AAA Magazines

6 must-visit museums in New Orleans

In addition to displaying artifacts and exhibits, the New Orleans Jazz Museum showcases live music nearly every day. Photo courtesy New Orleans Jazz Museum

I had been to New Orleans numerous times, including trips during Mardi Gras and with my children when they were young. Yet it wasn't until I discovered its fascinating museums that I was able to reach into the Crescent City’s depth and character, the things that make it one of the world’s most distinctive places.

The wide variety of museums allows visitors to see New Orleans through the eyes of those who founded it and made it famous. The rich traditions, culture, and musical heritage showcased help explain the forces that formed this singular city and continue to shape its future. Here, the past is brought to life in fun and exciting ways—with zero stuffiness.

There’s no place like New Orleans, and this sampling of museum all-stars provides a comprehensive look at its artistic sensibilities, affection for merriment, multicultural heritage, and dedication to country. Within these walls, you’ll get to know the city as you never have before.

New Orleans Jazz Museum

Singer performing at New Orleans Jazz Museum

The Performance Center at the New Orleans Jazz Museum hosts concerts, lectures, and theatrical performances. Photo courtesy New Orleans Jazz Museum

As the birthplace of jazz, New Orleans is rightly home to the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of jazz instruments and artifacts. Located in the Old U.S. Mint, the New Orleans Jazz Museum celebrates the history of the genre in all its forms.

Exuding a vibe as cool as the music itself, this museum is a dynamic place to learn about some of the jazz legends who are associated with the city, including Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Prima, and Sidney Bechet. Their photos and those of other luminaries brighten the premises, along with rooms full of vintage and newer images of jazz festivals.

Special attention is paid to Louis Armstrong, America’s iconic jazz ambassador who influenced countless other musicians as a talented trumpeter, bandleader, and singer.

Among other popular exhibits is “Drumsville: Evolution of the New Orleans Beat,” which focuses on the history of percussion in the city’s music scene dating back more than a century through photos, historic drum kits, and other memorabilia.

However, this is not just a collection of relics. It’s an exciting entertainment hub and social center where visitors are likely to hear the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band one day and a group performing old-time gospel the next.

In addition to hosting performances and festivals, the museum offers educational programming that promotes the appreciation of jazz as a purely American art form and shines a light on the importance of improvisation as an essential ingredient of its creativity.

“We have concerts almost every day,” says Greg Lambousy, the museum’s director. “As a music museum in one of the most musical cities in the world, we put extra emphasis on live performances and festivals.” Adults, $8.

You may also like: Explore America’s musical heritage on a road trip through the South

The Historic New Orleans Collection

Historic New Orleans Collection display on the history of women's suffrage

A temporary exhibit at The Historic New Orleans Collection looks at the women’s suffrage movement and the role women in New Orleans played. Photo courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) delivers precisely what its straightforward name promises, capturing the essence of 300 years of New Orleans and Gulf South history through a trove of treasures. With 3 campuses in the heart of the French Quarter, THNOC provides insights into the region’s past—which was influenced by many cultures—through thought-provoking exhibitions, original books, and a public research center.

Among the artifacts, photographs, paintings, and maps is an exquisite mahogany armoire designed by French furniture-maker François Seignouret in the early 1800s. There’s also a playbill from an 1859 performance at the French Opera House, which later burned down.

On display through October 8 is “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith,” featuring images, objects, and multimedia experiences from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History that examine the challenges and triumphs of creating a government based on the sovereignty of the people.

During guided tours of the galleries, experts tell stories about the beginnings of the city and region. On pleasant days, relax in a delightful courtyard. Admission is free; guests are encouraged to reserve timed-entry tickets.

You may also like: Discover art, nature, and history by visiting these Southern cemeteries

The National WWII Museum

People walking through the National WWII Museum, with aircraft overhead

Immersive displays in the National WWII Museum feature thousands of relics from the conflict, including a collection of aircraft. Photo courtesy the National WWII Museum

Walk in the footsteps of America’s Greatest Generation at the ever-evolving National WWII Museum. A tribute to WWII veterans and their families, the site chronicles the conflict and uncovers little-known details through exhibits that delve deep into the nuances of the war that changed the world. This is one of history’s biggest stories told large.

For many visitors, these halls of history evoke personal memories. I lost my father at the Battle of Remagen in Germany about 2 months before the war in Europe ended, so many of the exhibits hold special meaning for me. Sweeping narratives on large video screens that portray combat in vivid detail helped me see what he would have encountered.

Immersive displays, multimedia experiences, and first-person oral histories take visitors inside the story of the war—why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today. You’ll learn not only about the American service members’ combat experiences but also about industrial efforts on the home front.

Don’t miss the section on the locally manufactured Higgins Boats that were essential to the success of the Normandy D-Day invasion. In fact, General Dwight D. Eisenhower said Andrew Jackson Higgins “won the war for us” with his company's landing craft.

The latest permanent addition is “Expressions of America,” a nighttime sound-and-light show that places you at the center of the war’s most epic moments, described in the words of those who were there. Combining cutting-edge technology and special effects, the outdoor presentation brings history to life through music, archival footage, and personal reflections.

Presented seasonally 3 or 4 times a week, the show is part of a 60-minute experience that includes a custom exhibit, live entertainment, and food and drinks for purchase. Adult admission is $32.50 (free for active and retired service members), with an extra charge for some shows, exhibits, and films.

You may also like: 8 military museums in the South

Mardi Gras Museums

Museum visitors admiring a float at Mardi Gras World

See how floats and props are made during tours of Mardi Gras World. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

The best museums bring us closer to the subjects they explore, illuminating telling details and meaning. That’s readily apparent at the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture, which accentuates this festive annual tradition that is central to New Orleans’ identity. Interactive tours immerse you in the world of revelers, walking clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Cajun Mardi Gras, royalty, and masquerade balls. You can even try on costumes.

Year-round, museum founder Carl Mack holds court at 2 p.m. from Thursday to Monday with comedy acts and music. As the show ends, everyone joins in the indoor carnival and dances around the museum. Admission, $15.

Dig even deeper into this cultural phenomenon at Mardi Gras World, a massive 300,000-square-foot warehouse where showstopping floats are made. Self-guided tours help you understand what it takes to bring Mardi Gras to life each year as designers and architects of Kern Studios build these elaborate rolling works of art from the ground up. You’ll find plenty of photo opportunities in front of the props and floats. Adults, $22.

New Orleans Museum of Art

Outside of New Orleans Museum of Art

Surrounded by a lovely sculpture garden, the New Orleans Museum of Art houses a collection of art spanning from antiquity to modern times. Photo courtesy New Orleans Museum of Art

Opened in 1911 as “a temple of art for rich and poor alike,” the New Orleans Museum of Art serves as the crown jewel of the city’s artistic expression. Located in New Orleans City Park, the museum’s collection of nearly 50,000 works represents more than 5,000 years of world history, from antiquity to the Italian Renaissance and modern times. American art, African art, decorative arts, and photography are featured, along with works by Louisiana artists.

Rotating exhibitions complement the permanent works, including the upcoming “Fashioning America: Grit to Glamour,” on view July 21 through November 26. From cowboy boots to Hollywood gowns, the assembled works interpret fashion as an emblem of visual culture.

Surrounding the museum is the 11-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which includes more than 90 sculptures. Paths navigate a landscape of pines, magnolias, live oaks, and lagoons. Adults, $15; sculpture garden entry is free.

You may also like: 10 beautiful botanical gardens to explore

The Sazerac House

Guests seated before virtual bartenders at Sazerac House

Among the interactive exhibits at the Sazerac House, you can watch virtual bartenders craft a variety of cocktails. Photo courtesy Sazerac Company

With a frequently spoken mantra of Laissez les bon temps rouler! (“Let the good times roll!”), New Orleans embraces a cocktail culture that’s been mixed liberally into its history. At the Sazerac House, you can literally drink up that heritage.

Invented in New Orleans in the mid-1800s, the Sazerac was originally made with Sazerac-de-Forge et fils, a French brandy; rye whiskey was substituted at some point. Other ingredients include Peychaud’s Bitters, a sugar cube, anise-flavored liqueur, and a lemon twist.

Learn about the beginnings of this famous cocktail by exploring 3 floors of interactive exhibits located in a beautifully renovated warehouse that dates to the mid-1800s. On self-guided tours, see how rye whiskey is made.

Also, belly up to a bar to watch virtual bartenders create various types of cocktails. You can sample some libations along the way, prepared by staff well-versed in tales of the city’s unquenchable taste for spirits. Tours are free; whiskey tastings and cocktail classes start at $30.

Louisiana Children's Museum

Boy and father playing with an exhibit at the Louisiana Children's Museum

Young visitors can learn while they play at the Louisiana Children’s Museum. Photo courtesy Louisiana Office of Tourism

Also located in City Park, the Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) offers 8.5 acres of indoor and outdoor interactive experiences for children and their caregivers. Within its inviting play building are 5 galleries that focus on the many facets of life in southeast Louisiana.

Children learn about the Mississippi River at a 100-foot-long water table. They “shop” and “cook” in a pint-sized grocery store and café, as well as dabble in art projects in a studio. As early literacy is a museum focus, each gallery includes book nooks of award-winning children’s literature.

Designed to spark curiosity and promote creativity through play, other exhibits and educational programs include classes in the Edible Garden, Toddler Time Yoga, Story Time, and Fitness Fridays.

Through the hands-on experiences, LCM focuses on 4 major impact areas: sustainability, literacy, arts and culture, and health and wellness. Weekly performances also are offered by guest artists. Admission is $16 per person.

The story of New Orleans is long and fascinating, and these museums each relate a portion of that tale in fine fashion. More than just places that collect and display objects, these engaging galleries capture the soul of the city.

New Orleans’ story is long and fascinating, and each of these museums relates a portion of that tale in fine fashion. More than just places that collect and display objects, these engaging galleries capture the soul of the city.

Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.

Marci DeWolf is a freelance writer from Greer, South Carolina.

You may also like: 

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon