I lived in New Orleans pre-Katrina and recently returned for a week-long vacation with my boyfriend who had never been. New Orleans has always been and will likely always be the city I cherish most in the States. I spent more time in New Orleans on this trip than I have since living there, and I slowly started realizing how much this historic city is changing. It really creeps up on you. Neighborhood demographics are getting younger and more mainstream. Hip bars are popping up at intersections you wouldn’t dare step foot in eight years ago. And in a city known as widely for it’s fried food as it’s drinking, there even seems to be a strong revolution for healthy living. And while there are still mountains of problems for NOLA to overcome in the wake of Katrina, it was so touching to see this amazing city grow and stretch itself. So, here’s your guide to New Orleans from the perspective of a tourist returning home.
I really wanted to make sure the trip was the perfect introduction for my boyfriend. So, every decision was a huge struggle for me. The first thing I labored over was where to stay. Most people traveling to New Orleans will immediately look for hotels in the French Quarter; and to be fair, when I moved there, that was the only neighborhood I bothered looking for apartments and eventually settled in. And while the Quarter is definitely where you will see the most action, it’s also the equivalent of staying in Fisherman’s Wharf/Hollywood/Times Square/ <insert tourist neighborhood of your choice>.
We ended up staying in the Lower Garden District for the first half and the Quarter for the second. This ended up being more accidental than strategic; but as I discovered, it’s hands down the best way to do New Orleans. Here’s a quick guide to the best neighborhoods, where to stay, what to do and see, where to eat, and the pros and cons of staying in each:
The truth about the French Quarter is, unless you are there to drink, you will get bored in a day or two. It is beautiful and absolutely one of the most unique neighborhoods in America. But it’s definitely geared toward the average American tourist. Bourbon Street, to be quite honest, is disgusting. I took my boyfriend down the notorious strip, and after about ten minutes he was ready to move on and not return. It’s worth seeing; but unless you’re a frat boy or an alcoholic from rural Ohio, it’s not going to do much for you. There are better places to get drunk. So, walk a few blocks, get yourself a hurricane or hand-grenade, hope you don’t get pick-pocketed, then head to greener pastures.
I recommend doing the Quarter during the week, when there are less tourists and tourist-predators. Here’s how we enjoyed our time there:
Skip Bourbon and hit Decatur and Toulouse. Decatur is still a bit touristy, but boasts bars that are slightly hipper, less crowded and more relaxed. Toulouse, to me at least, is the one spot in the Quarter that is more local than visitor. There are also some really great bars hidden throughout the Quarter that are worth traveling off grid to see.
A quiet vodka bar, in the style of gothic 30’s, with a huge back patio. It’s really one of the more beautiful bars in the FQ.
Carousel is exactly that: a bar affixed to a spinning carousel in the center of a hotel. It’s a relatively new and totally grand space that merits a quick drink while you’re carousing around.
One Eyed Jacks
How can you go wrong with a bar named after the Twin Peaks brothel? OEJ hosts New Orleans’ best 80’s night each Thursday. It has a stubbornly loyal crowd, who have been attending since its open in 2004. And while you may hear some Madonna or Banarama, you’ll find that most of the music is 80’s electropop, new wave, and glam metal; less Cyndi Lauper, more David Bowie. You’ll also occasionally run into the random celebrity filming in town (New Orleans has recently been coined “The Hollywood of the South” due to huge tax breaks for filming and production). In 2005, I booty-danced with a very intoxicated, 16 year-old Lindsay Lohan here.
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop
This bar has become increasingly crowded over the years, likely because of its history. It is the oldest bar in the United States, and the owners have done nothing to make you think otherwise. It’s an old relic of a building, standing awkwardly in a quieter part of the hood. Some of the walls are barely there, it’s dark and dingy and such a joy if you can get in before the crowds take it over.
The gay part of the Quarter is comically referred to as The Fruit Loop. The gays have spread their wings over time, so what was once a loop is now more of a T. As most gay parts of town are, The Loop is a hot mess; but in the most entertaining way.
This bar holds a special place in my heart as my first and only bar-tending gig. It’s a little less raucous than it’s neighboring bars at St. Anne and Bourbon, but there’s still plenty of activity. The best reason to go, according to my boyfriend, is its signature “drink”. A Separator is basically soft-serve ice cream mixed with creme de cafe and bourbon. There is nothing quite like it. And if you’re real nice, they’ll pour some Godiva liqueur over the top.
Other great gay spots are the 1500 Club (a quieter, straight-friendly hangout), Lafitte’s in Exile (the oldest gay bar in the country), and the Bourbon Pub (the hub of gay nightlife).
Skip the walking tours and venture out on your own. You’ll find some great shopping on Royal Street, really cute alley cafes hidden amongst the lower end of the FQ, and loads of vintage shops on Decatur. There’s a hidden bike and scooter rental on Decatur, which is a great way to cruise around the Quarter and neighboring Marigny.
There are plenty of tourist attractions in the Quarter, but only a few worth taking the time to check out:
This is the site of the historic and iconic St. Louis Cathedral. It’s also home to scores of palm readers, artists and street performers. The highlights, for me, are a walk down the picturesque Pirate’s Alley and lounging on the grass in Jackson Square Park with a separator and watching all the chaos and gorgeous architecture that surrounds you.
AQUARIUM OF THE AMERICAS
My boyfriend thought it was a bit busted, but it’s supposedly the second best in the country. I’ll let you decide for yourself. It’s worth going to for one reason alone: the people-watching. There are some really uneducated people in the South and they never fail to disappoint at the aquarium and zoo. I’ve heard people ask if jellyfish are food, if eels were snakes, and why that turtle is flying. Beyond that, there are some great exhibits. Additionally, you can get the Audobon package which includes admission to both the aquarium and the zoo, with a riverboat ride from one to the other. The Audobon Zoo is the third best in the country and absolutely stunning. It’s one of my favorite places to take visitors in town. You can also catch an IMAX at the aquarium, if that’s your thing (it serves as a great respite from the heat if you’re there in late spring or any time during the summer). If you do go, though, I urge you to skip “Hurricane on the Bayou.” I promise it’s not what you think. It was our only regret on the trip.
From the FQ you can take a free ferry across the Mississippi River to Old Algiers. There’s a quaint church square, amazing views of the NOLA skyline and FQ, and the Mardi Gras Museum. I’ve never actually been to the Mardi Gras Museum, but I hear it’s pretty good and worth the trip if you’re not actually there for Mardi Gras. I don’t suggest making your first trip to NOLA a Mardi Gras trip. Head over in mid-May when the weather is perfect and the crowds are minimal. Definitely return for Mardi Gras, though.
There are plenty of great places to dine in the Quarter. To be honest, there are few standouts. As in most cities, I think the best restaurants reside in some of the quieter more local neighborhoods. Some highlights, though, are The Court of Two Sisters and Galatoire’s.
I am extremely picky when it comes to where I choose to stay when traveling. I’ll be the first to admit I have very specific needs and am a total pain in the ass. Additionally, New Orleans is unlike most cities in that you can’t just hop onto Hotels.com and find something. We spent a couple hours scouring the internet and making phone calls before we found what has become the only hotel in the French Quarter I will ever stay at again.
The Royal Hotel
The rooms are modern with minimalist decor, the location is ideal and there is an amazing range of rates. We scored a gorgeous, albeit small, room for $89/night. It was dressed completely in black and white, with wood floors and high ceilings and a pristine marble bathroom with the biggest tub I’ve seen in ages. The hotel also has some pretty hip suites with huge wrought iron balconies overlooking Royal Street. It’s located just beyond the ado, so you’ll get quiet nights and still be within a few blocks from the Bourbon and Decatur Street nightlife. Plus, you’re just 2 blocks from the Verti Mart (a French Quarter staple for late night eats and groceries, which happens to deliver, if you’re feeling lazy).
THE GARDEN DISTRICT
When you think of New Orleans, I’m sure the only neighborhoods that come to mind are the French Quarter and the Garden District. They are held in such esteem for their beauty, shopping and landmarks. The Garden District has grown and changed a lot over the years, proving more and more a formidable competitor to the Quarter.
I know, you’re shocked, there are places to drink in New Orleans that aren’t the FQ. Not only are there other places to drink, but there are better places to drink. Magazine Street hosts most of the standouts in the Garden District. When I lived in NOLA, Magazine was the hipster neighborhood. I’ve noticed it’s becoming more and more the mainstream hood for locals to eat, shop and drink.
I don’t know how new The Bulldog is, but it was new to me. It’s located in the heart of Magazine Street, with a huge patio out front with a fireplace and easy access to the passers-by.
The Balcony Bar
The Balcony Bar is probably the most notable bar in the LGD (Lower Garden District). It’s been there for ages, and has what I believe is the only bar balcony on Magazine. Late at night, food carts flock to it, so there’s always plenty of grub nearby.
There are few, if any, tourist attractions in the Garden District. The most notable being Audobon Zoo and Lafayette Cemetery #2. The best part of hanging out in the area is just walking around and taking in the scenery. Here’s where you should roam:
It’s become, over the years, the heart of the Garden District. There’s tons of great shopping here, from vintage clothing to antiques, fine art to modern rustic furniture, even jewelry shops and cute boutiques. Magazine stretches about 30 blocks of non-stop shops, cafes, bars and parks. It’s a great way to spend a day, starting at St. Andrew and making your way across the LGD to Audobon Park and Zoo at the riverbend.
Audobon Park / Riverbend
Audobon Park is a stunning stretch of park scattered with ancient oak trees, sprawling lawns and tons of wildlife. It’s centered between the universities, the zoo and the riverbend. The park at the riverbend, known as The Fly, is a favorite spot of mine in town. At the far edge of the city, overlooking a quieter strip of the Mississippi, you feel like you’re in the rural south. Park yourself on the grass or a dock, pop open a bottle of wine, and watch the sun set over the river.
Home of the historic streetcar and lined with enormous mansions. There are several bars and restaurants closer to the CBD (downtown), but once you get further down St. Charles, there’s not much to do but get lost in the shaded tree-lined street and elegant estates.
The Freret neighborhood was entirely new to me and a hidden gem. It’s probably NOLA’s newest neighborhood and reminds me of Magazine Street in the early aughts. It’s a smaller, quieter strip just above the universities where you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who isn’t a local. What Freret lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. Head up in the evening and get the best hot dog you’ll ever have at Dat Dog, then head to the modern and hip Cure for cocktails.
Commander’s Palace is the big touristy restaurant (Emeril Lugasse was a chef here for years). And while it is touristy, people know it for a reason. It’s great eats in a scenic section of town.
Is a new hot spot in the Carrollton part of the Garden District. Deep-throat in delight their house-cured meats and homemade sausages.
The Company Burger
You can find this Eater.com-approved burger house just a few blocks from Dat Dog. It’s comfortable, quality eats in a relaxed part of town.
Go to Cochon for authentic, delicious cajun eats without the pretension or gimmicks of the wannabe spots in the Quarter.
The Garden District only offers one trendy hotel that’s worth staying in: Hotel Modern. It’s been newly purchased and renovated and is already selling itself as the up and coming hub of activity in the Garden District. They’ve brought in urban street artist Monique Ligons from Philly to anoint the 6-story facade with an original mural and are feverishly marketing to visiting celebrities. It may not be the Standard just yet, but give it a year.
The other, more reliable option is vrbo. There are tons of private shot-guns and cottages for rent through the website that will give you a more authentic feel and better rates. I’d stay in the area surrounding Magazine and Toledano for proximity to food and alcohol.
The two neighborhoods just east of the Quarter are quickly cementing themselves as the Williamsburg of the south. The Marigny offers a more compact scene on Frenchmen Street. This is where you’ll find the best local bars, tattoo parlors, art houses and unassuming cafes. The Bywater is home to a lot of the more popular bars amongst locals, they’re just spread across the neighborhood, with no clear thoroughfare. The architecture and foliage here is reminiscent of Key West and was the neighborhood the bf decided he would live in.
MiMi’s is the epicenter in both location and scenester-ness amid these sister-hoods. This is where everyone’s favorite local bands play and hippest artists show. It’s also got killer Southern food and cheap drinks.
It’s a bar. It’s a hotel. It’s an art house. It’s full of local hipsters and intellectuals.
Get your jazz/blues fix on here.
This bar cracks me up. It’s in a part of town where you wouldn’t be caught dead 8 years ago, but is home of 4 pretty cool bars. It’s also the greatest cross-section of people you will see in one place. Hipsters, Queers, Ghetto-chic and white trash all live in harmony in this karaoke bar with $1 Everclear jell-o shots.
This is through and through a locals part of town. Sit in Washington Square with some food and a bottle of wine. Go antiquing. Check out the art market on Frenchmen. Walk along the railroad tracks and some of the old, overgrown factories.
Pretty much any cafe you duck into in the area is going to be good. Oddly enough, I really recommend the most touristy-looking place here:
This restaurant on the corner of Frenchmen and Royal has the perfect views of Frenchmen and Washington Square from its bar. The food is KILLER and the bloody mary’s are amazing.
Some of my favorite spots in town don’t lie within any of the above neighborhoods. Be sure to check out the following:
This is without question the best place to eat in New Orleans. It’s a little hole in the wall that sits on lusciously gorgeous Esplanade Street in the heart of the Bayou St. John neighborhood. They don’t take reservations and you will inevitably have to wait for a table, but I swear to everything that matters to me, you won’t regret it. The best thing you’ll eat here isn’t actually on the menu. So be sure to ask for the garlic brussels sprouts. Then follow those with one of their famous paellas.
I know, I know, swamp tours are totally cheesy. They are also a really great way to see Louisiana’s unique and crucial wetlands and nature. You’ll look stupid buying tickets and feel stupid doing it; but you’ll love it all the same.
Take a quick walk down this street which separates the CDB from the Warehouse District and LGD. It’s where you’ll find some of the best museums (CAC) and art galleries. When you’re done, stop in for lunch at the Sun Ray Grill.
The location of this downtown hotel doesn’t offer much except centrality. The hotel itself though is gorgeous. You get a 700 sqft. loft with brick walls, 16ft ceilings, modern and huge bathrooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows. Plus, it’s walking distance to both the Quarter and the CBD and just a block from the streetcar.
Take a drive along the coast through Gulfport and Biloxi, two Mississippi towns ravaged by Katrina. There’s casinos, Katrina history, and when else can you say you went to Mississippi. It’s just 40 minutes from New Orleans and en route to Mobile, AL. Mobile AL is about 2 hours from New Orleans and probably the most quaint, cute, welcoming big city in the South. It makes for a great day trip. We actually stopped in Mobile, then drove up to Montgomery for a night, which was also a nice town to stop in. See where Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Hank Williams grave, F Scott Fitzgerald’s old house and museum, and some really awesome overgrown and abandoned warehouses on the north end of town.