MY INFANT SON was just 6 months old the first time we took him to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Although we’d prepared by mapping out retreats from the heat and attaching an umbrella to the stroller, it was hotter than predicted, and navigating the crowds and finding time for nursing was tricky. We repeated the trip when he was 3, this time making sure we left some flexibility in our music-packed days for the tired moments and overstimulation that flare suddenly when you travel with a toddler.
We have terrific memories of both trips, but the truth is, Jazz Fest isn’t the ideal time of year to visit New Orleans with kids, and though we haven’t attempted Mardi Gras as a family (yet), New Orleans’s biggest events are crowded, hectic, and expensive, and there’s so much more to the city than its famous parties.
Because my brother has lived in New Orleans for almost 20 years, I get down there somewhat frequently, but now I prefer to travel there during “off” times. Recently, that meant taking the family (our son is now 10, and we have a daughter who’s 4) over Thanksgiving break. Really, any time it’s relatively warm — and not too hot (so avoid summer) — is a great time to go. October through December and March through May (excepting Jazz Fest) are ideal, when the average daytime temperature ranges from the mid-60s to the mid-80s.
I can’t remember ever having had a bad meal in New Orleans — and I certainly had my share of boisterous late nights before kids — but eating (and drinking) isn’t the only game in town. For families, the city’s multiple green spaces, museums, and historic sites provide loads of entertainment. The 1,300-acre City Park (504-482-4888, neworleanscitypark.com) is a beautiful setting for a stroll or to let little ones run around. Its picturesque grove of mature oaks, draped with Spanish moss and ferns, holds beauties up to 900 years old. Before you leave, take a twirl on a hand-carved wooden merry-go-round that’s more than a century old, one of 16 rides in the Carousel Gardens Amusement Park.
Across the city in historic Uptown, Audubon Park (800-774-7394, audubonnatureinstitute.org) is another wonderful spot for playgrounds and picnics. A sprawling landscape of lawns, trees, and water features, the park was designed by John Charles Olmsted, stepson of Frederick Law Olmsted, who created New York’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace. The location also houses the Audubon Nature Institute’s zoo — a jewel of a facility featuring leopards, lemurs, orangutans, and adorable tamarins. A water park (open seasonally), ropes course, and lovely modern carousel round out the fun. My kids also took particular delight in watching me squirm uncomfortably on a cafe porch that hangs menacingly (to me, anyway) over the alligators in the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit.
Audubon operates the Butterfly Garden and Insectarium as well as the Aquarium of the Americas, both on the edge of the French Quarter. Dedicated to all kinds of bugs, the insectarium’s displays teach kids about earth’s tiniest and often most overlooked species. The highlight is a gorgeous butterfly habitat, where hundreds of these elegant creatures — like blue morphos and monarchs — flitted over our heads before gently landing on our shoulders. Bug Appetit, tucked into in the museum’s cafeteria, will thrill some kids and disgust others; here, cooks whip up dishes using various kinds of — yes — insects. It’s an interesting lens into the diets of other cultures and the environmental benefits of using these critters in cuisine.
A few blocks away, the aquarium sits on the Mississippi River, and kids can marvel at sea turtles, stingrays, sea horses, and more. My husband and son splurged on the Backstage Penguin Pass, which takes visitors behind the scenes to feed and handle the playful birds. At $125 per person (minors must be accompanied by an adult), the encounter is spendy, but for my penguin-obsessed son, who was also celebrating his birthday, it was an experience he’ll never forget.
Despite its wild reputation, the French Quarter is by no means off-limits to kids, though you’ll probably want to avoid boozy Bourbon Street with its lewd signage and daytime drunks. From the aquarium, you can take a lazy stroll along the riverfront, which spans the length of the French Quarter — it’s a great place to take in the activity on the Mississippi. Tour boats, like the Steamboat Natchez (800-365-2628, steamboatnatchez.com), also depart from here. The walk will bring you down to the French Market (504-636-6400, frenchmarket.org) and its somewhat touristy shops, but also a fun, open-air flea market featuring eclectic wares from all over the world.
The famous Cafe Du Monde (800-772-2927, cafedumonde.com) is also here, and shouldn’t be missed. Opened in 1862, this New Orleans institution retains an old-timey feel, as servers in paper hats deliver plates of beignets and dark-roasted chicory coffee round-the-clock. No kid — or adult— can resist these squares of fried dough topped with mountains of powdered sugar.
Just across Decatur Street, on Jackson Square, sits the iconic St. Louis Cathedral, perhaps New Orleans’s most recognizable landmark. Dating to the 18th century, the large plaza, one of the city’s oldest public squares, has long served as a commercial and social hub. Today, the area and its surrounding sidewalks are filled with all kinds of activity — youngsters playing tubas, artists sketching portraits, statue-like performance artists waiting for a dollar to drop into their hats. Music is everywhere in New Orleans, but most younger kids aren’t patient enough to sit through a jazz show at Preservation Hall (504-522-284, preservationhall.com; all ages welcome), and you’re probably not going to drag them to grown-up venues after dark. Instead, just park yourselves on a bench here and let your kids dance along. Bonus for you: The people-watching is as good as it gets.
The French Quarter is filled with fine eateries and shops, and wandering it haphazardly always yields serendipitous fun, but a few shops are worth seeking out. The Second Line Arts and Antiques mall (504-875-1924, secondlinenola.com) is a mash-up of vendors set up around a charming courtyard and hawking everything from Lego mini figures to vintage chairs. The Idea Factory (800-524-4332, ideafactoryneworleans.com) curates imaginative artisan woodcrafts like heirloom quality toys and wacky kinetic sculptures. For a fascinating peek into the past, visit James H. Cohen & Sons (800-535-1853, cohenantiques.com), which specializes in Civil War-era firearms, antique maps, Roman and Greek coins, and other artifacts.
If your kids, like my son, are into history — or just like tanks and airplanes — they’ll also want to visit the National WWII Museum (504-528-1944, nationalww2museum.org), located in the Central Business District. Housed in three buildings, its massive collection traces the epic story of the country’s involvement in the war. Our favorite section is the US Freedom Pavilion: The Boeing Center, where two tanks, an ambulance, and an M3 half-track transport vehicle are on view, along with several aircraft that are suspended from the ceiling; catwalks on high give you a close-up look. An interactive exhibit also takes “sailors” aboard the USS Tang, a submarine simulation, where you can relive the boat’s final, heroic patrol before it sank — torpedo launches, sirens, and chaos ensue.
Younger kiddos like my daughter love the Louisiana Children’s Museum (504-523-1357, lcm.org). Currently located in the Warehouse District (it’s moving into a new building in City Park in 2018), the 30,000-square-foot space offers more than 100 hands-on exhibits where children can climb, play, and draw, letting their imaginations run wild.
For a unique local experience, make a trip to Hansen’s Sno-Bliz (504-891-9788, snobliz.com) at its off-the-beaten-path location on Tchoupitoulas Street. Don’t let the no-frills exterior deceive you — Hansen’s received a James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award in 2014. Available spring through fall (check the website for specifics), this is shave ice at its finest. Still made using the original machine they opened with in 1939, these treats, known locally as snoballs, have a cloud-like texture that is utterly delightful. House-made syrups are layered into the tiers of snowy ice, ensuring that each snoball is perfectly saturated with flavor.
In addition to placating our little people with sweets as needed, my husband and I are careful to build lots of downtime into our itineraries. It helps to choose lodging where the kids have enough room to comfortably chill out and curl up with a book or an iPad. We’ve had great luck booking apartments in the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods through Airbnb (airbnb.com) and VRBO (vrbo.com); the charming Garden District is also a family-friendly area. (One note of caution: In the Marigny, just because a listing says it’s near the French Quarter doesn’t necessarily mean it’s tourist-friendly; err on the side of safety and book places between the river and St. Claude Avenue.) If you prefer chain hotels, there are plenty; the Hilton New Orleans Riverside (504-561-0500, www3.hilton.com), though somewhat culturally sterile, offers two outdoor pools, plenty of common space, and great views of the Mississippi and is centrally located to many attractions.
Downtime can also mean finding a playground or park where the kids can get out their wiggles. If you’re staying in or even just visiting the French Quarter, another green space we’ve come to love is Crescent Park (crescentparknola.org). Technically part of the French Market District, this 20-acre strip northeast of the French Quarter features native plantings and follows the Mississippi into the hip Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. Conceived as a way to revitalize formerly industrial riverfront plots, it opened in 2014 and delivers sweeping views of the Quarter and city skyline. The park’s austerely elegant Piety Street footbridge connects the artsy Bywater neighborhood to the 1.4-mile-long park — and to its industrial roots. Made of weathered raw steel, the “rusty rainbow,” as locals lovingly call it, was created by architect David Adjaye, best known for designing the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A block away from the rusty rainbow you can tuck into a pie and a pint at the aptly named Pizza Delicious (504-676-8482, pizzadelicious.com) in the Bywater. On the second Saturday of each month, catch the Piety Street Market at The Old Ironworks (www.612piety.com), directly across the street, with more than 40 vendors offering arts, crafts, and vintage kitsch for sale. During our recent Thanksgiving trip, we happened upon a kids’ robot parade that began here and met a marvelous replica of R2-D2. Music lovers: Don’t miss Euclid Records New Orleans (504-947-4348, euclidnola.com), on the same block; it would be easy to spend hours flipping through the new, used, and hard-to-find LPs and 45s that fill up every bit of this funky 4,000-square-foot store.
While it makes sense to cluster some activities — Pizza Delicious and Crescent Park, for example — one of the great things about New Orleans is that it’s easy to get around. There’s no reason you need to squeeze the insectarium and the aquarium, say, into the same day just because they’re near each other. Navigating the city is relatively simple, and parking is readily available. But even if you’ve rented a vehicle, a ride on a streetcar (never called a “trolley”) is a must. I’m especially fond of the St. Charles line (norta.com) for sightseeing; its mahogany seats and brass fittings take you back in time as you rumble past antebellum mansions, Loyola and Tulane universities, and Audubon Park. If you don’t have other transportation, the streetcar is also an affordable way to reach many points in the city.
You’ll enjoy New Orleans best if you keep yourself open to the unexpected, so don’t overschedule your days and do allow some adventures to unfold without a specific plan. A big part of the cultural experience here is about getting into the groove and pace of the Big Easy. Your days cruising these streets with a frozen cocktail in hand may be behind you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still let the good times roll.