New Orleans may conjure up images of Mardi Gras and late-night degenerate behavior on Bourbon Street but families who are looking to visit will find a city rich with history, culture, delicious food, and lots of fun activities that will leave your kid wanting to unplug. From Bourbon Street to the Bayou and beyond, New Orleans with tweens is a fantastic way to spend time together. Here are my tips for planning a New Orleans vacation and a look at how we spent five fabulous days in The Big Easy!
Itinerary: 5 Days in New Orleans with Tweens
Whenever we travel, I have my kids research the destination themselves and make a list of the things they want to do. With their ideas in hand, I started booking experiences but also wanted to be sure we had some time each day that was free for exploring and down time. The truth is that New Orleans is hot in the summer but is bearable if you plan accordingly. My strategy was to plan something for each morning and leave our afternoons free but we found that we filled our afternoons, doing lots more than we originally planned!
Here’s a look at what we did to assist you in planning your trip to New Orleans with tweens:
- Day 1: Arrival, dinner & beignets
- Day 2: French Quarter culinary history tour, explore the French Quarter & Preservation Hall Jazz
- Day 3: Airboat swamp tour, Mardi Gras World & ride a streetcar to dinner
- Day 4: Segway tour & Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
- Day 5: Cooking class and departure
For the inside scoop on each of the activities we planned – plus lots of tips – keep reading!
Day 1: Arrival, Dinner, and Beignets
With a flight that arrived around dinner time, we checked into our hotel and walked to Mother’s for dinner. This New Orleans institution has been serving traditional dishes since 1938 and while it wasn’t my first time here, it was a great place to introduce Thomas to the food that the city is known for.
- Reservations? Nope. No reservations at Mother’s but queue up outside, look at the menu, and, wait to go in as a group. Your group will go straight to the counter to and after you pay, find a table, and your food will be brought to you by a waiter.
- What to order—We ordered the Combination Platter to sample a bit of everything, a side of smothered greens, Seafood Gumbo, and Mae’s Filé Gumbo. We were hungry but it was more than enough for the two of us. I thought we’d walk to Café du Monde for beignets afterwards but we were too full!
- The signs say no tips accepted— Apparently the signs on the wall are old and it’s fine to tip.
Day 2: French Quarter Culinary History Tour & Preservation Hall Jazz
French Quarter Culinary History Tour with Free Tours by Foot
Thomas suggested a culinary food history tour so I was doing some research about our various options when Thien-Kim Lam suggested Free Tours by Foot. Free Tours by Foot operates in cities across the United States and around world and their a pay-what-you-like model can be a budget-friendly way to enjoy an educational tour experienced with an experienced guide. We had a fabulous time discovering and learning about New Orleans with Thien-Kim’s friend, Kayla, as our guide on our first full day in the city!
We booked the morning tour from 10-12:30 pm and for the entire 2 ½ hours, Kayla kept our group enthralled by sharing the history of the city influenced the food that we enjoy in New Orleans today. The tour covered about a mile during which Kayla sought out shady places, brought us inside air-conditioned restaurants like Antoine’s (the oldest French-Creole fine dining restaurant in New Orleans), and gave us a chance to shop for pralines.
After peeking in the windows behind Café du Monde to watch beignets being made, we walked a little farther to learn about the history of the French Market where we ended our tour and paid Kayla for her outstanding tour.
- Eat before your tour. The French Quarter Culinary History Tour included stops at restaurants and a praline store but talking about food for 2.5 hours will make you hungry! Kayla emailed us the night before asking us to confirm our attendance and provided a list of restaurants which was very helpful.
- Bring your own water. Our tour group met at Antoine’s Annex to begin our tour and they had cold bottles of water for sale.
- Kid friendly if you have children younger than tween age. Our tour group had a little one in a stroller, kids younger than my 12 year old son, and couples. It was perfect for all ages.
- Not sure how much to pay your guide at the end of your Free Tours by Foot tour? Other New Orleans French Quarter Food tours were $65 for about 3 hours and might include 2-3 stops for food. When in doubt, be generous!
Preservation Hall Jazz
Founded in 1961, Preservation Hall’s mission is to protect, preserve, and perpetuate traditional New Orleans jazz and while Hall members tour the country, there is something special about seeing them in New Orleans where musical history comes to life. While the band members may change nightly and even from performance to performance within a night, the atmosphere of the Hall remains the same as it has for years.
The intimate venue is without much air circulation (bring a fan and a cold drink if you visit in the summer!) but the music is fantastic and tweens who play brass instruments or just love music are in for a treat.
- All ages are welcome to the nightly show at 5, 6, 8, 9, and 10 pm but know there are two kinds of tickets:
- General Admission ($20 cash only)— The most popular way to get into the Hall is through general admission seating that involves lining up in front 30+ minutes before the start of the show. Certain times of the year are busier than others and certain shows times are more popular. The Hall is a small venue with big music so whether you sit or stand towards the back, the music sounds just as wonderful.
- Big Shot Seating ($35-50 reserved seats, pay in advance)— If you want to be sure you’ll get a seat for a performance at the Hall during your visit, Big Shot Seating is the way to go! I paid for Big Shot Seating because I wanted to be sure Thomas got to see Preservation Hall once during our trip. Even though the Hall isn’t a large venue, having a seat so close to the musicians made for a more immersive experience that was well worth the price. Seating is on benches so if you need a back rest, buy a Big Shot seat and ask if you can sit along the wall to have something to lean on. Certain Big Shot tickets may be for cushions on the floor right in the first row!
- It’s a bring your own beverage kind of place. Adults wanting to sample Pat O’Brien’s hurricanes only need to go next door to get one while kid-friendly beverages can be purchased at the voodoo shop across the street. Yes, voodoo shop! Haitians who settled in New Orleans following the Haitian revolution in 1809 brought food, music, and even voudou.
Day 3: Airboat Swamp Tour & Mardi Gras World
Airboat Swamp Tour with Airboat Adventures
I enjoy getting outside the city to see different parts of our destination when we travel and you definitely get to do that when you travel 30 minutes away from the French Quarter and book an airboat swamp tour. During the 1 hour 45 minute tour we booked with Airboat Adventures, we enjoyed a gorgeous sunny morning zipping through the tidewater cypress swamp.
Our small airboat held 4 other passengers and our guide, Danny, maneuvered narrow waterways with ease where we saw herons, hawks, bald cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, and so much more. Danny made sure we had plenty of close encounters with alligators, stopping the boat a couple times in spots where he knew we would see them.
The largest alligator we saw was 6-7 feet and knowing that alligators can jump three times their body length made me feel like our close encounter might just be a little too close but in fact, the alligators just wanted the marshmallows Danny had on board!
- Go in the morning. In the summer, it warms up quickly so it’s good to beat the heat by booking a morning tour.
- Book the small airboat! Airboat Adventures offer large and small airboats. Our small airboat held 6 passengers while the large one seemed to hold eleventy-billion. Ok, maybe there were more like 20-30 people on the large airboat but the larger airboat is not as maneuverable and with more people your kids don’t get to be up close with the wildlife in the swamp.
- No transportation in New Orleans? Don’t worry. Companies like Airboat Adventures can pick you up and drop you off at your hotel for an extra charge of $20 per person. Morning tours do get back in time for lunch.
- Airboats are loud and if you or a family member is sensitive to noise, hearing protection is provided but you might want to wear some earplugs underneath.
Mardi Gras World
Mardi Gras World may just happen once a year but the preparation for the following year begins as soon as one ends. Tours are given every half hour so while you wait for yours to begin, take selfies with the Mardi Gras props out front, browse the gift shop, make a souvenir squished penny to add to your collection, or escape by going outside and enjoying the river. Just keep an eye on the time because you won’t hear the announcement by your tour guide when it’s time to start if you’re outside.
At the start of the tour, there are a few minutes to try on costumes like the ones worn by Mardi Gras Krewes during the parades and then the lights dim for a brief video about the history of Mardi Gras. The rest of the tour walks you through the operating workshop where Mardi Gras artists and architects use STEAM to build floats from the ground up.
- Mardi Gras World’s complimentary shuttles will pick you up and drop you off at various locations for free. Pins on this map show you where the shuttle stops are, and when you call, the staff can tell you how far away your shuttle driver is. Note that even if a shuttle picks you up at your hotel, you can be dropped off in the French Quarter or vice versa.
- Take your time after the tour to walk around the Float Barn. It’s a great time to get photos without other people in the background or to go back and watch artists at work building parts of the floats.
New Orleans streetcars are a fun way to explore different parts of the city. We chose to ride the St. Charles line to dinner one night because it’s the only the oldest operating streetcar line in the world (it’s been in operation since 1835!) and great way to see the gorgeous homes in the Garden District and get a glimpse of Loyola and Tulane Universities without getting off. We rode it all the way to Riverbend, got dinner, and hopped back on to return to our hotel for the evening.
- Fares are cash only (and exact change for single rides) but if you’re planning to ride multiple times in a day, purchase a $3 one day Jazzy Pass from the streetcar operator. It’s good for a full 24 hours.
- There’s lots to see outside the French Quarter so you could definitely make a day of exploring along the St. Charles line. While we didn’t stop in the Garden District this time, I remember fun shops (lots of antiques) and great restaurants like Commander’s Palace around Magazine Street.
Day 4: Segway Tour & Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
Segway Tour with City Segway Tours New Orleans
Most segway tour companies have rules that you have to be 16+ to ride but Thomas found City Segway Tours will let you rent one with a parent if you’re 12 and up and since we were in New Orleans to celebrate Thomas’ 12th birthday, it seemed the perfect way to celebrate.
Segway tours are everywhere including our hometown of Washington, D.C. and now I get why they’re popular. We booked the New Orleans Day Segway Tour and in the 3 hours that we were on segways, we explored more of the city that we got to on foot in all the previous days combined. We traversed the streets of The French Quarter, stopped at Jackson Square, traveled along the Mississippi River, and then went beyond where we had explored on foot to St. Louis Cemetaries #1 and #2, The Treme Neighborhood, Louis Armstrong Park, Congo Square, The Old U.S. Mint, and more all while learning more about the history of New Orleans.
Our guide, Jonathan also pointed out architecture styles, shared some ghost stories told on the popular evening ghost tours, and explained what parts of the city Hurricane Katrina affected the most and why based on the geography of the Crescent City. During our tour we also stopped in a parking lot near Louis Armstrong Park to free-ride our segways.
- Never ridden a segway before? City Segway Tours had us watch a safety video and then we practiced riding in their building on smooth flat concrete to get the hang of it.
- City Segway Tours offers a 2 or 3 hour tour. We opted for the 3 hour tour because reviews on Trip Advisor said that the safety video and practice could take up to 30 minutes which cuts into your tour time.
- Bring water, a baseball hat, and sunglasses. Each rider is given a bottle of water but on hot days it’s good to have extras and you will stop at a coffee shop where you can purchase refreshments and food mid-way through your tour. A baseball hat and sunglasses definitely helped on a hot sunny day!
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas
Audubon Aquarium of the Americas wasn’t part of our original itinerary but I was so glad that we had time to visit. Located right on the banks of the Mississippi River, it’s just a short walk from the French Quarter and a great place to go to escape the heat or seek shelter on a rainy day. We always love visiting aquariums and Audubon of the Americas does not disappoint! It is one of the best ways to learn about local ecosystems and reinforce lessons experienced during an airboat tour of the swamp during your trip to New Orleans.
Tweens, kids of all ages and adults, will be immediately drawn in thanks to the walk-through tunnel that simulates a Caribbean reef where colorful fish, sharks, and stingrays swim overhead. A stingray touch tank reminded me of one of the early scenes in Finding Dory where Hank the Octopus is desperately trying to avoid little hands that plunge into the water but unlike Hank, the stingrays seemed to crave human touch, coming close to the surface so even the littlest fingers can feel their silky soft skin. A colony of penguins dazzles onlookers as their torpedo shaped bodies rocket through the water past the glass while playful otters glide around their tank, sometimes diving to retrieve toys at the bottom. Graceful jellyfish are mesmerizing to watch.
Exhibits are the perfect combination of educational and captivating thanks to signs that are highly visual and provide wonderful information about Louisiana alligators, animals that live along the river and in the Mississippi River Delta, and how the water supports the local economy through crawfish, fish, and shrimp that are harvested in the area. Another treat is the look at the vast array of ocean life is like beneath oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Day 5: Cooking Class and Departure
Demo Cooking Class with New Orleans School of Cooking
During our French Quarter Culinary History Tour earlier in the week, Kayla pointed out the New Orleans School of Cooking. We stopped in after our tour and Thomas thought it would be fun to take a cooking class. We lucked out and there were spots left in a Friday morning class before our flight home with a menu that included shrimp and artichoke soup, shrimp etoufee, bread pudding, and pralines.
We arrived, checked in, were welcomed into the demo room, and brought a basket of hot biscuits and cane sugar syrup. Our instructor, Pat, introduced herself and spent some time sharing the culinary history of New Orleans. We learned some additional facts about New Orleans Cajun cooking and creole cuisine that added to the knowledge Kayla had shared previously.
Pat moved to the kitchen demo stage and continued telling stories while she was narrating the steps of the recipes as she cooked. As each dish was finished, we were served bowls or plates of food and welcomed to come up for seconds. No one was shy and since our class wasn’t full, most people had seconds and some had thirds!
We left full and with recipes for each of the things we made. It was the perfect way to end our tip and cooking the recipes we learned will be a fun way to remember our time in New Orleans!
- Demo or hands-on class? You have to be 18+ to sign up for the hands-on class ($139) so unfortunately Thomas was too young but had a great time watching and learning from Pat. 4 dishes are made in the 10 am demo class ($35) while 3 are made during the 2 pm class. Choose according to the menu or what fits your schedule!
- Have something to eat before you go. While hot, flaky, buttery biscuits are served soon after you enter, it is about an hour until you sample your first dish so it’s a good idea to have a light breakfast or lunch before you go. Beverages like water, lemonade, coffee, and Abita beer are provided.
- Shop for foodie souvenirs. I love to buy spices when we travel and New Orleans School of Cooking is a great place shop for items to bring home. They have a wide array of spices, spice mixes, coffee, beignet mixes, and many other items that make great souvenirs if you love to cook. Plus they have great prices! I had spent the week trying to figure out what spices, spice mixes, coffee, etc. I wanted to bring home and they had some of the best prices. Another great place to go is Rouse’s Market (Royal and St. Peter Street) and if you want coffee and beignet mix, buy it directly from your server at Café Du Monde or from their shop across the street to get the best prices.
Eating in New Orleans with Tweens
I am a mom of a tween boy who loves to try new foods, so the question wasn’t where are we going to it, it was how are we going to find time to fit in the many great restaurants into our trip! Here are our favorites:
- Antoine’s— The oldest French-Creole fine dining restaurant in New Orleans and the inventor of Oysters Rockefeller may seem like a pricey place to bring a tween but here’s a tip: go for lunch. This summer they’re offering a 3 course prix fixe menu for $20.18 and yes, you can still order your three $0.25 cocktails! The day we were there the cocktail du jour was a screwdriver. We blew the budget by ordering Oysters Rockefeller ($15 for 6) but you know what? They were worth it because if you’re going to have Oysters Rockefeller anywhere, have them at Antoine’s!
- Café Du Monde— Beignets, chicory coffee (iced, frozen, or hot). Cash only and if you wear black, you will be brushing powdered sugar off yourself for the rest of the day
- Café Beignet— Alton Brown said their beignets were the best he ever had. We had to see if we agreed but we found they weren’t necessary better than Café du Monde’s. Just different. There are three locations around the French Quarter. The Bourbon Street location has live jazz each night.
- Central Grocery & Deli— Located near the French Market and Café du Monde, Central Grocery was founded in 1906 by Sicilian immigrant, Salvatore Lupo, who invented the muffaletta sandwich. Step up to the counter of this no-frills grocery, order a whole muffaleta or a half and grab some Zapp’s chips to go with it, and find a seat at the counter in the back. The whole is the size of a dinner plate and can easily feed a family of 4 for $20. If you don’t have a chance to eat at Central Grocery, pick up a muffaletta to go. I can personally say that they travel well! We brought one home with us and enjoyed it the next day!
- Killer’s Po Boys—Po boys are sandwiches that you’ll see on menus in New Orleans and Killer’s combines the traditional po boy with Vietnamese flavors with delicious results. I ordered the Seared Gulf Shrimp and Thomas had the Glazed Pork Belly and we were immediately transported back to last summer’s trip to Vietnam. The shrimp and pork belly were perfectly cooked and seasoned and the creamy aiolis on each balanced the spice. Located in the French Quarter, Killer’s is an easy place to visit for lunch or to grab a casual dinner.
- Merchant— The French influence lives on in New Orleans in many ways, including the numerous places that serve crepes, including Merchant. This delightful find is located in the Central Business District, just off of Canal Street, and is a stylish coffee shop that features Illy coffee and light fare but in substantial portions. We had savory crepes made out of the items listed under BRKFST and they were a nice change from omelettes and the other heavier food we had been eating during the week.
- Mother’s —You can’t go wrong with a New Orleans institution that’s been around since 1938. Go hungry or plan to share because the portions are generous!
- The Ruby Slipper Café— This family owned and operated restaurant has multiple locations throughout New Orleans and is a great spot for breakfast, lunch, and brunch. I recommend the Bam Bam Biscuit and Thomas liked their Spanish Omelet.
- Tacklebox— Located just on the other side of Canal Street from the French Quarter and adjacent to the Renaissance Pere Marquette, Tacklebox offers delicious breakfast items on their brunch menu. I tried savory Crawfish & Egg Beignets while Thomas had the Briscuit Benedict which were delicious ways to fuel up before our morning on an airboat.
Travel Tip: Involve your Tween in the Trip Planning Before You Go
We’ve all planned plenty of family vacations but when was the last time you asked your tween what they wanted to do and made them part of the vacation planning process? Tweens and teens tend to enjoy family trips together more if they’re part of the planning process! This also provides them with background knowledge about the place you’re visiting so while you’re doing your research, turn them loose to let them do their own! They may come up with some different ideas you hadn’t thought of like Thomas did!
Great sites for researching things to do in New Orleans with tweens include:
- NewOrleans.com– The official website of the New Orleans tourism industry is a great place to start because this nonprofit works to highlight the city as a travel destination and features lots of trip planning tools, including informative blog posts like Family Affair: Summer Fun in NOLA and Make It a Family Vacation in New Orleans.
- TripAdvisor– If you’re wanting to know the real deal about the airboat excursion you’re about to book or if the food tour you’re considering is really tween and teen friendly, Trip Advisor is the place to go because travelers are nothing but honest about their experiences and advice from someone who has been there, done that is invaluable!
- Yelp– We’re a family who loves to eat and how do we find the best non-touristy places for the best food? Yelp! It’s great for doing research before we go or on the fly via the Yelp app.
- YouTube– Yes, YouTube! For tweens and teens who love to watch YouTube, it’s a treasure trove of travel videos from vloggers who can give you a sense of your destination, fun things to do, and even some history and facts before you get there. If you’re not comfortable turning your child loose on YouTube to do their own research for fear they’ll get stuck on gaming videos, create a playlist! Last summer I created a playlist of videos featuring cities and experiences in Vietnam and Thailand to share with my kids before we left. I emailed the link to both kids with instructions for them to watch them and it was a great way for them to get to know the places we’d be visiting through my curated list!
Having turned Thomas loose to do some online research, I was impressed with the list he came up with! Some of the things he wanted to do were already on my list but there were others- like a culinary history tour of the French Quarter – that were not! He also found City Segway Tours rents segways to 12 year olds that I wouldn’t have discovered on my own so I was glad to have solicited his input! I was also glad that our scheduled allowed some free time so we were able to book a cooking demo at New Orleans School of Cooking.
Take a peek at the rest of our photos from our trip on Flickr:
We personally paid for our travel, lodging, meals, and experiences although I did get a discount or complimentary admission on some of our experiences as a member of the media. All opinions are my own and based on personal experience.