New Orleanians know how to celebrate life, at its best and at its worst. The French phrase “joie de vivre” is commonly invoked here; spend some time at a second line, or JazzFest, or a Mardi Gras parade, and you’ll understand why.
New Orleans has the heart of a small town and all the cultural opportunities of a big city. It rarely takes more than 20 minutes to drive anywhere, and it is common to run into people you know at the city’s frequent festivals, on the street, or at one of the many live music venues. While the live music and festival scene took a major hit with COVID, small outdoor events never stopped, and larger shows and festivals are starting to come back.
New Orleans is an easy city to fall in love with and you won’t have a hard time finding something to do, even if its last minute. It’s a city that loves festivals, so you’ll be able to find one for almost anything.
French Quarter Festival: Taking place over a 4-day weekend every April, French Quarter Fest is a free festival celebrating the local music of the region. Small stages are spread out throughout the Quarter, and large stages occupy the riverfront area. There are countless booths serving delicious local fare like cochon de lait po-boys, gumbo, crawfish, and Hurricanes (the cocktail), and opportunities to take Cajun dance lessons in the streets.
Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival: Each April, the town of Ponchatoula (an hour drive from New Orleans) puts on the state’s largest free festival in honor of the beloved strawberry. This festival is "jam" packed with activities like carnival rides, live music, parades, a strawberry eating contest, fun runs, and more. The festival’s food booths feature a variety of strawberry dishes using fresh local berries, like strawberry shortcake, deep-fried strawberries, dipped in batter, deep-fried and dusted with sugar. Sample the cinnamon-flavored ones too.
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (aka JazzFest): The New Orleans fairgrounds becomes home to one of the country’s most famous festivals the last weekend in April and first weekend in May every year. JazzFest host local greats as well as famous bands from around the world; recent highlights include Santana, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Rait, Widespread Panic, Ziggy Marley, Mavis Staples, Chris Stapleton, Glady Knight, Los Lobos, Diana Ross, Herbie Hancock, and Buddie Guy. In addition to incredible music, there's also incredible food! Festival-goers can enjoy a variety of amazing dishes such as crawfish bread, oyster sacks, fried softshell crab po-boys, shrimp remoulade, frog legs, and mango freezes.
Bayou Boogaloo: Held on the banks of Bayou St. John in Mid-City in mid-May, Bayou Boogaloo hosts mostly local acts. Festival-goers can canoe down the bayou from one stage to the next, or relax on the grass along the bayou.
Creole Tomato Fest: The French Market Creole Tomato Festival honors Louisiana's produce, farmers and our unique cuisine of which the Creole tomato is a star. The free festival is beloved by locals and visitors alike for its quaint and quirky traditions, such as life-sized tomatoes strolling the grounds handing out tomato shaped fans, and the auctioning off the first tomatoes of the season to local chefs. There are also tomato eating contests and a Bloody Mary Market with variations on the popular cocktail. There is music on several stages throughout the French Market, which sponsors the festival. Food booths offer Creole tomato favorites like fried green tomatoes, Creole tomato with shrimp salad, stuffed shrimp with grilled Creole tomato over jasmine rice, Creole tomato basil crepes, Creole tomato gelato, Creole tomato crawfish pies, blooming onion on a bed of Creole tomato and more.
Satchmo Summer Fest: Satchmo SummerFest is the premier American festival dedicated to the life, legacy, and music of New Orleans’ native son, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Scheduled right in the middle of the summer, the festival features live music, New Orleans’ cuisine, and fascinating lectures about Louis Armstrong.
Buku Music Fest: Buku Music + Art Project is one of New Orleans’ largest music festivals. The name comes from the French word “beaucoup,” which means “plenty.” The festival includes live music, local art, New Orleans food, and more. It is held each year at Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras world along the Mississippi Riverfront. The festival has a house-party atmosphere, with EDM, hip-hop, and indie rock music offerings. Buku also offers art demonstrations including a live graffiti gallery, sculpture races and other interactive projects of local artists. There is also an arts and crafts village with plenty of interesting wares. Buku also offers a wide variety of food choices with a bit of an experimental edge. Food vendors offer a variety of choices, including “womelettes” (a waffle-omelet combination), fish tacos, barbecue specialties, vegetarian specialties, crepes and New Orleans-style sno-balls (flavored, shaved ice in a plastic cup).
Voodoo Fest: The festival, which invites attendees to “Worship the Music,” is held annually around Halloween at the Festival Grounds in City Park. Four unique performance areas, each of which is enhanced by the use of interactive art, features top-tier and innovative artists from a variety of musical genres, all of which reflect the multitude of cultures that define the New Orleans demographic. Find delicious food, a mini theme park, Halloween decorations and much more.
Mardi Gras: Despite what Girls Gone Wild would have you believe, Mardi Gras is actually a family affair in most of the city (outside Bourbon Street). The season begins twelve days after Christmas, and ends on “Fat Tuesday,” which precedes Ash Wednesday. Locals gather along the streets Uptown, Downtown, and in Mid-City, as well as in surrounding areas for weeks on end to enjoy parades with friends and family. Children play in the streets and clamor for “throws” from generous riders on floats. Much of the city takes the opportunity to gather together, take a break from the daily hustle, costume, dance, and celebrate.
Uptown & The Garden District: Take a ride on the streetcar to see miles of historic mansions and parks, or stroll down Magazine Street, where you’ll find antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants. The enormous live oak trees that line St. Charles Avenue celebrate Mardi Gras year-round, with strings of beads left over from parades past dripping from their branches. Check out Commander’s Palace for their famous turtle soup, bread pudding, and 25 cent martinis at lunch, or Saba, for a modern take on traditional Israeli cuisine from James Beard award-winning chef Alon Shaya. For live music, consider The Maple Leaf or Tipitina’s.
Mid-City: Explore Bayou St. John by kayak, or enjoy the live oaks, trails, and arboretum at City Park. You can fish in 11 lagoons or paddleboat for different views of the park. There is also a Disc Golf course that will take you through scenic routes of the park, a mini golf course at City Putt, and the New Orleans Museum of Art and nearby sculpture and botanical gardens. In late April and early May, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival takes over the nearby fairgrounds.
French Quarter: The French Quarter is rich with history and culture. Explore the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, St. Louis Cathedral, and the Cabildo. There are also events year-round, including French Quarter Fest, Tales of the Cocktail, Satchmo Summer Fest, Southern Decadence, New Orleans Wine & Food Experience, and more.
Marigny/Frenchman Street: Once known as “the locals’ Bourbon Street,” this area is home to numerous live music venues – and music often spills out into the street. It has become popular with tourists in recent years. Check out The Spotted Cat for traditional jazz, or Snug Harbor for some of the local greats.
Central Business District/ Downtown: The Superdome hosts Saints games here, and the Pelicans play basketball next door at the Smoothie King Center. There are numerous well-known restaurants nearby, including some from celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Nina Compton, Donald Link and the late Leah Chase.
If we haven’t convinced you already to come visit or move here, here’s a few links to help you find some other things that may be of interest: