One of the more popular unofficial taglines for New Orleans is “a theme park for adults.” As branding goes, this is pretty accurate when it comes to the neon lights of Bourbon Street, the hipster crowds in the Marigny and Bywater, and the foodies prowling Uptown for the next James Beard-nominated hot spot.
But can this town, so well known for its adult diversions, also cater to kids? The answer is, as so many New Orleanians are wont to say, “Yeah you right!” From street performers, live music, parks, museums, and yes, even some Mardis Gras parades, New Orleans has a lot to offer everyone in the family.
While we’re wary of engaging regional cliches too deeply, there is more than a grain of truth to the Big Easy’s penchant for, well, taking it easy. A stuffed-shirt approach does not yield much in New Orleans beyond head-shaking disapproval. Even the highest-end restaurants are cool with kids, who are generally looked after with an indulgent smile.
Getting around New Orleans with children in tow
One thing to consider if you’re exploring by foot is that New Orleans’ ill-maintained sidewalks are horrible for strollers – you’ll want to bring one that is maneuverable and durable. Another option is bicycling through the city. It’s easy to cycle, and you can cross the entirety of the town in 45 minutes. If you’re looking to access outer neighborhoods such as Mid-City, a car is the easiest way to travel.
Best things to do in the French Quarter with kids
A popular place for families is the French Quarter. Although many visitors treat it as a sort of adult playground, with Bourbon Street serving as a neon heart of bad behavior, skip this side and you’ll find a compact neighborhood where historical preservation, incredible dining and great nightlife intersect like nowhere else in the USA.
Explore the area with a morning walking tour run by Friends of the Cabildo. It’s an excellent introduction to both the architecture and history of the area. After the tour, take a walk along the river and consider catching a concert sponsored by the National Park Service at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. Or, walk up and down Royal Street and lounge alongside the river. If you feel inclined, rent a bicycle; you can cover lots more ground that way. There’s plenty of shopping and galleries to peruse here.
The hub of activity in Jackson Square is sure to be loved by kids. Any time of day you may encounter street artists, fortune-tellers, buskers, brass bands and similar folks all engaged in producing the sensory overload New Orleans is famous for (and kids go crazy over). The square is framed by a fairytale cathedral and two excellent museums, and nearby are steps leading up to the Mississippi River. Drop by Café du Monde for some powdered-sugar treats.
Where to find the family-friendly Mardis Gras spots
Colorful spectacle is core to New Orleanian identity, and this sort of pageantry gets put on parade (literally) every winter, spring and fall weekend during a celebration known as second lining – local parades that march through primarily African American neighborhoods. They are open to the public, and many local families march with their children in tow, but loud music and alcohol consumption is the norm. Kids who are into live music will love it but it can be a sensory overload for those who prefer a quieter outing.
Of course, it’s not like this city lacks parades. Processions affiliated with festivals and holidays like Decadence, Gay Easter, Halloween and, of course, Mardi Gras always include folks in fantastic costumes tossing “throws” (beads, toys, etc) to kids. Indeed, many locals would argue that, contrary to popular belief, Mardi Gras and the preceding two weeks of Carnival are fundamentally family-oriented holidays (accessible parades for children include the sci-fi-ganza of Chewbacchus and the parading dogs of Barkus).
You may see public inebriation anywhere in the city during Carnival, but the main parade route on St Charles Avenue, which passes through Uptown, the Garden District, the Lower Garden District and the CBD, is always filled with families.
The enormous Endymion parade, which rolls through Mid-City, is held up as a family-friendly event, but we find it too crowded for our tastes. Other parades like Barkus roll through the French Quarter, while Chewbacchus runs through Faubourg Marigny.
In general, truly drunken adult behavior tends to concentrate around Bourbon Street and Frenchmen Street during Carnival, but head a few blocks in either direction from these places and you are likely to find families enjoying themselves.
Local tip: a taste for pageantry easily translates into a love of theater, and many theater programs in New Orleans market themselves to families. Be on the lookout for family-oriented shows at the NOLA Project and Cafe Istanbul in the Healing Center.
Take them on a swamp tour
The swampy, buggy wetlands of South Louisiana are their own kind of playground, but it’s not one that is easily accessible to the uninitiated. You can take a swamp tour, of course – the kids will probably get to watch alligators prowl the Bayou – or, if you’d rather not spend the money, you can walk the boardwalk at the Barataria Preserve, just south of the city. Gators can sometimes be spotted there, and even if you don’t spy those grinning reptiles, the local cypress swamp has an otherworldly beauty.
A similar landscape awaits visitors to the boardwalk trails that skirt through the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center, located in New Orleans East. Fair warning – South Louisiana gets hot and humid. Bring lots of cold water for any nature outing no matter the season.
Choose your own adventure in City Park
City Park is larger than Central Park and it has alligators – what are you waiting for? If alligators aren’t your thing, it is also home to long lines of live oaks and weeping willows; a botanical garden that contains New Orleans in miniature; ice cream; Greek columns; a sculpture garden that surrounds the New Orleans Museum of Art; and a singing tree, festooned with wind chimes and romance – the sort of space where love and music slowly infuse the air with giddiness.
A walk through the hardwood trees of the Couturie Forest will make you feel like the city is far far away. The paths lead to the highest point in the city, Laborde Mountain, which affords you stunning views as you catch your breath.
Check out the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, especially the 1906 carousel that’s a gem of vintage nostalgia. Other thrills include a Ferris wheel, bumper cars and a tilt-a-whirl.
The Louisiana Children’s Museum recently built new digs in City Park. It’s kind of a theme park for kids (albeit more educational). There are giant bubble-blowing exhibits, fun-size loading cranes, a book forest, a play shopping area, and plenty of other stuff that should appeal to any kid under 10.
Spend a day at Audubon Park
Audubon Park is more groomed than City Park and sits on a stretch of Magazine Street and St Charles Avenue rife with good food options. This is the location of the Fly, a popular riverfront pedestrian walkway, and of course, the Audubon Zoo.
The Audubon Zoo, Aquarium and Insectarium are a trifecta of family-friendly sites that are popular with tourists and locals. The zoo is a genuinely excellent example of the genre – it’s large, the animals have spacious enclosures and the setting in Audubon Park is wonderful. It’s closing temporarily for a renovation in late November 2022 and will reopen for its adoring fans in the summer of 2023.
During summer, be on the lookout for the onsite waterpark, “Cool Zoo.“ Also, note that there is a waterfall and grotto (of sorts) in the shadow of Monkey Hill, a small man-made slope located near the African wild dogs.
The Aquarium of the Americas has playful otters, cute penguins, a Mayan sunken temple exhibit and a questionable display of an oil rig and sea life living in perfect harmony. Last but not least, the Insectarium has giant beetles, a wonderfully disgusting cockroach display, a cool indoor swamp and – oh boy! – a cafe that sells all kinds of insect-derived food.
To visit the aquarium, insectarium and zoo, buy the Audubon Experience package and see all three within 30 days, as well as an IMAX movie, at a reduced overall price.
Dining out with children in New Orleans
New Orleans has some of the best food in the USA, and the good news is, you don’t have to miss out just because you’re traveling with kids. While there are few non-chain places with dedicated children’s menus, most New Orleans restaurants are more than willing to adjust the menu to a child’s tastes.
Foodie magnets like Rosedale, Domenica, MoPho and Carmo are all buzzy spots where kids are indulged and families are welcome. Other restaurants, like Satsuma, Pizza Delicious, Dat Dog and Katie’s, are explicitly family friendly.
Many of the city’s local breweries, including Urban South, Second Line Brewing and Parleaux Beer Lab, have dedicated child-friendly areas, with space for little ones to play and roam. On the flip side, some food mainstays that derive a large portion of their income from alcohol sales, like Bacchanal and Coop’s, do not allow minors on site – when in doubt, call ahead.
Outdoor performances and live music
Live music is a big draw for many visitors to New Orleans but most music clubs tend to serve booze and have 21-and-up entrance requirements. But you can catch outdoor performances on Frenchmen Street, for example, by hanging out on the kid-friendly second-floor balcony of the Frenchman Street location of Dat Dog.
At Jazz Fest, there’s a dedicated children’s tent which usually features good music: put it this way, parents won’t mind hanging out here even though bigger acts are playing elsewhere. Some parents swear by French Quarter Fest as a good, kid-friendly festival, by dint of its free admission and multiple venues scattered throughout the French Quarter.
All of the above are great, but if you or your children have a tough time pushing through big crowds, you may want to skip this option (Jazz Fest also draws large crowds, but its open location at the race-course grounds makes them much easier to navigate).
When it comes to music for kids, we find that more locally focused, less prominent festivals, like the Bayou Boogaloo or the Congo Square Rhythms Festival, are a way of seeing music in a setting that is easy on families. They have plentiful food vendors, adult libations for those who need them, and an easy-going crowd that is neither too sedate nor too aggressive.