From the 127th Annual Meeting column in the November 2012 issue of Perspectives on History
Visiting New Orleans with Children
Andrew Goss, November 2012
New Orleans has lots of activities for children, despite its reputation as a playground for adults. Many of New Orleans's public facilities geared toward children are in and around the French Quarter; so fun activities are within easy reach of all the meeting hotels. In addition, lots of the activities designed for tourists are also suitable for children. January is a great time to experience the mildness of our south Louisiana winters. Snow, rain, and freezing temperatures are not unknown to the city, but with the average highs in the low 60s in January, exploring the city with kids is a blast.
During the daytime, the French Quarter is open and accessible to children. If I'm walking across the Quarter, I usually avoid Bourbon Street, and head down Royal Street or Chartres Street for interesting architecture and a less boisterous crowd. While most kids probably are not interested in art galleries or antique stores, they may like NOLA Kids (333 Chartres) and especially the Idea Factory (838 Chartres), a wooden toy store. Both streets are also good bets for cafes and restaurants suitable for a lights snack or lunch. I particularly like Royal Cafe (700 Royal), Cafe Beignet (334-B Royal), The Old Coffeepot (714 St. Peter), and the Camellia Grill (540 Chartres), but there are many others.
For a bird's-eye view of the city, consider starting at the observation deck atop the Omni Royal Orleans Hotel (621 St. Louis Street). It's free. To introduce your kids to local history, start at the Hermann-Grima House on St. Louis Street just north of Bourbon St., which offers hourly tours of a beautifully restored 19th-century house. The Historic New Orleans Collection at 533 Royal Street, houses historical and art galleries focused on Louisiana. More Louisiana history is on display at the Cabildo and the Presbytere, both on Jackson Square. The Presbytere has a permanent exhibition about Mardi Gras, which has always been a popular destination for kids, and the science-based interactive exhibit about hurricanes and Katrina will interest middle- and high-school children. You may also want to try the Musée Conti Wax Museum, which tells the history of New Orleans through famous personalities and costumes (917 Conti): open on Monday, Friday and Saturday. And yes, they have a haunted dungeon.
Radiating out from Jackson Square, especially along Decatur Street, is the main tourist quarter. There is a lot to see around the square itself, with an abundance of performance artists, musicians, portraitists, and painters. Buggy rides leave from Jackson Square, and they include a tour guide. Be sure to visit Café Du Monde, and sample the beignets, our traditional doughnuts, along with coffee for the parents and chocolate milk for the kids. Downriver is the French Market, brimming with vendors of everything and anything a visitor to New Orleans might wish to bring home. If you get overwhelmed, make for the river, and stroll back toward Canal Street, or hop on the red streetcar. Parents, remember that the swift currents in the river are very dangerous. Don't let your kids wander out of sight!
Two paddlewheel boats offer daily cruises: the Steamboat Natchez is docked near Jackson square and the Creole Queen leaves from the base of Poydras street behind the Hilton Riverside. The Natchez has two daily tours of about two hours each, and is my sentimental favorite as it is powered by a real steam-engine. The Creole Queen has an afternoon cruise that includes a tour of the Chalmette Battlefield, site of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Much cheaper than these two options is the free ferry to Algiers, which leaves from a terminal at the base of Canal Street, and runs every-half hour to the west bank of the Mississippi. The roundtrip takes about 45 minutes.
A French Quarter for Kids is a new tour company that specializes in tours for kids at reasonable rates on weekends: one adult chaperone per four kids and no minimums for tours. For experiencing some musical history with kids, the National Jazz Historical Park offer children's programming, mostly at Perseverance Hall in Armstrong Park on Saturdays. Check their schedule beforehand. The only playground within walking distance of the meeting hotels is in Washington Square, off of Frenchmen Street on the other side of the French Quarter. It makes for a nice pit-stop if you are touring with small kids.
Toddlers and pre-schoolers in particular will like the Louisiana Children's Museum at 420 Julia, west of Canal Street, in the Central Business District. To view some of the floats at the heart of our Mardi Gras celebrations, tour Mardi Gras World, at the end of Convention Center Boulevard. Call ahead for the free shuttle from your hotel (866 307-7026). The National World War II Museum is a 10-minute walk from Canal Street. It is appropriate for children in grades six and above.
At the base of Canal Street is the very popular Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, one of the many facilities of the Audubon Nature Institute. The emphasis is on showcasing the fauna of the Gulf of Mexico and its surrounding waterways, but they have penguins, too. If the weather cooperates, don't miss the feeding of the parakeets. Next door is an IMAX theatre. A short way down Canal Street is the Insectarium, which is an interesting alternative to the natural history museum and includes the opportunity to sample insect delicacies. The aquarium and the insectarium, plus the zoo described below, are the top kid attractions in the city.
A trip on one of the streetcar lines is one of the most popular activities for children, and a good way to see the city beyond downtown (www.norta.com for maps and schedules). There are currently three lines in operation, all of which pass near the meeting hotels. (A new line down Loyola Street toward the Superdome is scheduled to open right around the beginning of 2013.) Running along the river is the Riverfront streetcar, which links the Convention Center to the French Market, with stops at Canal and Jackson square along the way. The red Canal Streetcar runs up Canal Street, and has two branches, Cemeteries and City Park/Museum. You could ride them there and back, or use the streetcar to visit City Park (see below). The green St. Charles line, which has been in operation in one form or another since the middle of the 19th century, and still uses Perley A. Thomas cars from the 1920s, has provided countless hours of enjoyment for my kids. Start by getting on at southwest corner of Canal and Carondelet, and either disembark when you see something interesting and want to explore, or ride it to the end of the line and return. Consider making an outing of it, and stop for dinner in the Riverbend/Carrollton neighborhood, near the end of the line. There are lots of excellent restaurants which cater to local families (full disclosure: I live in this neighborhood). Streetcar and bus fares are $1.25 one-way, but you may want to get a one- or three-day pass ($3 and $9 respectively, and available from the driver).
If you have a few hours, and the weather is cooperating, City Park is easily reached via the Canal Street car. Many of the children's activities in the Park are closed in early January, but there is an excellent playground, and the free sculpture garden attached to the New Orleans Museum of Art is lovely. Do visit the New Orleans Museum of Art. The Asian art collection on the third floor might be the best bet for children.
The Audubon Zoo is a great destination any time of the year, with good animal viewing in a fine park setting. The usual lions, tigers, and bears are on display, and don't miss the reptile area, the South American pampas, and the Louisiana swamp. A new Dinosaur Adventure has been a crowd-pleaser. The zoo is located uptown between Audubon Park and the river. If you don't have a car, use the St. Charles streetcar, alight at Audubon Park, and take the free zoo shuttle van. Or get on city bus #11 at Canal and Magazine, and ride it to its terminus.
Swamp tours on a flat- or air-boat are very popular with tourists and most are suitable for kids. There are dozens of vendors: you won't miss the opportunity to book a trip. Buses or vans take you to the beginning of the tour.
New Orleans is famous for its food, and there is no shortage of restaurants near the meeting hotels, many of which are used to seating children. Some family-run favorites in the French Quarter are Johnny's Po-Boys (St. Louis at Decatur) and Mena's Palace Restaurant (Chartres at Iberville, breakfast and lunch only). Many of the restaurants along Decatur Street and North Peters cater to tourists (and their children), and serve good food: Felipe's Taqueria (N. Peters at Bienville), Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Landry's (both at Decatur and St. Louis) are nearby. The latest haute cuisine, cooked by recognized chefs, doesn't always suit children (and the dining rooms can be very loud), but consider Domenica in the Roosevelt Hotel, which serves pizza, and especially the American Sector at the World War II Museum, with its updated take on classic American fare. Both of these are John Besh restaurants. If you want to splurge on a classic New Orleans restaurant with your children, consider Brennan's (417 Royal).
Andrew Goss is associate professor and chair of history at the University of New Orleans and co-chair of the Local Arrangements Committee. He has been exploring the city with his children since 2004.