New Orleans is a city that can’t contain itself. You see it in the music that spills out into the street, in the tree roots heaving up slabs of asphalt in the Garden District, and in the rhythms, carried on the air that set people dancing.
That’s the kind of joie de vivre that permeates the city, where the rhythm of life carries residents and visitors from one celebration to another throughout the year.
It’s not just the famous (or infamous, depending on your take) Mardi Gras, but festivals devoted to gumbo, the creole tomato, the oyster, and cocktails. There’s the Running of the Bulls (just substitute derby girls for angry bulls) and the Red Dress Run (where runners don red dresses) and, coming up soon, the Running of the Santas. Any excuse for fun will do.
You can meander through the streets with a drink in hand, unlike anywhere else in the country. Leave a drink unfinished, even at an upscale spot like Tableau as I did, and you’ll be offered a to-go cup. It can be a little surprising for those who are only used to seeing a disposable cup hold caffeinated stuff. I demurred but the bartender was insistent. “City rules,” he told me as he sent me into the dusky evening with a bordeaux-filled paper cup.
Never mind that I lacked the grace of a native and ended up spilling it over my legs and shoes. To make it work, slow down and relax.
Many cocktails were born in New Orleans, such as the Sazerac (America’s first cocktail, in the 1830s), the Ramos Gin Fizz, the flaming, boozy Café Brûlot, and the Hurricane. In some cases you can even have them in the original spot.
If you like your history with a glass of whiskey with tales of intrigue, there’s no better way to get to know the historic French Quarter than by putting yourself in the hands of drinks historian Elizabeth Pearce, who leads cocktail tours through the Quarter (see her recommendations for where to drink).
There’s plenty of food to go with the imbibing, and what food it is. The cuisines you find here, you can’t find anywhere else in America together in such jostling abundance: Creole, Cajun (from the French Acadians who found refuge here), Africans, Spanish, Germans, and also waves of Italian immigrants (such as the wonderful snoballs at Hansen’s Sno-Bliz) and Vietnamese immigrants.
There are establishments that have existed since nearly the dawn of time (in terms of American history) such as Antoine’s, which dates back to 1840; the Friday lunch at Galatoire is legendary. By the way, as a rule don’t even try to reach anyone on work business after 3 p.m. on Fridays.
Seafood, given the proximity to the Gulf, is king here: oysters, whether charbroiled, Rockefeller, or fried for a cascade of golden goodness in po’ boys; BBQ shrimp (which is not even barbecued but rather served saucy); the crab and crawfish beignets; and so much more.
The pig too has been made good use of here, with the German heritage of charcuterie. Chef Donald Link over the years has put forward Cajun cooking—at his casual restaurant Cochon Butcher in the Warehouse District, a butcher shop/restaurant/wine bar, the meaty goodness is all made by hand. Terrines, sausages, rillettes, head cheese, lardo, andouille—it’s all here.
Whatever you do, don’t miss the hot boudin—speckled with rice throughout, it has an extraordinary texture. The best muffaletta in town may well be here—a giant sandwichfest of ham, salami, mortadella, and provolone, served with crunchy chow chow pickles with the perfect balance of sweetness and sourness. It was a sandwich I carried back to New York for my family.
Even the pralines here get a dose of porky goodness—you can grab some bacon pralines on your way out.
When all the heavy meals have got you down, head over to Meauxbar, run by owner and executive chef Kristen Essig. The cooking is French-based and the menu is seasonal, taking advantage of the incredible seafood in the Gulf region.
Essig was the market manager at the Crescent City Farmers Market in 2012. The Escargot in Bone is an unforgettable experience—escargots are cooked with marrow and vermouth, and the finishing touch is a shot of Herbsaint poured into the bone.
The Louisiana Gulf Fish Amandine (made with fresh-caught drum when I was there) is out of this world.
Most visitors who come to New Orleans never venture beyond the French Quarter. Fair enough: There’s a lot there to see. But take the time to wander and you’ll find some treasures that New Orleanians have mostly kept to themselves.
From the French Quarter it is a short trip to Frenchmen Street, in the Faubourg Marigny, the pulsing epicenter of New Orleans music. Frenchmen Street is full of music clubs, but music spills out onto the sidewalks, with solo musicians or bands performing on their street. Only a few seconds walk between spots puts you within earshot of different strains of jazz or blues, sometimes rocking, sometimes more doleful.
Some of the popular acts will start well after the tourists have gone to bed so locals have a chance to listen to their favorite musicians without tourists around. It is well worth fortifying yourself to catch a midnight show. Popular spots include d.b.a., Vaughn’s, Candle Light Lounge, and Le Bon Temps Thursday.
Some neighborhoods are further out but worth making the trip to. City Park, with its venerable ancient oaks, is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art.
It also happens to be home to Morning Call Coffee Stand. Every tourist flocks to Café du Monde, but Morning Call, which has been around since 1870, churns out the freshest beignets. Everyone has been there for years, if not decades, and the waiters are like benevolent uncles.
Close by, Parkway Bakery and Tavern churns out some of the best po’ boys in town, replete with variations like Hot Roast Beef With Gravy, Fried Oysters, or for the best of land and sea, the Parkway Surf and Turf, with roast beef and golden shrimp, all covered in gravy. Even POTUS has stopped by here for these sandwiches.
Yes, you could hail Uber or a cab, but the speed of this town demands a slower way to get around.
The folks over at the family-owned Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours, based in the French Quarter, live and breathe New Orleans. They can trace back their genealogy in the city for hundreds of years. Their arsenal includes sturdy American-made cruiser bicycles, which can comfortably take you on the city’s sometimes very bumpy roads, and their tours are superlative—entertaining and educational.
Among many destinations, they’ll take you through Tremé, the country’s oldest black neighborhood—little of which was actually featured in the HBO series of the same name. Tours take you through the city’s varied neighborhoods, including well-known ones such the Garden District, lush with gardens and mansions, as well as lesser known ones.
If you want to go your own way, you have the option of renting a bike.
For dinner in Tremé, check out the speakeasy supper club The PDR NOLA. The chef, Rita Bernhardt, worked at John Besh’s August before striking out with partner William Barial. They offer a five-course prix fixe in an intimate setting. Bernardt has a gift for combining flavors that beckon you to sit down and savor every single bite. Alternatively, it’s worth checking out their space at the recently opened St. Roch’s Market, a collective of food entrepreneurs. The vegan Charred Eggplant, with crispy Louisiana rice, roasted pepper sauce, and various veggies at their peak of ripeness was among the best dishes I experienced in New Orleans.
You could call The Bywater artsy, edgy, eclectic, hipster. It’s long been a working-class neighborhood but with many spaces exhibiting visual and performance art as well as artisan crafts, and many bars and restaurants—it is a destination of its own.
A night at Bacchanal feels like a secret (though it isn’t). When you enter, pick a bottle from the store, and head out to the illuminated backyard, where musicians take the stage every night.
The Warehouse Arts District & the Central Business District
The Warehouse Arts District and the Central Business District (CBD) teem with art galleries and larger museums such as the National World War II Museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.
Only steps away from the bustle of the French Quarter, it makes for a calmer but still central home base. A pet-friendly place to stay is The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, which opened in the spring. It is light and airy, with rustic details from the building’s past as a warehouse.
A bonus of staying there is the restaurant downstairs, Compère Lapin (French for “brother rabbit” and a mischievous character in Caribbean and Creole folk tales), helmed by chef Nina Compton who hails from St Lucia. Her cuisine reflects a meeting of New Orleans and the Caribbean, with an Italian influence.
For brunch in the neighborhood, head to Willa Jean, the latest of chef John Besh’s restaurants. The pastries and breads are phenomenal, and the Southern-accented menu—think hanger steak and cheese grits, or corn and crab fritters—is a delight. The biscuit, golden, and seemingly made of endless golden, flaky layers, is worth the trip alone. Pair it with either butter and jam or fried chicken, and voilà, brunch heaven.
Joie de Vivre
“Laissez les bon temps rouler” is a Cajun expression for “Let the good times roll.” It encapsulates a contagious spirit: a joie de vivre that extends from locals to visitors. The hospitality is generous, the drinks plentiful, the food abundant. Just be ready if you go: you might need a vacation to recover from your vacation.
For more information, see www.neworleanscvb.com
IF YOU GO:
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
942 North Rampart Street, NW
New Orleans, LA 70116
4801 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70115
Frenchmen Art Market
619 Frenchmen St. (next to The Spotted Cat)
New Orleans, LA 70119
Morning Call Coffee Stand
City Park Casino
Parkway Bakery and Tavern
538 Hagan Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70119
Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours
325 Burgundy St.
New Orleans, LA 70112
The PDR NOLA
600 Poland Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70117
The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery
535 Tchoupitoulas St.
New Orleans, LA 70130
611 O’Keefe Ave.
New Orleans, LA 70113