Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that the St. Roch Market is located in the Bywater neighborhood; it is in the nearby St. Roch neighborhood. The error has been corrected.
A long weekend in New Orleans conjures up images of boozy days and nighttime street parties. A place where the debauchery never stops and inhibitions are checked at the door.
But that’s not all New Orleans is about. Sure, you can hop off a plane and head straight to Bourbon Street, where tourists drink out of giant fishbowls and strip clubs dot the narrow thoroughfare.
Locals say New Orleans, the real New Orleans, is a city that prioritizes family life at every turn, from Mardi Gras — where most beads are tossed at little kids, not at a pair of flashed breasts — to the city’s famed restaurants, where young diners are welcome.
Jennifer Bernard-Allen, a New Orleans native, is raising her 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son the way she was raised — red beans and rice on Mondays, fried catfish on Fridays.
“New Orleans is truly just rooted in a sense of family,” she says. “And that doesn’t mean the person you’re related to, I think it means the community as a family. I think it’s why our food is so good, I think it’s why our music is so good. Because it comes from people who are inherently joyous.”
She knows her beloved home town has a reputation, but she says the city’s celebratory culture isn’t about excess for its own sake but about appreciating life. “That gets lost often in how New Orleans is depicted.”
Behind the raucous stereotype, she says, is a great place for families to live — and visit.
For travelers, the city’s spirit of inclusion translates as a warm (not to say sweaty) welcome for all ages. Its laid-back vibe, walkability and extended stretch of shorts weather can temper the stresses of family travel — there’s a reason its nickname isn’t the Big Hard. New Orleans also offers the proverbial something for everyone — a rich cultural history that encompasses everything from voodoo to hoop skirts; adventures by both land and water; and a year-round calendar of family-friendly festivals touting the city’s music, cuisine or both.
To New Orleans parents such as Bernard-Allen, the city is a playground for young and old alike. Here are some of their their favorite kid-approved destinations in the Crescent City:
The historic Steamboat Natchez, one of the few authentic steamboats remaining in the United States and the only one in New Orleans, offers two-hour rides up and down the Mississippi River. As the boat pulls away from the dock on Toulouse Street, in the French Quarter, with a 32-note calliope playing, it truly feels like a step back in time. From the deck, you get an expansive view of the skyline and the French Quarter, as well as the bustling shipping lanes that helped build this city. Cruises include live jazz with either brunch or dinner, featuring traditional New Orleans fare such as Creole creamed spinach, grits and beignets. Best of all, kids can visit the engine room.
The bliss that is fried dough topped with powdered sugar is a highlight of any day out in this city. The most famous place to get beignets is the 154-year-old Cafe du Monde, in the French Quarter.
Their menu is so short it fits on the back of a napkin holder — beignets, coffee and hot chocolate — but the place is packed from morning to night, proving it’s always a good time for beignets in New Orleans. You can also get your beignets to go. Eat them as you stroll along the Mississippi’s bank a short walk away.
Brigit Saltz moved to the city from Washington, D.C., last July. Her daughters, 8 and 11, just experienced their first Mardi Gras, and proved to be quick studies on diving for the beads and stuffed animals tossed off two-story floats. Nonetheless, Saltz says, “Their favorite thing about moving to New Orleans is eating the beignets at Cafe du Monde.”
Southern Louisiana is surrounded by water — the Gulf of Mexico, the muddy waters of the Mississippi, and numerous canals, bayous and swamps. Take a quick drive north of Lake Ponchartrain to Slidell and hop on a flat-bottomed boat with Honey Island Swamp Tours. They also offer a pick-up and drop-off service from New Orleans. The boats go straight into the murky waters of the bayou, where you’re likely to see herons, egrets, turtles and alligators, as well as a stunning, Spanish-moss-draped landscape.
This expansive, 1,300-acre retreat is New Orleans’s answer to New York City’s Central Park. Located north of downtown, about a 10-minute cab ride from the French Quarter — the Canal Street Line streetcar will also drop of you off at the gates — City Park is a green oasis that invites visitors to get lost for the day.
With pedal boats, botanical gardens, tennis courts and golf courses, there is no shortage of activities here. Kids, though, will probably head straight for Storyland, a larger-than-life storybook-themed playground where they can slide down the back of a fire-breathing dragon or play among statues of the Three Little Pigs.
The park also has a small amusement park with a historic carousel where visitors can ride a horse (or giraffe or lion) that dates as far back as 1885. There’s even a seat atop an alligator inside the carousel’s gazebo that’s great for pictures before you hop on. The ride has been in operation since 1906, and even today the animals are repainted by hand when they need a touch-up.
Families can catch some great live music al fresco by heading to Jackson Square in front of the nearly 300-year-old St. Louis Cathedral, one of the most iconic landmarks in this city and the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States. Crowds gather — some dancing, some sprawling on the cathedral steps — as street musicians play jazz, classical, soul, New Orleans’s traditional zydeco and more. Jackson Square is also home to a wide range of local artists who set up shop along the sidewalk outside the gates.
New Orleans is full of mouthwatering food, but for something off the beaten path, head to St. Roch Market near the Bywater, a trendy neighborhood known for its artsy vibe a few minutes’ drive from the French Quarter. The people (and their dogs) eating on the outside patio are a great mix of city characters.
The market boasts 16 stalls full of New Orleans comfort food, including in-season seafood and shellfish, chicken, crepes and cocktails. You can also buy take-home items like coffee, grits and fresh produce from area farms.
It’s a favorite of Bernard-Allen’s family. “I personally love introducing my kids to the idea that our neighbors are our farmers, and they are our chefs, and so they are the people who put our food on the table,” she said.
Saltz uses the streetcars to ferry her daughters to the French Quarter for afternoons of fun. In addition to providing transportation, they’re great for sightseeing. They run through several neighborhoods and cost just $1.25 per ride. (Ages 2 and younger ride free.)
A staple of classic New Orleans, the St. Charles Line, which Saltz and her daughters take, is the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world. It motors past the sprawling antebellum mansions of St. Charles Avenue to the river bend at Carrollton Avenue — home of the iconic Camellia Grill — and Audubon Park, which houses the city’s zoo.
Other lines include the Riverfront Line, which takes you from Canal Street along the river to the French Quarter, and the Canal Street Line, which heads up that street and through the Central Business District (known locally as “the CBD”) and into Mid-City.
So make a beeline for Bourbon Street if you must — but for an authentic New Orleans experience, bring the kids.
Netter is a digital journalist and television producer who lives in New Orleans.
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Located in the French Quarter, this hotel offers child-care services and has a kids program that includes a backpack of goodies and milk and cookies on your first night there. The hotel also has a rooftop pool. Double rooms from $278.
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Located in the heart of the French Quarter, Cafe du Monde has been selling beignets — French doughnuts — for more than 150 years. About $2.50 for an order of three.
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A New Orleans landmark for more than 100 years, Commander’s Palace is known for its “haute Creole” cuisine. Entrees start at $29 .
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This kid-friendly local favorite offers traditional New Orleans fare as well as a children’s dinner menu. They also offer a jazz brunch. Entrees start at $25 .
1 Palm Dr.
From a playground of storybook characters to an amusement park featuring a historic carousel, this jewel of New Orleans is great for kids. There’s also activities for all ages, including pedal-boat rides and golf. Admission to Storyland is $4 and kids under three feet all are free.
600 Decatur St.
Cruise the Mississippi River in old-fashioned style on this authentic steamboat. Jazz brunch and dinner cruises available. Tickets start at $31 for adults and $12.25 for children ages 6-12.
Honey Island Swamp Tours
41490 Crawford Landing Rd., Slidell, La.
985-641-1769 or 504- 242-5877
A short drive from New Orleans will bring you to the bayous and swamps, where you can board a flat-bottomed boat to view alligators, birds, turtles and other wildlife in their natural habitat. Tickets are $23 for adults and $15 for children. Transportation from New Orleans’ hotels also available for an extra fee.
Mardi Gras World
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Take a behind-the-scenes tour of Mardi Gras, from floats to props to costumes. Open seven days a week from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tickets are $19.95 for adults, $12.95 for children ages 2-11. Discounts for seniors and students with college ID.