The problem with New Orleans, in my opinion, is that all you’re going to want to do while you’re there is eat … and drink … then eat and drink some more. I totally endorse this method of travel, by the way, especially when visiting the South’s most delicious city. But as you might guess, there’s more to the Big Easy than a sophisticated cocktail scene and extensive culinary playground—it would be a shame to vacation at such a cultural hotbed and not try all the other things to do in New Orleans.
So next time you’re visiting, put these activities on your itinerary as a means to get your heart pumping (or simply to stave off a food hangover and prepare room in your stomach for the next meal).
Take a Walking Tour of the Garden District
We touched down in New Orleans on a Monday morning and right off the bat headed to the Garden District—a historic neighborhood formed shortly after the Louisiana Purchase for the new Americans who didn’t want to live in the French Quarter—for lunch and a walking tour with Sheila Ferran. I recommend doing this on your first day in town as it will allow you to get your bearings and learn more about the city’s storied past.
Sheila started us off like all good NOLA tours begin: in a cemetery. I was having flashbacks to Ashley Judd being locked in a tomb in Double Jeopardy and told Sheila as much—to which she said, “well funny, they actually filmed that scene in this very cemetery.” (Parts of Interview with the Vampire were also shot there.)
New Orleans may be known for vampires and voodoo, but you don’t get that creepy feeling while going on a walking tour during daylight. Sheila showed us several notable tombs and gravestones in Lafayette Cemetery, and I learned that much like in Tennessee, yellow fever claimed the lives of many of NOLA’s early inhabitants.
From there, we wandered down Coliseum Street and wove in and out of the district, as Sheila pointed out who lived where: Sandra Bullock, there; John Goodman, over there; and Anne Rice, here and there and there (it seems that at one point or another, Anne Rice lived in every stately home in New Orleans!). One highlight was when Sheila pointed out the house where Archie Manning still lives today (and which Eli and Peyton once resided in, as well).
We also got a crash course in New Orleans architecture, from the old-school shotgun houses to the ornate-style Italianate homes, and we even saw a house that could almost be a doppelgänger for my own 1800s beauty: a mash-up of a Queen Anne and Greek Revival.
Overall, this tour is ideal for any lovers of history or architecture or the visitor who wants to get the lay of the land. (price: $35)
Pro tip: Come for the history; stay for the three-martini lunch at Commander’s Palace, a Garden District icon. After walking around in the Southern humidity, you’ve earned it. You can save your feet and take the St. Charles streetcar back to your hotel.
Mix Up a Hurricane with New Orleans Drink Lab
Who doesn’t want to learn to shake it up like a pro? I confess that while I consume a lot of cocktails, I don’t do much mixology at home other than adding a bit of tonic to my gin or ginger beer to my bourbon, so it was interesting to learn how to make New Orleans’ signature cocktail—the Hurricane, of course—the way the pros do it. Enter: Drink Lab.
Situated above Victory, New Orleans Drink Lab explores the cocktail culture that fuels the city, as well as how many of its iconic drinks came to be. We had a crash course in cocktail culture while sipping on a glass of champs and manning our own bartending stations as we prepared our drinks for consumption. Newsflash: I actually like Hurricanes when made properly (with real, homemade passionfruit simple syrup). Who knew?
Keep your eyes peeled for Drink Lab’s monthly prohibition parties; they also offer two-hour classes several days a week, as well as cater to groups like birthday parties or bachelorettes. (price: $65 per person)
Bust a Move with Bounce Ya Brass
I’ll be honest: I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to take Bounce Ya Brass class when I showed up. It was the end of a long day, I hadn’t been sleeping well, and I’d consumed a particularly gluttonous lunch so was feeling rather lethargic. But as Alex, Angie and I walked up to Crescent Park where Shanda, one of the teachers at Move Ya Brass, had already started her class, I heard her whoops and her “love yas!” and I immediately dropped my belongings and jumped right in to join the fun.
Shanda’s energy and positivity are infectious, and even if you’ve never danced a day in your life, it doesn’t matter—no one cares, no one is going to laugh at you, heck, no one will even be looking your way as they’re all paying attention to the teacher anyway and trying not to trip over their own two feet. While Move Ya Brass founder Robin Barnes’ classes may be based on NOLA dance moves backed by recorded tunes from a brass band, they’re mixed with aerobics and rather formulaic—after a couple measures, you’ll find your groove. In the summer New Orleans humidity, I was sweating hard by the third song; it helped to justify that second dessert for the day I’d have later that night.
There are free Bounce Ya Brass classes beneath the Mandeville Shed at Crescent Park every Tuesday from 5:45 to 6:45. Move Ya Brass also offers other classes like hip hop and stretching throughout the week. (price: free)
Pro tip: After you’re nice and sweaty, stick close to the Bywater neighborhood where you can have a drink at the Country Club and cool off in the pool before moving onto St. Roch Market for a casual dinner in a food hall environment.
Bowl a Strike at Fulton Alley
On my last day in town, we had a few hours of downtime to rest, during which Alex texted me, “wanna go bowling?” And while all I really wanted to do was take a nap (a lot of late nights and cocktailing led me to this point), I wanted to throw a strike a lot more than I did snooze. So off to go bowling we did!
And Fulton Alley was the cutest boutique bowling alley we ever did see, too. We booked a lane for half an hour (they’re available to rent in 30-minute increments), which was just long enough for us to bowl two games and order a round of cocktails before dinner.
I love this trend of swanky lounge-meets-bowling alley that’s been popping up across the United States. In addition to its 12 lanes—and full food and drinks menu—Fulton Alley also has Bocce ball, shuffleboard, foosball and other games, but we only had an hour to spare (no pun intended) and stuck to bowling this time around. (price: $30/hour per lane)
Paddle Bayou St. John with Kayak-iti-yat
Does it seem like everywhere you go now has a kayaking tour as an option? I must say, I love this shift to fitness-based travel. Still, whether you’ve done one kayak tour or a dozen, I guarantee you’ve never been on one like what Sonny and Sara offer at Kayak-iti-yat.
Kayak-iti-yat’s tours tackle New Orleans from both a historical and ecological perspective, exploring the placid waters of Bayou St. John. Located just outside of City Park, Bayou St. John is the oldest part of New Orleans’ with many buildings dating back to the late 1700s and early 1800s on this formerly bustling trade route.
A trained marine biologist, Sonny led our three-hour tour through the bayou—which started in a district that was part commercial, part residential, and wound its way through a waterfront community where we saw mansions and bungalows galore—during which he also gave us the backstories on the first settlers in the area and Louisiana’s fragile eco-system. And yes, we even spied one lazy alligator bobbing in the water, but no fear—he was more afraid of us than we were of him as he drifted out of our path.
Kayak-iti-yat offers tours every day of the year provided there are at least two kayakers signed up. (price: $65 per person)
Pro tip: Head to Parkway Bakery for lunch or dinner after your paddle. There, you’ll find the best po-boys in town and a plethora of local brews on tap to sample, too.
More New Orleans info here:
Now, tell me: What’s your favorite way to get out and enjoy New Orleans?