Like most of the world’s intriguing cities, New Orleans is rich in history, daytime diversions and nightlife options. Oh, and tacky tourist traps. I don’t say that with disdain; I think first-time visitors should see those attractions for which a city is best known, whether it’s Times Square in New York, the Hollywood Walk of Stars in Los Angeles, or (forgive me, Lord) Bourbon Street on a Saturday night in New Orleans. But travelers who dig a little deeper are apt to get closer to a city’s true soul. And with that in mind, here are my suggestions for new visitors to the Crescent City and recommendations for visitors the second time around.
The classic attractions lure newbies, but the lesser-known activities keep them coming back…
First-timers: Bourbon Street
Next-timers: Frenchmen Street
Let’s get this out of the way: most New Orleanians hate Bourbon Street and the negative shadow it has cast on the city at large. But there is no getting around the fact that Bourbon Street is a blast, a chaotic, drunken scene where people stumble from one bar to another and another, where music of every sort (but mostly rock) blares from taverns and nightclubs stretching for some eight riotous blocks. Don’t-miss joints include Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, one of the longest-standing bars in the country and housed in a creaky Creole cottage; the Old Absinthe House, a watering hole for more than 200 years; and Café Lafitte in Exile, one of the oldest gay bars in the country and a favorite taproom of playwright Tennessee Williams.
Once you have gotten Bourbon Street out of your system, go where the locals go for nightlife: Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny. The street’s two-block-long music district is packed with pubs and clubs, with some of the city’s best jazz performances from mid-afternoon until the early morning. Local consensus is the music here is better than Bourbon Street, and the vibe is much more mellow. Top spots to hear jazz, R&B, and funk (but mostly jazz) include the Spotted Cat, the Maison, and the Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro.
Next-Timers: Restaurant R’evolution
Since 1946, Brennan’s has been an institution in the French Quarter. Probably best known for its flaming dessert, Bananas Foster, the restaurant is in a gorgeous space with a menu that emphasizes traditional Creole cooking alongside modern takes on classic New Orleans cuisine. Start things off with sherry-tinged turtle soup, follow with a half-dozen roasted oysters in smoked chili butter, and go full Louisiana with a main of blackened redfish.
Restaurant R’evolution does not neglect the traditional cuisine of New Orleans; in fact, even though the restaurant is only five years old, the interior—with its chandeliers, high-beamed ceilings and tall fanlight windows—brings to mind an elegant 19th-century French Quarter townhouse. But the menu is an evolutionary step beyond old-school NOLA cooking. Death by Gumbo features a crispy-skinned quail stuffed with spicy andouille sausage and oysters in a soupy brown sauce thick with filé-infused rice. Also recommended: beer-battered crab-filled beignets with four remoulades, and seared scallops with foie gras, plated on a bed of truffle bean puree, celery salad, and bacon vinaigrette. You don’t eat it so much as dive into it. Tip: Table 30, a corner banquette in the Storyville Parlor Room, is the best seat in the house.
First-timers: A Hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s
Next-timers: A Sazerac at the Sazerac Bar
Mix some rum, passionfruit syrup and lime juice, and voila—the Hurricane, an instant classic that has been luring French Quarter visitors to Pat O’Brien’s since the 1940s. Served in a curvy, Mae West-shaped glass, the cocktail is a sweet, kick-ass must-have if you really want to say you’ve “done” Bourbon Street.
Just across Canal Street, in the “American district,” the Sazerac Bar in the glamorous Roosevelt Hotel is the sophisticated way to say you’ve gotten smashed in the Crescent City. The bar is an old-school classic drinkery with gorgeous tile floors, wood paneling, murals, and professional bartenders in white jackets. The Sazerac—with rye whiskey, bitters, sugar and an absinthe rinse—is often claimed to be the first-ever cocktail. But whether it’s the first or not, after you’ve tried it, it probably won’t be the last.
First-timers: Bus tour
Second-timers: Bike tour
There is no dearth of ways to get an overview of the city, and a bus is a fine way to cover a lot of ground in a limited amount of time. Gray Line’s Super City Tour takes you through the French Quarter, Bayou St. John and along the path of the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, one of the oldest railways in the world. City Sightseeing has 10 hop-on, hop-off stops throughout the city so you can get out and walk around any place that interests you in particular. But let’s face it: riding in a bus is a remote experience, separating you from the life on the streets. So after you’ve done it once, consider alternatives.
My choice? A bike tour with American Bicycle Rental Company. New Orleans is very flat, so you don not need a complicated multi-speed bike; a good old cruiser with back-pedal breaks will serve you well. I chose the Creole Tour, which leads you through Faubourg Marigny, Treme (the oldest black neighborhood in America), the picturesque above-ground St. Louis #3 Cemetery, the vast City Park and Congo Square, where African Americans would gather on Sundays in slavery times. The ride was fun and easy, with clearly marked bike paths much of the way. Owner Ryan Bergeron has the street cred for this business, considering that his family has been in New Orleans since 1699. Yep, more than 300 years.
First-timers: Mardi Gras World
Next-timers: National World War II Museum
If New Orleans is known for only one thing, it’s Mardi Gras. And although it is not a museum in the traditional sense, Mardi Gras World takes you behind the scenes of the annual event to give you an insider’s look at how the Fat Tuesday floats and costumes come to life. Guests get to walk through the workshops where artisans spend the entire year building floats and props—more than 500 floats created and ornamented for each annual event.
But New Orleans is a sophisticated city with museums that go well beyond the expected. Case in point: The National World War II Museum, an immense, multi-building, sight-and-sound experience that documents every facet of that eponymical international conflict. Visitors will encounter massive aircraft, uniforms, state-of-the-art “4-D” films and walk-through scenarios that bring the European and Pacific war theaters to life. Restaurants and a fun gift shop round out the experience, rated the No. 2 museum in the nation and the world in the 2017 TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards.
First-timers: French Quarter
Next-timers: Garden District
There is much more to the French Quarter than Bourbon Street. The charming narrow streets are lined with centuries-old buildings sporting ornate wrought-iron balconies, bars and restaurants of every description, and a lively street scene that encompasses tourists, street performers, and a surprising number of locals who actually live in the Quarter.
On your second visit though, hop on the St. Charles Streetcar from the Central Business District to the Garden District, where you will find one of the most stunning collections of antebellum mansions in the South. Today the gracious neighborhood is home to the likes of actors John Goodman and Sandra Bullock. Eli and Peyton Manning grew up here. Beyonce and Jay-Z own a 13,000-square-foot manse on Harmony Street. And the late Anne Rice wrote many of her vampire novels in a spooky old manor on First Street. There is far more to the neighborhood than its celebrity residents though, and I recommend a walking tour with the charming and knowledgeable Dave Roberts, a veteran licensed New Orleans tour guide.
First-timers: Faubourg Marigny
Faubourg Marigny, adjacent to the French Quarter, was the city’s first suburb in 1805, when it was subdivided into home lots for the city’s free people of color (and later, immigrant Sicilians, Irish and Germans). Post-war white flight in the 1950s led to the neighborhood’s decline, but gentrification in the 1970s and onward led to the neighborhood’s renaissance, with bars, boutiques, and bakeries, as well as the music scene on the aforementioned Frenchmen Street. Today it is what one might call the “established” bohemian district.
Breaking new ground is the Bywater neighborhood, immediately downriver from Marigny. The Creole cottages here are not quite as colorful, and there are fewer restaurants and shops, but if you are looking for the next groovy neighborhood in one of America’s hippest cities, Bywater is a good place to begin. The boho vibe here is palpable; don’t be surprised if someone walking past you has dyed lime-green hair or if the cactus plant in front of a cute little bungalow is decorated with numerous plastic human skulls. Visit Dr. Bob and his workshop-gallery, full of primitive folk paintings and slogan-filled signs, all cutting-edge NOLA souvenirs. One of the best record stores I’ve ever scoured (including those in New York City) is Euclid Records, specializing in blues, jazz and recordings by New Orleans natives. Bywater is where you will also find the new Crescent Park, which runs along the Mississippi, with outstanding views of the French Quarter and the Central Business District.
First-timers: Preservation Hall
Next-timers: Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub
People speak in church-like whispers when discussing the august Preservation Hall, which has been carrying on the old-time traditions of authentic New Orleans jazz for more than 55 years. But the place has loosened up over the years, inviting onto its stage stars of rock, hip-hop and bluegrass. Try to see one of the more traditional jazz acts when you visit so you can check it off your life list.
Just around the corner on Bourbon Street is Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, which bills itself as the “oldest operated jazz club in New Orleans.” A revolving roster of musicians man the tiny stage in this intimate (and crowded) club, often blaring out old-school jazz in the style of Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, and Louis Armstrong. It’s a boisterous and boozy atmosphere, and you may find yourself hip-to-hip with the stranger next to you, but it’s an experience you’ll be sharing with friends long after you return home.
MISSISSIPPI RIVER CRUISE
First-timers: A dinner cruise
Next-timers: The Algiers Ferry
The paddlewheeler Natchez is one of the last of its kind on the Mississippi. Add to that a Creole-inspired dinner and two hours of jazz, and you have a memorable setting for a river cruise along the NOLA waterfront. And you really should do it once.
But as you are sailing upriver, look behind you at the rusting hulk of a ferry lumbering from the foot of Canal Street across the river to Algiers Point, which many claim is the city’s second-oldest neighborhood. The ride costs only $2 each way. And while there is not a lot to do in Algiers itself, the view of New Orleans from across the shimmering river is unforgettable, especially at sunset. To kill some time until the return ferry, wander over to the Dry Dock Café for a sandwich and a beer or to the Crown & Anchor Pub for a satisfying pint of ale in a culturally confusing Olde English setting.
BEIGNETS AND COFFEE
First-timers: Café du Monde
Next-timers: Morning Call, in City Park
An institution since 1862, the Café du Monde is famous for its beignets (French-style donuts covered in powdered sugar) and coffee with chicory. It anchors one end of the French Market within site of the Quarter’s famous Jackson Square. Yes, do it once, but if you’re like me, you will find the crowds overwhelming, the service uninspired and the beignets less than scrumptious. But hey, it’s a NOLA tradition, so take the plunge.
But next time, head to Morning Call, a cash-only, 24/7 hole in the wall where the beignets are as fresh as at grandmère’s house, there’s plenty of room at the tables, and you’re likely to become best friends with your server. “You got to really knock it hard,” said my waiter as I poured powdered sugar onto my trio of beignets. “You don’t have enough sugar until you can write your name on the table.” Morning Call has hex floor tiles, French-style café tables, high ceilings and white-jacketed servers wearing paper caps. A café au lait is the perfect complement to your beignets. These beignets are lighter and fluffier than those at the famous Café du Monde. In my opinion.
NEW ORLEANS CONTACTS
- Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop: 941 Bourbon St.; 504–593-9761
- Old Absinthe House: 236 Bourbon St.; 504-524-0113
- Café Lafitte in Exile: 901 Bourbon St.; 504-522-8397
- The Spotted Cat Music Club: 623 Frenchmen St.
- Maison: 508 Frenchmen St.; 504-371-5543
- Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro: 626 Frenchmen St.; 504-949-0696
- Brennan’s: 417 Royal St.; 504-525-9711
- Restaurant R’evolution: 777 Bienville St.; 504-553-2277
- Pat O’Brien’s: 718 St. Peter St.; 504-525-4823
- Sazerac Bar: The Roosevelt New Orleans Hotel, 130 Roosevelt Way; 504–648-1200
- Gray Line Tours: 504-569-1401
- American Bicycle Rental Co: 318 N. Rampart St.; 504-324-8257
- Mardi Gras World: 504-507-9315
- National World War II Museum: 945 Magazine St.; 504-528-1944
- Garden District Tours: Dave Roberts, tour guide; 504-939-2853
- Dr. Bob: 3027 Chartres St.; 504-905-6910
- Euclid Records: 3301 Chartres St.; 504-947-4348
- Preservation Hall: 726 St. Peter St.; 504-522-2841
- Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub: 733 Bourbon St.; 504-586-4800
- Steamboat Natchez Jazz Dinner: Toulouse St. Wharf; 504-569-1401
- Dry Dock Café: 133 Delaronde St., Algiers Point; 504-361-8240
- Crown & Anchor Pub: 200 Pelican Ave., Algiers Point; 504-227-1007
- Café due Monde: 800 Decatur St.; 504-525-4544
- Morning Call: 56 Dreyfous Drive, City Park; 504–300-1157