The Best Reasons to Visit New Orleans That Have Nothing to Do With Mardi Gras
New Orleans is a small city with a big personality. Founded by the French in 1718, ruled by the Spanish for a few decades, ceded back to the French, and then sold to the US via the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the city is a delightful melting pot of European architecture, Afro-Caribbean influence, and Southern hospitality.
It’s the host of Mardi Gras, America’s biggest annual party, as well as the resilient survivor of one of the deadliest natural disasters in US history. The city has many nicknames — The Crescent City, Paris of the South, Birthplace of Jazz, and The Most Interesting City in America. But its most well-known moniker, The Big Easy, is what best conveys the irresistible, laid-back appeal of New Orleans. There are few other places where you can grab a to-go cocktail or beignet at any hour judgment-free, hear live jazz playing in open doorways, or get swept up in a random parade dancing through the French Quarter.
Next year marks the tricentennial of the city, so there’s no better time to plan a trip. Check out the spots below, grab a Sazerac, and as they say in NOLA, “Laissez les bon temps rouler!”
Hyatt Centric French Quarter: Hyatt Centric is housed in a former D. H. Holmes department store, once the largest in the South. (The store’s iconic clock, which served as a popular rendezvous point in the 19th century, still sits on Canal Street.) The trendy hotel is the ideal balance of local charm and modern comforts. It’s located in the French Quarter just steps away from the hustle and bustle of Bourbon Street, providing a great launching point to explore all of New Orleans’ best sights. And after a long day of imbibing in the city, go ahead and pamper yourself in a plush bathrobe, test out the Drybar hair dryer, and sip on some bacon-infused bourbon from the Batch bar. (Photo via Hyatt Centric)
Hotel Monteleone: You can’t miss this gorgeous, towering white hotel on Royal Street in the French Quarter. Opened in 1886 by Sicilian nobleman Antonio Monteleone, the hotel is still family owned and operated. The four-star hotel has had a number of notable literary guests — including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner — and is reportedly haunted. (Photo via Hotel Monteleone)
Ace Hotel New Orleans: The Portland-based boutique chain’s NOLA outpost is located in the Warehouse District in a 1928 art deco building that was a furniture store until the ’70s. The sleek space instantly gives off artsy, hipster vibes, and the rooms are decorated with leather and dark woods and include amenities like turntables and acoustic guitars. Within the hotel, there is also a Stumptown coffee, an oyster bar, and a rooftop bar. (Photo via Ace Hotel)
Turkey and the Wolf: Bon Appetit’s #1 Best New Restaurant in America is a quirky sandwich shop where your adult sensibilities are temporarily replaced by childhood nostalgia. The place is decorated with mismatched art, tables, chairs, and tableware — think vintage McDonald’s plastic plates — and the menu includes rotating cocktails with clever names like Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues and An Extraordinarily Tall Child. Expect ingredients like white bread, American cheese, Duke’s mayo, and Doritos dust combined in wildly inventive (and delicious) ways. After you’ve sunk your teeth into a fried bologna sandwich or a collard greens melt, save room for dessert, such as vanilla soft serve covered with tater sticks, magic shell, or sprinkles. Bonus: Follow the restaurant’s Instagram account, which is basically chef Mason Hereford’s wacky stream of consciousness and inexplicable hashtags like #spreadlovelikeyouwouldspreadmayonnaise. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Beignets + Donuts: No trip to New Orleans is complete with making at least one stop for beignets — the OG donut, AKA fried dough covered in copious amounts of powdered sugar. Cafe Du Monde, established in 1862, is a landmark in the French Quarter. You can get table service on the patio or head to the to-go window to grab an order of beignets with a chicory cafe au lait. It’s open 24 hours, so there’s really no bad time to treat yourself. Morning Call, located inside City Park and also open 24 hours a day, is another popular spot that’s been around since 1870 and claims to be the city’s “most famous coffee drinking place.”
If you prefer your fried dough with a hole, head over to District on Magazine Street, which features a rotating selection of creative donuts. There are classics like chocolate glazed, but also expect to see flavors like bananas foster and five-spice. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Brennan’s: This Royal Street staple has been around since 1946, and the millennial-pink exterior of the restaurant is matched by the equally colorful — and distinctly themed — dining rooms inside. Come here for Creole fine dining, especially the luxurious breakfast menu, which includes turtle soup and signature dishes like Eggs Hussarde and Bananas Foster. The latter was invented in Brennan’s in the ’50s and is still flambeéd tableside. (Photo via Brennan’s)
Red Fish Grill: On Bourbon Street a few blocks away from Brennan’s, its casual sister restaurant Red Fish Grill is the place to head for a relaxed seafood meal. Three things not to miss: the fish, the double-chocolate bread pudding, and Ike Jackson Jr., a local celebrity and longtime server at the restaurant. If you’re lucky enough to have Ike wait your table, he’ll happily charm you with tales of his show business resume: he was a cab driver in Treme, worked with Matthew McConaughey in True Detective, and was killed by Kathy Bates in American Horror Story. (Photo via Red Fish Grill)
Willa Jean: This Southern bakery is named after Chef Partner Kelly Fields’ grandmother and serves up a selection of baked goods that can’t be beat. While you’re there, grab some fried chicken and biscuits and a glass of frosé. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, and Solange were spotted dining at Willa Jean earlier this year: If Bey approves, that’s good enough for us. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Commander’s Palace: If you’re going to go all-out for a meal, this is where to do it. The famous Garden District restaurant has been around since 1893 and has won six James Beard Foundation awards for its “haute Creole” cuisine. Staples include turtle soup and bread pudding souffle, but the menu is constantly changing to reflect the chef’s “dirt to plate within 100 miles” policy: 90 percent of the ingredients come from within 100 miles of the restaurant, creating a truly authentic New Orleans experience. (Photo via Commander’s Palace)
Po’Boys: As one story would have it, po’boys were born during a streetcar strike during the Great Depression when a couple of former NOLA streetcar workers opened a sandwich shop. For a traditional take, go to Domilise’s Po-Boy, which is family owned has been around for almost a century. Killer PoBoys — the original location is in the back of Erin Rose, a small bar in the French Quarter — puts a modern spin on the sandwich with ingredients like pork belly and sweet potato. (Photo via Killer PoBoys)
The Sazerac Bar: Once frequented by Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long, this bar inside the Roosevelt Hotel will transport you back in time with its dark wood and painted murals. The Sazerac was invented in NOLA in the 1800s as America’s first cocktail, and this is the ideal spot to sip on one. (Photo via The Roosevelt)
Carousel Bar & Lounge: Inside the historic Hotel Monteleone, this adults-only carousel is a rotating bar that’s been spinning for 65 years. Enjoy the changing views with the house special, a Vieux Carre, a 1930s cocktail that includes whiskey, cognac, Benedictine, and bitters. (Photo via Hotel Montelone)
Erin Rose: In a tiny neighborhood pub off Bourbon Street in the French Quarter, you’ll find yourself rubbing elbows with friendly locals at the bar. It’s a good place to start your day: Their Wake Up and Live! special, which runs from 10am-2pm, has a number of drinks for $4 and under, including mimosas, Bloody Marys, and their famous Frozen Irish Coffee. (Photo via Erin Rose)
Batch Bar: Batch is located inside the Hyatt Centric, but don’t expect to find your typical hotel bar. Relax in the chic lounge and enjoy an inventive drink or barrel service, where cocktails are aged in oak barrels and served by the liter at your table. Flask service with infused liquors is also available for those looking for something more portable. (Photo via Hyatt Centric)
Cure: This bar, situated in a former firehouse, has been at the forefront of the city’s craft cocktail scene. Sidle up to the long bar and watch the mixologists work their magic, adding innovative flairs to traditional favorites like the martini and old fashioned. (Photo via Kevin O’Mara/Cure)
Cane & Table: Cane & Table (a sister bar to Cure) has a Caribbean-inspired menu that offers “rustic colonial cuisine” and “prototiki cocktails” (read: heavy on the rum). There are plenty of island-inspired drinks to get you in the tropical mood, such as the Banana Manhattan or the Mariner’s Swizzle, served in a hollowed out pineapple. (Photo via Cane & Table)
Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar: Built between 1722-1732, Lafitte’s is one of the oldest bars in the country. It’s so old that it’s mainly without electricity and relies on candlelight inside, which is probably for the best if you order their signature purple drank, a concoction that basically tastes like a spiked melted grape popsicle. Legend has it that it was once used by the Lafitte brothers as a base for their illegal smuggling activities and is now haunted by a number of ghosts. (Photo via Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar)
Listen to live jazz. There’s no city better to listen to live music than the birthplace of jazz. Let your ears guide you in and out the open doors along Frenchmen Street, stopping into places like old-school Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro or the intimate Spotted Cat Music Club. Also in the French Quarter is the legendary Preservation Hall, a former art gallery turned music venue dedicated to preserving jazz music; nightly shows are held.
Over in Bywater, stop by Bacchanal, and walk through the small wine shop (buy a bottle… or two) into what feels like the chillest backyard party, with live music and ample patio seating. In the Carrollton neighborhood, you’ll find the Maple Leaf Bar, a boisterous music club that features up-and-coming local bands and musicians. The Grammy Award-winning Rebirth Brass Band plays every Tuesday night. (Photo via Bacchanal Wine)
Explore the city by foot or bike. This goes without saying, but the ideal way to leisurely take in New Orleans is to wander the streets by foot. Royal Street in the French Quarter is an eye-pleaser, with its picturesque buildings, elaborate wrought-iron balconies, shops, boutiques, and restaurants. While on Royal, pop into Krewe, a 2016 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund runner-up and celeb-fave sunglasses company (Selena Gomez, Gigi Hadid, Emma Watson, and Kristen Bell are all fans); Hove Parfumeur, a romantic vintage perfumery that’s been run by the same family since 1931; and Where Y’Art, an art gallery and online platform that features local artists and encourages people to connect with them.
Outside of the French Quarter, Magazine Street is another pedestrian-friendly stretch of eateries and boutiques. Take the St. Charles streetcar, the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world, and stroll down past the eclectic architecture. Notable stops include Dirty Coast, a t-shirt company that specializes in insider sayings only locals truly appreciate (wearing a Dirty Coast shirt is akin to a NOLA secret handshake, says Founder Blake Haney); and Sunday Shop, a new design store that wants to make shopping for furniture and interior decor easy like Sunday morning.
If wheels are your speed, borrow a bike from The American Bicycle Rental Company and coast down tree-lined Esplanade Avenue past its historic mansions and the former home of French impressionist Edgar Degas (now a B&B). Esplanade leads you right into 1,300-acre City Park, the largest public park in New Orleans and one of the oldest in the country. There you can grab a beignet while sitting under the dramatic Spanish moss hanging from the trees or visit the marble halls of the New Orleans Museum of Art. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Get read by a street poet.Cubs the Poet, a local artist who taps out beautiful words on a vintage typewriter, is a hidden gem in the city. You’ll find him in various public spaces throughout NOLA, where he’ll write a personalized poem for you in minutes based on your mood, your hopes, or whatever is on your mind that day. (Photo via Lesley Chen)
Get in touch with your spiritual side. New Orleans is a city where the living and the dead coexist as neighbors. At the New Orleans Healing Center, you can meet a priestess and learn about Vodou — not the overly sensationalized version you see in movies, but the religion that was brought over from Africa and melded with Catholicism to form the current-day spiritual practice that is still found throughout the city. The center is also home to a shrine of Marie Laveau, the first commercial priestess, whose sacred rituals drew in large crowds in the 19th century.
The cemeteries in New Orleans are above ground to account for the swampy ground and unexpected flooding that hits the city. As a result, these “cities of the dead” are quietly haunting destinations filled with elaborate tombs and mausoleums. The most famous ones are St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, where Laveau is reportedly buried, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which has served as a backdrop for a number of movies and TV shows. (Photo via New Orleans Healing Center)
Lesley Chen is a California native who writes about travel, health/fitness, and other lifestyle topics. She has a serious case of RBF and exercises mainly to balance out an aggressive candy addiction.