New Orleans is many things: It is the place you go if you want to fill your belly with jambalaya, étoufée, and gumbo, and then wake up and do it all over again (starting with fried dough topped with a mountain of powdered sugar and washed down with sweet-and-bitter chicory-laced cafe au lait).
It is the destination of choice if you're looking to shake your groove thing into the wee hours, fueled by Hurricane after Hurricane. It is a city where you can show your stuff for a string of glittering green beads or join up into the parade or procession because, hey, the more the merrier.
New Orleans as a family destination, however? It might not be the first that comes to mind. But when my cousin raved about how much he loved living there with his two young daughters, we just had to go and see for ourselves.
New Orleans with Kids: An Overview
When to Go
We planned our trip in April to coincide with Jazz Fest, which also turned out to be incredibly kid-friendly and overall amazing; I highly recommend it to anyone. New Orleans is a truly a year-round destination, however, and fall is a particularly good time to go with your family, as it tends to be a bit less crowded and easier to navigate, not to mention the weather is just about perfect. But don't worry that there won't be anything going on: There is always something happening in the Big Easy, from a celebration of the beloved po'boy to film and music festivals and, of course, Halloween.
Where to Stay
We stayed at The Westin Canal Place, located at the edge of the French Quarter. It boasts great views of the city and river, has big rooms, and is a short walk from the street cars that take you to the Garden District. For a more historic feel, Le Pavillon has elegant rooms, a rooftop pool, and PB&J sandwiches and milk served in the marble lobby nightly. What more could you ask for?
What to Do
Although we stayed near the French Quarter, we tended to stay out of the French Quarter. We visited it briefly one morning, but then opted to explore the rest of the city after that, especially the beautiful Garden District and its playgrounds.
New Orleans has plenty of great kid's activities scattered about, including the Audubon Zoo and Audubon Aquarium and steamboat rides down the Mississippi River. If you're there in the summer, there are even splash parks scattered about to check out!
Read more: A Bite-Sized Guide to New Orleans
A Guide to Eating Well with Kids in New Orleans
But let's move on to why you really go to New Orleans: the food. Our main strategy was to plan out one kid-friendly activity each day and then seek out the best food to be found nearby, mainly to avoid extra travel time before meals and the risk of low blood sugar setting in.
Luckily, good food was never hard to find.
1. Combine a trip to the park with Parkway po' boys.
New Orleans City Park's great claim to fame is its collection of mature live oaks (the world's largest!). For the kids, there's Storyland, with a train ride, mini golf, and playgrounds. Be warned, though, that the food pickings there are slim. Definitely schedule Parkway Bakery and Tavern — a short ride or half-hour walk away — into your City Park plans.
I can attest to the fact that the fried shrimp po'boys at Parkway Bakery and Tavern are worth traveling for. For the kids, there are hot dogs, grilled cheese, hamburgers, and po'boys filled with french fries or fried sweet potatoes. Order at the counter and eat at long tables that have a bit of a summer camp vibe.
2. Go fancy at Brennan's.
We chose to go to lunch at Brennan's on a whim, and boy am I glad we did. This bastion of classic New Orleans cuisine has it all: white tablecloths, gracious Southern hospitality, and bananas Foster made right at the table. The kids' meals all come with a drink, fresh fruit, and big scoop of vanilla ice cream, all served with a basket of pillowy French bread, so their tummies won't be complaining.
Some of the other diners were dressed for a nice lunch out, but others were dressed casually and we fit right in. I would advise packing a coloring book to keep younger kids occupied, but otherwise my daughter did just fine.
For a more casual atmosphere, ask to sit outside in the courtyard, where there's a fountain with live turtles that will definitely keep the little ones engaged — just don't tell them that Brennan's is famous for their turtle soup!
3. Go to the Warehouse District for culture and Cochon.
The restaurant empire of James Beard Award-winning chef Donald Link — Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, and Pêche — is clustered in the Warehouse District, which is also where you'll find several of the city's museums. Of note is the great children's museum just blocks away, My daughter spent hours there while my husband went to the National World World II museum nearby. We all met up for lunch at Cochon and everybody was happy!
4. Eat beignets for breakfast (or anytime).
I'm not breaking any new ground here by telling you to go to Cafe du Monde for freshly fried beignets covered in clouds of powdered sugar, but sometimes the lines can be a bit too long for antsy kids.
Luckily you have a couple of options: Send your kids over to Jackson Square to explore and say hello to the horse-drawn mules if there's a wait, or go to the takeout counter and then eat at a bench instead. Don't forget that beignets make a great breakfast since they're basically donuts; I love their iced chicory coffee!
5. Don't forget the cocktails!
I know you're not going to spend time on Bourbon Street with kids, but don't forget that New Orleans is an amazing cocktail city. Take advantage of the fact that to-go cocktails are a way of life here, but don't settle for a frozen concoction dispensed out of a slushy machine.
We stumbled on Beachbum Berry's Latitude 29 on the edge of the French Quarter, opened by a bartending legend and serving amazing, high-quality tiki cocktails. Kids over the age of 7 are allowed in the highly decorated restaurant, but if you have younger kids (who aren't allowed to stay), just order something from the to-go counter and enjoy your libation by the river while the kids run around on the grass.
Have you been to New Orleans with kids? What's your best advice?