Famous for its wild Mardi Gras parties, vibrant multiethnic culture, and jazz music, New Orleans, Louisiana, might not seem to be the spot for a great family vacation. But dubbed "The Big Easy," this city is a charming Southern belle boasting a culture that is unique, music that is truly inspiring, cuisine to die for, fun-for-all entertainment, and an intriguing history. Straddling the mouth of the Mississippi River, still growing and recovering after the devastating Hurricane Karina in 2005, NOLA can be as tame or as wild as your family wants, and is a must-see American city.
The oldest and most famous neighborhood in New Orleans, the French Quarter, was first settled in 1718. Now a National Historic Landmark, the 78-square-block section of NOLA is a great place to spend the afternoon strolling down famous Bourbon Street. This strip has beautiful architecture that shouldn't be missed; however, families should make sure they are long gone by sundown to avoid the infamous nighttime Mardi Gras shenanigans.
For the family that wants to experience some of the Fat Tuesday celebration, head to Mardi Gras World, where it is Carnival every day of the year. Here guests are invited to walk among the glamorous costumes and floats from this cultural event and watch the artists at work-the masters of sculpture and float design who make the parade a visual masterpiece, each year more outlandish than the last.
Spend some time in Jackson Square, a park in the center of the French Quarter. Families can visit the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continually open cathedral in the U.S., and the Cabildo, colonial New Orleans' former City Hall and the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. Finally, after a carriage ride through the French Quarter, unwind at Café du Monde, famous for its beignets, New Orleans' unique doughnuts.
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz-a combination of blues, gospel, and ragtime genres mixed with improvisation-and a family should not visit without taking in a bit of the art form. Preservation Hall is a legendary music venue and home to its world-renowned namesake band. Open seven days a week, the hall invites all ages to enjoy a jazz performance for $10. The New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park allows visitors to take self-guided audio tours to learn about jazz history first hand. Plus, the park's Visitor Center offers free live jazz performances five days a week.
Hurricane Katrina is now ingrained into the culture of New Orleans. The Louisiana Superdome, besides being the home of the Saints football team, became iconic for serving as temporary shelter for 30,000 people after the storm's devastation. It cost more than $134 million for the city to repair the sporting venue. Of course, other less prominent structures, including homes and businesses, were also destroyed and are still in need of repair. NOLA offers countless voluntourism opportunities for travelers looking to lend a hand; and for those who want to see the real damage Katrina left, there are plenty of tours that can highlight the destruction.
New Orleans is a short drive from the bayous of the South. Various outfitters offer tours of the area that bring guests across the Mississippi River. Travel through the Barataria Preserve, in Jean Lafitte National Historic Park, and see the habitats of alligators, egrets, raccoons, and a variety of snakes. Or to become one with nature in the confines of the city, head to Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and the Audubon Zoo, where visitors can say hello to Spots, the white alligator, or ride a safari simulator ride. Plus, the New Orleans Botanical Gardens has more than 2,000 varieties of plants.
Fantastic war museums abound in NOLA. The oldest, the Confederate Museum, is home to the second largest collection of Confederate memorabilia in the U.S. Also, The National World War II Museum is packed with exhibits and haunting images of the war, which may not be appropriate for little ones. Highlights of the museum include actual soldier's uniforms, weapons displays, and oral history stations, where visitors can hear the stories of veterans while watching film footage related to their experiences.
For more information on family-friendly activities and attractions in The Big Easy, contact the New Orleans Convention and Visitor's Bureau at www.neworleanscvb.com, or call 1-800-672-6124.