If you plan to give the kids a lifelong complex for confining you to your hotel room when you know all that clubbing and fooding is going on outside, then perhaps New Orleans is better done sans enfants. But the truth is, despite its reputation, the Big Easy is a terrific family destination, with oodles of conventional and unconventional only-in-New-Orleans activities to entertain them (and you). Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are both doable and enjoyable with kids, as are many of the organized tours. Tip: Those above spooking age love to tour the cemeteries and haunted places, but long walking tours of historic homes and landmarks may be best left to the grown-ups.
The French Quarter in and of itself is cool for kids 8 and over. You can while away a pleasant morning on a Quarter walkabout, seeing the architecture and peeking into shops, with a rest stop for powder-sugary beignets at Café du Monde. If you have kids of museum-going age, the Mardi Gras exhibit at the Presbytère or the Hurricane exhibit at the Cabildo will hold their attention for a while. Even self-conscious tweens fall for a horse-and-buggy ride (see “Bicycle and Other Wheeled Tours,” above) around the Quarter (it’s text-friendly, after all), and it works for all ages when it’s hot and nap time is closing in—it might even rock the little ones to sleep. The Canal Street Ferry crosses the Mississippi River and ends just pre-boredom (and makes a great intro to reading Huckleberry Finn together). Add a clackety-clacking streetcar ride, and you’ve hit the trifecta of ever-fascinating transportation options.
If it's just a matter of needing to run, jump, slide, swing, and blow off some energy, head for Cabrini Playground (www.cabriniplayground.com) in the residential, northwest corner of the French Quarter at Barracks and Dauphine sts.
A number of the city’s top attractions are obviously family-friendly, including the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. Only the most squeamish should skip the Insectarium, because it’s swell.
Outside the Quarter, the highly regarded Audubon Zoo, complete with a seasonal splash park for the pool-deprived, is both lovely and a great diversion. For more animal action, a swamp tour is a sure-fire winner. While you’re not guaranteed to see gators, it’s a pretty good bet, and even so, hey, you’re on a boat in a swamp. Many also offer speedier airboats for young adrenaline junkies.
And then there is the wonder known as City Park. I’ve already mentioned some of the all-ages features there (pay particular attention to the Train Garden; even the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, with its fountains and giant spider sculpture, is suitable for most kids). If you happen to be in New Orleans in December, pay a visit here, when thousands of holiday lights turn the landscape and trees into fairy-tale scenery for the annual Celebration in the Oaks.
Here are a few more of the city’s offerings for kids and parents to love.
Amusement Park and Children’s Storyland -- The under-8 set will be delighted with this playground (rated one of the 10 best in the country by Child magazine), where well-known children’s stories and rhymes inspired the charming decor. It offers plenty of characters to slide down and climb on and generally get juvenile ya-yas out.
Kids and adults will enjoy the carousel, Ferris wheels, bumper cars, miniature train, Tilt-a-Whirl, lady-bug-shaped roller coaster, and other rides at the Carousel Gardens, also in City Park. Delighting local families since 1906, the carousel (or “da flying horses,” as real locals call it) is one of only 100 all-wood merry-go-rounds in the country, and the only one in the state.
City Park at Victory Ave. www.neworleanscitypark.com/in-the-park/carousel-gardens. [tel] 504/483-9432. Admission to Carousel Gardens, Botanical Gardens, and Storyland $4; rides $4 each, unlimited rides $18. Amusement park mid-Mar through mid-Nov Fri–Sun 11am–6pm; extended weekend hours June 3–Aug 3. Storyland Tues–Fri 10am–5pm, Sat–Sun 10am–6pm. Hours vary by season, so call ahead to be safe.
Big Lake Boating and Biking -- Big Lake in City Park is a pretty spot for a boat ride, and the kids can scour the shoreline for turtles. There are pedal boats for rent from Wheel Fun, which also rents bicycles, tandems, and surreys for use inside City Park. All that pedaling action can be a workout, which means you can justify a visit to nearby Angelo Brocato’s ice cream parlor afterward. Life jackets (provided) required. Check website and www.groupon.com for discounts.
Wheel Fun Rentals, Big Lake Trail in City Park. www.wheelfunrentals.com /Locations/New-Orleans-2 [tel] 504/300-1289. Pedal boat $25–$30/hr.; kayak $15–$21; stand-up paddleboard $20/hr.; surrey $25–$35/hr.; bike $10–$14/hr. (in-park use only). March to mid-October: Mon-Fri 10am-sunset; Sat-Sun 9am-sunset. Mid-October to February: Thurs-Sun 10am-5pm. Hours change seasonally, so call ahead to verify.
City Putt Miniature Golf -- We’re partial to the two 18-hole miniature golf courses opened in 2013, and impressed with the design: On one course, each hole is designed around a New Orleans neighborhood, with iconic statues and signage and stuff; the other course keys off of statewide themes (learning is fun!).
On Victory Dr. in City Park, across from the entrance to Storyland and the Botanical Garden. www.neworleanscitypark.com/in-the-park/city-putt. [tel] 504/483-9385. $8 adults; $6 children 4–12; free for children 3 and under. Tues–Sun 10am–10pm; last rental 9pm. Hours may vary mid-Nov to New Year’s Day when Celebration in the Oaks is under way in City Park.
French Quartour Kids Tour -- Believe it or not, this is the only tour in New Orleans designed specifically for kids. And it’s super. The company’s founder and regular guide is a former schoolteacher and an excellent kid-wrangler. She conducts the tour in costume and manages to maintain the enthusiasm level going for the full 2 hours. The spiels (there’s one tour for ages 4–7; another for 7–13) keeps it relatable, with attention to what life was like for kids in the olden days. History is definitely being conveyed as sites are explored, but the lessons use props (which she totes around in a colorful wheeled cart), storytelling, play-acting, and enough gory details to hold most kids’ focus. Emphasis on “most.” Ask about seasonally themed tours.
www.frenchquartourkids.com. [tel] 504/975-5355. $20 per person (includes kids and adults; 1 adult chaperone required for up to 4 kids). Tours daily 9:30am, 12:30pm, 3:30pm, 5pm (sometimes adjusted for season or weather). Reservations required. Tours meet at Dumaine St. on the Riverfront in French Quarter.
Louisiana Children’s Museum -- This interactive museum is really a playground in disguise that will keep kids occupied for a good couple of hours. Along with changing exhibits, the museum offers an art shop with regularly scheduled projects, a mini grocery store, a chance to “build” a New Orleans-style home, and lots of activities exploring music, fitness, science, and life itself. If you belong to your local science museum, check for reciprocal entry privileges. Note: Children 15 and under must be accompanied by an adult.
420 Julia St. www.lcm.org. [tel] 504/523-1357. Admission $8.50, children under 1 free. Sept–May Tues–Sat 9:30am–4:30pm, Sun noon–4:30pm; June–Aug Mon–Sat 9:30am–5pm, Sun noon–5pm. Closed major holidays.
Get the Kids Jazzed
In such a musical town, there is a sorrowful lack of music options for the younger set. Parents who might be trying to indoctrinate their kids into the joys of jazz, brass bands, or zydeco (or who just want to enjoy it themselves) will be hard-pressed to find options. Blame it on the booze—most music venues serve alcohol and are legally prohibited from allowing anyone younger than 21 to enter. So the street performers along Royal Street and in Jackson Square work well, but fear not, I’ve got a few other interesting ideas.
* Frenchmen Street Clubs -- Yes—you can make the Frenchmen Street scene with kids in tow. The Maison and Three Muses allow kids for the early shows, which usually start around 4 or 5pm (parents must be in attendance). Grab a table, order snacks, and let the little ones shake their miniature groove thangs. They’ll be asked to leave when the tables break down and the drinking crowd moves in, around 9 or 10pm.
* Jazz National Historical Park -- Free family-oriented music workshops, concerts, and funnery most Saturdays around noon, including a brass-band workshop where old masters pass down second-line parade traditions. Get details at www.frenchmarket.org.
* Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl -- Hey, you got cool music in our bowling! Wait, you got bowling in our nightclub! It’s two in one, and both work. It’s hard to go wrong with this one, although the music usually doesn’t get started till 8:30ish, so bedtime might need to be pushed back some. Kids with parents are welcome.
* Preservation Hall -- The historic, inimitable traditional jazz venue is open to all ages. The earliest show starts at 8pm nightly; get there early so the young ones can see (if they’re really young, sit by the door in case a boredom-induced quick exit becomes required).
* Tipitina’s -- On Sundays at 1pm the torch gets passed at the legendary Tip’s. The Youth Music Workshop is a jam session/music lesson for aspiring players, where some of the city’s best musicians give free lessons to kids (and also show off their chops). It’s pretty free-form and largely attended by local kids, but anyone can come. Bring an instrument if you have one.
* U.S. Mint -- The gorgeous performance room upstairs in this museum has some form of free music nearly every day, and all ages are welcome.