I find myself in New Orleans at least once a year, sometimes for business, sometimes pleasure. Recently, I’ve visited the The Big Easy for races (5k and half-marathons). No matter the reason, I’m at home in this charming city, and each time I explore it as a tourist and as a local (okay, frequent visitor). What I recommend is a complete immersion: stay in the heart of the city and explore as many sights, sounds, and tastes of this unique city as possible. Could you do it all in a weekend? Probably not, but you could do most of it. And then just visit repeatedly like I do. Here’s what I recommend:
Stay in the City
I love JW Marriott on Canal Street in the French Quarter. It’s centrally located with a clean and classically warm design. It faces the trolley system on Canal, and is less than a block away from Bourbon Street (but quiet enough, don’t worry). Also in the Marriott family but on the Autograph (boutique) level is Q&C HotelBar on Poydras Street in the Central Business District located between, and within walking distance to, the Garden District and French Quarter. This posh little hotel, located in an old railway station, feels industrial but is quite cozy.
Enjoy the Architecture
I can, and I have, walked around for hours admiring the buildings of this city. If you’re physically able, take a walking tour or two around the city. Ghost tours, vampire tours, architectural tours, historical tours…whatever you’re into. Every tour guide will pay homage to the lovely buildings around the city. I’ve taken several tours hosted by different companies, and they’re all great. Or just walk around on your own. Just don’t try to join in on a tour you didn’t pay for, you will get voodoo cursed.
Eat Creole/Cajun Food
All of it. Here’s the perfect opportunity to go off your diet. And if you’re lactose intolerant like I am, you’re out of luck. Butter is a main ingredient in New Orleans. The seafood is to die for: gumbo, oysters (on the half shell or cooked), jambalaya, po-boys (fried seafood subway sandwiches), and ANY fish prepared ANY way. Do save room for dessert. The bread pudding is divine!
Recently on recommendation from a local, we enjoyed Balise, a lovely bistro in the Central Business District that pushes culinary boundaries beyond typical touristy New Orleans staples. They make beets and cole slaw sexy, which is a surprise in itself. Gourmet comfort food and thoughtful cocktails…this is my new favorite restaurant in New Orleans.
Stop for Beignets
While walking around the city, if you pass Cafe Beignet or Cafe du Monde (even the less touristy locations), stop in for beignets. These babies put donuts and funnel cakes to shame. There are lines for a reason, and I’m pretty sure they put crack in the batter. Bring cash and hand wipes if you pop into the Cafe du Monde location adjacent to Jackson Square. If you’re not into lines, there’s a Cafe du Monde located in the mall by the convention center, and it’s just as tasty. Shhhh….
Walk Through the French Market
Just east of the French Quarter (along the river) is the French Market, which spans six blocks and 200+ years of history (though a little updated since its inception). You can buy anything here from fresh produce, seafood, and booze, to souvenirs and other wears. It is open air but mostly covered, so it is nice to get out of the heat. Have a sangria and take a stroll!
Explore Jackson Square
I can’t resist Jackson Square whenever I visit. It is my favorite attraction, albeit a tourist trap. The buildings of the square are gorgeous, the central garden is lovely, the art (and tarot) surrounding the garden are charming and diverse, and the people watching! I’m not saying the square is unsafe, but I do recommend situational awareness regarding your personal belongings (such is the case in any busy tourist attraction). If you have time, I do recommend a tour of the 1850 House, which may already be included in other tours (or you could go on your own).
Explore the French Quarter (and Bourbon Street)
Spanning several blocks, the French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in the city. This neighborhood, to me, is the quintessential New Orleans. It is here when you can take it all in (historical architecture, creole cuisine, cocktails, etc.). When venturing onto Bourbon Street, brace yourself for more noise, street performers, bars, shops, the odd smell of vomit and mildew, and drunk people (you may become one of them, but we don’t judge). After dark, it becomes a bit rowdy, raunchy, and racy…enjoy!
Have a Cocktail at one of New Orleans’ Iconic Bars
Like tourist spots? Well here you must. Carousel Bar & Lounge in Hotel Monteleone is a revolving bar around an off-centered carousel. Wait…there’s a carousel in a bar in a hotel? Yeah, welcome to New Orleans. It just totally works. Pat O’Brian’s is another hot spot where you’ll find the famous “hurricane” cocktail and a damn good selection of cajun food. The staff here is so friendly, even when they have to put up with drunk fools. Old Absinthe House is your typical hole-in-the-wall dirty tavern that quite frankly is a must. If you’ve never tried absinthe, this is the time and place to do so.
Walk the Riverfront
New Orleans proper is sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River (hence one of its nicknames, Crescent City). Take a stroll along the riverfront or a ride on the Steamboat Natchez, a historic authentic steamboat (the last on the Mississippi River, in fact).
Explore the Garden District
And last but not least, explore the historic homes of the Garden District. These homes (1800-1900s) are beautifully preserved and lined with oak trees. If you’re an Anne Rice fan, one of her homes is here (also the setting for The Witching Hour). You’ll also find tv/film settings for American Horror Story: Coven and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button here. If you’d like to visit one of the famous above ground cemeteries, Lafayette Cemetery Number One is here.
Until my next visit, laissez les bon temps roulez!!