Beyond Bourbon St.: Family fun in New Orleans

BeyondBourbon
Patrons sitting at the New Orleans institution Cafe du Monde, known for its classic beignets and coffee.

NEW ORLEANS - A long weekend in New Orleans conjures up images of boozy days and nighttime street parties, a place where the debauchery never stops and inhibitions are checked at the door.

But that's not all that New Orleans is about. Sure, you can hop off a plane and head straight to Bourbon Street, where tourists drink out of giant fishbowls, and strip clubs dot the narrow thoroughfare.

Locals say New Orleans, the real New Orleans, is a city that prioritizes family life at every turn, from Mardi Gras - where most beads are tossed to little kids, not at a pair of flashed breasts - to the city's famed restaurants, where young diners are welcome.

Jennifer Bernard-Allen, a New Orleans native, is raising her 4-year-old daughter and year-old son the way she was raised - red beans and rice on Mondays, fried catfish on Fridays.

"New Orleans is truly just rooted in a sense of family," she says. "And that doesn't mean the person you're related to. I think it means the community as a family. I think it's why our food is so good. I think it's why our music is so good. Because it comes from people who are inherently joyous."

She knows her beloved hometown has a reputation, but, she says, the city's celebratory culture isn't about excess for its own sake, but about appreciating life. "That gets lost often in how New Orleans is depicted."

Behind the raucous stereotype, she says, is a great place for families to live - and visit.

For travelers, the city's spirit of inclusion translates as a warm (not to say sweaty) welcome for all ages. Its laid-back vibe, walkability, and extended stretch of shorts weather can temper the stresses of family travel - there's a reason its nickname isn't the Big Hard. New Orleans also offers something for everyone - a rich cultural history, everything from voodoo to hoop skirts; adventures by both land and water; and a year-round calendar of family-friendly festivals touting the city's music, cuisine, or both.

To New Orleans parents such as Bernard-Allen, the city is a playground for young and old alike. Here are some of their favorite kid-approved destinations in the Crescent City:

Steamboat rides

The historic Steamboat Natchez, one of the few authentic steamboats remaining in the United States and the only one in New Orleans, offers two-hour rides up and down the Mississippi. As the boat pulls away from the dock on Toulouse Street, in the French Quarter, with a 32-note calliope playing, it feels like a step back in time. From the deck, you get an expansive view of the skyline and the French Quarter, as well as the bustling shipping lanes that helped build this city. Cruises include live jazz with brunch or dinner, featuring traditional New Orleans fare such as Creole creamed spinach, grits, and beignets. Best of all, children can visit the engine room.

Beignets

The bliss that is fried dough topped with powdered sugar is a highlight of any day out in this city. The most famous place to get beignets is the 154-year-old Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter.

The menu is so short it fits on the back of a napkin holder - beignets, coffee, and hot chocolate - but the place is packed from morning to night, proving it's always a good time for beignets in New Orleans. You can also get your beignets to go. Eat them as you stroll along the Mississippi a short walk away.

Brigit Saltz moved to the city from Washington in July. Her daughters, 8 and 11, just experienced their first Mardi Gras, and proved to be quick studies on diving for the beads and stuffed animals tossed off two-story floats. Nonetheless, Saltz says, "their favorite thing about moving to New Orleans is eating the beignets at Cafe du Monde."

Swamps

Southern Louisiana is surrounded by water - the Gulf of Mexico, the muddy waters of the Mississippi, and numerous canals, bayous, and swamps. Take a quick drive north of Lake Ponchartrain to Slidell and hop on a flat-bottomed boat with Honey Island Swamp Tours. The company also offers a pickup and drop-off service from New Orleans. The boats go straight into the murky waters of the bayou, where you're likely to see herons, egrets, turtles, and alligators, as well as a stunning, Spanish-moss-draped landscape.

City Park

This expansive, 1,300-acre retreat is New Orleans' answer to New York City's Central Park. Situated north of downtown, about a 10-minute cab ride from the French Quarter - the Canal Street Line streetcar will also drop you off at the gates - City Park is a green oasis that invites visitors to get lost for the day.

With pedal boats, botanical gardens, tennis courts, and golf courses, there is no shortage of activities. Children, though, will probably head straight for Storyland, a larger-than-life storybook-theme playground where they can slide down the back of a fire-breathing dragon and play among statues of the Three Little Pigs.

There's also a small amusement park with a historic carousel where visitors can ride a horse (or giraffe or lion) that dates as far back as 1885. There's even a seat atop an alligator in the carousel gazebo - great for pictures before you hop on. The ride has been in operation since 1906, and even today, when the animals need a touch-up, they are repainted by hand.

Live music

Families can catch some great live music al fresco by heading to Jackson Square in front of the nearly 300-year-old St. Louis Cathedral, one of the most recognizable landmarks in this city and the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States. Crowds gather - some dancing, some sprawling on the cathedral steps - as street musicians play jazz, classical, soul, New Orleans' traditional zydeco, and more. Jackson Square is also home to a wide range of local artists who set up shop along the sidewalk outside the gates.

Food hall

New Orleans is full of mouthwatering food, but for something off the beaten path, head to St. Roch Market, which boasts 16 stalls full of New Orleans comfort food, including in-season seafood and shellfish, chicken, crepes, and cocktails. You can also buy take-home items such as coffee, grits, and fresh produce from area farms. The people (and their dogs) eating on the outside patio are a great mix of city characters.

Streetcars

Saltz uses the streetcars to ferry her daughters to the French Quarter for afternoons of fun. In addition to providing transportation, they're great for sightseeing. They run through several neighborhoods and cost just $1.25 per ride. (Those 2 and younger ride free.)

A staple of classic New Orleans, the St. Charles Line, which Saltz and her daughters take, is the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world. It motors past the sprawling antebellum mansions of St. Charles Avenue to the river bend at Carrollton Avenue - home of the famous Camellia Grill - and Audubon Park, which houses the city's zoo.

Other lines include the Riverfront Line, which takes you from Canal Street along the river to the French Quarter, and the Canal Street Line, which heads up that street and through the Central Business District (known locally as the CBD) and into Mid-City.

So make a beeline for Bourbon Street if you must - but for an authentic New Orleans experience, take the kids.