I know when we've hit upon a good vacation spot when my husband starts to question why we live in NYC. It only took a few hours in New Orleans for him to start with the following line of questioning - Why do we live in NYC again? Do you realize what kind of house we could live in here if we sold our 5th floor walk-up? Usually I rebuff all this with reminders of how NYC is the only cool place in the country. But New Orleans left me with little response, I have to admit, it's got more culture and soul than even my beloved NYC.
While I don't think we are moving any time soon, we do want to go back for Mardi Gras which our friends have convinced us is a great event for kids. Though you need to know what to avoid, ie the boob flashing streets of the French Quarter and where to hang with kids, they suggest St. Charles Ave where families set up in one spot and watch the procession pass. And of course, the accumulation of beads is enough to entertain most kids for a long time.
But, N.O. is an amazing place to visit any time of year and there is always something going on in addition to the incredible architecture, food and music.
My m.o. while traveling with a toddler is not to plan too much on any given day and to remain really flexible. The public transportation in N.O. isn't great, though the street car is worth catching, so I suggest renting a car. This way you can check out different neighborhoods and if you are so inclined, see some of the still present after-effects of Katrina which are in neighborhoods you probably won't find yourself in unless you go looking. Here are some top kid friendly spots to check out:
1. Stroll the French Quarter - you can easily plan to just walk around and stumble into things though with a little advanced planning you can be sure to catch some of the highlights, here are a few suggestions:
* World's yummiest Coffee and Beignets at Cafe Du Monde - its basically fried dough with sugar but for some reason its outrageously delicious and a total kid pleaser.
* The Presbytere Mardi Gras exhibit, a nice fix of the history and spectacle of Mardi Gras.
* Preservation Hall: You really shouldn't miss out on music while in New Orleans but that can be hard with little ones. But, if your kids can deal, you can try to check out some music with them at Preservation Hall which is famous for its traditional New Orleans jazz. It's all ages & no smoking or drinking which is unusual in New Orleans.
* The Aquarium, while clearly not a French Quarter staple, it's right along the river so it makes for a nice change of pace for antsy kids.
2. Kid Attractions - you will find these spots provide more local flavor than expected and it's always good to bookend some adult things like a really good lunch or checking out a cool record store with something for the little ones:
* The Audubon Zoo which is in the middle of a really beautiful park and home to lots of swamp creatures
* City Park with an amusement park and carousel for older kids, Story Land for the little ones, and the New Orleans Art Museum is also in this park and a nice air conditioned break on a hot day.
* The Children's Museum, which is downtown and a good activity to escape the heat and keep kids happy.
3. Head to the Water & Eat Crawfish- getting on a boat is a surefire kid pleaser, as for crawfish, chances are your kids won't like them but they are freakin delicious!
* Swamp Tour: get closer to an alligator than you ever imagined you wanted to while checking out the beautiful nature on N.O. bayous, here is a list of a bunch of different tour groups that offer a variety of different options.
* Steamboat ride - take a historical 2-hour boat tour on the Mississippi River that includes music, and children under 6 cruise free with paid adult. Might be touristy, but it's fun.
* Crawfish - you can get it at a restaurant or do like we did and get a big bag at a local fish store, pour it out on a table lined with newspaper and start the carnage. Only problem, it's spicy so you probably want to get something else for kids.
Helpful websites and books:
Neworleansonline - Nice start for iistings of hotels, sights, restaurants, etc.
Bestofneworleans - Good events listing section, worth checking out before you book your trip to see if you can catch a festival or concert while you are there.
New Orleans Zagat - Always good to have when looking for food! Finally, I feel like I should mention that safety can be in an issue in New Orleans. It has a bit of a vibe like NYC did in the 70's, as in it's really cool but you need to know where to avoid and be aware of your surroundings. I find that New Yorkers have no trouble with this and I will say that we were astonished by how nice people were and had absolutely no negative experiences. In fact it's the only big city I've ever been in where strangers say hi to you when you walk down the street!
Thanks to Todd and Trish, our amazing friends who let us crash at their place with our toddler and who shared all their native New Orleans knowledge with me so I could write this post.