A First-Timer's Guide to New Orleans

By: Valeria Ramos

If I had to describe New Orleans in one word it would be electric. Live music, voodoo, rainbow-colored houses, and strong drinks are plentiful in this sultry, swampy city.

They say life is better in the Big Easy and there is an energy in NOLA that is so vibrant it is almost tangible. New Orleans’ rich history and culture combined with a population of people who love to party results in a destination incomparable to any city in the world.

Walking through the French Quarter and dancing throughout Bourbon Street with three of my best friends this year is one trip I will always remember. Although there were a couple of places we didn’t get a chance to see (our excuse to go back as soon as possible), I’ve gathered some highlights from our time in NOLA that made me fall in love with this magical place.

  1. Explore The French Quarter

    If you’re wondering where to start your trip, the French Quarter is a no-brainer. At the heart of New Orleans, this historic area is home to boutiques, souvenir shops, and amazing food and bars you can explore from day to night. The colorful buildings with wrap-around iron balconies make the perfect backdrop for Insta-worthy pictures. Just a few highlights from the FQ include Cafe du Monde, French Toast (see crepes & mimosa above), the French Market, and Pirates Alley!

Jackson Square

Jackson Square

  1. See Jackson Square

    At the center of the French Quarter lies Jackson Square. Littered with cafés, day-drinkers, street artists and performers, this is a great place to grab a bite to eat and check out St. Louis Cathedral - the oldest cathedral in the United States.

  2. Take a Haunted Night Tour

    A great way to pre-game for a night out in NOLA is to take a haunted night tour. Thanks to the city’s public drinking laws, you can take a drink and sip it throughout the streets while exploring the French Quarter’s eerie history at night. I recommend touring with DJ from New Orleans Ghost Adventures. Not only did we get to see and hear all about the scary stuff that went down at the Lalaurie mansion, but we also learned about different landmarks and made a pit stop at Molly’s pub for some shots of bourbon.

  3. Get Drunk on Bourbon Street

Photo: Neinzahn | Dreamstime.com

Photo: Neinzahn | Dreamstime.com

Bourbon street is not for everyone, but as college students on spring break, my friends and I could not get enough. If you love to party and don’t mind crowds of people, Bourbon St. is a New Orleans must. We found ourselves ending every night of our trip on Bourbon St., people-watching and dancing into the hours of the morning. Check out our Bourbon St. survival guide for the best bars and drinks in this area!

Exploring the Garden District post-Mardi Gras. Beads still lingered on trees and cast iron gates.

Exploring the Garden District post-Mardi Gras. Beads still lingered on trees and cast iron gates.

5. Visit the Garden District

Stunning, tree-lined Victorian homes and mansions make up the garden district, as well as some nice restaurants and bars. More relaxed than the FQ, this area was developed in 1832 for nouveau-riche Americans settling into the area. The Buckner Mansion (a.k.a the house from American Horror Story: Coven) is a great photo-op in the area.

6. Eat at St. Roch Market

Because NOLA is a melting pot of vibrant cultures, there is no shortage of choices for foodies. One spot my friends and I frequented was St. Roch Market. From tacos to po’boys, this food hall offers options from different vendors at a lower price than most French Quarter eateries.

7. Get Your Voodoo On

A trip to New Orleans is not complete without a visit to the historic voodoo museum. Check out historic artifacts from the queen of voodoo, Marie Laveau, and make a wish on her wishing stump (yes, really). For all your voodoo/souvenir needs from incense and books to shrunken heads, stop by Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo! (Pro tip: take your student ID with you to get museum entrance discounts).

Somewhere in the swamps

Somewhere in the swamps

8. Head to the Swamps

If you want to get away from the bustle of the city for a day, take a drive out to a swamp tour and explore Louisiana wildlife. I highly recommend not partaking in this activity while hungover, but getting to see and feed alligators up close (we even held a baby gator) was worth pushing through any discomfort caused by a bit too much vodka and tequila.

9. Visit a Historic Cemetery

There are a handful of historic cemeteries throughout New Orleans, but the most well-known is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. Due to the city's high water table, coffins here are not buried but kept in stunning mausoleums, or as they're often referred to, "cities of the dead." The most visited sites here are voodoo queen Marie Laveau's grave and Nicolas Cage's controversial pyramid tomb, which he plans as his final resting place.

St. Louis Cemetery | Photo: TripAdvisor

St. Louis Cemetery | Photo: TripAdvisor

10. Tour Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation

Located in Vacherie (a one hour drive from New Orleans), the Oak Alley home has tours that give insight into life in Louisiana pre Civil War. The Oak Alley grounds are beautiful and the tour displays details of its dark past. While horrific, the history of sugar plantations and slavery should not be forgotten and visiting this place was a pretty educational experience.

Having only spent a handful of days in New Orleans, I am fully aware that there is much more this city has to offer and I can’t wait until my next opportunity to explore the Big Easy.