One of America’s most visited cities, New Orleans is well known for its delicious Creole cuisine, ever-present nightlife, and annual Mardi Gras celebration. But dive beneath the noise of the party scene and you’ll discover a wealth of fascinating history!
NOLA was the largest city in the American South throughout the 19th century. Founded all the way back in 1718 by French colonists, it’s history lives on through its numerous historic buildings, many of which can be found in the lovely French Quarter, as well as several large plantation homes can be found just a short drive west of the city centre.
Many of these significant colonial buildings and plantations are open to the public and several have even become unique heritage listed hotels – NOLA is definitely a city for unique accommodation.
Wanting to venture beyond Bourbon Street and dive into the rich history of The Big Easy? I’ve partnered with Hotels.com to share my fav historic attractions in New Orleans!
Visit these places to learn about the many colorful characters and historic events that helped shape this incredible city. Many of these iconic buildings have survived fires, floods, and wars and will no doubt continue to survive!
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New Orleans for History Lovers: The Best Historic Things to Do in New Orleans
St. Louis Cathedral
Found in the French Quarter, St. Louis Cathedral is considered to be the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States.
It began as a simple wooden church back in 1718 which was later replaced in 1727 by a structure made of both brick and wood. This newer version was later destroyed in the Great Fire of 1788 that swept through New Orleans.
The cathedral you see today dates back to 1794, gaining immense prominence when it received a visit from Pope John Paul II during the 1980s. The current building has endured its own series of hardships including being battered by fierce winds from Hurricane Katrina which inflicted quite a bit of damage to the cathedral.
The cathedral has become one of the most recognized buildings in the French Quarter and has featured in many movies and TV shows over the years. You’re welcome to tour the inside of the church and see its beautiful stained glass windows outside of service hours.
Don’t miss an opportunity to see it at night when it’s all lit up in floodlights. Check out the gravestones of prominent New Orleans residents in the Saint Louis Cemetery just outside the cathedral.
Built in 1826, the French Quarter’s Beauregard-Keyes House is named as such because it housed these two notable residents of the city.
It became the home of Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard; the individual who ordered the first shots of the Civil War at Fort Sumter. He lived in this home while he was president of the 200-mile-long New Orleans, Jackson & Great Northern Railroad.
The house was later purchased by American author Frances Parkinson Keyes who used it as her winter residence for 25 years until she passed away in 1970. Keyes wrote several novels that were set in Louisiana including Crescent Carnival, Steamboat Gothic, and Dinner at Antoines.
The house is open for tours Mondays to Saturdays and allows you to check out General Beauregard’s original furnishings as well as many of Keyes collections which include her dolls, ornate fans, and tea pots.
The house itself features a twin curved staircases leading to a Tuscan portico, a giant parlor, and boxwood hedges. An onsite gift shop allows you to browse and purchase the many novels written by Keyes.
At one time, New Orleans was under the rule of the Spanish Empire and The Cabildo served as the seat of government during the Spanish colonial period.
Situated in Jackson Square, The Cabildo was built between 1795 and 1799 and would end up hosting the Louisiana Purchase ceremony. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the U.S. at the time, and set the stage for the country to explore further west beyond the Mississippi.
The Cabildo was used as a court by both the Spanish and the U.S., becoming the Louisiana Supreme Court which saw landmark cases like the Plessy vs. Ferguson which sadly upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation laws for public facilities.
The Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 destroyed the original Cabildo which is why it had to be rebuilt in the 1790s. Exactly 200 years after the original building succumbed to the Great Fire, the current building suffered damage by another fire which destroyed the cupola and the entire third floor.
The building has since been restored and now displays hundreds of artifacts relating to American history.
On display is French artist Eugène Louis Lami’s 16-foot-long oil painting depicting the Battle of New Orleans which saw the American victory over the British on 26 January 1815. There are also plenty of portraits of prominent Louisiana residents over the years as well as a death mask of Napoleon.
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One historic building in New Orleans that you can actually stay the night in is the Magnolia Mansion. Book a room in this historical New Orleans hotel which features 15 unique bedrooms, 17 bathrooms, and 3 courtyards for a rather unique experience.
Located in the beautiful Garden District of New Orleans, which is considered to be one of the best-preserved collections of historic mansions in the Southern United States, the Magnolia Mansion has been converted into one of the city’s most romantic upscale boutique hotels.
This Antebellum-style mansion was built in 1857 which coincidentally was the inaugural year of the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. Now recognized as one of the most romantic inns in America, it was originally known as the Harris- Maginnis House after the residents that once lived there.
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The house was originally built for cotton broker Alexander Harris and his child bride Lizzie Thompson. Lizzie would end up selling the house to another man in the cotton industry named John Henry Maginnis after her husband Alexander died from yellow fever.
John Henry Maginnis would also suffer an unfortunate early death when he was struck by lightning. The mansion would go on to become the New Orleans Chapter of the American Red Cross during WWII until it eventually became a private residence and later the boutique hotel it is today.
The exterior of the mansion features 11 white Corinthian columns and stunning wrap-around veranda. Inside, you’ll find a number of themed rooms, all of which offer their own unique character.
Discover Victorian beds, French décor, old fashioned pedestal sinks, brass claw foot tubs, and painted murals. The rooms feature individual names such as the Mardi Gras Room, Napoleon’s Rendezvous, Moulin Rouge, and the Jambalaya.
Less than an hour outside of New Orleans is one of Louisiana’s top plantation tours. Included on the National Register of Historic Places, the Laura Plantation in Vacherie is one of only a handful of plantations left in Louisiana with so many complete structures including outbuildings and slave cabins.
The plantation sits upon an old Colapissa Indian village and was originally granted to a French naval veteran from the American Revolutionary War named Guillaume Duparc by Thomas Jefferson.
Duparc built the main house on the plantation in 1804 and the site would become a sugarcane plantation which continued operation into the 20th century. The plantation is named after the plantation’s fourth mistress named Laura Locoul Gore after she inherited the property.
A visit to this restored historic Louisiana Creole plantation allows you to explore the lives of four generations of the family that once lived here. Daily tours of the site are offered in both English and French.
The site is also near several other historic plantations including the Ormond Plantation, Whitney Plantation, and San Francisco Plantation.
Longue Vue House and Gardens
Longue Vue House and Gardens can be found on the western edge of the city and features a Classical Revival-style mansion surrounded by eight acres of landscaped gardens that were inspired by Spain’s Gardens of the Alhambra.
Tours are offered on the hour Mon-Sat during business hours and between 1 pm and 5 pm on Sundays. Take a self-guided journey through the garden’s network of paths and check out the diverse collection of American and English antiques inside the house.
Image credit: Navin75 (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
Guided tours are offered at this Federal-style mansion built in 1831. The house showcases one of the earliest examples of American architecture in the French Quarter and offers up the only extant horse stable and early 1800s open-hearth kitchen in the French Quarter.
Old Ursuline Convent
Thought to be the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley, the Old Ursuline Convent was erected in 1745 and occupied until 1824 by Ursuline nuns who travelled from Normandy to New Orleans to start a convent and run an orphanage / school for young girls.
Located on Charles Street in the historic French Quarter, it is one of the oldest surviving examples of the French colonial period in the U.S. Visitors can tour the museum which also acts as the Catholic Cultural Heritage Center for the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Image credit: Louisiana Tourism Locations & Events (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr
Want More History?
There really are too many historic buildings in the Big Easy to mention in one post, but I hope this gives you a start to your historical tour of New Orleans.
If you need to fill more time I recommend you check out the Pilot House, 1850 House, Gallier House, St. Joseph’s Church, and Madame John’s Legacy as well.