that upon first glance looks to be made of a skull and cross-bone design but is, in fact, a design of roses.
Also located in this area is one of the city’s most popular visitors destinations: Lafayette Cemetery. Centuries old, it features towering mausoleums. With a city below sea limit, tombs have to rise above ground, and you can wander between the rows, marveling at the unique layouts and designs on the tombs.
Just across the street from the cemetery is the grande dame of New Orleans: Dickie Brennan’s renowned Commander’s Palace. A restaurant since 1880, the creole and Sunday Jazz brunches have been favorites of generations of locals, although you’ll need reservations to visit. Waits for tables can get long and tiresome for kids.
Our weekend came to an end and it was time to head back to the airport. It may have been a brief visit, but it was enough to give the kids a taste of the Big Easy.