One of my absolute favorite cities to visit in the United States is New Orleans. Located in south Louisiana, this city holds in itself a blend of distinct cultures, classic southern gastronomy, and enviable nightlife to name just a few pro's. This playful city has so much to offer, that once you get here you may have a tricky time deciding just where to start.
Let's begin with accommodation. Something I learnt fast once arriving into New Orleans, was that just a few blocks in the wrong direction and you're somewhere you may not exactly like to be. There are a number of projects that surround the French Quarter - areas that still have not been able to recover after hurricane Katrina, and whose already low income residents were left with little federal aid to rebuild. These areas are rife with crime, and although usually targeted, it is best to stick to the French Quarter or the Garden district for where you decide to stay.
Hotels in these area's can get extremely pricey however, especially around Mardi Gras; but in my personal opinion I would avoid travelling during that festival anyway. I understand wanting to experience Mardis Gras first hand in the birthplace of it all, but in reality, the streets are jam packed, you can't find anywhere to sit down and eat let alone get into a bar for a drink, locals are stressed and you're dodging vomit on the sidewalks every few steps. Maybe I'm just getting old, but trust me, there are way better times to visit New Orleans where you can see the city for what it really is. I went during French Quarter Festival, and it was an amazing time. It is the largest showcase of Louisiana music in the world, and all the local shops and restaurants open their doors for unique experiences you wouldn't normally find on a standard weekend. It's a festival that not many non-locals know about, so you avoid the crowds, connect with the community, and get to submerse yourself in every style of music you can imagine - from an opera singer performing on a rooftop, to a field concert reggae band by the river. The festival is usually in the spring, but due to COVID-19, it has been postponed to October 2020.
Festivals aside, there is so much to see and do in this city, that is if you like music, eating/drinking, and living in the present. There's a reason it's nicknamed the Big Easy, after all. If you don't know where to start with your day, Canal St is great to wander and head into the opulent shops, restaurants and art galleries. Colonial-era streetcars run along the route into the heart of the quarter. You can also head the opposite direction aboard the St Charles line and make your way into Garden district. You'll know you've hit the heart of the Quarter when you reach Jackson Square, bustling crowds, and the unceasing song of local artists. You'll know you've reached Garden District or Uptown when you begin to pass antebellum mansions, zoological gardens, and historic monuments and statues.
New Orleans also boasts a unique attraction that brings in people from all over that you may not expect - their graveyards, or as they call them, "cities of the dead". Being below sea level, they are unable to dig graves, so instead, families will buy tombs. You can head into many graveyards self guided to see first hand the tombs and their particular burial practices, or you can schedule a Ghost Tour. Ghost Tours are a great way to spend an afternoon getting a glimpse into the ominous side of the cities myths and fables - the restless dead that haunt the alleys, old legends and unsolved murders, even tales of Vampires! It is a fun way to get a different perspective of the city from locals who know it best.
At night, Bourbon St. comes to life, unlike anything you've probably experienced before. I always tell people who are planning to do their bachelor/bachelorette parties in Vegas to please reconsider and look into New Orleans, because at night this place gets HYPE. The streets are lined with bars and neon lights, decorated with multi-colored beads being thrown from the many French style balconies (all year round, not just during Mardi Gras). Liquor laws are extremely lax here, so bars have "to go" windows where you can order your drink and walk the streets freely. This is where you will also find the infamous Hand Grenade. Don't let the adorable novelty cup it comes in fool you. It is a local secret as to what exactly is in this drink, and don't bother asking your bartender because they can't tell you (I have a sneaking suspicion that Bacardi 151 is involved). You can get these served on the rocks or blended with ice. Either way, they are delicious but deadly. I can hold my own when it comes to alcohol, but after my second one of these, gravity felt a lot stronger and I couldn't stop giggling at everything.
Bourbon street has a number of historic bars to check out. Saints and Sinners is Channing Tatum's bar which has easy vibes, inexpensive drinks, and some booths out on the patio for a front row seat to the action outside. The Old Absinthe House is another goodie, where you can experience exclusive and decorative Absinthe cocktails. Again, proceed with caution. A bar I feel needs an honorable mention, and my personal favorite is Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop at the corner of Bourbon and St. Phillip. This blacksmith shop turned bar was constructed in the 1700's (rumored to be the first bar ever in America) and they still run on the same electric system as they did back then (spoiler alert: there isn't any). Candles and gas lights dim the interior, and bar stools are strategically placed not around a bar, but around a large grand piano with a pianist playing live music all night. Legend states the previous home owner, Jean Lafitte still haunts the old Creole cottage. Don't leave before trying their signature drink, the VooDoo daiquiri.
Some other honorable bar mentions:
Cane and Table for craft cocktails
The Avenue Pub for a cold beer on a nice patio
Rum House if you want a Caribbean vibe with topnotch island style drinks in the Garden District
Le Bon Temps Roule is also in Garden District on Magazine street that we stumbled into by happy accident. It is a classic dive with super friendly staff, and a good place to take a break from the Louisiana heat.
St Joe's Bar for the best mojitos
House of Blues is a great spot for having a drink and listening to live bands, and many famous acts preform here in a separate area (Willie Nelson was there at the same time we were).
Of course, you can't stomach a night out on Bourbon street without a good meal. Fortunately, there is no shortage of spectacular restaurants to keep you eating all day and night. Some specialties from Louisiana that you can find all over New Orleans are Po Boys (traditional sandwich), charbroiled oysters, craw fish, and gumbo. End your meal with beignets or bananas foster.
Some restaurants I reward top points for authentic Creole cuisine:
Drago's Seafood Restaurant for some of the best charbroiled oysters in the city
Bears Po-boys has your standard line up of Po-boy variations, but their roast beef Po-boy is what puts them on the map
Redfish Grill was top notch all around if you want to try a variety of classic dishes. We got the charbroiled oysters with blue cheese and hot sauce, deep fried alligator, Cajun shrimp, crab cakes, craw fish and gumbo.
Willies Chicken Shack is a good take out spot for classic southern fried chicken. You can also grab some alcoholic slush beverages with your combo. Drew Bree's approved.
Commanders Palace located in Garden District is known for their brunch and distinct aqua walls. It is very well known, so it's best to make a reservation before hand.
Cafe du Monde is a staple in New Orleans for their beignets. The line is usually pretty long, which is even more reason to travel here on the off season! After a long, hot day in the sun, sitting on their shady patio enjoying warm beignets and a iced Cafe au Lait next to the river is literally the perfect way to end your day.
All of this is only a glimpse into ways you can spend a few days in the Big Easy. If you happen to be in the city during football season, you can catch a Saints game (whooo dat!). You can also go on a swamp boat tour, which I unfortunately did not get the chance to do, but will definitely be doing on my next visit. Whatever you do, New Orleans is sure to steal a piece of your heart. A common phrase you may hear often during your stay is "laissez les bon temps rouler", french for "let the good times roll", which is exactly what NOLA is all about.