New Orleans is a city rife with art and history. Its vibrant and diverse culture is rooted in its rich history which is a blend of influences from French, Spanish, African, Caribbean, and Creole traditions. This is reflected in every part of the city, from the music to the food to the architecture and cultural events.
While New Orleans is perhaps best known for Mardi Gras, you don’t have to travel to The Big Easy for Fat Tuesday in order to authentically experience the city. Its history is shared through cultural institutions including the National World War II Museum and the Whitney Plantation Museum. Although the past isn't always rosy, understanding it is vital. The Whitney Plantation Museum, for instance, educates the public about the history and legacies of slavery in the U.S.
History is just one part of NOLA’s cultural scene. It also includes art, and sometimes the two go hand-in-hand. From the historical artifacts at the New Orleans Museum of Art to contemporary murals at Studio BE, there is something for everyone.
My Modern Met had the chance to visit some of New Orleans' greatest cultural institutions. Scroll down for our travel guide to art and culture in NOLA.
What to Do in New Orleans
We've divided the different locales into three categories: historical sites, art institutions, and where you can enjoy the view. But, the great thing about all of these places is that history, art, and breathtaking sights are often intertwined.
Whitney Plantation Museum
Whitney Plantation Museum is located outside of New Orleans in Wallace, Louisiana, on the bank of the Mississippi River. Generations of Africans and their descendants were enslaved on the property to grow indigo, rice, and sugar crops. Now, the site is dedicated to educating the public about the history of slavery and its legacy.
Guided and/or self-guided tours take you through museum exhibitions—including a history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade as well as slavery in Louisiana. The museum, in part, educates you through recorded narratives of enslaved people and by visiting restored structures, like small cabins that were shared by up to a dozen people.
National World War II Museum
New Orleans’ National WWII Museum was designated by the U.S. Congress as the country’s official WWII museum. Combining immersive exhibits, powerful narratives, and historical artifacts, it tells the story of American participation in the war. This includes the Union Pacific Train Station, which invites visitors to experience what it was like going to war, from the sights, sounds, and emotional impact.
The large museum has permanent fixtures as well as long-term exhibitions. So even if you’ve visited before, there are new things to see and learn.
Preservation Hall is the place to hear jazz in New Orleans. Located in the French Quarter, it’s been a space for traditional New Orleans jazz since 1961. It boasts performances 360 days of the year that are played by ensembles featuring a collective of 50+ masters of traditional jazz. Those who play have learned the style from the musicians who came before them and many are related to the original players.
You can catch a show at 8, 9, or 10 p.m. on Mondays through Wednesdays, with additional shows on Thursdays through Sundays.
New Orleans Museum of Art
The New Orleans Museum of Art, or NOMA, has a collection of more than 4,000 objects that span 5,000 years of art. It’s known for its French and American art, photography, and glass as well as works from Japan and Africa. Walk the halls and you'll find galleries containing European paintings and sculptures; Asian, African, Oceanic, Pre-Columbian, and Native American art; decorative arts; and many more pieces.
NOMA opened on December 16, 1911, as the Isaac Delgado Museum of Art before becoming one of the top art museums in the Gulf South region. In addition to its galleries, the institution contains a sculpture garden that has more than 90 modern and contemporary pieces spread across an 11-acre setting.
While NOMA has an impressive collection of art from around the world, Studio BE offers a look at local art and culture. Located in the Bywater neighborhood, the massive warehouse space showcases local creative Brandon “BMIKE” Odums. His large-scale murals, including one on the building’s exterior, illustrate Black culture in New Orleans.
Studio BE is part of the arts nonprofit Eternal Seeds, which also produces community murals in the space and hosts exhibitions, too. Anyone is welcome to visit Studio BE. It has a self-guided tour as well as a guided tour to share the history of the space, the story of Odums, and more.
Enjoy the View
Get a gorgeous 360° view of New Orleans when you venture to Vue, an indoor/outdoor observatory deck. You’ll embark 34 floors high and be treated to a panoramic view of the Mississippi River. In addition to the sights, Vue also offers an interactive cultural experience that shares both the city’s history and those making a difference today.