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 Yelp (www.yelp.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 often they’re selling you what they get paid to sell. If you’re looking for a 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. We don’t love the business model and hiring practices either. But when we found large chunks of our published walking tours lifted wholesale and republished on their website—without attribution—well, draw your own conclusions about the authenticity of their tours. 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 city van tours and tours to the 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.
Cajun Encounters -- This is a large company, but it's also locally owned, a point of pride and also a bit of a hallmark, as they like to hire local guides. It’s been around for 20 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, Warehouse and Central Business districts, 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.
Their office is at 941 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] $56 adult, $36 children; check website for other costs, schedules, and discount offers).
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, he may be more qualified to tell the story of New Orleans than just about anybody. 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. Walking tours (2–3 hr) of the French Quarter focus on general history or rock ‘n roll history. $25 per person.
Cradle of Jazz History Tours -- John McCusker, a New Orleans native and former staff photographer for the Times-Picayune, is a passionate authority on early jazz and the role that New Orleans musicians played shaping this uniquely American art form. He offers a Jazz History Tour, New Orleans Culture Tour, Pro Photography Tour, and Katrina Eye Witness Tour. McCusker was there when the levees broke in 2005 and shared the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Journalism for coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its immediate aftermath. The four-person (max) tours are offered via van Friday and Saturda, at 10 am. Larger groups can also be accommodated.
For more info, go to http://cradleofjazztour.com (tel. 504/487-7666; $50 per person).
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 Gay Heritage and Drinks “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.
For more information go to www.glfdevilliers.com. tel. 225/819-7535. All tours run about 2 hr. and are $30. Check website for schedule and meeting places. Private group tours available.
Historic New Orleans Tours -- This is one of our favorite midsize tour companies, mostly because the 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 fun adults-only “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. If you can get on a tour led by Milton, Denise, or Dianne, more's the better.
Learn more at www.tourneworleans.com. tel. 504/947-2120. Most tours $25 adults, $18 students and seniors, $7 children 6–12, free for children 5 and under. 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 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 with a broad reach. Isabelle also offers swamp and plantation tours, but no Garden District or walking tours.
Full info at www.toursbyisabelle.com. tel. 504/398-0365. City tour combined with and Katrina Recovery or Longue Vue $90; swamp plantation combo tours $210.
Gray Line -- This well-known, well-established (since 1926!) nationwide 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 slick, 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.
Info at www.graylineneworleans.com. tel. 800/233-2628. Walking tours start at $27 adults, $15 children. Bus tours start at $44 adults, $15 children. Check website for other tour prices and full schedule.
Two Chicks Walking Tours -- This 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.
More info at www.twochickswalkingtours.com (tel. 504/975-4386; most tours $20–$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. Purchase tickets online or on-site. Arrive 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.
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; $25 adults, $18 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 becameunderstandably tired of being viewed through that very lens, so tour companies must now skirt the edges of the worst-hit Lower Ninth Ward rather than entering the neighborhood. 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 $16 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 $65 adults; $60 seniors and military; $36 kids ages 4 to 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 (couldn't they at least have designed them to resemble our local streetcars?). But admittedly these double-deckers offer a good way to get oriented and 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 Center). Buses run continuously from 9:30am to 5:30pm. It's $49 for unlimited hop on, hop off sightseeing over 3 days ($10 children 3–12).
Clue Carré -- (830 Union St.; 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 that they must answer to solve a mystery and thereby “escape.” It works best when clue hunters’ backgrounds and ages are diverse ($28 per person; 8 and older only).
A swamp tour can be a hoot, particularly if you get a guide who attracts alligators to your boat (please keep your hands inside the boat—they can look a lot like dinner 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 eerily 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 flora, fauna, and human-induced petrochemical clear-cutting. Paul and Lance, people—request them by name! Prices are $95 per person for a six- to eight-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 adults, $15 children 11 and under if you drive to the launch site yourself; or $48 adults and $32 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 more than 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 six-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/six-person minimum). Day tours are $25 adults, $15 children 4 to 12 if you drive; or $52 adults, $33 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 Dr., 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, and you won't be disappointed. 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 $25 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 Tujague's, 823 Decatur Street.
Save Our Cemeteries -- (www.saveourcemeteries.org; tel. 504/504-525-3377) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to cemetery maintenance, education, tomb restoration, and authentic tours. They have several daily tours of St. Louis Cemetery #1 ($20); daily 10:30am tours of Lafayette Cemetery ($15); and occasional 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 does a Voodoo tour led by James Corbyn, a Voodoo practitioner and paranormal historian. He focuses on the actual religion—in history and today—in relationship to slavery and to the City of New Orleans, in myth and reality. The tour visits Voodoo altars and a temple where guests meet with a practitioner. It’s $29; departure dates and times vary. Leaves from Mr. Gregory's (806 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 mysterious. 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.
Popular with visitors of all stripes, 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 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.
Cooking class instructors, just like tour guides, can make or break the experience. We’ve had great times with the instructors at Crescent City Cooks (201 Chartres St.; www.crescentcitycooks.com; tel. 504/529-1600), whose personal commentary and local knowledge enliven what could be a pretty rote recipe recitation. The recipes themselves are local favorites, and the comfortable “classroom” has excellent sightlines and facilities. It’s New Orleans, so naturally there’s food and beverages before, during, and after the lesson ($30–$40 per person). If you can pop for it, by all means opt for a hands-on class ($150 per person). If you book first, you choose the menu, and the smaller class sizes and participatory lessons make for a much livelier, memorable time. Great for families and small groups.
Destination Kitchen Food Tours (www.destination-kitchen.com; tel. 855-/353-6634) delivers Julie Barreda Bruyn’s sprightly and cosmopolitan approach to epicurious Big Easy. Bruyn, a natural storyteller and event planner who also offers food tours in Italy, France, and Spain, showcases culinary offerings on Oak Street and Freret Street uptown, along St. Charles Avenue in the Garden District, the lakefront, and tours of the French Quarter with or without cooking experience. Commentary is offered in English, French, or Spanish, the three languages that New Orleans has spoken for centuries. Tours range from $65 to $129, and are small and intimate. Some include transportation. Tours of Cajun country and weekend getaways and girlfriend experiences also offered.
Drink and Learn (www.drinkandlearn.com; tel. 504/578-8280) is Elizabeth Pearce’s aptly named company. The noted cocktail impresario and author of Drink Dat New Orleans punctuates her walking tour with stops at cocktail-orientated sites, where participants partake of pre-poured smart beverages. Pearce's lively delivery, depth of knowledge, and visual aids transport guests through several centuries of New Orleans' storied cocktail history. 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 largest 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 because kick-ass McClure’s BBQ is on-site, and goes down well with the taproom's brews.Tours are offered Friday from 2 to 3pm and Saturday and Sunday 2 to 4pm, and the taproom is open daily 11am to 11pm (3001 Tchoupitoulas St.; www.nolabrewing.com; tel. 504/896-9996).
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 steam-powered 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—although the current boat has never lost a race! Now it takes leisurely jazz cruises from 7 to 9pm nightly with the most excellent Dukes of Dixieland providing the tunes. There’s narration for a little history and a steam-engine room for gearheads (tickets: $48 adults, $24 kids 6–12, free for kids 2–5; with dinner: $83, $38, and $18 respectively). The daily 11:30am or 2:30pm lunch and Sunday brunch cruises are $34, $13 kids 6–12, free for kids 2–5; with lunch or brunch: $51, $28, and $18 respectively. Natchez is docked at Toulouse Street at the river, behind Jax Brewery; a new sister steamboat, the City of New Orleans, should be launched by the time you read this.
On the smaller Creole Queen (www.creolequeen.com; tel. 800/445-4109 or 504/529-4567), Sullivan Dabney and the Muzik Jazz Band entertain during the 7pm jazz cruise ($48 adults, $24 kids 6–12, free for 5 and under; with buffet dinner $79, $36, 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 ($34 adults, $14 kids 6–12, free for 5 and under; add $19 for buffet lunch). 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. The Queen is also setting sail a new sister ship in late 2018, the 3,000-passenger, jazz-themed Louis Armstrong.
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 $45 to $110. Call for reservations, times, and meeting-place directions. All equipment is provided, but there’s no bathroom stop, so plan ahead.
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- to 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 four 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 Cassady’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. 504/522-4368) 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 the 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. We like their sturdy, American-made cruisers, which have been custom-constructed for these streets, and that 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 6:30pm at Congo Square (inside Armstrong Park at Rampart St. and Orleans Ave.).
As for other wheeled ways to tour 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 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 $200 per hour for up to four people; there are ghost-themed 1-hour group carriage tours for $40, or you can hop into one of the waiting carriages (you may be sharing with other tourists) for $20 per person per 1/2 hour. Contact www.neworleanscarriages.com or tel. 504/943-8820 for custom tours and hotel pickups.
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.