Tennessee Williams said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” And ain’t it the truth? (Sorry, Cleveland). New Orleans is uniquely American, but it’s also a one-stop portal to other worlds: French, Spanish, African, West Indies, Cajun and Creole cultures fuse in NOLA, creating some serious Southern sass in the city’s delicious food and diversions. And although Fat Tuesday is fast approaching right now, giant oaks draped year-round in Mardi Gras beads beckon visitors to join the parade no matter the season. From the antebellum mansions in the Garden District to the swamps of the bayou, there are plenty of places for kids and adults alike to eat, drink and be merry. Here are our top picks for when you’re traveling to New Orleans with kids in tow.
Where to eat & drink
Since 1862, Café du Monde, the original French Market coffee stand, has held the title of the place to go in New Orleans. Its claim to fame is the beignet, Louisiana’s state doughnut, served with café au lait, coffee with chicory and hot milk. If the line is too long, take the St. Charles Streetcar, the oldest continuously running line in the world, to New Orleans Coffee and Beignet Co. on St. Charles Avenue. Their beignets are the bomb.
For a bigger breakfast (served from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.) or lunch, Stanley on the corner of Jackson Square is quick, casual and tasty. They have soups, sandwiches, salads and local favorites like seafood gumbo, bananas Foster French toast and Bloody Marys.
Also for lunch or dinner, The Original French Market Restaurant and Bar has been serving the city for 200 years. Anthony Marullo Jr., son of Sicilian immigrants, bought the building in 1965 and has been serving his mother’s recipes ever since (my kids loved the fried alligator and crab cakes). Also popular are the crayfish — so much so, you’ll need to go for lunch because they’re usually sold out by dinner.
Local friends said we had to try charbroiled oysters at Drago’s Seafood Restaurant — known for being the best in town. And they deserve the hype. We enjoyed raw oysters at several restaurants, but these ones were the largest we found.
For dinner, don’t miss Red Fish Grill. If you need vegan options not listed on the menu, just ask. If not, try their wood-grilled redfish and lump crabmeat dish — one of my all-time favorite meals. Located on Bourbon Street, this restaurant has a relaxed and fun vibe.
On Magazine Street, you’ll find the best indie and eclectic shopping and great food choices. For lunch or dinner, try: La Petite Grocery, which specializes in French cuisine and craft cocktails; Red Dog Diner, which boasts a large menu and an area for outdoor seating; and Shaya, which offers modern Israeli food with vegetarian options. And for a quick bite, Dat Dog or Surrey’s is your best bet.
Like NOLA’s cuisine, its cocktail culture rules. Drinks flow from Sunday brunch until late at night, and bartenders offer to-go cups in the French Quarter. A beautiful place to sit and sip is at Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar and Lounge on Royal Street. While children aren’t seated at the bar, the family can enjoy seeing the carousel spin from a lounge table from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Order the vieux carré, the bar’s signature cocktail, which was invented there in 1938. Some nights, the jazz band starts as early as 5 p.m.
Where to stay
For local authenticity, comfort and convenience, you can’t beat the Pontchartrain Hotel, a gorgeous, quiet hideaway that has hosted the likes of Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra and Tennessee Williams (who lived here while writing A Streetcar Named Desire). Check out the wall beside the reception desk for a framed portion of the play’s manuscript with Williams’ written revisions.
Named for Louis XIV’s court, the hotel opened as a luxury apartment building in 1927. Since reopening in 2016 after updates, it has made “it” lists in Condé Nast, Travel + Leisure and AAA. Located on the quiet, oak-flanked St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District, the Ponchartrain is just minutes away from the French Quarter, Magazine Street and other attractions — plus, there are family suites. The dining area is a photographic paradise, the Bayou Bar serves some of the most exquisite cocktails in town, and Hot Tin (the rooftop bar, naturally) offers the best views of the city.
Where to play
The two-hour French Quarter Ghosts & Legends Tour (recommended by the History Channel and Travel Channel as the No. 1 Tour in New Orleans) is tops. It meets across from Pat O’Brien’s at the Reverend Zombie’s Voodoo on St. Peter Street between Bourbon and Royal. Bonus: A ticket gets you a two-for-one deal on hurricanes at Finnegan’s next door. Tour stops include LaLaurie Mansion — once the home of actor Nicolas Cage and one of the haunts in American Horror Story: Coven — and the pirate hangout/oldest tavern in the U.S., Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar.
Another hit with the fam was seeing the New Orleans Pelicans, the NBA hometown team, play at the Smoothie King Center.
For music, head to Frenchman Street and to Preservation Hall, where traditional New Orleans Jazz musicians play five intimate acoustic concerts nightly. And don’t miss my favorite family fun place, the Rock’n’Bowl, where you can reserve a lane or take the floor, dancing to live bands nightly.
Educational and nature excursions include steamboat rides, swamp tours and The National World War II Museum. City Park has many activities for children: gardens with storybook sculptures, an amusement park with the “flying horses” historic carousel, and a lake with rental paddle boats and bikes. And if you miss Mardi Gras — with its 50 parades and 1,000-plus floats per year — no worries. At Mardi Gras World, the whole family can tour where the floats are built and meet the artisans and architects who create them.