Forget the repetitive and predictable tourists guides, here’s the real rundown on everything you need to know, see, and avoid, for the ultimate visit to the Big Easy.
I love New Orleans. Once it makes it’s way into your heart, it stays there forever. In fact, you probably shouldn’t trust anyone who doesn’t rave about what a great place it is.
I get emails all the time from people making their first trip to New Orleans hoping to get the scoop on where to stay, eat and go. It’s such a tourism driven city and there’s SO much information, it can be a bit intimidating to know where to start, and to find that perfect balance between ticking off all the iconic experiences, without falling into the predictable traps.
So, here are the basics of what I would recommend for any first timer to the Big Easy. Tried and tested by yours truly, I’ve included some carefully selected “newbie fun stuff” while skimming off the experiences that don’t quite live up to their reputations.
Stay in the French Quarter. Yes, it’s the tourist epicentre, but it’s for good reason. You’ll be within walking distance to almost anything you’ll want to see, eat and do, and most importantly, will be in stumbling distance from your hotel. Remember, New Orleans is a city who’s veins run with liquor – you are allowed to drink on the street (in plastic go cups) and you’ll find the proximity to your nice soft bed quite appealing after your ninth cocktail. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a gorgeous neighborhood filled with unique architecture, so you’ll feel completely immersed in another world.
Eat at one of the classic fine dining establishments like Brennan’s, Antoine’s, Arnaud’s etc. My pick is the Jazz Brunch at Commanders Palace, also one of the best value meals in the entire city. Fabulous old school service, classic creole dishes and, quaintly, it’s right opposite one of the city’s famed above ground cemeteries. Make sure you book in advance and check the dress code- and don’t worry, they’re plenty used to having to revive guests who’ve had a heavy Saturday night with a Bloody Mary or three. For bonus experience points, get the turtle soup and bread pudding.
Visit a cemetery and do a ghost tour. Unlike many places trying to convince you they have a rich paranormal history, it’s actually quite believable in New Orleans, which makes the tours even more fun (plus the fact you can carry your drink with you helps a bunch too). Wondering why the cemeteries are so unusual? Since the water table in the city is so high, burying in ground meant that anytime there was a flood the bodies would float back up to the surface, which was not only incredibly gross but also perpetuated diseases like Yellow Fever. The solution was to bury above ground, giving rise (quite literally) to these most interesting cities of the dead. Plan ahead, the cemeteries close quite early.
Eat a poboy. A classic “poor boy” is a sandwich served on crusty baguette with a super soft interior, crammed with fried seafoods. Shrimp or oyster is the classic choice best procured from Domilise’s, Guy’s or Parkway Tavern, but places like Killer PoBoys and Crabby Jack’s have more unusual and modern offerings like duck or pork belly.
Listen to live music on Frenchmen St. It’s not a long street, but it’s packed with a bunch of iconic jazz clubs, just walk by until you like the sound of something and then head on in. Try to catch a brass band if you can, but if you don’t come across one, you can find the Hot 8 Brass Band every Sunday at Howlin Wolf, and Rebirth every Tuesday at Maple Leaf. While you’re on Frenchmen, drop into the Art Market too, there’s some cool local photography and crafts to check out that are much more authentic and meaningful than the made in China stuff you find in the Decatur St tourist shops.
Don’t waste a meal because you didn’t plan ahead. For every legit restaurant in the Quarter, there are about ten others that suck. “Safe” places to eat in the Quarter include Port of Call (burgers), Yo Mama’s (more burgers but the peanut butter bacon is insanely good), Coop’s Place (get the Jambalaya or bayou appetizer), Desire (étouffée, gumbo etc) and SoBou (25c martinis at lunchtime!).
Visit Bourbon Street, then leave it. Yes, it’s the most iconic street in the city and it’s synonymous with partying, but (and let me be frank here) it’s a hole. A combination of strip joints, soulless bars hawking grain alcohol daiquiris and other tourists throwing up on your feet, it’s kinda fun to see once and then gets old real quick. If you spend all your time here and come away thinking it’s the heartbeat of the city, you’re doing it wrong. If you must Bourbon, try Cat’s Meow, because it’s always a great idea to karaoke when you’re tipsy.
Enjoy a hero meal. Are you a real foodie? Then make sure you dedicate a visit to one of the new breed of incredible NOLA restaurants who aren’t giving you the mega tourist experience but are serving up amazing world class fare. And you owe your tastebuds a meal here. My current fave is R’evolution, but give a look in to Herbsaint, Bayona, August, Coquette and a host of others.
Eat a great breakfast. If the slogan of the city is “laissez le bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll), the unofficial slogan should be “pace yourself”. Between the rich and plentiful food, alcohol and humidity, your body will be pushed to it’s limits, so you may as well start conditioning with the most important meal of the day. Head to Elizabeth’s in the Bywater for their legendary praline bacon and rib sticking breakfasts (hello, Fried Green Tomatoes Benedict?!). Another great option for small groups (they only have counter seating) is new FQ outpost of the Camellia Grill- classic diner breakfasts in a totally charming setting. Make sure to get the pecan pie.
Explore beyond the French Quarter. Ride the St Charles avenue streetcar to Sixth St, then meander four blocks south to Magazine St marvelling at the incredible mansions and stately homes along the way (and you’ll pass by Lafayette Cemetery #2 this way, too). You can follow Magazine St back towards the Quarter, exploring all the boutiques and shops as you go (hop a cab back when it starts to become more residential).
Even more food recommendations… If you’re happy to take a 15 min cab ride, check out Jaques-Imos restaurant in Carrollton. As well as cajun dishes, and killer fried chicken, they have a couple of items that will have friends back home furiously clicking the like button on your foodie pics, most famously their shrimp & alligator cheesecake but of course there’s always the roast beef poboy which is assembled, battered and then deep fried whole!!
- The iconic hurricane cocktail at Pat O’Briens is missable and I reckon it tastes like medicine, but if you’re forced to go you can order fried gator bites and at least tick that off the list.
- Yes, you need to go to have beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and yes, they are just square donuts. It’s open 24 hours and only serves coffee and beignets (ben-YAY).
- If you’re in town during a Saints game, put on something black & gold and get ready to join in with some of the world’s most loyal fans (they’ll be EVERYWHERE).
- Drink a Sazerac from a reputable cocktail bar – it was invented in New Orleans!
- If you have an extra day, head out of the city and do a swamp tour.
- Burgundy is pronounced “berGUNdy”, Conti is “CON-tie”, Lagniappe is “LAN-yap” and means “a little something extra”, like getting 13 oysters when you ordered a dozen. Master those before you even think about trying to say “Tchoupitoulas” properly.
- Don’t take the mule & carriage tours… just don’t.
- When it’s late at night and you’re in a state of questionable sobriety, it’s somewhat acceptable to eat a hot dog from one of the many Lucky Dog vendors that dot the French Quarter.