Exploring New Orleans
A Listing of the Best Ways to Experience The Crescent City
Tennessee Williams once said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
While I don’t know much about Cleveland I have had the privilege of living in the greater New Orleans area for the past decade. This city, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing yet misunderstood places I’ve ever been. Hiding behind the façade of excessive partying, drinking and all things fringe, New Orleans is a city deeply rooted, in fact absolutely committed, to family, spirituality and the culture that has governed the upbringing of generations. New Orleans is the pinnacle of southern culture. Actually, New Orleans is really unlike any other southern city, it is beyond the rest, simply in its own world and completely disinterested in what other great southern cities are all about. New Orleans has its own identity owing much of its cultural flair and flavor to countries in the Caribbean like Haiti. That identity is as varied as the people who live there. To some it is the center of religious living and to others it is the playground of the sinful and for the rest of us, it’s both and so much more. It’s safe to say that this amazingly complex city has something for everyone and that no one aspect infringes on the interests of the other. Somehow, seemingly opposing ideologies not only co-exist, but often time are downright neighborly with each other. New Orleans doesn’t judge you. Come as you are, be yourself, breathe the air, live your life as you wish and we’ll accept you just as you want to be.
For those who have only a few days to visit New Orleans, never fear. I can speak to the many aspects of this city both as a local and as an outsider. This unique perspective proves useful when talking with people going to see the city for the first time. For the purposes of this article, I will discuss the places and things you’ll want to do if you only have a couple of days to see the city and aren’t wanting to plop down big bucks on a high end time. This article is geared toward people who would like to see the highlights of the city but also explore some of the local flare most visitors simply miss.
In my humble opinion, your trip to New Orleans should revolve around one thing in particular and that is lodging. There are hundreds of places to stay spanning the price range, but the most important thing to do is to find a place central to all of the things you’ll want to do and see. With this in mind I recommend finding a place to stay within the area of Canal Street which is the boundary between the French Quarter and the Central Business District/Warehouse District. You could stay in other areas, but you’re going to spend a lot of time, and possibly money, walking or taking taxis or street cars to the places you want to see. Canal Street has a lot of options and there are dozens of moderately priced hotels within a couple city blocks of this area. I like to stay on Canal Street itself or a couple blocks into the Warehouse District somewhere between St. Charles Avenue and the Mississippi River (Convention Center Blvd.) My favorite centrally located hotel is the Astor Crown Plaza on the corner of Canal and Bourbon Streets. The large area indicated in the photo (right) has dozens of places to stay within a wide variety of price ranges. Notice the key landmarks of the Mercedes Benz Superdome (white circle on the left) and the Mississippi River. Again, it’ll be worth it to spend a few more bucks to have this central location. Lodging outside of this region means a lot of time spent hoofing it to key areas instead of spending time enjoying them. And, if it rains, and it probably will, this central area guarantees you can keep having fun and still visit cool things despite the downpour.
Once you’ve secured lodging, there isn’t a whole lot of planning you’ll want to do. New Orleans is a laid back place and the rules here are relatively lax unless you plan on making an ass of yourself. It’s definitely the type of city that is best enjoyed in the moment. So depending on how you feel and what kind of mood you’re in, your centrally located place of lodging will allow you to do whatever you want. In order to tell you about some really good spots you’ll want to check out, I’ll break the area down further so you can get a local’s perspective of what you’ll want to do. So, just to make it fun, I’ll make a couple of key tips that you may choose to follow.
These are the services I use to book lodging for every trip anywhere in the world:
- Hotels.com – Simple search for hotels in over 60 countries
- Hostelworld – Hotels and hostels all at great prices
- Booking.com – Hotels, villas, apartments, B&Bs and hostels at reasonable rates
- AirBnB – Rent a room or rent an apartment or house cheaply
- Couchsurfing – Meet a stranger, crash for free and hopefully make new friends
- Priceline – Great pricing on everything related to travel, awesome resource
- TripAdvisor – Everything you’ll ever need to arrange great travel experiences
Local’s Tip #1 – Visit uptown during the day
There isn’t much going on at night unless you’re familiar with the local spots on St. Charles Ave. and Magazine Street. There are some really cool spots, but they tend to be far apart, which makes bar hopping tedious and these places are not as good as the places in the Warehouse District, the French Quarter or the Marigny (Faubourg Marigny). Unless you plan on spending an entire evening uptown, take a street car or taxi down St. Charles Avenue in the late morning, walk around, see the big beautiful houses, take a walk through Audubon Park and stop in to a couple of the local eateries for some brunch, lunch or early dinner and head back toward the center of town. Of course there are great spots all over the place, but you’ll probably also want to eat without getting lost on a back street so I highly recommend you seek out places on Magazine Street or St. Charles Avenue. I won’t recommend any one specifically, because they are all really good. New Orleans is not kind to establishments that serve mediocre food, so take your pick and enjoy! If you’re looking to interact with people, Superior Grill on St. Charles is a Tex-Mex local favorite and it’s a great time to hang out socially with the locals any time of year. The Camellia Grill off of St. Charles and Carrollton is a great old-time local breakfast spot that is worth your time to visit and is also a great area to begin exploring Uptown New Orleans early in the day. Ok I lied. I am going to recommend a couple specific New Orleans restaurants. The last one I’ll mention, to me, is the best casual restaurant in all of New Orleans. It sums up the city nicely. This restaurant, called Jacques Imo’s (Jock-i-Mo’s) has it all, the vibe, the food, the crowded dining room, everything! Oh, and you may have to walk through the kitchen to get to your seat. Of course every restaurant has a bad meal here and there so I can’t guarantee anything, but I’ve had one meal mess-up in over a decade of eating there, so you’re assured to enjoy yourself. Don’t go ordering the crazy stuff – stick to the New Orleans style foods and make it simple, you’ll enjoy it a lot and that’s what Jacques Imo’s is all about. This is the type of place worth waiting for and is my favorite place to get a little over-served with wine – it makes for a right enjoyable time! They open at 5:00PM and I recommend getting there right at that time. It is not unheard of to have a two hour wait if you come at dinner time. I hope you’ll give it a try, if you have time and can get a quick seat, you’ll love it! And, just in case you should decide to stick around uptown into the evening and need a place to chill, give Magazine Street a shot. St. Joe’s Bar, The Bulldog and Monkey Hill are all local favorites where you can toss back a few drinks and meet some cool people.
New Orleans Gumbo Helpful Hint: DO NOT freak out if you find a rubber band in your seafood gumbo. Small rubber bands are used to hold lobster and crab claws closed and once in awhile, one will end up in your gumbo. Just remove it from your bowl of gumbo and keep on eating – I assure you, the rubber band is clean.
Local’s Tip #2 – Spend the early evening in the Warehouse District
This is where you are most likely to strike up a few good conversations and make some new friends. Lucy’s Retired Surfer’s Bar & Restaurant and other long-time New Orleans hangouts are great spots to grab an early, decently priced dinner and toss back a few drinks without having to deal with crowds of tourists. This is an awesome happy hour area for locals and you’ll enjoy it too, but the Warehouse District bars are great just about any time of day and will really start to draw people out around 9:00PM at which point, it may be time to head down to the French Quarter or The Marigny. There are a number of interesting places in the Warehouse District including the World War II museum as well as about a dozen cultural arts centers dedicated to anything from glassworks, southern art and wine to the American-Italian Renaissance and the contemporary arts.
Warehouse District Helpful Hint: If you find yourself there late at night, worn out and a bit tipsy (and I hope you do) and are starving there are a couple hidden spots to grab some grub. For me, Ernst Cafe is the go-to spot. The food is good, it’s heavy, fast and you’ll almost always run into some really interesting people and have some great conversation. Ernst Cafe is my go-to Warehouse District late night food stop.
Local’s Tip #3 – Check out Bourbon Street but don’t stay there
I personally like Bourbon Street, and the French Quarter in general during the daytime. It’s a really great area to walk around, see the old buildings, chat with other people and just generally enjoy yourself. Bourbon Street is great in short spurts. I don’t recommend spending hours here, it’s just not that interesting. It’s a bunch of bars designed to get you to drink, that’s about it. While Bourbon Street is a big part of the city, the best of New Orleans can be found all around this area, so don’t miss it. Royal Street, Chartres Street and Decatur Street/North Peters Street are my personal favorites in the French Quarter.
North Peters Street converges with Decatur a few blocks off of Canal Street. Decatur is great for seeing street performers, outdoor artists, and musicians. Café Du Monde, known for its famous beignets and chicory coffee is here as is the world famous St. Louis Cathedral. The French Market which offers a lot of opportunity for browsing and shopping is here as well. There are a lot of interesting things to see and if you’re looking for a horse drawn carriage tour of the French Quarter, this is where you’ll find that too. Admittedly, when I first moved to the New Orleans area I did take a horse drawn carriage tour of the French Quarter and it was interesting. However, over time I have grown to find the practice of using horses for these tours suspect at best and a complete waste of a beautiful animal’s life, but to each their own and how you spend your money is up to you. Now, I just stop and give them a friendly scratch behind the ears and some friendly words for a couple of minutes. Gotta spread the love!
Restaurants are all over the French Quarter. St. Louis Street has some great ones including the Rib Room in the Omni Royal Orleans hotel. It, along with nearby Antoine’s are nicer places to eat, that offers a great old time New Orleans feel. Definitely not the cheapest meals in town and you’ll definitely want to wear some slacks and a jacket but they are both true New Orleans originals and amazingly high quality restaurants! A great little restaurant called the Royal House Oyster Bar on the corner of St. Louis and Royal Streets is my personal favorite French Quarter casual dining spot. Go there! Try the chargrilled oysters and roast beef po-boy and just about anything else you feel like trying. It’s excellent. This is a great casual dining spot and a place I never miss when hanging out in the French Quarter. If you’re looking for an amazing and famous burger accompanied by some strong drinks, check out Port Of Call on Esplandade Avenue, it’s a really great place to chill out and eat up. Finally, it has become a bit “touristy” but ACME Oyster House is a New Orleans staple and has truly awesome food, beer and vibe. Try the chargrilled oysters and the New Orleans medley here, you’ll be glad you did. Drop by Johnny Whites (the one on St. Peter just off Bourbon) and Boondock Saints (next to Johnny Whites Bar) for some drinks and top it off with some time at the piano bar at Pat O’Briens. All three are located on St. Peter St. (Pat O’s has an entrance on Bourbon St. as well).
French Quarter Helpful Hint: Never rush! Take your time, the French Quarter isn’t going anywhere and you won’t enjoy yourself by running frantically from one place to the next. Go easy on the alcohol. The French Quarter does not shy away from the fact that it is going to load you up with plenty of alcohol every time you order a drink. Take it easy! One way to ruin an otherwise great trip to New Orleans is to underestimate the amount of alcohol you are drinking – every drink is loaded with alcohol so be aware of that. Think slow, steady and laid back when hanging out in the French Quarter. No need to rush – ever! Enjoy it!
Local’s Tip #4 – Spend an evening in The Marigny
On the northeast end of the French Quarter, The Marigny is part of hidden New Orleans that most people will never even know exists. Known formally as Faubourg Marigny, its borders are Esplanade Ave., St. Claude Ave., Franklin Ave., and the Mississippi River. Eclectic musicians are all over the place as are cool little book stores, jazz clubs, Carribean fusion bistros and a wild assortment of other great New Orleans flavors. This is an area that has been largely revitalized by the gay and intellectual communities which are vibrant and tremendously influential in the great new emergence of live music, the arts and all things New Orleans. The Marigny is one of my favorite places to spend the evening catching some live jazz music or just sitting in a coffee shop chatting it up with the people around me. If you’re looking for an eclectic feel and a completely chilled-out local vibe, this is the place to be.
Marigny Helpful Hint: Start your evening at the corner of Esplanade Ave. and Frenchmen St. This is a great place to begin walking through the main area of the Marigny. The section of Frenchmen Street between Decatur and Royal Streets is really the heart of the Marigny so you can’t go wrong just wandering around on Frenchmen. There is plenty to do and plenty to see. Take your time and you’ll probably make some good friends as well – the Marigny draws people who are there to enjoy the laid-back local flavor so everyone tends to be in a pretty good mood and enjoying life.
Local’s Tip #5 – Stay safe and stick to the main city highlights
Relax and enjoy yourself, but be aware of your surroundings and go with your gut. New Orleans is relatively safe for those who conduct themselves responsibly. There aren’t really any serious concerns about being pick pocketed or mugged as long as you stay in well-lit areas and don’t announce that your pockets are full of money. Chill out and enjoy the city. New Orleans is great in that most of the things you’ll want to see and do exist along a relatively narrow corridor along the Mississippi River. This is the old part of the city and is where just about everything “to do” is. You’ll want to stay in this area as much as possible because, quite frankly, there are mostly industrial areas and neighborhoods beyond these boundaries. I’ve outlined the best areas to stay in on the map to the right. You’ll notice uptown is rather large and offers a lot of beautiful houses, parks and scenery. The Warehouse District is pretty small and has just four or five real highlight kind of places that you’ll definitely want to experience. The French Quarter is small, but packed with stuff to do and The Marigny is that little corner just above the French Quarter. This corridor is where just about everything you’ll want to see and do in New Orleans can be found. Of course there may be an exception, but probably very few. Stay in this area and you’ll have a ball, you’ll have an easy time getting around, it won’t break your bank and you’ll reduce your chances of getting into a sticky situation.
New Orleans Helpful Hint: As much as I love this city, losing your money in this city, or any city, is a real bummer. I always use my money belt to secure my credit cards and cash although I admit to not wearing it all the time. It’s just handy when I’m going to spend all day wandering the city. I usually keep about $50 or so in my wallet just to make it simple to access, but keeping the bulk of your important documents and money in a safe place that only you can access is just a smart idea.
Local’s Tip #6 – Don’t listen to me or anyone else. Do what you want to do!
There is a lot of be said for experiencing a great cultural city like New Orleans on your terms. It’s the type of city that changes your plans for you – so be open to it. I’ve given you some really solid advice and you can take it to the bank, but there may be a situation where you have to toss it all out the window in order to have the time of your life. It’ll probably be a situation where you meet some locals or visitors and get along so well you just decide to go crazy and throw out the plans for a weekend of impulse and I think that’d be absolutely awesome! Enjoy yourself, and do what you want to do – you’ll be happy you did. NOLA doesn’t change very much and it’s always there for you if you miss something and decide you want to come back.
One last thing to do before coming to the city is to ask yourself what type of experience you want to have. If you want to party and just get crazy, check out the New Orleans events calendar and select a festival that matches your timeline. I recommend Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras and French Quarter Festival. My personal favorite is the French Quarter Festival which happens annually in early spring. And, if you want to enjoy the city without the fanfare and bustle of a large tourist population, come when there are no large festivals happening. It’s pretty much that simple. Like the city of New Orleans or hate it, one thing is for sure, it is what it is. Lively, flavorful, generous, unapologetic, unique and original. New Orleans is my favorite city in the United States and I hope you enjoy it as well.
Les Bon Temps Roulé! (Let the good times roll!)
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