The festivities begin as soon as I step into the streetcar. I sit next to a woman wearing a large hat adorned with flowers, illuminated by tiny, white lights. This might seem a bit odd anywhere else, but I’m in N’awlins, where nobody needs a reason to don a costume or have a parade.
Although the streetcar named Desire no longer exists, I’m riding the 120-year-old St. Charles Avenue line, the world’s oldest continuously operating streetcar line. For $1.25, I get to sit on an original mahogany seat as I ride along “the jewel of America’s grand avenues” and back into 19th century New Orleans on a route lined with Greek Revival, Italianate and Queen Anne Victorian mansions.
Some say New Orleans is the only foreign city Americans can go to without a passport. A melting pot of various cultures formed the city’s unique identity, which may appear foreign, but that in itself makes it distinctly American. No other American city can boast having its own unmistakable music, food, festivals, traditions, and even superstitions to the extent of New Orleans.
Each of NOLA’s neighborhoods offer a different flavor and experience. In the French Quarter, tourists partake in a nonstop party, whereas in the Garden District and Uptown neighborhoods, locals and visitors alike stroll along quiet, tree-lined streets with historic mansions, some of which are now B&Bs.
Suffice it to say, there are many ways in New Orleans to laissez les bons temps rouler — let the good times roll.
Stepping into the historic Hotel Monteleone you’ll pass right by its revolving Carousel Bar & Lounge, a bonafide merry-go-round for grown-ups where you can sip its signature Vieux Carré (Old Quarter) cocktail invented there in 1938. One of the city’s original landmarks smack dab in the center of the French Quarter, the fifth generation of Monteleones continues to run this luxurious hotel that Antonio Monteleone established in 1886. Like many French Quarter hotels, some rooms may be on the small side, but the Monteleone’s traditional elegance makes up for it.
Le Meridien Hotel
The modern Le Meridien Hotel speaks sophistication en français. In its refined and cultured Parisian-style setting, guests can settle in with a book pulled from one the lobby’s many library walls while sipping one of the hotel’s signature sparkling cocktails, their bubbly twist on traditional drinks.
I opt for the Sparking Sazerac, a spritzer version of New Orleans’s most iconic drink made with rye, bitters, and absinthe. The hotel’s mixologists will also shake up a Sparkling Elderberry Wine, a refreshing white wine cooler with a dash of elderberry syrup.
Just on the edge of the French Quarter, the Le Meridien is a short walk to the Vieux Carré, but far enough away from the action to serve as a calm respite from it. After a few hours of sightseeing, I suggest unwinding with a dip in the rooftop pool, then taking cover from the hot sun in one of the cool cabanas.
trivago Tip: You can save money by traveling to New Orleans in the summer and braving that humid southern heat. Hotel prices average at about $156/night in July. No surprise, the balmy New Orleans winter is most popular with prices averaging at $223/night in January and $217/night come Mardi Gras time in February.
While jambalaya and gumbo represent typical New Orleans home cooking, NOLA is host to many talented chefs who serve up a modern spin on these and other Cajun and Creole staples, reinterpreting classic recipes and elevating the city’s culinary reputation to new heights. New Orleans gastronomy spans the globe, with a multi-ethnic population that brings a variety of international flavors to the table, from Vietnamese to vegetarian, Mexican to Middle Eastern. The combination of sophisticated and simple dining makes NOLA one of the country’s most-revered culinary hot spots.
Though the French Quarter’s restaurants will be packed with tourists, it’s still worth a visit to some of those legendary restaurants. Head to Galatoire’s for the shrimp remoulade, to Antoine’s for Baked Alaska, and sample the flaming Bananas Foster at Brennan’s, where the dish was first created in 1951. Grab a café au lait and sugary beignets at Café du Monde, and some pralines at Leah’s Pralines. To venture off the beaten path, I suggest these three culinary jewels.
Gautreau’s is a hidden treat — literally because the Uptown/Carrolton neighborhood restaurant has no sign and is tucked away unobtrusively on a residential street. To find it, you need to look for the number 1728 just to the right of the front door. It may also take you until after the appetizers to realize that the gorgeous curtains lining the walls are not real, they are trompe-l’œils, realistically painted murals that create an optical illusion
The contemporary, New American-French menu uses regional ingredients but feels more international, featuring dishes like Blue Crab and Black Garlic Fettuccini and Hamachi –a fresh departure from traditional New Orleans fare. You’ll be happy you left the French Quarter.
Now a southern classic, Upperline’s Fried Green Tomato with Shrimp Remoulade is the restaurant’s original recipe. The combination of hot fried tomatoes topped with chilled shrimp remoulade is so divine that you will not want to share it with your dining partner.
The ambiance is more private home than public restaurant. On my first visit to Upperline, owner JoAnn Clevenger greeted me as if we were old friends. Pace yourself, because you’ll want to loosen your belt a notch to finish off your meal with the Honey-Pecan Bread Pudding with toffee sauce.
Blue Oak’s motto is “Vegan Free Since 2012.” Vegetarians could slip by with the roasted garlic mac n’ cheese (I had to have a second helping), but it’s the smoked meats and three kickin’ sauces at this BBQ joint that draws the crowd. No wonder they won the Hogs for the Cause Championship.
The birthplace of many cocktails, including the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz, Absinthe Frappe, Vieux Carré, Hurricane, and the Hand Grenade, New Orleans’s colorful drinking history lives on today in many of its landmark bars.
Although once described as “the cradle of civilized drinking,” imbibing in NOLA doesn’t always appear so decorous. With the city’s liberal attitude about libations, cocktails-to-go are de rigeur there, where — especially in the French Quarter — people cruise the streets sipping adult beverages in “go-cups,” the term for the generously-sized plastic take-out cups.
So where else but New Orleans would one expect to find drive-through Daiquiri stands or Daq Shacks? The caveat: while inside the vehicle, the drinks must remain in sealed containers so Daiquiri to-go cups come with tape over the lids and the straw on the side. Passengers riding on parade floats are exempt from this rule as are people in large motorhomes. Go figure.
Head to Pat O’Brien’s bar — “Paddo’s” in local-speak — for the joint’s signature Hurricane, an almost too sweet red drink with copious amounts of rum that may have you belting out tunes with the dueling piano players. But no matter, you’ll have no memory of it to embarrass you the next day.
Originating in the 19th century from Creole apothecary Antoine Amadee Peychaud’s family recipe, The Sazerac is so quintessentially New Orleans that the Louisiana legislature proclaimed it the “Official Cocktail of New Orleans.” Although considered folklore, the word cocktail is rumored to have originated in New Orleans from the French coquetier, a jigger used in making the Sazerac.
The elegant Roosevelt Hotel’s Sazerac Bar is known for its namesake drink, but every bartender in New Orleans can mix one up. Want to dive in to more cocktail lore? Visit the Museum of the American Cocktail inside the Southern Food & Beverage Museum at the Riverwalk Marketplace.
Settle in for happy hour in the front gallery of this Uptown 1883 Italianate mansion and watch the St. Charles Avenue streetcars pass by. The Columns Hotel is known for its Sunday jazz brunch in the hotel’s opulent Victorian Room, but I prefer sipping a mint julep in the fresh air while channeling my inner Southern belle.
Its nondescript exterior belies the lively experience inside at this happening Ninth Ward watering hole. The entrance can be found through a small retail wine shop where you’ll select a bottle of wine and several kinds of cheese before heading out back to join the backyard party.
While you sway to the live rhythms of contemporary N’awlins jazz greats, Trombone Shorty, Big Freedia, or Hurray for the Riffraff, a waiter will deliver your cheese platter garnished with ciabatta bread, cornichons, olives, assorted chutneys and candied nuts. You may not be able to snag a seat in the courtyard, but leaning over the upper deck offers a great view.
Known for Mardi Gras and jazz, the party never ends in the Big Easy where the entertainment and music isn’t confined to the clubs, but spills into the streets. Here are a few favorite hot spots where tunes fill the air and revelers dance until the wee hours.
Spotted Cat Music Club
New Orleans is synonymous with Jazz so a visit to the city would be incomplete without experiencing at least one of the many music venues. Steps from the Quarter in Faubourg Marigny, Frenchman Street is the hub for live music clubs. There are more than 20 venues, but I love the “The Cat” — the intimate Spotted Cat Music Club. Like many others on the street, The Cat features more than jazz, offering local Latin, funk, electronic, rock, blues, Americana, zydeco, hip-hop and more.
Although a bit off the beaten track from the other clubs, locals flock to Tipitina’s in the Irish Channel neighborhood where the schedule may include famed NOLA musicians such as Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Galactic, and Trombone Shorty. Eat before you head over because they don’t serve food, so maybe make a stop first at Domilise’s for a half fried shrimp & oyster po’ boy to ward off any impending hunger pangs.
New Orleans Arts District
Some refer to the downtown New Orleans Arts District as the “Soho of the South,” a nod to the neighborhood’s transformation from a largely disused Warehouse District into a dynamic center for the arts. The nucleus of the district is the Contemporary Arts Center, home to the edgy and experimental visual arts along with music, theater, dance, and eclectic performance art. On the first Saturday of the month, the district hosts an evening gallery hop to over 20 neighborhood galleries.
Even when temps turn blistering hot and thick with humidity in N’awlins, the great outdoors still beckon. Escape the heat and head to City Park, 1,300 acres of winding trails for walking, jogging, or biking, or saddle up at the 13-acre equestrian center to explore on horseback.
Cool off by renting a boat to paddle around Big Lake — off limits to swimming just in case the occasional alligator decides to join you. I love to stroll through the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, five acres dotted with more than 60 works of art that cast reflections in the lagoons and beautiful shadows in the morning and late afternoon. Closer to central NOLA, the smaller yet still grand Audubon Park is another bucolic patch of green where you may see a giraffe poke through the bushes from the park’s zoo.
To contemplate all you’ve experienced, walk one of the park’s two labyrinths. An archetypal symbol, the labyrinth’s spiral is the universal representation of transformation designed for walking meditation. Installed after Hurricane Katrina, the Audubon labyrinths symbolize healing, renewal and the celebration of the city’s new life in aftermath of the hurricane’s devastation.
If after a few days in NOLA, someone asks “where y’at?” they’re not asking where you are, but how you are. Just smile and say you “passed a good time” in N’awlins and that you’ll be back.