When my husband and I kicked off a Southern road trip in New Orleans earlier this year, it had been nearly 20 years since I’d caroused on Bourbon Street as a recent college graduate. I’d visited The Big Easy during New Orleans Jazz Fest in the early 1990s, and had fond memories of listening to live music, tasting my first red beans and rice, and staying out way past my bedtime in the French Quarter.
My husband had never been to New Orleans, so I was eager to share the city’s colorful nightlife, yummy food (beignets! etouffee!), and historic architecture. Turns out, I learned a lot during our 48 hours in New Orleans, as well.
Here’s my firsthand insight gleaned from our short trip, as well as some advice for your first romp through New Orleans:
Bourbon Street is racier than I remember. Call it selective memory, but I didn’t recall the large number of gentleman’s clubs that line Bourbon Street. I knew there were some such establishments mixed in with the bars, live music venues, and souvenir shops – just not so many. Neon signs aren’t the only marketing tools used to beckon late-night revelers inside: after dark, scantily clad dancers stand in doorways looking for customers, as well. Bottom line: I was very glad our kids weren’t with us as we took in all the sights and sounds of this party street.
Bare chests and beads don’t only happen at Mardi Gras. Once the sun sets, hotel guests and bar patrons gather on the shallow balconies that overlook Bourbon Street to toss bead necklaces to pedestrians below. Extra beads go to those who show some skin. Bottom line: Again, there is zero reason for any child to be in the vicinity of Bourbon Street after dark.
Viewfinder Tip: Don’t wear a black shirt or black pants when you’re indulging in beignets drowning in powdered sugar. You’ll likely walk away from the table with the tell-tale sign of white smudges all over your clothes.
Beignets exist beyond Cafe du Monde. One requisite stop on any tourist’s agenda in New Orleans is world-famous Cafe Du Monde, serving up fried, French-style doughnuts piled high with powdered sugar, accompanied by chicory coffee. The landmark coffee shop dates back to 1862 and shouldn’t be missed. However, I contend that the square doughnuts at Cafe Beignet are equally good, if not denser; not to mention, the Bourbon Street locale isn’t nearly as crowded. Plus, at Cafe Beignet, you can pull up an outdoor chair and listen to the free daily live jazz at adjacent Musical Legends Park. Bottom line: Try all the beignets you have time for.
Free outdoor traditional jazz at Musical Legends Park
Pat O’Brien’s makes the best hurricanes. Trust us, we tried them at another bar and restaurant, and the rum drinks just weren’t as fruity (or strong) as the ones served at Pat O’Brien’s in traditional glasses shaped like hurricane lamps. The outdoor courtyard at Pat O’Brien’s Bourbon Street restaurant is another lively scene, with its large “flaming fountain.” Bottom line: Don’t waste your time sampling hurricanes elsewhere; just remember to get your $3 glass deposit back if you don’t want to take your Pat O’ Brien’s souvenir glass home.
The Saenger Theatre is gorgeous. This historic performance venue on Canal Street was originally built in 1927, but it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We were lucky enough to be in New Orleans for the first full, musical performance – The Book of Mormon – after it reopened its doors following a multi-year, $53 million renovation. The massive project allowed the theater to be restored to its original beauty, from the lobby to the restrooms, with gorgeous arches, columns, and decorative accents. My favorite: the domed “evening sky” with twinkling “stars.” Bottom line: Check out the calendar to see what’s playing during your visit – you won’t regret paying for a ticket here.
Mahogany seats on a century-old streetcar
The historic streetcars are worth a ride. After a full morning spent walking up, down, and around the French Quarter, my weary feet were ready for a break. We hopped on a red car on the Canal Street Line and rode it five miles to the city’s above-ground cemeteries. Another option: the half-hour ride out to New Orleans’ universities through the Garden District on the green St. Charles Line. At times, as the streetcar clatters along, it feels a bit rickety and fast (don’t even think about sticking your hand out a window; streetcars moving in the opposite direction pass by very close). Bottom line: The old mahogany seats, brass accents, and exposed lights on the streetcars are nostalgic. Spend the $1.25 one-way (or a $3 for an unlimited daily pass) for a ride back in time.
Stop in Remoulade for signature New Orleans dishes. A sister restaurant to upscale Arnaud’s, this casual spot on Bourbon Street has all the local culinary favorites: jambalaya, gumbo, crawfish etoufee, red beans and rice… and you can try a few different dishes with a sampler platter. My favorites on the “taster” menus: crawfish pie and stuffed crab. Bottom line: Remoulade may not be the best restaurant in town for local dishes, but its sampler platters are great “one-stop shopping” if you want to try a few options quickly without breaking the bank.
GW Fins is a lovely place for a sophisticated meal. After our casual, gut-busting experience at Remoulade, I wanted an upscale spot for dinner the next night. We opted for first-come, first-serve bar seating at GW Fins, just off Bourbon Street. (Dinner reservations were harder to come by last-minute on a Saturday night.) The focus at this dimly lit restaurant is on seafood entrees, though we opted for smaller meals: delectable, pillow-like lobster dumplings paired with a couple of gourmet salads and complimentary, bite-sized biscuits. Bottom line: Pack a collared shirt and slacks – no sleeveless shirts or flip-flops allowed – for a relaxing, sophisticated, sit-down meal away from the Bourbon Street fray, but still in the heart of the French Quarter.
Walk Royal Street for the prettiest ornate balcony railings. Antique shops and art galleries make up most of the retail stores on Royal Street. But as you’re shopping, don’t forget to look up at the buildings you pass to admire the iron lace balconies – some of which date back to the late 1700s. Bottom line: Bring your camera to Royal Street for picturesque architecture shots.
Frenchmen Street is cool for live music. While we didn’t get to Frenchmen Street at night, we did stroll its couple of blocks during the day, and found loads of posters and calendars detailing all of the live performances throughout the week – daily, with two or three different bands each night. Reportedly, this is where locals go to listen to music. Bottom line: Forgo the neon lights and the crowds on Bourbon Street, and make your way to Frenchmen Street for a more civilized late-night experience.
What are your suggestions for things to do in New Orleans?