Written by Lynsey Oxton
New Orleans: NOLA, the Big Easy, Crescent City, N’awlins. Whatever you want to call it, it’s somewhere I’ve always wanted to visit – vibrant, historic, a ‘good-time’ town and most definitely Bucket List material! Fast on the approach to my 40th Birthday, it seemed as good an excuse as any to get a trip in!
We spent four days in New Orleans and managed to pack in a lot of walking, eating and of course, sampling of the local beverages. If you’re planning a trip to this crazy town anytime soon and want to make the most of your stay, here are my 10 suggestions of what not to miss!
1: The famous French Quarter.
If you’ve heard of New Orleans, you’ll have heard of the French Quarter. When the city was founded in 1718, the ‘Vieux Carre’ (meaning Old Square) was the original walled city and has been the heart of New Orleans ever since.
The streets of the French Quarter are set out in blocks, which makes it super easy to navigate your way around (think New York). The streets are either named after French royal houses or French Catholic Saints and their names are displayed on tiled pavements throughout the Quarter.
Just 45 years after establishing itself, in 1763 France gave up control of Louisiana to Spain (until 1803) as a means of paying off a war debt. As such, visitors will also find that many of the streets still display their original Spanish names too.
Just looking around the streets of the French Quarter, it is clear to see that New Orleans is still heavily influenced by its Hispanic heritage. The architecture demonstrates this, as the pretty Spanish Colonial Houses sit happily alongside the steeping Creole, brick-raised Shotgun and narrow American Townhouses. The mis-matched styles and colours make for some really diverse and interesting neighbourhoods to explore.
If you can forgive the fact that the French Quarter is where all the tourists go, it’s definitely the place to base your stay. Here you will be spoilt for choice with restaurants, shops, cafes, museums, art galleries, nightclubs and bars. We stayed at the haunted Andrew Jackson Hotel on Royal Street (read my earlier blog to see if I encountered anything paranormal!). I can’t recommend this hotel enough – you can’t beat an old inn for character!
Tip: If you do choose to stay at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, ask for a room at the front with a balcony – you’ll be treated to the best spot in town for watching the world go by. Room 201 is good!
2. Hit boozy Bourbon Street and grab your ‘Go Cups’!
Those travelling to New Orleans for a party, will no doubt jump off the plane and head straight to Bourbon Street. This is easily the most iconic street in the city, a place where folk of all ages go to have a good time, fuelled by super strength cocktails, live music and the offerings of ‘free tits’ (just saying what I saw!).
Bourbon Street is unashamedly in-your-face, loud and tacky – and how can I forget that unique scent it has too? It’s not a smell in which I can quite put my finger on – perhaps broken hearts and broken dreams – or possibly the stench of spilled booze and grime? Am I being a little unkind? Nope – even the locals complain! At least the city tries to keep it at bay as best it can, by washing the street down during the day.
Fact is, you simply cannot go to New Orleans and not go to Bourbon Street! Try as you might, you won’t miss it, it won’t let you! It’s legal to drink alcohol in the street (like in Vegas), so you can get a take-out as long as it’s in a plastic ‘Go Cup’. This happens across the city, not only on Bourbon. Although not officially part of Bourbon Street (it’s a block or two down), the ‘Hurricane’ cocktail from Pat O’Briens is the most famous drink you’ll find in the city and unlike the cheap and nasty booze that goes into the cocktails on Bourbon, this one is good quality and won’t give you the monster of all hangovers the next day!
You will find a lot on Bourbon Street but the best find is Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, which claims to be the oldest bar in the USA! This was once home to pirate, John Lafitte. Rumour has it that the pub is haunted by a number of ghosts, including Lafitte himself. Despite the bar only being lit by candlelight and being a bit eerie, the only spirit we encountered was the vodka in their famous Purple Voodoo slush cocktail! Nonetheless, this pub is one for the itinerary if only for its story alone!
Tip: Having a good time in the Big Easy is big business and so if Bourbon Street isn’t for you (and it wasn’t really for me), there are lots of nicer places to have a drink and a good time in New Orleans, like the Hotel Monteleone which has a carousel bar that spins – or champagne cocktails in the stunning courtyard at Brennan’s (both on Royal Street).
3. Get down and funky with NOLA music!
New Orleans is famed for many things and its love of music is at the top of the list. Whatever your persuasion, the streets are filled with blues, hip-hop, RnB, funk – and of course, jazz (the most iconic). The jazz scene began in the brothels in the late 1800s to entertain the sailors! Nowadays, the best place to find a decent jazz club is Frenchmen Street.
Of course, in a city that thrives on music, you really don’t have to go to a club to hear great music; soul singers, brass bands and buskers line the streets from day ’til night. Even the kids play the bucket ‘drums’ in the hope of making a few bucks.
Here’s a taster….
Tip: It is bad etiquette to film street-performers and not give them some spare change or a dollar bill.
4. Indulge in Southern Soul Food, Dixie Style.
Ok, so the croc lollipop is not what I’m really getting at here. New Orleans is known for its hearty soul food and dining here really is a treat. Having read that it would be a sin to not visit the world-famous Cafe Du Monde for their hot beignets, this was my first port of call when I reached the city. For someone with a sweet tooth like me, these square-shaped sugary doughnuts did not disappoint!
Of course, it was only right and proper to try out its competition – Cafe Beignet. In truth, as much as I enjoyed both, Cafe Beignet swung it for me as the beignets were sweeter. Ok, they were bigger too!
‘Gumbo’ is another popular meal in New Orleans and it’s what most locals grew up on. This home-cooked thick stew is spiced with Cajun flavours and usually comes with rice and seafood (or meat). There’s no shortage of places selling gumbo by the cup or bowl full and it’s really nice, as well as in-expensive. I also tried Jambalaya, another stew and rice dish, which I found to be almost the same (I’m sure the locals would disagree).
Before arriving in New Orleans I’d also been told that I had to try a ‘Po’Boy’. So try a Po’Boy I did, at the famous ‘Johnny Po’Boys’ (original). The conclusion: tasty enough with lots of filling choice, but barely different to a Subway! Po’Boy’s get their name from ‘poor boy’ as these were traditionally cheap meal options given to labourers.
We loved the traditional New Orleans fare – in fact, it was some of the best food we have had in America. However, there was a real gem of a place we found that got us through the door twice. Although not what you’d call traditional NOLA food, a Vietnamese restaurant called ‘9 Roses Cafe’ on Conti Street was exceptional. If you’re in town, don’t leave without trying it!
Tip: I found dining out in New Orleans relatively cheap, at least when compared to the likes of New York and California. Always factor in some extra spending money for tipping the waiting staff. Minimum wage in the Southern States is a mere $2 – $5 per hour – so if you get good service (and you will because the Southern folk are so friendly), you should really add somewhere between 15% and 20% onto your check.
5. Embrace your inner Voodoo (if you dare!)
References to the ancient practice of voodoo is everywhere you turn in New Orleans. Anyone visiting the city will see hoards of shops selling all manner of voodoo dolls, lotions, potions, relics and spells – as well as museums solely dedicated to the art. Voodoo originated in NOLA in the early 1700s through slaves brought to the city from Africa. Combining voodoo practice with the city’s dominant Catholic religion, it very quickly came to be a belief for helping, healing and magic.
If voodoo is something that interests you, in addition to the museums, there are plenty of places offering tarot and palm readings (maybe steer clear of the hazy-eyed ‘clairvoyants’ on the curb side of Bourbon Street!). As you’d expect from a town nicknamed ‘The Big Easy’, the word ‘voodoo’ is thrown about a lot in New Orleans, so whether that spell you put on your ex-husband/ ex-wife will actually work – or that reading you have will come true – really is anyone’s guess!
True magic or a load of old cobblers, even a non-believer can get carried away with voodoo in New Orleans, especially when the ‘Gris Dolls’ in the shops are so cute! Of course, I had to buy myself one as a souvenir – introducing Vinnie Voodoo!
Tip: Don’t expect to get a receipt if you do decide to visit a voodoo practitioner. No photos, no returns, no nonsense.
6. Get spooked at the ‘City Of The Dead’.
New Orleans has long had a reputation as the most haunted city in America – a place where the dead refuse to rest! Hardly surprising with Bourbon Street on their doorstep.
Much like the voodoo, the city seizes the opportunity to cash in on the ghostly goings on that are so linked to the haunted histories of NOLA. You can have your choice of ghost tours and walks to join, should you wish to do so – but I think it’s often better to do your own research and go it alone!
The LaLaurie Mansion in the French Quarter is said to be the most haunted house of all in New Orleans; a place that once held slaves in terrible conditions – only exposed when burned down in the 1834 fire.
Going back to Jean Lafitte the pirate once again, Pirates Alley is also on the ”most haunted list’. This small and unassuming cobbled street is supposedly haunted by Lafitte and his fellow smugglers. Visitors to New Orleans have reported feeling a ghostly presence when walking down the alley. I didn’t.
New Orleans cemeteries are different from most in as much as the dead are buried together as families, in large tombs above ground! Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District is one of the oldest city-governed cemeteries, with over 1100 family tombs, comprising over 7000 bodies. Can you believe that after a 45 minute walk there, we were met by a sign to say that the cemetery was shut! Not to worry, New Orleans is full of them – so I took my photos at Cypress Grove instead.
Tip: Don’t miss taking a look at the back of St Louis Cathedral all lit up in at night. You can see this from Royal Street.
7. Step back in time and cruise the Mississippi on a steamboat paddlewheeler.
Because the heat in New Orleans makes it tiring to walk around in (even in October), we decided to jump aboard the Natchez and set sail down the Big Muddy on a jazz cruise! Tickets cost $34 per person ($44 if you chose to have some lunch – which we didn’t).
There are two paddlewheeler boats in operation in New Orleans, but the Natchez is the only one solely powered by steam – have a look for yourself….
Purposefully old-fashioned, yet with a fully stocked bar, dining room and gift shop, the trip was really good value, especially as there was a live jazz band on board too.
Of course, having such panoramic views of the New Orleans skyline were worth the money alone. I can only imagine how pretty it would look from the water, all lit up at night. Night cruises are also available.
Tip: If you want to hop across the Mississippi but don’t want the price tag of an organised boat trip, take the ferry for just $3 per foot passenger. This wasn’t an option for us as it was temporarily closed.
8. The Saints and the Superdome.
Being in the US in October with my football-mad partner means one thing, NFL season (eye roll). As soon as we flew into the city, my other half went off to watch a game, leaving me to explore the streets and take photographs in peace – perfect! His team (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) were playing the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
Like all US cities, football is huge in New Orleans and Saints fans have a ‘unique’ chant – “Who dat? Who dat? Who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?”
If you’re wondering, the Saints won!
Opening in 1975, the Superdome has played host to many of the largest events, including a Mohammed Ali boxing match, Frank Sinatra concerts and six NFL Super Bowls. But many people around the world will remember the Superdome for having housed people during the deadly Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
Tip: Craig says – fill up on food before you get into the stadium because eating and drinking inside the Superdome ain’t cheap!
9. Park life.
New Orleans is such a green and leafy city, so it comes as no surprise that it has some lovely parks to have a stroll through on a lazy afternoon.
Jackson Square is the oldest public garden in New Orleans, established in 1721 by French explorers and declared a National Landmark in 1960. It comes complete with the impressive St Louis Cathedral (forgive me but it reminded me a little of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney).
You’ll find this pretty square in the lower end of the French Quarter, steps from the river – and if you’re an art lover looking for an original piece, it’s here that you will find something you’re bound to like, for a reasonable price.
Louis Armstrong Park, about six blocks North on Rampart Street, is also worth a visit. There’s a clue in the title: this 32 acre park honours the jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Inside the park are numerous sculptures depicting jazz music, a large duck pond and Congo Square – once a meeting place for slaves in the 1800s. At night, you will see the arched entrance lit up for miles.
Tip: Like any city, New Orleans has a lot of homeless folk and pickpockets – so be careful in parks, especially at night.
10. Ride the streetcars through the Garden District and beyond.
Walking around New Orleans is great if you want to make sure you take it all in (I even managed to clock up 32,000 steps in a day!). However, there will be times when your feet say no, or the heat gets too much and you want to get to places without too much effort. The old-fashioned street cars operate across four lines, starting in the French Quarter and Canal Street areas (downtown) and cost just $3 per rider for an all day ‘jazzy pass’ – bargain!
Seeing outside of downtown NOLA is a must, provided you have enough time. The Garden District and Magazine Street will give you that break from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter for a while, with boutique hotels, cosy cafes and impressive mansion houses to look at. Go in October like us and you will be sure to see many a dressed up house for Halloween too!
Of course, there’s nothing stopping you seeing this part of town on foot but a word to the wise: don’t venture too far out in flip flops like I stupidly did – your feet will not thank you for days after! Plus, at $3 to ride the streetcar as much as you want for the day, why not use them as a cheap alternative to the ‘hop on hop off bus’?
Tip: Like any public transport in any big city, be vigilant when riding the street cars. They attract all manner of folk so don’t be surprised to find a man with a chicken on his shoulder jump aboard or a clown hitch a lift. But don’t let that put you off…..
I hope you found that blog useful for your forthcoming trip? Let me know by commenting below!
Oh, and don’t forget to take a look at my review of the Andrew Jackson hotel before you book your accommodation!