A trip to New Orleans is not just about eating, drinking, dancing, and admiring fancy houses (although that’s a big part of it). The city and environs are dripping with cultural coolness and historic eye-openers. Each of these five itineraries combines an enlightening or entertaining activity plus suggestions for nearby dining (and maybe another idea or two that we can’t resist planting)—leaving time to discover the city as it’s meant to be discovered, in serendipitous fashion. Do them all, or choose a couple of faves.

Day 1: Swamp Tour

We scoff at those who scoff at swamp tours because they’re too “touristy.” Unless you’re from Florida, you need to do this. Everyone knows about the gators, and they’re cool enough. But the swamps themselves are mystical and otherworldly, and their ecological, cultural, historic, and economic relevance is fascinating. Get an early start so you have time for afternoon activities. Most tour companies can arrange round-trip transportation from your hotel. 

After watching gators chow down on food unlikely to be part of their natural diet, you’re probably ready to do the same. Since you’re already out exploring far-flung waterways, we’re sending you to the Country Club in the Bywater, a wildly popular, under the-tourist-radar spot in this artsy neighborhood with creative (but not experimental), locally focused food and drink, at fair prices to boot. Newly renovated in eye-popping colors and art, this is now the purview of talented chef Chris Barbato, last of Commander’s Palace. 

Day 2: National World War II Museum

This remarkable historical jewel sprawls across a complex of buildings, each jam-packed with thought-provoking exhibits. Make sure to listen to some of the potent, personal oral histories and if you see a veteran, volunteering or visiting, say thank you for us, please.
You could spend hours here, and you should. But you could also split your time appreciating the premier collection of Southern art in the country, traditional and modern, at the stylish, airy Ogden Museum of Southern Art, just a block away.
Have lunch at Cochon Butcher, an upscale Cajun-inflected deli 2 blocks from the museum. The cured meats stand out, but just about everything is stellar (we’ve never left without a side of their marinated Brussels sprouts). If you liked the muffuletta from Central Grocery, you can do a comparison taste test here. It’s debatable, but Butcher’s might just be the best in town.

Day 3: City Park & Bayou St. John

The 1,300 acres here are as full of nature’s glory as they are with activities, from the Spanish moss–draped giant live oaks to the splendid New Orleans Museum of Art to the outstanding Besthoff Sculpture Garden. If you have kids in tow, take a ride in a pedal boat in the lake or visit the kids’ amusement park and Storybook Land. The lush Botanical Gardens include the Train Gardens, a sort of melted Dr. Seuss replica of the city in miniature, complete with model trains (not to mention enormous lily pads).

Just outside the main entrance to City Park is Bayou St. John, a former bustling canal turned scenic body of water, and the site of the city’s origins. If you’re up for more footwork, a stroll here is one of the lesser-known, more peaceful delights of the city. Or, point yourself down Esplanade Avenue and turn left on Lopez, where shivering-cold schooners of Abita and one of the city’s best gumbos awaits at Liuzza’s by the Track. Also get the garlic oyster po’ boy. You’re welcome.

Day 4: River Road Plantation Homes

To see an altogether different, but vitally important side of the city’s history, visit one or two of the plantation homes along River Road. You’ll need a car or tour company for this outing, a very worthwhile look at the pre– and post–Civil War eras, slavery, and Reconstruction. Afterwards, make a beeline for the French Quarter and get your slurp on at Acme Oyster House. Don’t neglect the charbroiled ones (gateway oysters for those who don’t do them raw), and if it’s in season get some boiled crawfish, too. Just for good measure.

Day 5: Do It Up & Get on Down

Your iconic cultural event today is a grand dining adventure at Commander’s Palace. Choose a long, luxurious dinner or a languid, martini-laden lunch (perhaps preceded by the 10:30am tour of Lafayette Cemetery, across the street. When you fit this into your schedule is up to you; just do it in a leisurely fashion and savor the experience, one cocktail or course at a time. The world-famous establishment never rests on its laurels, but continues to push Creole cuisine in new and exciting directions—while honoring its origins. It’s fine dining done the New Orleans way: with a side of fun. Plan a late dinner and afterwards, check out Tipitina’s or the Maple Leaf Bar, both pillars of stellar NOLA tuneage (yes, you can wear your fancy-pants clothes to a club; you won’t be alone and besides, no one cares). This represents our perfect day in New Orleans: mixing high-society dining with down-and-dirty dancing, going from an elegant manse to an everyman’s dive. Great food. Great music. Great time.

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.