A few years ago, our family was fortunate to be able to join my husband on a business trip to New Orleans. We were only there a short time and I spent much of our time alone with my (then) 4 & 2 year old daughters. Luckily, New Orleans was only one time zone away and so jet lag was not an issue. My youngest daughter, on the other hand, is a pistol, and so any excursion was a stretch of patience & virtue!
On the other hand, it provided an excellent taste of New Orleans in a very short time – great if you have a limited time in New Orleans or just want to take a day trip downtown. You can see 4 or 5 of the major highlights of New Orleans in half a day and feel like you’ve seen enough to have actually SEEN New Orleans.
The conference he was attending was in the Hilton New Orleans Riverside right downtown. The hotel was perfectly suited to being able to explore New Orleans with small children and a minimum of headaches. The hotel itself had both pros and cons.
• Easy access to public transportation (streetcar)
• Walking distance to the Aquarium/IMAX
• A small store with sundries with breakfast items and snacks available for purchase – as with all downtown hotels, it is PRICY! We easily spent $100 for yogurt, fruit, sandwiches, drinks, snacks, etc for 3-4 days.
• In room refrigerators
• There is no continental breakfast – only several sit down restaurants and a coffee shop
• It was quite upscale and not your normal “family friendly” hotel – obviously caters to a business clientele
• The “mall” that it was attached to is not very appealing – do NOT visit the food court.
The best part of the hotel was its proximity to the public streetcar system. There is a stop on the Canal – City Park/Museum line LITERALLY outside the front door and the streetcar runs along the side of the hotel. Unfortunately, it did have a few oddities.
The streetcars do not seem to run on a regular or set schedule that I was able to determine so there is usually a wait. While there is a schedule in writing, while we were there, we experienced that two streetcars would come very close (5-10 minutes) together and then it would be a long time until another one came (as much as 45 minutes).
Also, you should either purchase a pass or have exact change. If you don’t have exact change, change is provided in the form of a credit ticket from the streetcar driver.
Once on the streetcar, it’s a short stop away to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. A few stops later you are at the French Market stop – get off here to see the French Quarter. There is a beautiful grassy park between the streetcar tracks along the Mississippi River to explore. If you head away from the river through a parking lot, you will go along the set of buildings that comprise the French Market (see a full French Quarter Map here).
If you walk a few blocks west along Decatur Street, you will hit everything worth seeing to get a taste of New Orleans in just half a day!
Café du Monde
If you are in New Orleans, you cannot skip getting beignets at Café du Monde. It is legendary and always full. Beignets are square donuts doused in powdered sugar and they are always served hot and fresh. They have indoor and outdoor seating (seat yourself) and have a quick turnover so there is never a long wait. We didn’t have one at all and went twice – once without hubby and once with him. It has a very diner-like feel and you can essentially get beignets and coffee (or milk) and not a lot else. If you are ready for a snack, head here first!
Directly across the street is Jackson Square. There are lots of horse drawn carriages for hire along the street and a gate in the center. If you see those, you are probably in the right place.
Jackson Square is a park filled with gardens and walking paths around it. It’s fairly clean, but not exceptionally beautiful though it WAS late September. It was also fairly empty the day that we went; I’m not sure if that’s typical or not. If you walk toward the back, there is a fountain that the girls loved to look in and play around. Unfortunately, we had to cut our visit short or the 2 year old would have been IN it.
Cathedral-Basillica of St. Louis King of France
Right next to the fountain is another gate leading out onto Chartres Street. And across that, is the Cathedral-Basillica of St. Louis King of France. Chartres Street is closed to vehicle traffic, but it is full of vendors & jazz musicians even at 9 in the morning. And DIRECTLY in front of the cathedral are tons of vendors doing things like fortunes and palm reading. Luckily my kids are too young to know what many of them were doing, but be warned that you do have to walk past them to get to the cathedral. They are not obnoxious or in your face, but they ARE there, so be forewarned.
Unfortunately, we did not make it for any of the Masses. They are very early — 7:30am and we weren’t in New Orleans for the weekend. We were able to go inside and they also offer scheduled tours of this and the Ursuline Convent a few blocks away. It was a beautiful cathedral with beautiful paintings on the ceilings and two side altars with kneelers in the front. My older daughter was happy to stop and say Good Morning to Jesus in the tabernacle and say a prayer in front of Mary before moving on. To a 4 year old, church is still church, even if it is large and beautiful!
The cathedral also has a small gift shop. I love to shop Catholic gift shops while traveling and purchased all my children and Godchildren a St. Louis King of France holy card for their Holy Card Rings among various unusual books that I haven’t seen elsewhere.
St. Anne Street
And finally, as you make your way back over to the French Market to get back on the streetcar, walk along St. Anne Street (to the left as you walk out of the cathedral). There are many artists creating and selling their art along the street (also closed to vehicular traffic) and there are also interesting stores to pop into; I remember wanting to stop into a book store and a toy store in particular but we were approaching naptime/lunchtime meltdowns.
Exploring the French Quarter
If you have more than half a day, the French Quarter is delightful to explore. Most of the “red-light” district is on Bourbon St to the east of the Cathedral so if you decide to walk around and look at the stores and architecture, just say off of Bourbon St to the east. The west is not perfect, but it’s not bad…we did walk along it for several blocks with my husband. The French Market has lovely shops and is also where the public restrooms are located. They are fairly clean. And if you are looking to shop, Decatur St (the main street where Café du Monde is located), has many shops. Again, be warned that there is a history of voodoo in New Orleans and you will find that reflected in several shop windows.
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
If you have an extra half of a day with small children, you could also check out the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. In addition to having the normal fish, jellyfish, seahorses and the like, they have a small aviary. Really, it’s a large warm room with a ton of parakeets, but it was probably the girls favorite because you can pay to feed them. There is also an IMAX theatre and a small play area for very little children – like playground equipment but indoors. We spent A LOT of time there working out their energy since there aren’t many places to run and climb in a fancy hotel.
If you have even more time, there is an Insectarium a few blocks away (a mile or less, I think). And further out of downtown, there is a Zoo and a Park that Audubon runs in New Orleans, as well. We did not venture to see any of them as the streetcar line was closed somewhere between our hotel and the zoo and I did not relish using the bus system with two small children. Streetcars and subways I get—buses, not so much.
And there you have New Orleans in a Nutshell – enough to see the highlights in half a day or less WITH little kids.
Do you have any recommendations for must-see places near the French Quarter, with or without little ones?