When most people think of New Orleans, they think of Hurricane Katrina, Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles,” or Mardi Gras. Katrina hit the city nearly straight on in August of 2005. While there are still areas that haven’t recovered, most tourists today will never see them. The best parts of the city are fully recovered. Vampires? Maybe. But you’re certainly safe from them (as long as you don’t venture too far into the dark). Mardi Gras is a big deal for the city, and a trip you may want to take. But if you’re looking for the Mardi Gras atmosphere, you can find it almost every evening in the French Quarter.
The French Quarter is the absolute “must do” for visitors. The Quarter is the oldest part of the city, and certainly one of the most beautiful. Nearly all of the buildings have second and third floor balconies. These are often dressed with elaborate iron railings, and covered with plants (and the ever present Mardi Gras beads). Royal Street provides dozens of quaint shops in one of the more peaceful parts of the Quarter. Here you can find inexpensive gifts, but you can also spend a fortune. There are several antique shops, as well as art galleries where you can easily spend thousands.
First time visitors can spend a full day quietly wandering Royal Street alone. Venture just one street over to Bourbon Street, and the atmosphere changes completely. Still lined with shops and those upper level balconies, Bourbon is beautiful on a quiet morning. But but mid-afternoon, the party starts. Bourbon has dozens of bars and restaurants. There is no “open container” law, so you’re allowed to take your drink from the bar into the street (they’ll even give you a paper cup). The street quickly fills with hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of drinkers, and the party goes on late into the night. Many bars close only during the early morning hours. But if you can handle it, you can drink until 5:00am or 6:0am.
Bonus: New Orleans number one attraction is the National World War II museum. Originally just the “D-Day Museum,” the facility has expanded to cover the War from multiple angles. The museum does an amazing job at completely immersing you into the War. You can easily spend two full days here. People also find that it can be a life changing experience. Instead of simply listing battles, and milestones of the War, the museum gives you a more personal and intimate experience by showing you how these events affected the people involved. They also frequently have WWII veterans on hand who will take about their own experiences.
Best Walk in New Orleans
When you’ve finished with Royal Street, you can wander into Jackson Square, and over to the Mississippi River. The levee is a raised piece of land that protects the city from the Mississippi. There is a paved walkway that heads toward the bridge (and the Central Business District). Most of the year, you’ll have a beautiful walk along the river. But beware the summer. Louisiana Summers are HOT, and humid. If you haven’t experienced it, you’re simply not prepared. Always make sure you’re hydrating heavily. If you take a look down the levee, you’ll see a fascinating (and scary) sight: the river is actually higher than the land where the city is built. It’s intimidating to look at the huge amounts of water flowing by the city, which literally sits in a bowl.
Best Restaurants in New Orleans
New Orleans is also known for it’s food. It’s a huge melting pot of Creole, Cajun, and American food. But be careful! Not every restaurant is good. And just because there is a crowd, doesn’t mean you’ll have a good meal. Plan your meals before you go, or ask the locals for the best stuff. Many of them will probably tell you about Irenes (529 Bienville St.). The restaurant has been around since 1992, and features amazing Italian meals. Wait… Italian? In New Orleans? Yes. But this isn’t your standard Italian restaurant. There is a heavy New Orleans influence, and you’ll find fresh seafood (including oysters, shrimp, and that Louisiana legend: crawfish). The Court of Two Sisters is a great second choice. They provide tasty Louisiana French meals. They have somewhat of a reputation as a tourist trap, but they’ve served consistently fine meals since I first visited in the 1980’s. Try to visit on a nice evening when you can dine in their beautiful courtyard. If it’s raining, you’ll be inside. Still nice, but not near as fun as eating in a quintessential New Orleans courtyard.
The French Quarter literally overflows with music. You can hear it everywhere, and it will draw you inside to listen. Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter Street) has been around since the 1950’s, and it’s by far the best for Jazz. Check the hours, and get there early, or you’ll be waiting in line. But truly the best music you’ll hear is from street performers in the French Quarters. Some of these performers and kids, and you’ll be blown away by the talent. Stop when you see a performance going on. There is officially no charge, but they will all pass the hat. Tip well for the great performers. This is a full time job for many of them, and some of the kids are helping support their families.
The Marigny is home to Frenchman Street, where you can find more street performers as well as bars and restaurants. It’s hipster central for New Orleans. Most tourists hit Bourbon Street first, so you’ll find more locals over in the Marigny. Locals avoid Bourbon Street, so you’ll get the true New Orleans local experience here. It’s fun, and not near as crowded as Bourbon.
Best Day Trip out of the City
Get out of the city and head for the swamp. The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest swap/wetlands in the United States. If you’ve never seen an alligator up close, this is where you want to go. The Atchafalaya is located west of New Orleans, past Baton Rouge. I-10 will take you right through the middle of it. Atchafalaya Airboat Swamp Tours is located on the other side of the Basin in Breaux Bridge. Here you’ll get a taste of a completely different culture than you’ll find in New Orleans. There’s a heavy Spanish influence in New Orleans, and it combines with the French to make the city extraordinary. But Breaux Bridge is firmly in Cajun Country. The Acadians were forced out of Canada in the 1700’s. Many fled to Louisiana, where they developed their own Cajun culture. You’ll still hear French spoken here, but it’s Cajun French, and wildly different than what you’ll hear in Paris. The swamp tour will take you deep into the wilderness of the Atchafalaya. The swamps are beautiful, but they’re also rough. Alligators and snakes abound, and you’ll get to (safely) see them up close.
Something not Many Travellers Know About New Orleans
Prepare yourself for this one: tour the cemeteries. Again, New Orleans continues to surprise by sending visitors off to the cemeteries. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the most famous (and you need to be with a tour guide to get in). Because the water table is so high, people are buried above ground in stone crypts. The cemetery’s most famous “resident,” is Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. In years past, there were always offerings and markings on the grave from Voodoo practitioners. The grave is largely off limits, but you’ll still sometimes find gifts left for her. Some claim she’s still alive. Actress Angela Bassett played her beautifully in “American Horror Story: Coven.” The supernatural is never far away in New Orleans, and you can find tours that will bring you to locations from AHS, as well as from Anne Rice novels.