There are great advantages to taking tours. Though they’re touristy by definition, someone else does the planning, and it’s an easy way to get to outlying areas. A good tour guide can entertain, enlighten, and even inspire. We lean toward some of the smaller companies, in hopes that they may have fewer people than the allowable 28 per group. We like to hang close to the guide in case we have questions; they’ll often continue to share knowledge while on the way to the next point of interest—and we find that these kinds of serendipitous personal interactions are easier to come by when fewer people are being herded along. We also like that, for tours to the swamps and plantation homes, say, you’ll be saving the earth a bit by carpooling (well, buspooling). Finally, we like the fact that New Orleans tour guides must be licensed, which involves actual study and testing. So not just anyone can load you on a bus and take you for a (literal or figurative) ride.
Tours almost always run rain-or-shine (no refunds), but in some instances you’re allowed to move your reservation to another day. Walking tours and large bus tours provide a designated meeting point; smaller van tours usually provide pickup at your hotel. Before booking, check for deals on tickets—they come up pretty regularly on Groupon (www.groupon.com) and Living Social (www.livingsocial.com).
Be aware: It’s fairly common practice for hotel concierges and storefront tour offices to earn commission on the tours they sell or recommend (ditto restaurants). Some may have honest opinions about the merits of one over another, and those may be perfectly good options, but for the most part, they’re selling you what they get paid to sell. If you’re looking for a particular type of tour, do the research yourself and cut out the middleman; no matter how you learned about it, pay the fee directly to the company, not to your concierge or a street-corner booth. And about those “Free Tours.” It’s not that the tours themselves aren’t good, per se; it’s that they’re not really free (and they’re always packed to the gills). They usually come with a heavy-hitting request for tips, and by the time you tip the guide, you’re not far from the cost of tours from established providers. The business model and the hiring practices are a bit murky, as well. Frankly, we’re supportive of legitimate businesses that legitimately support the city we love so much. But that’s just us.
The following companies offer multiple tours (and will often offer discounts if you commit to more than one). Most of them have walking tours of the French Quarter; the Garden District; and the cemeteries, as well as van tours of the Lower Ninth Ward (Katrina), plantations, and swamps (they provide transportation and tickets to an associated swamp or airboat tour). Other specialty tours are noted, but if you have a particular interest you don’t see, contact these companies—customized tours can often be arranged.
G L-f de Villiers Tours -- Multi-degreed, dishy raconteur Glenn de Villiers is a local native who traces his family lineage directly to a key figure in the founding of New Orleans. The city’s history, then, is literally in his DNA. The tall, chapeaued bon vivant is worth following around the French Quarter for his laissez-faire saunter and breezy repartee alone, but his insider perspective can’t be replicated through a library of books. Glenn describes the customs and culture like he’s lived it (he has), and serves up the facts with urbane wit and a generous dollop of gossip. It works best on his Literary and Gay History “Twirl!” tours, though his French Quarter, Cemetery, and Louisiana History tours are all worthy. Some might find this personal take tiresome. Not me. Added pluses: He maxes his groups at 12 participants and donates profits to worthy local causes.
www.glfdevilliers.com. tel. 225/819-7535. All tours run about 2 hours and are on the pricey side at $30. Check website for schedule and meeting places. Private group tours available.
Chris Rose Tours -- Chris Rose saved the city’s soul, and it very nearly cost him his life. After Katrina, the now-former Times-Picayune columnist’s words, quite literally, kept people sane, safe, and connected – when their tenuous ties to their city and their dissolved realities were frayed to the barest existence. In the process, he published a New York Times best-selling book, won a Pulitzer prize, and then fell—plunged—from that high grace, pressure-cooker pinnacle to a fragile subsistence, after depression, addiction, and the deaths of loved ones (and the near-death of mainstream journalism) took their toll. Now healthier and still brilliant and biting, tthere may be no one more qualified to tell the story of New Orleans. In his latest incarnation as a licensed tour guide, he’s doing just that. Don’t expect a soul-searing exposé, though. Do expect a raucous, booze-spiked, F-bomb-laced bombast, told from an erudite, insider’s perspective with pathos, attitude, irony, wit and song. It’s a wild, fun ride.
Check schedule, availability and locations at www.facebook.com/chris.rose.37017794 or contact email@example.com. 2-3 hour walking tours of the French Quarter focusing on general history or rock ‘n roll history. $25 per person.
Historic New Orleans Tours -- This is one of our favorite midsize tour companies, mostly because their guides are consistently good. Quite often they have advanced degrees in history or other related disciplines, and they’re free to bring their own perspectives and interests to the tour, thereby keeping things fresh. The company emphasizes authenticity over sensationalism, and they’re particular experts in cemeteries, with a serious depth of knowledge. The French Quarter and cemetery tours are on foot, as is a terrific “Scandalous Cocktail” tour, which strings together a series of fascinating tales around local bars and cocktails. The tour delves into historic brothels, organized crime, and even the JFK assassination. The colorful bartenders, when not too busy, also tell their own tales (do pace your drinking, though!). They also offer walking and van tours of the Garden District; and a City + Katrina van tour. Other special-interest tours (available by advance arrangement only) include music, literary, Tremé, and Creole Mourning Customs Tours, the latter a particularly novel and fascinating topic.
www.tourneworleans.com. [tel] 504/947-2120. Most tours $20 adults, $15 students, $7 seniors and children 6–12, free for children 5 and under. Scandalous Cocktail and Creole Mourning tours $25 per person. Call or link for times and reservations.
Tours by Isabelle -- This well-established but smaller tour company schedules tours only when a minimum number of people sign up (if they don’t hit the minimum, you may have to switch to a different tour). The upside is you’ll get more personalized attention, and van tours are maxed out at 13 people. Isabelle’s tours (available in English and French) include: New Orleans city overview; plantations; swamps and airboats; and good combination tours—like a 3[bf]1/2-hour City Overview and Katrina Recovery tour; or the City and Estate tour which adds Longue Vue House and Gardens (p. ###) to a tour of the French Quarter, St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, Bayou St. John, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Uptown and Downtown neighborhoods—a very extensive overview tour with a broad reach. Isabelle also offers swamp and plantation tours, but no Garden District or walking tours.
www.toursbyisabelle.com. tel. 504/398-0365. City tour combined with and Katrina recovery or Longue Vue $80–$85; swamp plantation combo tours from $105.
Gray Line -- This well-known, well-established (since 1926!) company runs coach and walking tours of the city, swamps, and plantations—in pretty much every combination (including tour/cruise combos with sister company Steamboat Natchez). They offer a few more unusual itineraries, like a nighttime tour that goes across the river for fab views and stops at less-traveled night spots; and one that focuses on New Orleans’ unique connection to the waterways surrounding it. As the big kahuna of tour companies, they have large groups, full-size buses, and a slicker, more scripted presentation—but also a slicker, glitch-free operation, from the call center to the deep bench of backup tour guides to the heavy tour schedule, so one call can set you up.
Toulouse St. at the Mississippi River. www.graylineneworleans.com. tel. 800/233-2628. Walking tours start at $26 adults, $15 children. Bus tours start at $43 adults, $15 children. Check website for other tour prices and full schedule.
Cajun Encounters -- This is also a larger, slicker company, but unlike Gray Line, it is locally owned. That’s a point of pride and also a bit of a hallmark, as they like to hire local guides. It’s been around for 15 years, and tours are on a 33-seat bus. The City & Cemetery bus tour takes you through the French Quarter, St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery, Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods, Ninth Ward, City Park, and Garden District, with walk-around opportunities at several stops. It also offers transportation and ticketing to a wonderfully eerie nighttime swamp tour.
901 Decatur St. www.cajunencounters.com. tel. 866/928-6877 or 504/834-1770. City + Cemetery Tour $52 adults, $36 children. Day or nighttime swamp tour (with hotel pickup) $52 adult, $33 children. Check website for other costs, schedules, and discount offers.
Two Chicks Walking Tours -- This newer tour company adds a dollop of sass to their tours, but they’re nonetheless informative and entertaining. In the Bordellos and Ladies of the Night tour, perky guide Christine, adorned in a rainbow tutu, knows her stuff and weaves plenty of standard history through this soft-focus lens, bringing it new interest. Each tour stop has some relation to the oldest profession, from the Ursuline Convent to Storyville. It’s a bit bawdy but not at all frivolous (even with the soundtrack of hooker-related tunes played between stops—think “Roxanne” and “House of the Rising Sun”). Our group had men and women of all ages and a mature teen with her parents, and all were equally engaged. The guide went well off-script answering questions, which personalized the tour even if causing it to run a bit over the 2 hours.
www.twochickswalkingtour.com. [tel] 504/975-4386. Most tours $25; St. Louis #1 Cemetery tour $20. Check website for schedules. Reservations required.
French Quarter Intro Walking Tours
Besides the more extensive city tours listed above, these are some good introductory French Quarter walking tours. Needless to say, you can also start with the free, self-guided walking tour that I’ve developed for you on.
The nonprofit volunteer group Friends of the Cabildo (www.friendsofthecabildo.org; tel. 504/524-9118) offers an excellent 2-hour walking tour of the Quarter. Docents are mostly Quarter residents (ask about their own family histories). It leaves from in front of the 1850 House Museum Store, at 523 St. Ann St., on Jackson Square. The fee is $20 per adult, $15 students, free for children 12 and under. Tours leave Tuesday through Sunday at 10:30am and 1:30pm, except holidays. No reservations—just show up about 15 minutes early.
The Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve’s Folklife and Visitor Center is at 419 Decatur St., near Conti Street (www.nps.gov/jela/french-quarter-site.htm; tel. 504/589-2636). The super-cool National Park Service rangers there lead an excellent, free “Riverfront History Stroll.” The walking tour covers about a mile along the riverfront and brings to life the city’s history and the ethnic roots of its unique cultural mix. No reservations, and only 25 people are taken in a group. The tour starts at 9:30am Tuesday through Saturday (except for Mardi Gras and Christmas); the office opens at 9am; it’s strongly suggested that you get there then to ensure you get a ticket.
Mondays at 10am, the French Market (www.frenchmarket.org/events/upcoming; tel. 504/522-2621) offers a free, 40-minute walking tour. It focuses on their properties, and while it’s not comprehensive, the excellent guide includes plenty of history and anecdotes about the surrounding areas. The first-come, first-served tour starts at the entrance to the French Market at Ursuline and N. Peters (under the arch) streets, and heads upriver past Café du Monde. It ends at the Upper Pontalba apartments on Jackson Square. Their free Wednesday tour focuses on food and music, starting at 1:30pm at the Jazz National Historical Park (916 N. Peters, tucked back from the street near Dumaine and Decatur streets, next to Galvez Restaurant). It ends at the U.S. Mint building at Decatur Street and Esplanade Avenue. This one requires in-person registration (at 916 N. Peters), any time after 9am on the tour day.
Beyond the Quarter
A walking tour of the Garden District is offered by Historic New Orleans Tours (see above) daily at 11am and 1:45pm. It's two blocks from the St. Charles Streetcar line (Washington stop). Reserve in advance or just show up (cash only for walk-ups; $20 adults, $15 seniors, students, kids 6–12). Gray Line (see above) also offers a Garden District walking tour, but theirs transports you via bus from their French Quarter “Lighthouse” depot (Toulouse St. at the Mississippi River), then lets you off in the Garden District where the tour begins ($37 adults, $26 kids; March–Dec).
Tours of Katrina devastation and restoration are included in the general city tours offered by most of the listed tour companies above. If observed through the right lens, seeing the still-recovering areas is bearing witness to history, and it’s important. That said, the residents rebuilding here are understandably tired of being viewed through that very lens, so most tour companies now skirt the edges of the worst-hit Lower Ninth Ward. Coming here remains a double-edged decision.
Plantation tours of the River Road plantation homes are offered by the operators listed under “Tour Companies,” above.
Surprisingly, one of the better and more established walking tours of the Faubourg Tremé, focusing on African-American history and the incredible cultural and musical legacy of this historic neighborhood, is offered by French Quarter Phantoms (www.frenchquarterphantoms.com; [tel] 504/666-8300). It leaves from 718 N. Rampart St. daily at 10am. Reservations are required; it's $18 when booked online. The 2-hour van tours by Tremé & Mardi Gras Indians Tours (www.tremeindiantours.com;[tel] 504/975-2434) cover more ground than feet can, going to lesser-known but no less interesting beacons like the Zulu Social Aid & Pleasure Club headquarters. (Plus they serve food samples—always a bonus.) The guides are from this culture, mostly Tremé locals, so given their immersion in, and personal connection to the area—they are inevitably knowledgeable and sincere; the focus on the Mardi Gras Indian culture is of particular interest. Three tours depart daily from Congo Square. Reservations are required and it only goes out if at least five people reserve. It’s $58 adults; $50 seniors and military; $34 kids ages 4-12.
Other Special-Interest Tours
Hop On, Hop Off City Sightseeing Tours -- (www.citysightseeingneworleans; [tel] 800/362-1811). We’re not crazy about the sight of the familiar but garish Big Red Bus splayed across the city’s historic streets. But conceptually their double-deckers offer a very good way to see the city at your own pace. Like any multi-site, multi-day package, it’s a good deal if you’re really going to use it. The buses stop at 15 locations—from the French Market to the World War II Museum in the Central Business District and up to Magazine Street. Enough buses circulate so that you’ll be picked up within 30 minutes at any of the stops. Onboard the enclosed bus or open-air roof (bring sunscreen), a guide narrates the sights along the way. It’s rote but explanatory and helpful, and includes escorted walking tours of the French Quarter and Garden District. You can purchase tickets online, print them, and show up at any stop; or buy a ticket on the bus or at ticket offices at 700 Decatur St., or 501 Basin St (the Basin St. Station Visitor and Information Center). Buses run continuously from 9:30am to 5:30pm. It's $44 for unlimited hop on, hop off sightseeing over 3 days ($10 children 3–12).
Clue Carré -- (www.cluecarre.com; [tel] 504/667-2583), a New Orleans version of the popular escape room craze, is a good rainy-day option for couples or small groups. Participants are “locked” in one of five heavily decorated, locally-themed rooms and given clues which they must answer to solve a mystery and thereby “escape.” It works best when clue hunters’ backgrounds and ages are diverse. 830 Union St. $28 per person (8 and older).
A swamp tour can be a hoot, particularly if you get a guide who calls alligators to your boat for a little skewered snack (please keep your hands inside the boat—they can look a lot like a snack to a gator). On all the following tours, you’re likely to see alligators and waterfowl such as egrets, owls, herons, bald eagles and ospreys. Or less frequently, spot a feral hog, otter, beaver, frog, turtle, raccoon, deer, or nutria. But even during winter hibernation, a morning spent floating on the bayou is mighty pleasant, and learning about how this unique ecosystem contributes to the local culture and economy is quite interesting. Plus, the swamps are simply spookily beautiful.
Most tour operators listed earlier under “Tour Companies” provide swamp tours, but they really just coordinate your transportation, narrate the drive, and deliver you to one of the following knowledgeable swamp-tour folks. You can also drive to one of these tours, or contact them directly to arrange your transportation from the city.
Airboat Adventures -- (www.airboatadventures.com; [tel] 888/467-9267). This ain’t no cozy roadside junket. It’s a slick operation with an expansive gift shop (which also houses a rare albino gator) and a fleet of boats. And you’re likely to see and hear those other boats as you ply the waters, rather than disappearing into swampy seclusion (as you might at some other swamp tour outfits). What you might get that you won’t find elsewhere (and I’ve been on many a swamp tour) are brothers Paul and Lance, airboat captains who swim with—and on—the abundant gators. These fearless, local good ol’ boys get shockingly up close and personal, enough to hand-feed and belly-rub the toothy reptiles. They’re actual gator wrestlers who grew up with the beasts and know what they’re doing. We think. Controversial? Yes. Cool? Um, sorry but yes. There’s also the speeding, screeching boats (noise-blocking headphones provided) that intersperse showboating donuts with peaceful stops amid the primordial beauty of Lafitte National Preserve, to observe the flora, fauna, and human-induced petrochemical clear-cutting. Paul and Lance, people—request them by name! Prices are $95 per person for a 6- to 8-passenger boat, or $75 for a 15- to 27-passenger boat; fee includes transportation from New Orleans hotels (about 40 min.); deduct $20 if you arrive on your own. Phone reservations required.
Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours -- (www.honeyislandswamp.com; [tel] 985/641-1769 or 504/242-5877), at 41490 Crawford Landing Rd. in Slidell about 30 miles outside of New Orleans, takes you by boat into the interior of Honey Island Swamp to view wildlife with native professional naturalist guides (captains Charlie and Brian both grew up plying these waters). The guides provide a solid educational experience to go with the purer swamp excitement. Tours last approximately 2 hours. Prices are $23 for adults, $15 for children 11 and under if you drive to the launch site yourself; or $48 for adults and $32 for children with hotel pickup in New Orleans.
Pearl River Eco-Tours -- 55050 Hwy. 90, Slidell (www.pearlriverecotours.com; [tel] 866/597-9267, 504/581-3395, or 985/649-4200), is built on Southern hospitality. Captain Neil has been doing tours of Honey Island Swamp for over 20 years, and the other captains also know their stuff. The swamp is beautiful, even during the cooler months when the gators are less frisky. In addition to the regular 18- to 26-passenger boats, these guys also offer a small 6-passenger skiff ($70 per person, $85 with transportation) and night tours, which are supremely cool even if they do slightly freak us out ($100 per person/6-person minimum). Day tours are $25 adults, $15 children 4 to 12 if you drive; or $52 for adults, $33 for children including transportation. Tours are daily at 9:45am and 2:30pm.
It’s a little farther out and you’ll need to provide your own transportation, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t add Annie Miller’s Son’s Swamp and Marsh Tours, 4038 Bayou Black Drive, Houma (www.annie-miller.com; [tel] 985/868-4758). The utterly authentic Jimmy Miller, son of the legendary Alligator Annie, is carrying on in her down-home tradition. Swamp water runs through his veins and he knows every inch of this bayou. Reservations required; call for schedules. Prices are $20 adults, $10 children 4 to 12, free 3 and under; tours run 2 to 2 1/2 hours.
Cemetery, Mystical & Mysterious Tours
Interest in the ghostly, supernatural side of New Orleans has always been part of its appeal. But let’s blame author Anne Rice’s tales and subsequent stories of sparkly vampires for increasing the interest in tours catering to the vampire set. It has also resulted in some rather humorous infighting as rival tour operators steal each other’s guides, shtick, and customers. We enjoy a good nighttime ghost tour of the Quarter as much as anyone, but we also have to admit that what’s available is really hit-or-miss in presentation (it depends on who conducts your particular tour) and more miss than hit with regard to facts. Go for the entertainment value, not for the education. All the tours stop outside locations where horrifying things supposedly (or actually) happened, or inexplicable sights have been observed. Allegedly. Just be aware that this isn’t a haunted-house tour (you don’t enter any buildings other than a bar for a mid-tour break), and no shocking ghouls jump out from around dark corners. If you do see any spectral action, it’ll most likely be after that bar stop.
We can send you with a clear conscience on the Cemetery and Voodoo Tour offered by Historic New Orleans Tours (www.tourneworleans.com; [tel] 800/947-2120 or 504/947-2120). It is consistently fact-based and not sensation-based, though no less entertaining. The trip goes through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and Congo Square and visits an active Voodoo temple. It leaves Monday through Saturday at 10am and 1pm (Sun 10am only) from the courtyard at 334-B Royal St. Rates are $20 adults, $15 students and seniors, $7 children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under. They also offer a nighttime haunted tour, 'cause thrills and chills deserve darkness. The tour departs nightly at 7:30pm from Pirates Alley Café, 622 Pirates Alley (next to Faulkner House Books).
Save Our Cemeteries -- (www.saveourcemeteries.org; [tel] 504/504-525-3377) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cemetery maintenance, education, and tomb restoration, so of course their tours are absolutely authentic. They have several daily tours of St. Louis Cemetery #1 ($20); daily 10:30am tours of Lafayette Cemetery ($15); and thrice-monthly tours of the little-seen St. Louis #2 ($20) (kids 12 or under free on all tours; add $1.40 per tour online booking fee; $5 for offline). Advance reservations required.
New Orleans Secret Tours is the exception—a tour that actually enters an (allegedly) haunted house…and even conducts something of a séance there. During the first half of the 2.5 hour walk, guests are given spirit-seeking dowsing rods while the group visits a few (allegedly) haunted locations. Then they group enter the (allegedly) haunted building, where drinks are served and guests can test several of the antique ghost-hunting artifacts on display. Finally the guide, a Voodoo practitioner and paranormal historian, gathers guests in the center of the room, darkens the lights, and calls forth the spirits. Whether or not they answer depends on you and the rest of your group. And, we suppose, the spirits. Regardless, it’s good fun and certainly something different. It’s $55 (adults only) and departs Fridays and Saturdays from the Black Penny bar (700 N. Rampart St.). Book at www.nosecrettours.com or call [tel] 504/517-5397.
As for those vampire tours…sorry to burst your bubble, friends, but vampires are not real. But if they were, they’d hang out in the French Quarter. Both are spooky. Both are centuries old. Both are sexy. It makes sense. Personally, we prefer our history with a bit of, well, history—but if tales of bloodsuckery and high drama are what you seek, the current reigning kings are at French Quarter Phantoms (www.frenchquarterphantoms.com; [tel] 504/666-8300). Costumes, fake blood, Dickensian delivery—the whole magilla (but not all the guides do it). Tours cost $16 to $18 when booked online; free for kids 7 and under. They leave from the Voodoo Lounge, 718 N. Rampart St., nightly at 6pm and 8pm. The 1 1/2-hour New Orleans Vampire tour given by Haunted History Tours (www.hauntedhistorytours.com; [tel] 888/644-6787 or 504/861-2727) is a baby step down on the drama ladder. It departs nightly at 8:30pm from outside St. Louis Cathedral and costs $25 adults, $18 students and seniors, $14 kids ages 6 to 11, free for kids 5 and under. Haunted History also offers cemetery and nighttime French Quarter ghost tours.
Both of these companies are popular, and these tours usually go out with large groups. Try to stay near the front, so you can see and hear your guide. Even the ones with the most booming voices have to regulate their delivery out of respect for the French Quarter residents.
Food & Beverage Tours & Classes
Visitors can take can take their New Orleans culinary experience one tasty step further with a food and beverage tour or class. Drink and Learn (www.drinkandlearn.com; [tel] 504/578-8280) is Elizabeth Pearce’s aptly named company. The noted cocktail impresario and author punctuates her walking tour with stops at cocktail-orientated sites, where participants partake of pre-poured smart beverages. Pearce's other “tour,” called the New Orleans Experience, doesn't leave the gorgeous bar at Broussard’s, yet you’re transported through several centuries of New Orleans’s storied cocktail history—all while one of the city’s premier bartenders is crafting exemplary examples of classic cocktails for your drinking pleasure. Pearce's lively delivery, depth of knowledge, and visual aids make this a far better experience than it sounds, and frankly we prefer this intimate, stationary excursion to blotto bar crawls—they’re sincere historical tutorials, with the bonus of booze. The Cocktail Tour meets most nights (but not all) at 6 or 6:30pm at Vacherie Restaurant, 827 Toulouse St., and costs $50 per person (21 and over only). Reservations required. Book in advance; the small groups fill up fast.
NOLA Brewing Brewery Tour isn’t a walking tour but an actual tour through the best local craft brewery in New Orleans. The 35-minute, brewmaster-led look behind the scenes is wildly popular (read: crowded) for the free samples, but also because it’s interesting and informative. And did we mention free samples? That’ll offset the cost of the cab fare to get out here. Till you start paying, which you will at the awesome new tap room, with its view of the river and kick-ass barbecue by local pit pimps McClure’s BBQ. Tours are offered Fridays at 2pm, but the taproom is open daily 11am to 11pm. NOLA Brewery is at 3001 Tchoupitoulas St. (www.nolabrewing.com; [tel] 504/896-9996).
Langlois Culinary Crossroads, 1710 Pauger St. (www.langloisnola.com; [tel] 504/934-1010), has upped the ante for all other cooking classes in the city. Its gorgeous Bywater facility, custom-built and opened in 2013, is spiffy, sleek, and smart, with monitors that allow everyone a view of the action (but all seats are good ones; classes max out at 20 students). The big differences here are that these classes are hands-on and the menus higher end. Recent menus have included fried okra with jalapeño ranch sauce; shrimp en papillote; pimento cheese grits; and bananas Foster crepes. Participants are invited to help stir, sear, mix, chop . . . and then dig in when the tasty, multicourse meal is served. The menus focus on local ingredients and influences and change often to help keep the instructors as interested as the students. It’s a giant step up from the traditional jambalaya and gumbo that some other cooking classes offer (with prices to match—classes range from $89 to $120). Wines by the glass or bottle are available, and Chef Amy and the rest of the crew are fun, funny, and full of useful tips. It’s an exceptional experience. Advance reservations required. Private classes by arrangement.
Celebrated New Orleans Chef Frank Brigtsen created the yummy course curriculum at the New Orleans Cooking Experience (www.thenoce.com; [tel] 504/430-5274), which offers half-day cooking courses taught in a beautifully restored Lower Garden District Victorian home (near the Southern Food and Beverage Museum; make it a foodie day). Classic but manageable New Orleans Creole dishes are given a gourmet kick in the custom demo kitchen. Brigtsen, Gerard Maras, Poppy Tooker, and other personable, high-profile local chefs cook and teach; then you all dine and wine together. It’s fun, informative, and likely to be fattening. C’est la vie. Classes are $165 per person and include recipes, a multicourse meal, and vin.
Tastebud Tours, (www.tastebudtours.com/tours/new-orleans-tours; [tel] 219/929-6648), a Chicago-based company, uses local guides who do a good job of weaving together culinary traditions and the city’s melting-pot history (since the different ethnic groups that have settled here over the years have all influenced the cuisine—among other things). The walking tour doesn’t stop at the finest of restaurants, but you’ll sample a good cross-section of iconic New Orleans dishes: a muffuletta, beignet, and po’ boy. The tastes are small- to medium-size (but a small taste of muffuletta alone is pretty filling), so you won’t go hungry. The daily 1pm tours are $56 (kids 2 and under free; others pay full rate) and last 3 to 3 1/2 hours; reservations are required. They’ve recently added a dessert-only tour, also $44, with bread pudding pralines and gelato, oh my. Vegetarians can be accommodated with advance notice.
Also see the Confederacy of Cruisers Culinary Bike Tour, below.
Boat & Kayak Tours
C’mon, you know you want to. It’s a paddle wheeler on the Mississippi, fer the love of Mark Twain. A river cruise is cheesy, refreshing fun, and gives everyone an excuse to bust out their best “Proud Mary.”
The steamboat Natchez (www.steamboatnatchez.com; [tel] 800/233-2628 or 504/569-1401), a marvelous three-deck stern-wheeler, re-creates the 19th-century version that held the record for fastest steamship till the Robert E. Lee famously whipped it in 1870. Now it takes leisurely jazz cruises from 7 to 9pm nightly. There’s narration for a little history and an engine room for gearheads (tickets: $48 adults, $23.50 kids 6–12, free for kids 2–5; with dinner: $79, $36, and $16.50 respectively). The daily 11:30am or 2:30pm lunch and Sunday brunch cruises are $31, $12.50 kids 6–12, free for kids 2–5; with lunch or brunch: $42, $21.25, and $8 respectively. Natchez is docked at Toulouse Street at the river, behind Jax Brewery; a new sister steamboat is under construction and will be launched in late 2017.
On the smaller Creole Queen (www.creolequeen.com; [tel] 800/445-4109 or 504/529-4567), Don Vappie, our favorite local banjo player, leads the band during the 7:30pm jazz cruise ($44 adults, $20 kids 6–12, free for 5 and under; for buffet dinner add $33, $14, and $12 respectively). Other logical options include the 2[bf]1/2-hour Historical River Cruise, which stops downriver at Chalmette Battlefield, site of the Battle of New Orleans ($28 adults, $13 kids 6–12, free for 5 and under; add $14 for buffet lunch); and a shorter, cheaper “Fun Cruise” from 3 to 4:30 daily ($22, $10 kids 6–12, free for 5 and under). There is a snack bar if you opt out of the meal. It’s docked at the end of Poydras Street, next to the Outlets at Riverwalk.
Both ships have outside decks and inside lounges with A/C or heat as needed, and cocktail bars of course. Times vary seasonally, so call ahead. Arrive at least a half-hour early to board. Tip 1: Check the online coupon sites for discounts. Tip 2: There’s better food on land. Just sayin’.
Kayak-iti-Yat (www.kayakitiyat.com; [tel] 985-778-5034 or 512-964-9499) explains city lore from the unique perspective of a kayak along Bayou St. John. When the weather’s right, it’s a sublime way to explore some historic neighborhoods. Tours range from 2 to 4 hours, with increasing intensity of upper-body workouts (the better to justify last night’s indulgent dinner). It’s not difficult even for the inexperienced, and highly recommended. Tours run daily; times vary, and advance reservations are required. Costs range from $40 to $70. Call for reservations, times, and meeting-place directions. All equipment is provided, but there’s no bathroom stop, so plan ahead. Check www.groupon.com for discount coupons.
If you’re adventuresome and can commit the better part of a day, Lost Lands Tours (www.lostlandstours.org; [tel] 504/858-7575) takes kayakers to Lake Maurepas, 40 minutes outside of New Orleans, on a 3-4 hour paddle through the elegant, mysterious swamps. The focus is on the environmental issues surrounding these vital, rapidly disappearing wetlands. It’s beautiful and illuminating. Limited transportation is available; tours are $95 and require a minimum of 4 to go out, weather permitting.
Bicycle and Other Wheeled Tours
A bike tour is a terrific way to explore some lesser-seen parts of this flat city up close and in depth. Our suggested tours go at an outright leisurely pace, so you needn’t be a serious rider, but bike familiarity and a healthy dose of pluck will help you handle the hazards of potholes and traffic (including stretches along some busy avenues). Do opt-in to the optional helmet; bring sunscreen, a hat, rain poncho, and water (though most tours provide a small starter bottle) as conditions dictate. While a restroom stop is included, you’d be wise to take care of that before departure, too.
Confederacy of Cruisers (www.confederacyofcruisers.com; [tel] 504/400-5468) offers a bike tour with an itinerary that hits parts of the Marigny, Bywater, 7th Ward, and Tremé on comfortable, well-maintained single-gear cruisers with baskets. The eight-person-maximum, guide-led group pulls over about every 10 minutes at such diverse stops as the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), St. Roch Cemetery, the Mother-in-Law Lounge, and St. Augustine Church, where guides offer up well-informed cultural and architectural insights. The 3-hour tours are $49 and depart twice daily. The half-day culinary bike tour takes different itineraries, but all go to killer, off-the-beaten-track eateries favored by locals. The “tastes” are copious, and guide Cassidy’s laid-back delivery belies a serious depth of food knowledge (and history and architecture), which he imparts between bites. It’s $89 all-inclusive, and worth it. Reservations are a must. Depart from Washington Square Park at Elysian Fields Avenue and Royal Street, on the outskirts of the French Quarter.
Freewheelin’ Bike Tours (www.neworleansbiketour.com; [tel] 504/522-43684368) has a similar itinerary, with stops for snoballs (during the season) and at St. Louis No. 3 Cemetery, where one of the guides’ great-grandparents are buried. It goes out at 10am and 2pm every day. The Uptown tour through the Garden District and the Irish Channel goes along St. Charles Avenue for a bit and through Warehouse District. This one departs daily at 9:30am and 1:30pm; both are $50 and leave from 325 Burgundy St. in the French Quarter. Check the website for their occasional quickie, low-priced tours (1–2 hours), usually offered in off-season or at off times; and a nighttime French Quarter tour. We like their sturdy, American-made cruisers, which have been custom-constructed for these streets, and that the tours max out at 10 passengers.
It’s All About the Music (www.nolasocialride.org) is a three-way win: You 1) ride around the city; 2) hang with locals; and 3) hear music at a bunch of clubs. A cool dude leads this casual, free ride every Tuesday night just for fun. He’s also a WWOZ DJ, so he’s fully dialed in to the local music scene. You need your own bike with a light and a lock. Meet Tuesday 6pm at Congo Square (inside Armstrong Park at Rampart St. and Orleans Ave.).
As for other wheeled ways to see the city, consider the City Segway, 214 Decatur St. (http://neworleans.citysegwaytours.com; [tel] 504/619-4162). There’s something disconcerting about seeing these oddball, two-wheeled stand-up vehicles rolling thru the hallowed, centuries-old French Quarter streets. But the thing is, they’re kind of a blast. It gets better after the “How to avoid brain trauma” introductory video (the in-store training ends when everyone feels comfortable). Still, when you follow the guide onto those potholed streets, it can be intimidating. Till it turns fun. Which happens quickly. The 3-hour ($75) tour beats the 1.5-hour ($55) or 2-hour ($65) one—you get more stops (mostly to French Quarter and Tremé greatest-hits landmarks), more history, and more leg stretches, which you need. And yes, you get a few minutes in an open space to let those horses loose and see what they can really do (about 10 mph). Multiple departure times daily include evenings; call or check website for schedule and to book.
Corny it may be, but there is a romantic lure to an old horse-drawn carriage tour of the Quarter or beyond. The “horses” are actually mules (they handle the city heat and humidity better), often bedecked with ribbons, flowers, and even hats. Drivers seem to be in a fierce competition to win the “most entertaining” award. They share history and rote anecdotes of dubious authenticity; they’ll also customize itineraries on request. Carriages wait on Decatur Street in front of Jackson Square from 8:30am to midnight (except in heavy rain). Private carriages are $90 per 1/2 hour for up to four people; or you can hop into one of the waiting carriages (you may be sharing with other tourists) for $18 per person per 1/2 hour. A 1 1/2-hour Garden District tour runs $270 for one to four people. Contact www.neworleanscarriages.com or [tel] 504/943-8820 for custom tours and hotel pickups.
Antiquing in New Orleans can be an exhilarating if overwhelming experience. For expert guidance, Macon Riddle of Let’s Go Antiquing! (www.neworleansantiquing.com; [tel] 504/899-3027) will organize and customize antiques-shopping tours to fit your needs. Hotel pickup is included, and she will even make lunch reservations for you and arrange shipping of any purchases. Prices vary.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.