New Orleans is justly famous for its food, music, and Mardi Gras celebrations. In some ways, it has more in common with some Caribbean communities than it does with other, more uptight, American cities. Embrace the relaxed way of life; don’t spend all your time rushing from place to place.
New Orleans grew up around the curve in the Mississippi River that gave it the name “Crescent City”, and there’s no north-south-east-west grid to help you get around. Instead, directions can be given as “lakeside” (generally, north), “riverside” (generally, south), “upriver” or “uptown” (generally, west), and “downriver” or “downtown” (generally, east). The business area is known as the Central Business District or “CBD” and is not as interesting as the downtown of many other cities.
The French Quarter is known for its nightlife, but the best visit to the quarter starts early in the morning. Head to the Café du Monde for beignets (French doughnuts covered in powdered sugar) and coffee. It’s packed with tourists, but not to be missed. From there, walk up the stairs and across the levee to the Mississippi River moonwalk, a walkway with views of the river. Take a minute to sit down, watch the boats, and decide what to do next. You could head to the Tourism Office on the St. Ann Street side of Jackson Square and pick up a free self-guided historic walking tour of the Quarter. This will take you to the Cathedral, the Ursulines convent, and other historic buildings and houses. And be sure to check out the French Market, with stores and open-air vendors selling plenty of tourist-oriented fare. If you’re not tired yet, just across Rampart Street from the Quarter is Louis Armstrong Park and the Treme neighborhood, as made famous by the HBO series.
For less walking, you could catch a carriage ride around the Quarter in front of Jackson Square. Or get the experience of an old-fashioned Mississippi River cruise on the Steamboat Natchez Riverboat Cruise. (A shorter, free alternative is the Canal Street/Algiers Ferry – ride it across the river to the quiet little neighborhood of Algiers). There’s some good food in the Quarter as well, including New Orleans specialties like gumbo, crawfish étouffé, and classic red beans and rice. The Café Fleur-de-Lis is great for breakfast; for lunch or dinner, Arnaud’s Restaurant is well known, though expensive. Grab an early afternoon drink at Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street or Crescent City Brewhouse on Decatur Street.
Many of New Orleans’ beautiful and characteristic neighborhoods lie upriver of the Quarter. Head to Canal Street between Bourbon and Royal and take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. This restored historic streetcar will head at a leisurely pace up one of the most beautiful of New Orleans’ tree-lined avenues. Where you get off depends on what you want to do. Not far from the Quarter, at Lee Circle, is the National World War II Museum, worth a visit if you have a couple of hours or more to spend there. Passing Jackson Avenue, you’re entering the Garden District, whose beautiful homes and verdant gardens are worth a look. Explore for a bit until you find Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, a walled cemetery that takes up a city block and contains elegant above-ground tombs. Right next to the cemetery is the Commander’s Palace, an expensive but well-recommended place for lunch.
Hop back on the streetcar and take it all the way to Audobon Park. This is a nice park with ponds and a loop trail that can be walked in about 30 minutes. If you head towards the river you’ll find Audobon Zoo, a decent zoo that can be visited in about 2-3 hours. Or, by heading in the other direction across St. Charles Avenue, you’ll find the attractive campuses of Tulane University and Loyola University. If you’re heading back to the Quarter, stop at Prytania Street and Robert Street for dessert at the Creole Creamery (delicious ice cream) or La Crêpe Nanou.
If you’re looking for cute restaurants, good bars, boutique shopping, or groceries, take a detour down to Magazine Street. This long street stretches all the way from the French Quarter to Audobon Park and is a great street to wander down in search of lunch or dinner. Surrey’s is one oft-recommended place. Around Magazine and Louisiana Avenue you’ll find Slim Goodies Diner, which is hard to beat for a delicious, inexpensive breakfast. Expect a wait if you get there at peak times. The Bulldog and Balcony Bar are decent bars around this area. If you’d rather head down to Audobon Park for a picnic, stop at Whole Foods or Breaux Mart for provisions.
Bayou St. John and City Park
If you’ve seen the French Quarter and the Garden District and are looking for more to do, take the Canal Street streetcar or walk up Esplanade Avenue towards City Park. This park is larger than you could explore on foot, but if you have bicycles, meander up the east side of the park along Bayou St. John and you might spot some alligators, turtles, and other wildlife. This route could take you all the way to the Lake Pontchartrain waterfront, which isn’t very exciting in itself but would be a good spot for a picnic. Or, stay around the bottom of the park and check out the New Orleans Museum of Art, as well as the free outdoor sculpture garden and the Botanical Garden. While you’re here, head down Esplanade a few blocks to Liuzza’s Lounge and Grill (at Ponce De Leon & Lopez), a relaxed bar with some excellent food. It’s right outside the New Orleans Fairgrounds if you happen to be there at the right time to check out some horse racing. Or, at the bottom of Bayou St. John, there’s Parkway Bakery & Tavern, a good place to find some tasty New Orleans po-boy sandwiches.
Music and Nightlife
You can’t experience the New Orleans nightlife without at least visiting the French Quarter at night, where the drinking gets going early on Bourbon Street and goes late into the night. The party is biggest during Mardi Gras and other holidays, but any time of the year you can find crowds of drunk tourists chasing beads, boobs, and sugary drinks. Music in the French Quarter tends toward loud tourist crap, although the House of Blues is a music venue that attracts some pretty good acts. For better selection, head to Frenchman Street, where in just a few blocks you have a chance to hear some pretty good New Orleans music at places like Snug Harbor, The Maison, D.B.A., and the Spotted Cat. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous and don’t mind a seedier neighborhood, head to Vaughan’s in the 9th Ward, which features good live music including Kermit Ruffins. The Maple Leaf Bar, on the opposite side of town, is another great place for local music.
Outside of New Orleans
Although New Orleans has plenty of attractions, there are a few places that are worth leaving town to see. About 25 minutes’ drive across the Mississippi River is the Jean Lafitte Barataria Preserve, a park named after the famous corsair and containing extensive sections of the bayou for which southern Louisiana is known. Boardwalk trails of various lengths will give you an excellent chance of seeing alligators, frogs, snakes, birds, armadillos, and more. Alternatively, head across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway to picturesque Abita Springs. The main attraction in this quaint little town is the Abita Brewery, which offers free brewery tours and tastings of their beers, which are usually delicious. Make sure to check the website as tours happen on certain days and times only.