How to Experience New Orleans Off the Beaten Path

October 6, 2023   3 Comments »

Compiled from multiple trips to NOLA, this New Orleans off-the-beaten-path guide will take you away from the lines and ordinary attractions, and help you find the local and unique things to do in the crescent city. I love to go out and explore a city to find hidden gems that haven’t been discovered yet!

Actually, I should have probably called this post ‘How to Do Everything Wrong in New Orleans’. I didn’t go to the Garden District, I didn’t ride a streetcar, I didn’t eat a praline, and I even did the unthinkable – I ate Turkish food one night. Yes, I was causing trouble in the Big Easy, bucking the normal tourist spots and trying to find something different in New Orleans but still experiencing that New Orleans flair and culture.

This isn’t your normal New Orleans guide – this by no means includes everything you could do in New Orleans. I only write about the things I personally experience. I believe that writing about a place requires you to actually go and experience that place, tour, or hotel.

The Unique New Orleans Local Culture

First, you have to understand a bit about New Orleans and its culture. One of my favorite things to do is simply wander the streets. I am always pleasantly surprised at people’s hospitality in the Southern US, always greeting you when you walk by, smiling, and calling you ‘Ma’am’. It’s such a different speed in the South, and I have to remind myself to operate differently – as if I were in another country.

French Quarter horse
Traditional New Orleans French Quarter – an area I spent little time in!

And according to my cemetery guide Ernie – I was in another country. While on the cemetery tour I asked him what I thought to be a simple question about why the slaves were treated differently in New Orleans as compared to the rest of the Southern US. He quickly and forcefully answered,

“New Orleans is not the South. It’s a Caribbean country surrounded by the Southern US.”

Ok – I stand corrected. My grade school geography teacher wasn’t going to like Ernie’s answer – but as I spent the next two days talking to people about the history of and present-day New Orleans – I have to admit, I think Ernie wasn’t too far off with that statement. New Orleans is definitely different from other cities I’ve been to in the South – it has a reckless abandon wrapped up and delivered in Southern hospitality.

Calling New Orleans the Southern US wasn’t the only thing I did wrong while I was there. I also went ‘off the typical tourist script’ by spending little time in the French Quarter, and instead finding these unique things to do in New Orleans.

Unusual New Orleans Tours

Drink and Learn New Orleans Tour

Most people go to bars on Bourbon Street, but I took my bar-to-go on the Drink and Learn tour.

When in NOLA – you do a wee bit of drinking…but if you couple that with learning…then you have Drink & Learn tours! Elizabeth is an expert in cocktails and she dishes out incredible stories about NOLA’s history, prohibition, and famous cocktails as you drink your own cocktails and walk around the city!

When I met Elizabeth she provided me with a little sling bag full of pre-mixed cocktails. I spent the next couple of hours walking around the bustling French Quarter learning about the cocktails NOLA is famous for as I drank my bag full of drinks.

You don’t actually set foot in any bar, but by the end, you’ll have learned about various cocktails and some off-the-beaten-path bars!

Go Barrel to Bar with this Kentucky Bourbon experience

Elizabeth is the author of Drink Dat New Orleans: A Guide to the Best Cocktail Bars, Neighborhood Pubs, and All-Night Dives. She also hosts the podcast Drink & Learn about cocktails. You too may be an expert by the end of this tour…or you may just be tipsy…either way…I had a ton of fun!

Tour New Orleans Cemeteries

St. Louis 1 cemetery new orleans
St. Louis 1 cemetery in New Orleans. A unique burial process where numerous bodies are put in one gravesite to let Mother Nature’s heat break them down. This cemetery is also home to a bit of voodoo – an interesting history!

New Orleans’ unusual relationship with all things death-related may stem from its similarly unusual cemeteries. Because the city was built on a swamp, the water table is very high, making underground burials virtually impossible. As such, the city’s cemeteries only include above-ground tombs and their architecture has been elevated to a high art.

I took a cemetery tour when I first arrived. It was a great primer as the tour was much more than just about cemeteries and the strange burial tactics used in New Orleans. It also provided a historical background of the French Quarter, Congo Square, and various other bits of unique trivia.

Read about the Guardian Angel of Campo Cestio Cemetery in Rome

NOLA is known as the City of the Dead for good reason – there is a cemetery in nearly every neighborhood. At St. Louis 1 cemetery near the French Quarter I saw some of the infamous graves and learned how 100,000 people had been buried there in this small space thanks to the unique New Orleans burial process.

Numerous bodies are put in one gravesite to let mother nature’s heat break them down. This cemetery is also home to a bit of New Orleans historic voodoo – an interesting history!

The cemetery tour I took is no longer operating, but there are a number of other great options that will provide a similar experience. Check out this 2-hour nighttime cemetery and ghost BYOB bus tour or a 2.5-hour daytime city and cemetery tour by bus.

Take a Bike Tour to See More of New Orleans Outside the French Quarter

biking new orleans
Check out our rides…cruisin’ bikes – whitewall tires and all!

Instead of riding one of the famous streetcars, I decided to bike around New Orleans. I was able to get out of the French Quarter to places that are less touristed with the help of Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours.

Equipped with cool cruising bikes, we rode off the beaten path around places that I never would have gotten to on my own. Once again this is a great and unusual tour that teaches you about the history of the areas and how all of the neighborhoods intermix.

Our guide was full of information he dispersed while on the bike yelling back at us, however, I was most enthralled with simply riding slowly on our cruisers and checking out the amazing architecture and ornate houses that are so distinctly New Orleans.

We rode out of the French Quarter, and into Marigny and the Bywater areas where we stopped and walked down Rosalie Alley – the home to a voodoo temple and some interesting artwork.

Where to Party off the Beaten Path in NOLA

Try Frenchmen Street instead of Bourbon Street

When I ducked into a vintage dress shop during a rainstorm I struck up a conversation with the saleswoman and she had a wealth of local tips for me – but the main one was to go to Frenchmen Street if I wanted to hear good live music.

I quickly walked through the rowdy Bourbon Street where I was propositioned to show ‘skin’ for beads (Ummm…sorry – but 3 plastic bead necklaces are not nearly enough for that – 3 martinis maybe), and I headed to Frenchmen Street.

Party with the locals

As I arrived, I heard a commotion and saw a large crowd gathering on a corner. I pushed my way through to see about 8 guys with horns jamming away while others danced in the streets. Now, this is the real New Orleans.

I went on to all of the bars on Frenchmen Street over the course of 2 nights and was in love with the vibe. The music was great, dancing was allowed (which many places on Bourbon Street don’t allow), and the drinks were cheaper than on Bourbon Street. There was a big swing dancing festival in town recently so I was able to watch some great dancing too!

Frenchmen Street is where (more) locals go to hang out and listen to music – yet it’s growing in popularity, and the locals are finding other spots (like the destination bars I mention next!) to do their thing. But until then – Frenchman Street is a must if you love music and dancing.

Destination Bars Take You Off the Beaten Path

If you really want to go off the beaten path though, head to a ‘destination’ bar. My girlfriend Tami took me to some of the absolute coolest local clubs and performances. She called them ‘destination bars’…meaning the only reason why you’d go to that part of the city was for this bar!

None of them were in the French Quarter or Frenchmen Street. We took Ubers deep into the belly of NOLA to listen to Big Chief Monk BoudreauxThe Original Pinettes (an all-woman brass band), and so many other incredible musicians. Check out where they are playing on their websites or Facebook pages.

And when you are in NOLA, be sure to check out bars like Chickie Wah Wah, and Bullets Sports Bar for some really great music and a slice of New Orleans few people see. We shook our booties all night long…and that’s why I love New Orleans.

I am a firm believer that the further you go off the beaten path in New Orleans, the more you’ll love it!

Check out these surprising and fun things to do in Cincinnati

Off the Beaten Path Food and Drink

Beans and Rice at Vaughan’s Bar

Most people go to all fancy New Orleans restaurants, but my favorite meal in NOLA was beans and rice from a giant kettle in the back of Vaughan’s Bar. This was New Orleans off the beaten track at its best!

NOLA Live Music

As we got out of our Lyft, you could hear the music loud and clear coming from inside Vaughan’s Lounge. There were groups of people standing outside, swaying to the sounds of Corey Henry and the Treme Funktet while smoking and socializing. It looked as if the building was busting at the seams, heaving with people and energy.

Live Local Jazz Music

Vaughan’s hosts live jazz every Thursday night for a $10 cover. In addition to the great music, the $10 cover also included homemade beans and rice. My local host knew about this perk and we purposefully didn’t eat dinner; we came hungry and I suggest you do too!

We squeezed our way to the back of the bar area where we saw an older woman bring out a giant pot of steaming hot red beans and ham. She put it up on the table next to a rice cooker of white rice, Styrofoam bowls, and plastic forks. Patrons are welcome to scoop up as much of this delicious home-baked recipe as they want.

And I did just that. With ham pieces the size of ice cubes, and a hearty, delicious flavor of creole spices, this was by far my best meal in NOLA. I even helped myself to seconds.

Although as of 2022 they no longer offer beans and rice (sometimes for special occasions), there is still live jazz every Thursday!

Antoine’s Restaurant for Brunch

However, if you still must get your fix of upscale New Orleans food, then why not head to one of the most popular and historic restaurants in the French Quarter at the least popular time? For lunch. Most people head to Antoine’s Restaurant for fancy dinners and events.

It’s the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, in operation since 1840! It is still owned and operated by fifth-generation relatives of the original founder, Antoine Alciatore. It’s well known for creating Oysters Rockefeller and other classic Creole cuisines.

Antoine’s is popular for special dinners, however, if you want to be different AND save money you can go for brunch on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. They used to have a 3-course lunch special for $20.20, as well as a cocktail of the day for 25 cents for lunch every day, but COVID changed that. As of 2023, they are currently offering a 2-course special brunch menu for $24– still a steal! And when you are there, be sure to ask a waiter to walk through the building to see and learn about the history of this incredible establishment!

Felix instead of ACME for oysters

I hate lines. Somewhere in my 40s, I have become my dad – the person who refuses to wait in lines. So when I walked up to the ‘famous’ ACME Oyster House and there was a huge line out the door, I looked across the street and saw a sign for Oysters at Felix’s Restaurant with no line. I abandoned the popular line and headed across the street to eat oysters.

Oysters new orleans
Bring on the oysters!

I prefer raw oysters – so this is normally something a restaurant can’t really screw up. Instead of waiting in line, I went off the beaten track in the French Quarter and sat at the bar at Felix’s. I watched the waitress mix me up a spicy horseradish ketchup sauce concoction and set down a plate of a dozen oysters in front of me. When I left completely oyster satiated, I smiled as I passed the never-ending line at ACME.

Felix’s recently opened another restaurant on Lake Pontchartrain. So if you really want to avoid the crowds of the French Quarter and explore a new area of New Orleans, then head to the lake location. And you’ll get to slurp your oysters with a beautiful lake view!

This wasn’t the only stop I made for them – I’m a bit of an Oyster nut. I also enjoyed them at Royal House Oyster Bar which was equally delicious and had no lines!

Try Calas instead of waiting in line for Beignets

Most people can’t come to New Orleans without having beignets. However, why not try a Cala instead as a way to try something different in the French Quarter?

What is a Cala?

A Cala is a rice version of a beignet, and it’s full of history. Calas are a dumpling or donut composed primarily of cooked rice, yeast, sugar, eggs, and flour and then deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar.

Creole women sold calas in the city’s French Quarter, yelling “Calas, calas, calas!” These ‘Cala women’ would sell the hot donuts in the early morning from covered baskets carried upon their heads. They weren’t only female entrepreneurs, they were also buying their freedom from slavery with Calas.

“As Louisiana changed hands to the Spaniards in the 1700s, the establishment of Coartación gave slaves the right to buy their freedom and in New Orleans, Sunday was the free day to take charge of that opportunity. The enslaved people would sell baskets of Calas on the streets and save up the money to buy freedom.” Calas Freedom Food

The historic food has slowly died out and taken a back seat to the beignet. However, if you really want to be different, track down a hot plate of calas! Tracking them down is half the fun.

We found them at Café Beignet at the Old Coffee Pot for breakfast. I must admit though, I was expecting more rice and less batter so I was a bit disappointed. If you see pictures of the original Calas, you’ll find them to be more like sweet arancini. I have a feeling that if you search harder you may be able to find ones that are more authentic!

However, if you must have the classic Beignets…

Most people head to Café Du Mond for their beignet fix and chicory coffee, creating a big line most of the day. In an attempt to avoid the crowds and experience New Orleans off the beaten path, I decided to have my Café Du Mond beignets late at night instead of for breakfast.

As I was walking back from Frenchmen Street at 1:30 in the morning – I was surprised and delighted to find Café Du Mond open! There was no wait – and I was sitting eating my beignets within 3 minutes of walking into the café!

Unique Things to Do in New Orleans

Learn the legendary New Orleans Bounce

Most people go to NOLA to be unhealthy; however, I went to a fitness class! If you want to get deep into the New Orleans culture…then be prepared to shake your booty!

I went with my girlfriend to an ‘exercise’ booty shaking class with MoeJoe, creator of Bounce Fitness. It was not only a workout, but it was a deep dive into a culture that I get little exposure to, and I had a complete booty blast.

This was so far off the beaten path (and out of my comfort zone) in New Orleans, but it was my favorite thing I did there!

If you want to try this bootilicious experience – then check out this Bounce Fitness Airbnb Experience. The experience even includes Daiquiri shots…which is a good idea to loosen up that booty!

Check out Esplanade Avenue

I never even made it to the famed Garden District – instead, I explored the original Garden District on Esplanade Avenue via bike. The Avenue was an important 19th-century portage route of trade between the Bayou which linked to Lake Pontchartrain and the River. Esplanade Ave was the Creole model for the Americans when they started to develop St. Charles Ave in the Garden District.

new orleans off the beaten path

Today Esplanade Avenue is lined with old mansions, big arching trees, a few restaurants, and a diversity of cultures. Esplanade Ave dumps right into the large and lovely New Orleans City Park.

New Orleans City Park
New Orleans City Park

Go to City Park instead of the Garden District

The park was a huge surprise to me – it was home to a sculpture garden, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and countless running/biking/walking trails. You’ll find a miniature golf course, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, the New Orleans Botanical Garden, and the Carousel Gardens amusement park.

City Park has been a New Orleans institution since 1854. It is filled with 600-year-old giant oak trees and locating one tree among all of these sites is a fun little task, so here’s a hint: The Singing Oak is on the east side of Big Lake, next to the Reunion Shelter. And if you still can’t find it, just follow your ears.

This park is so old that there’s a section that used to be known for its frequent dueling around 200 years ago!

City Park doesn’t get as much love from travelers because it’s fairly removed from downtown and the French Quarter, but it’s still worth seeing. The park is not only off the beaten track, it is said to be twice the size of Central Park!

National World War II Museum

My first thought when I heard about the National WWII Museum in NOLA was, why New Orleans? Why wouldn’t a museum like this be in Washington DC? That all became clear to me as soon as I walked in and saw the famous ‘Higgins Boat’.

Andrew Jackson Higgins of New Orleans, who had been manufacturing shallow-water workboats to support oil and gas exploration in the Louisiana Bayous, adapted his Eureka Boat to meet the military’s specifications for a landing craft. Designated the Landing Craft Personnel (Large), or LCP(L), it was used in the invasions of Guadalcanal and North Africa in 1942. He was, according to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “the man who won the war for us.”

Besides seeing the Higgins Boat, the museum is full of fascinating exhibitions about the war. And the highlight for most people is the hour-long movie shown about the war.

The Museum isn’t necessarily off the beaten path, but it is unique and a great way to spend a half-day in New Orleans.

Get your World War II Museum tickets here and skip the line!

Other New Orleans Museums to Check Out

Museum of Death

The Museum of Death is one of the more dark and creepy things to do in New Orleans. It features a dark and eclectic mix of true-crime exhibits, mortuary equipment, and macabre art. If you’re interested in coroners’ medical instruments, Manson family artifacts, and crime scene photographs, you may want to give this museum a shot. Some words of caution: the Museum of Death is not for the faint of heart (or those with a weak stomach.)

Backstreet Cultural Museum

Stepping into the Backstreet Cultural Museum takes you straight to the heart and soul of New Orleans. Located in the Tremé neighborhood, this museum is known for its important Black history, culture, and music. The exhibits here showcase and explain the history of New Orleans’ multicultural roots and traditions today. This includes Mardi Gras, jazz funerals, and more.

New Orleans Pharmacy Museum

Get an inside look at early medicine and voodoo potions circa-1800s. This two-story French Quarter museum showcases apothecary bottles (some with their original ingredients) and puts you in the mindset of what it was like to be America’s first licensed pharmacist. Explore this unique attraction with exhibits featuring early medicines, superstitions, treatments, and more.

Southern Food and Beverage Museum

Just because you’re getting off the beaten path in New Orleans doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the city’s fundamental relationship with food. The Southern Food and Beverage Museum (or SoFAB) hosts a variety of exhibits and classes on Southern cuisine and its cultural influences. Check out the exhibits featuring vintage food products, a demonstration kitchen, and the culinary legacies and highlights of each of the Southern states.

JAMNOLA – Joy, Arts & Music New Orleans

This isn’t quite a museum so much as it is an interactive art gallery. Exhibits include films on Mardi Gras traditions, murals representing the faces of New Orleans, a life-size interactive crawfish boil pot, a wall of rotating second-line umbrellas, a touch-free sensory sound exhibit, and more. All of the works here are created by local artists. The experience is a fun way to explore New Orleans off the beaten track while soaking up art and culture.

New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum

Another creepy museum – yup…that’s just what you get in New Orleans! You can simply visit the museum, or they also have voodoo walking tours if you want something more interactive.

And, if you are ready to take voodoo to another level, you can also utilize the Voodoo Museum’s network and find someone to do psychic readings. That’s right they can help you organize consultations, special gris-gris, rituals, and ceremonies. While the museum does not provide these services directly, they say they may be able to facilitate contacts with contemporary practitioners who do these things.

Where to stay in New Orleans

I stayed at the Eliza Jane Hotel while in New Orleans. I must admit though – I spent very little time in my room – after all, it is New Orleans. However, the hotel had an interesting New Orleans history of its own. The hotel was actually developed inside 7 historic merchant buildings dating back to the 1860s. It primarily used to be home to the publishing company the Clarion Herald.

They did a great job of keeping the interior feel with exposed beams and pipes giving it a bit of a warehouse feel yet providing comfortable shared spaces. There were old images of the printing presses and the historic buildings lining the walls – a fascinating history to see.

What’s the most important thing though when choosing New Orleans hotels? Location. I’m happy to report that I was within walking distance to everywhere I wanted to go in and around the French Quarter.

Check prices and availability for the Eliza Jane Hotel | Read Eliza Jane Hotel reviews on TripAdvisor | More hotels in New Orleans

When is the Best Time to Go to New Orleans?

This depends on if you like crowds or not. If you want the party, then of course go during Mardi Gras. Just make sure you plan early, early, early, and get your hotel stays and airfare organized. Mardi Gras changes every year – but the normal timeframe is the end of Jan to March.

If you don’t mind oppressive heat, then head there from June to September. But be prepared to sweat

I like to stick to the shoulder season – not too hot, not too many people, not big festivals or events. I really enjoyed going in early November on my last trip there. But many people say December and January are great too. As well as April since it’s after Mardi Gras.

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