This post covers some of the most notable tourist traps in New Orleans, how to avoid them, and how to use them to your advantage. Let's get started!
1. Bourbon Street
First, and most obvious, is Bourbon Street. People who live in New Orleans typically don't spend much time on Bourbon Street, unless we work there.
And we kind of love to see who can hate Bourbon Street the loudest. Visitors are a different story. If you walk down the street at night, it's clear that a lot of people are getting exactly what they hoped for.
But, if you squint a little you can also spot the people who would rather be somewhere else, and unfortunately, our city's reputation sometimes doesn't make it clear that there is a lot else.
So, when it comes to Bourbon Street, it's just best to know what you're getting, which is very large, very strong very sweet drinks, classic rock cover bands, and a lot of fellow visitors, who are eager to mingle.
Plus, maybe the thing people come to us hungry for, which is a change of pace, whatever the consequences might be in the morning.
Drinking that much can help folks feel like they've gotten away from the rules they're used to. The thing is though, Bourbon Street isn't the only place you're allowed to drink a lot or even to drink outside.
You can do that pretty much anywhere in town. In fact, the French Quarter is the most, not the least, restrictive place around alcohol in the city.
There is a regulation just for this one neighborhood that says you're not allowed to carry glass outdoors, whereas in the rest of the city you can.
So, if you visit Bourbon and you're not feeling it, you can head a block away to Royal Street and meander through art galleries and antique shops.
You can walk on Frenchmen Street and find more distinctive local music. You can walk through the French Market and go souvenir shopping, or lots and lots else, all with a drink in your hand if you prefer -- just know you have options.
2. Souvenir Shops
Speaking of souvenirs, they're our second thing to watch out for. The French Quarter is full of souvenir shops, sometimes three shops on one block selling the same t-shirts and shot glasses and figurines.
And those places can be useful if you're looking to buy something for a bunch of people really fast, or if you spent the evening on Bourbon Street and you need a new t-shirt for some reason.
However, the stuff they sell generally is mass-produced a long way from here, and most of those shops are owned by one single family.
If you like the idea of going home with something locally crafted or patronizing a small business, you're best off looking a little harder.
The license that they get from the city requires them to sell original art made by the person doing the selling, so that is as far from mass production as you can get.
And some big-name artists have gotten their starts on these fences, so you might even be investing in something that will appreciate in value over time.
We've also got art markets on Frenchman Street and periodically in other parts of the city where you can find similar stuff.
At the very end of the French Market is a flea market that runs for a couple of blocks, and while a lot of what is sold there is mass-produced, it's benefiting small independent sellers, and local crafters are there among the crowd too.
If you do a little bit of looking and if you want to take home something with a real local story to it, then you can always pay a visit to one of the local voodoo shops, although you may be surprised to learn what they're really all about.
Take our voodoo tour for more on that subject.
Street artists and small vendors can be a lot of fun to meet, and one of the great joys of New Orleans for some visitors is being able to talk to strangers, something that's very much part of the culture here.
But, there are people here too who are eager to take advantage of those open hearts, so our next item is con artists.
Con-artistry in New Orleans most often takes the form of somebody chatting you up, complimenting your shoes, and then saying that they bet they can tell you where you got those shoes at. The correct answer is that they're on your feet in New Orleans.
The joke and the conversation get you off your guard long enough for them to then kneel down and start polishing your shoes, air quotes because they do this no matter what kind of shoes you're wearing and they aren't using shoe polish.
The point is to then pressure you for money. And more often than not I see people paying them just to be left alone, and people make enough money doing this that this whole con has been going on pretty much unchanged for at least 50 years.
I'm not gonna suggest that there's any redeeming value here and I'd particularly hate for these guys to leave people thinking that everyone in New Orleans is out to get them.
Again, talking to strangers is a thing we do, and a lot of my favorite French Quarter stories have started that way, so coming here with extreme stranger danger is not the solution.
You've just got to exercise a little vigilance, and maybe if your shoes are nice enough to attract compliments from strangers, think about changing into something more comfortable.
There are too many cracks in the sidewalk and mysterious puddles in the French Quarter for it to be worth it.
My fellow Americans, please think twice about driving a car in New Orleans.
Lots of our visitors drive in from nearby, so sometimes there's no alternative. But if you can help it, doing without a car can save you time and money.
New Orleans is a city from the 1700s. Most of the roads are just wide enough for a lane of street parking and a single one-way lane of traffic, and in the French Quarter that one lane is full of pedestrians.
Also, the streets are in terrible condition. So, if you love your car, don't subject its poor suspension to all of our potholes. Give it a vacation too and leave it at home.
If you do go without your car then as far as transport costs you're looking at around $30 for a cab ride from the airport for 2 people, $10-$15 for cab rides around town, maybe $30 a day for a bike rental, $1.25 a ride for our streetcar and bus system, and lots of beautiful walks for free.
Whereas if you have a car and you're staying in or near the French Quarter, you're looking at $20+ just to park it overnight, plus all the parking costs along the way.
Lots of people make their private fortunes off of owning parking spots in New Orleans and the city itself makes a not-insignificant portion of its budget off of parking tickets.
And our street parking can be pretty confusing. Seriously, we have street signs all over town that say "No Parking - Parade" and you're just supposed to know whether a parade is happening that day or not.
Maybe the idea was to hang a year-long calendar on each one, but the budget ran out, but hey keep paying French Quarter parking tickets and we'll be able to add that in no time.
Parades also deserve a minute of our attention. New Orleans is famous for Mardi Gras and there's a lot of fun to be had if you come here that time of year.
But, just like with Bourbon Street the reality and the expectation can look pretty different from one another.
A lot of our visitors come here thinking Mardi Gras is one day full of parades down Bourbon Street, and it's true that on Mardi Gras you can find huge parties on Bourbon Street with people wearing costumes and throwing beads.
The thing is that is any day on Bourbon Street. The difference is that on Mardi Gras the crowd is waiting for a parade that's never going to come.
Most parades never enter the French Quarter. Also, most of them are family-friendly, and most of them don't happen on Mardi Gras Day. We have dozens of parades over several weeks leading up to the big day.
Sometimes, visitors come here looking for the Mardi Gras experience and find out that they've missed out on some of the best parts by just doing the one day.
And other people travel here looking to avoid the Mardi Gras crowds and accidentally find themselves right in the thick of the parade season.
So, if you're looking to be here in February or March, it's best to do some research about the parade schedule well before you travel.
You should also know that most Mardi Gras events are free to attend, driving during parade season is even more impossible than usual, restrooms are extremely hard to find, the crowds can be so large that your cell phone won't work, and basic services shut down on Mardi Gras Day.
If that sounds overwhelming, there are plenty of other holidays where we throw a more modest parade schedule, like St. Patrick's Day - only six parades for that one.
If you do end up missing Mardi Gras, make sure to check out Mardi Gras World to see some of the best floats that are used in the parades.
Besides parades, partying, and people-watching, another thing we're famous for is our food. New Orleans has more restaurants per capita than any city in the country.
We could devote entire videos to picking out good ones -- and we have. Check out our video on a few of the most important foods to try while you're here.
But a lot of French Quarter restaurants aren't serving what folks in Louisiana would recognize and enjoy as local food.
For example, there's an incredible restaurant in the Treme near the French Quarter called Willie Mae's Scotch House, which serves objectively the best-fried chicken in the universe.
But, there's only one location and it takes some traveling to get there, whereas all over the French Quarter, there are locations of Willy's Chicken Shack.
The name is just similar enough to confuse even some foodies, but the two are unrelated. This one is a chain owned by the same family that owns all the t-shirt shops. And sometimes that's what you need.
Maybe you've got picky kids, maybe you just had all the food with French names that you can handle for a while, or you're a few drinks in on Bourbon and you just need a burger NOW.
But, if you're looking to have good, satisfying adventures with your meals, it pays to prepare.
Speaking of which, here are a few resources you can use to find some of the best food in New Orleans:
- Best Po-Boys in New Orleans
- Best Beignets in New Orleans
- The Difference Between Cajun and Creole
- New Orleans Food Tours
7. Visitor Information Centers
With all these different things requiring research, it can be really comforting to think that there are people whose job is to give good advice to visitors, and those folks are our next point.
Across the French Quarter, you'll find little kiosks and shops offering visitor information, and lots of the hotels in the area offer concierge services too.
There's no doubt these people have some very helpful knowledge and they may be able to save you time by booking dinner reservations, tours, show tickets, and all that stuff.
But, visitor information centers are mostly owned by tour companies who, of course, have an interest in selling their own services, and most hotel concierges make the bulk of their living through commissions.
In other words, what these professionals are offering is a combination of their own expert knowledge and what they've been paid to offer.
You may be getting their best recommendation from among the services that give them a cut, but you'll rarely find them referring people to, say, pay-what-you-will walking tours.
So, while it's well worth consulting them, it's also worth coming to them with a clear idea of what you want and tipping them so that you, and not the company offering the service, are the customer.
8. Swamp Tours/Outdoor Adventures
These can be a lot of fun, and if you feel like splurging, they can be more than worth the cost of attending. But, if you're on a budget trip, you have free and low-cost alternatives.
If you've got a car and you want to see some nature yourself, the Barataria Preserve is a free national park that preserves 26,000 acres of wetlands a short drive across the river from the French Quarter.
And if you don't have a car, City Park, just a streetcar ride away from the French Quarter, contains nature preserve areas called Scout Island and Couturie Forest.
If you'd like to get some river scenery, there's a ferry that runs across the river from the French Quarter to Algiers Point and back for $2 round trip per person.
9. Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tours
We're starting to get into our specialty territory as a tour company here, and while we're a walking tour company, there are a lot of ways to explore, each with their own precautions worth taking, for one hop on hop off buses.
Those can be great for folks with mobility limitations or if you just want to get a bird's eye view of town when you first arrive.
But, the quick impression they're able to offer isn't necessarily the most interesting or the most representative stuff. Remember what I said about New Orleans having tiny streets?
If they're hard to drive a regular car through, you can imagine a double-decker bus doesn't stand a chance.
So, they're only able to go along the edges of historic neighborhoods, and while they do offer short walking tours in some of the areas where they have stops, they generally give a pretty basic impression.
Tour guides all have different approaches, but in my opinion, New Orleans is different enough (from most other places in the world) that you really need some time to get it or even just to fully appreciate the vibe.
10. Carriage Rides/Cabs
The other entertainment options on wheels are mostly found here in the French Quarter. You got carriage rides and cabs.
Like most of the things I'm mentioning, they can be great in the right context, and one of their selling points is pretty obvious, you get to sit down.
I like to go out of my way to give people what they ask for on my walking tours, but I have never carried anybody - rarely carried anybody.
So, a carriage ride offers a leisurely way to see the French Quarter from behind a mule with a fairly small group.
But with a few exceptions, if you're looking for in-depth history, it's harder to find here than on a walking tour.
Since the carriage keeps moving, the driver doesn't have a lot of time for much other than cliff notes. So in the end, what they're selling is less of a story than an experience.
Pedicabs, too, mostly just show up in the French Quarter.
Unlike either carriage drivers or walking tour guides, they aren't required to pass a basic history test to get their license, so they mostly aren't guardians of the neighborhood's history.
Their big advantage is that they can usually squeeze between the cars that are driving and the cars that are parked, so if you need to get somewhere fast and it's rush hour, they actually may be able to deliver you faster than a cab.
They're generally fun folks to talk to, and sometimes they know a lot about things to do in the French Quarter and beyond.
So, if you're getting your history somewhere else, say on a youtube channel, but you need a quick hand getting your bearings and you've got somewhere to be, maybe you want a breeze in your face, pedicab can be a good fit.
And you'll want to weigh those benefits because a pedicab often costs more than a cab for the same distance, and you'll want to ask about those rates because pedicab drivers set them themselves.
11. Free Tours by Foot
Finally, there's the service that we ourselves offer.
Obviously, I'm a fan, and I think it's fair to say that out of all the various experiences you have with a local during a stay in New Orleans, a walking tour has some of the greatest potentials for depth.
I've gotten to have lengthy conversations with visitors about their plans, and sometimes I get to help them find things to do that are a good fit, but that wasn't on their radar.
But, it's still worth being skeptical about New Orleans walking tours, because it's down to the company and the individual to guide what kind of experience you'll have.
I've already mentioned why relying on the advice of folks who work behind a desk can be misleading, and the same goes for rankings on review websites which can have a similar sales relationship with the companies that they recommend.
And it can be pretty disappointing if you feel like you've done your research to then show up to what feels like a cattle call.
So, it's worth doing some qualitative research in advance, not just seeing where a particular company falls in a ranking, but reading reviews and talking to other travelers and see if it sounds like the right experience and flavor for you.
People come on a tour looking for very different things, and everyone wins if you find someone who's a match. As you may know, our approach to the tour giving business is the pay-what-you-will model in New Orleans and all the other cities where we operate.
We offer tours for free or for a couple bucks reservation fee, and from there the price is yours to decide based on how you feel about the experience, which gives us a reason to try and outdo expectations every day.
Many of our tour guides actually provide video tours on our Youtube channel, so you can watch them and get a feel for whether or not they’re giving the kind of tour you would want to take.
You can also offer them tips if you enjoyed their video tour!
12. Shot Girls
There's one last thing you should look out for while you're walking around the French Quarter, and particularly on Bourbon Street.
At times, you'll find people colloquially known as "Shot Girls" who are offering shots as you walk down the street. They'll often do everything they can to get you to take the shot and then demand money for it.
Now, there's nothing wrong with asking someone to pay for a drink they were just given, but what you might not realize is that these shots are often times very watered down.
In addition to that, you might also find that they're asking more for the shot than you would have to pay in one of the nearby bars!
All things told, with so many different places to grab a drink in New Orleans, we recommend avoiding Shot Girls and supporting local establishments instead.
13. Beads Scam
This one comes to us from a viewer who personally experienced the scam firsthand.
If you come to New Orleans during Mardi Gras (or perhaps even at other times of the year), you may find yourself welcomed by people ready and willing to adorn you with plastic beads.
You might think it's a nice gesture at first, but after putting the beads on you, these people will immediately ask you for some kind of payment for the beads.
They will often ask for far more than the beads are worth, and considering that you can usually get these either for free during Mardi Gras, it's definitely not worth whatever price they request.
If you do want to get beads, we recommend leaving the city centre and heading to a store outside of the French Quarter to find much better prices on these decorations.
This is another scam you're more likely to experience on Bourbon Street and similar areas, so be on the lookout while exploring those neighborhoods.
Whatever you decide to do from this point on, we hope these tips and tricks to avoid tourist traps in New Orleans will help you on your next trip to the Crescent City.