Image courtesy of Brandon.N via Flickr.com
Recently, while exploring New Orleans (NOLA) for the first time, I posted pictures from the trip on my Facebook and said in the caption,”New Orleans!”
To which a friend replied, “You went to New Orleans? What do you think? Went for my 50th. Nice buildings, but kind of a sleeze city.”
At first, still caught up in the rapture of new-to-me NOLA, I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. NOLA has a big—and not undeserved—reputation as a lively party city, with Bourbon Street as almost everyone’s go-to point of reference. Founded as a port city; used as a byway, a hide out for pirates, and a prime destination for brothel enthusiasts, New Orleans to this day has a colored identity. But, out of their checkered past has arisen a vibrant, eclectic, culture rich community. NOLA brims with natives and transplants who are eager to make a quick buck as well as a life-long friend. As a tourist, you do get what you pay for, but you also take away as much as you put in. If you have no interest in imbibing the genuine soul of a city, what it is and not what you want it to be, then you are probably going to have a mediocre time.
After I gathered my words and swallowed hers with a grain of salt, I responded, “Yeah, I really love NOLA. There’s so much to see, IDK how we are gonna get it all in. The food is amazing. We are going to some jazz clubs soon and the people are so interesting!”
I spoke my truth as she spoke hers. But, as I am a tourist and travel writer, maybe the issue is that I feel compelled to see beneath the metaphorical surface of a location before I pass judgment. NOLA is a town in constant recovery. They need all the tourism they can get. It would be a grave injustice for me or anyone to speak half-truths on their behalf, especially to prospect visitors or possible new residents.
So, after a week of immersing myself in the culture—as much as one can immerse themselves without buying a shot-gun style home, braving hurricanes, and getting a job at a local restaurant to really live the local night life—I decided to write this blog, sharing my experiences as well as ten destinations others may enjoy.
Below is a quick list of things you should totally check when you visit New Orleans. If you want to jump to a specific, detailed section, just click on it.
- Charted City Tour
- Swamp Tour
- Ghost Tour
- Prose and Poetry on the Go
- French Market
- Take the Ferry and Enjoy a Bloody Mary Riverside
- Churches as well as History and Art Museums
- Eat and Make a Friend
Charted City Tours
When we went to NOLA, we did the whole tourist thing backwards. First we tried to explore, and then we took a guided tour. Ugh, the things we missed out on.
The problem was, I am used to traveling with family and friends who are well-acquainted with the destinations I visit. So, I just let them show me around. This time, my friend and I thought, “we’ve traveled before and know how to explore a city. Also, we have some site suggestions from friends. We don’t need a tour. That’s for lazy tourists.” WRONG.
We spent the first four days of out trip eating our and walking the French Quarter. Half of that time was spent in the hotel, researching where to eat, what to see, and what to do. We were winging it and thought we were doing a great job. Midafternoon on our fourth day, we walked down Canal Street, just west of the Pinkberry yogurt shop, and saw a big orange sign with black letters that read, “TICKETS. City Tours. Plantation Tours.” It was the mention of plantation tours that got me to stop. We did not want to pay the exorbitant cost of a plantation bus tour, but were open to the nominal fee paid if we drove ourselves. This corner-side business had the brochures we needed to settle on a specific plantation tour just sitting outside their walk up window. The trap had been set. We took the bait.
As we stood, looking at the three-paneled, full-color brochures, a middle-aged man in a bright red shirt sat in the tour company’s walk-up window, watching us for a minute.
“So, you guys looking to take a tour?” He called out.
I didn’t want to be rude, so my friend and I walked over. We asked him a few questions about the plantation tours. Then, we explained we did not have the funds to pay $50+ per person for a bus tour. We had my Prius, so we would just drive.
“I understand,” he continued, “but you really should take a city tour. We take you throughout the city. We drive you to Tremé, the place where NOLA jazz culture was born. And, we take you to my favorite café, which is much better than Café Du Monde.” This last claim was too much for us to ignore…a café that was better than Café Du Monde? No. Café Du Monde is famous for a reason, right…
We demurred for as long as we could, but ultimately he won. It would be nice to actually learn the history of the sites we saw from a professional, anyways. With the nominal fees paid, we were set to come back the next morning to meet our guide.
The driver of our bus tour turned out to be a retired high school history teacher. His jokes were clean but funny. In between each factoid shared, he took every opportunity to remind us that he was a proud member of the NOLA creole community. It was great.
The tour lasted about two hours. As he drove, he regaled us with the diverse origins of each district’s oldest architecture; particularly pointing out the attached, inconspicuous slave quarters that were unique to the French and vastly different from those built by the Americans. He showed us parts of the town that had been completely devastated by Katrina, submerged for days, weeks even. Then, he somberly relayed the tragic tale behind the white “x”s marked on various boarded up windows and doors.
“In some of these houses,” he said, “there was no way escape once the water rose past the doors and the windows, because these people did not have attic or roof windows. When the rescue teams came in their boats and their canoes, they had to use axes to chop through the roof. Those rescuers hoped that if they did discover inhabitants, those residents would still be among the living. The “x”s,” he paused, then continued “mean the rescuers and the residents were not that lucky.”
We were driven to NOLA’s beautiful City Park, which had been completely waterlogged by Hurricane Katrina and then masterfully resurrected. The driver pulled up to Morning Call Café, parked, and told us to take fifteen minutes to explore. Before we exited, he directed our attention to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, which sat parallel to the café.
Though I was loathed to admit it, the man at the window had been right: the beignets and coffee at Morning Call Café were better than those we had enjoyed earlier at Café Du Monde. They were lighter and less chewy and still glistened from the hot oil.
From there, we were driven through an old cemetery. Our guide exhibited different tomb styles, the resting places of famous NOLA citizens, and even the plot where Ann Rice plans to be buried. Again, we were let off the bus to explore.
I could continue describing the tour, but I should leave something for you to experience yourself.
Overall, at the end of this tour, my friend and I were severely disappointed that we had not taken this tour on day one.
The second tour we took was a swamp boat tour throughout the Honey Island Swamp. This was my favorite tour. Alligators eating marshmallows and tiny hot dogs. Botany lessons. Bird sightings. Raccoons that would brave alligator infested swamps for a marshmallow! One woman on the tour agreed with me that if we could, we would take one of those wily little raccoons home with us to keep. My friend said that where she lives, people catch and raise raccoons as pets. Maybe on my next visit to the swamp I will come home with a friend for my dog.
The tour guide—a red-haired, blue-eyed, fair-skinned man—was one of the nicest people I have ever met, and refreshingly sensitive to the needs of each tour guest. Case and point, when the tour guide stalled the boat to feed an alligator or two, the little boy behind me would cry “I can’t see!” He and his parents were on the side of the boat opposite of where the gators were being fed, which meant that he had a limited sight line. So, only after hearing that little boy’s squeals of childish glee would the guide stop tossing hot dogs, and then move us further down stream.
When asked if there were only three alligators in that bend of the swamp (because that was all we saw), our guide said, “No.” He elaborated, “the weather is entering the fall and winter seasons. This means the gators are growing less and less visible because they’re preparing to hibernate. The best time to see a frenzy of alligators in the water is spring and summer. The water is warmer then and the gators like sunning.”
That day we saw two seven or eight foot alligators swimming alongside the boat; one larger, older alligator sunning himself in the weeds; and, a baby alligator, who was maybe a foot long and couldn’t catch a marshmallow to save his life. When he missed the tossed marshmallow bit, it got stuck on the crown of his head like a ball on the nose of a seal. The woman, again, leaned towards me and we agreed we would take him home too.
Pause a moment and meditate this: while sitting in the boat, taking in the scenery because the alligators have sunk back under the wakes, the beauty of the swamp seizes you. The lush, green environment strikes a-typical against the concrete jungle of New Orleans and every other urban city. The sky, overcast with bluish-gray clouds, threatens a light rain. The towering cypress trees drip with Spanish moss and lean towards you, like sirens lulling you closer, enticing you to explore their wild terrain. The tour guide moves the boat further down-stream, talking about coral-colored snail eggs seen stuck to the base of partially-submerged tree trunks.
“We don’t know what brought these snails to the Honey Island Swamps. They’re not native, you know. After they hatch, they grow as big as the snails people eat and they’re damaging to the ecosystem.”
All through the trip, he answers questions about what edible plants grow in this environment. He points out arrow root and celery; wild rice that “when it’s ready, you just have to shake the stocks and watch the grains fall,” he says, smiling. Then he points to a dry, brown patch of rice plants to your left. “Those have already lost their grains; but, if you look around, you can still see bright green stocks ready for harvesting.”
He steers the boat close to a tree on your left and asks if you know those dark green, water-drop shaped leaves. Surprise! It’s bay leaf. One of your favorite spices.
There are wild boar in the swamp too, fat and tusked, that have feasted solely on organic flora. Your mouth waters like it would for wagu beef or grass-fed bison. In other words, those boar could make a delicious meal, should someone try to live off the land. When he tells you about the French snails, you think, “why not, they’re protein.”
You’re utterly lost in visions of swamp living, which isn’t as bad as you thought. You forget about the alligators. You forget about working your way up the corporate ladder because that’s what’s expected; because you have people counting on you and bills to pay. You want to machete your way through the tall grass to find a place just for you, a secret spot with a clear view of the yellow and purple water hyacinth floating at the water’s edge.
An egret or a brown pelican cries out several feet away, and the young blond boy behind you yells, again, “I can’t see!” Reality come crashing back in, hard.
That is the swamp experience. Or at least, that was my experience.
The walking ghost tour we took through the Gray Line Tour company was a spectral delight. We were led by Todd, a government official by day and ghost enthusiast by night, teeming with a clear passion for sinister history. Not only did we traverse the city under a full moon’s light, listening to documented stories of death and murder, but we did so with a full glass of craft beer in hand.
Like our guide for the swamp tour, Todd amiably and enthusiastically answered every question pitched him. At one point in the evening, another group of tourists got rowdy next to us and their guide tried to speak over Todd. Kindly, Todd reminded the other guide that we had been in that spot first; and, per NOLA regulations, that guide and his group needed to move on. I guess there is a certain regulated distance each tour guide and correlated group must keep between others. Yeah! Go Todd.
We wove in and out of old buildings, discussing spirits and appreciating that certain things about NOLA were definitely creepy. At our last stop, Todd told the story of a young creole woman named Henriette DeLille. She was the founder of Louisiana’s first African-American, free women’s Catholic Order, Sisters of the Holy Family. She dedicated her life to supporting the poor and elderly of New Orleans. Todd suggested that even in death her spirit remains devout to this city, still stalking the halls of the Hotel Maison de Ville, a building converted specifically for her from a grand dance hall into a convent and old folks home. The story did not startle me as much as the fact that I had heard about Henriette DeLille for the first time that morning, on the way into the city. A local news host and her guest discussed the life achievements of Sister DeLille and her possible upcoming canonization. Coincidence? I think not. WOOO! Spooky!
There is not much to say here except: if you go to New Orleans, you MUST stuff your face with as many beignets as you can get your hands on, unless, like me, you’re pre-diabetic or have a medical condition that restricts your sugar or gluten intake…then, maybe just one or two. Whatever is the right amount for you…I was bad and ate like five. I have poor self-control. What can I say?
But, seriously, these are a NOLA breakfast staple left over from when Louisiana was under French rule. They are puffy, doughy, powder-sugar heavy wisps of heaven. They are whimsy in your mouth. Paired with a cup of Café au lait, these small treats will have you set for a whole day of exploring.
When in the French Quarter, you should stop by Café Du Monde for your beignet fix. It’s a little hard to find, but you’ll get there. You will see the line of hungry patrons long before you see the venue itself. Try for a table inside, though the wait could be 30 minutes or more. It’s worth the wait to see the old decor and hung photos of the original building. This is known as the place for beignets in New Orleans.
With that in mind, as I mentioned above in the City Tour section, I actually enjoyed more the beignets and lack of wait time at Morning Call Café in City Park. MMM. So good. When you’re done eating, stroll the park grounds or seek introspection in the statue garden.
Morning Call at City Park is the less congested option for a full day of family fun.
Image I took of the jazz band Smoke ‘n Bones, playing at 30° x 90° night club
Jazz is the voice of this weathered city. It is the slow-escaping, woebegone moan of a broken man or forsaken woman, struggling under the crushing weight of an unjust world. It is the sanguine laugh of a person unafraid to live passionately. Jazz is consuming, and tethers together tourist, transplant, and native so that while they listen, they are one. When paired with a dirty gin martini or a well-balanced Old Fashioned, jazz is kinetic magic.
Do not leave NOLA without visiting Frenchmen’s Street. If you have little ones in tow, you can go during the day. If this was an adults only trip, you can go at night when the entire street vibrates with life.
When you do finally reach Frenchmen’s Street—actually, this should be everyone’s NOLA point of reference before Bourbon Street— if you go at night, things get hoppin’ around 8 PM. Week night or weekend, the street remains packed with people. Parking is rough. Take an Uber, if possible.
I suggest popping in to at least one of the five bars below. Also, don’t stay just in one place!!!
The Maison– This was my second favorite bar but first mention because 1) they made a perfect up, gin martini, shaken and dirty (my go to), and 2) because the band was so good I bought their CD. I still listen to it when I’m driving. This place is decked out in old wood and has an extremely open floor plan, with the band and crowd in front and tables to chat in back.
Vaso LLC-This was my first favorite bar because the band embodied what I pictured as a New Orleans jazz. The lead singer was sultry, funny, and interacted with the audience. The music was loud, but not so loud it caused eardrum damage; the menu looked like a foodie’s dream, my dream. As I fell in love, I looked around for a place to sit and found nothing. The venue was packed to its limits. Had I not been starving, maybe I would’ve ordered a drink; however, even the bar was standing room only. I didn’t feel like pushing through that crowd. If you go here, this is the place you should go to early.
30° x 90°-The waitress here was rude and completely soured my experienced. This bar was crowd filled too. So I could forgive her service times being way off; but, when she did come to our table—after I had to ask the bouncer to flag her down—she was just plain rude and kept trying to rush us out. We had a high bill. We ordered apps and drinks and told her we planned to order meals, but maybe she thought two young people would not tip her well and she wanted to turn the table. I have been there, afraid of campers. She was severely wrong and missed all my cues that we were the kind of customers she wanted.
If it had not been for the superb band, the great atmosphere, and the excellent food—truly, I have never had crocodile tenders or fried shrimp that were so succulent and savory with an underlying kick—I would not have this venue on my list. They too had a specialty cocktail akin to an old sidecar—an oldie but a goodie —that they made very well. Yes, they dive-bombed on their service levels. Everyone has an off night. Four out of five things done right is still worth a mention in my book. MMM and that remoulade…. ugh… yes, I am hungry now…dang it…
Snug Harbor– This restaurant has high reviews on Google but it closed at 10 PM during the week; it didn’t have a band when we went there; and, compared to other venues we visited on the strip, their menu looked slightly pedestrian. Should you crave good American food with very little flare (e.g. a burger, a piece of fish, or a hearty steak) this is your place. The servers were very nice when they sat us and again when we left for a move lively menu. The atmosphere was mature and quiet enough for an intimate conversation. It was nice.
Blue Nile– I did not personally go in to Blue Nile. Everyone we passed in the street, or people we met while out had great things to say about it, though. From what I hear, they have a solid selection of artists that frequently play on their stage.
Street music- while we were there, we were pleasantly surprised by a group of musicians who rode flashing bikes into the middle of the street, busted out their instruments, and started jamming. It was a New Orleans block party. My friend couldn’t help but wander over to them, trying to dance with the crowd that was quickly forming. Suffice to say, unless you are really trying, you can’t escape jazz on Frenchmen’s Street.
Prose and Poetry on the Go
Man, as a fellow writer, I was so thrilled to see these guys. In almost every tour, the guides spoke of writers and creatives drawn to New Orleans, like Tennessee Williams. They starved and wrote. Barely scraped by and wrote. They lived life and wrote. Every time I passed a vacant flat in a run-down building or a newly renovated condo for rent, I wanted to break my lease and move to New Orleans. It’s the writer’s way! Then appeared these guys, sitting on their plastic crates and wood stools, with their typewriters and their signs and their bohemian lifestyle… #swoon.
I wanted to be them. I didn’t have any cash and vowed to go back, but we never made it. I still want my to-go poem. Since they let me snap a pic, I couldn’t not include them in this list. Please go. You must go. If you do get a poem or piece of spontaneous prose, share it with me in the comments. I would love to read and appreciate their work. They said they set up every night, starting at 8 PM. If you have made it through this post, to this section, I know you too like to read. Plus, what a unique, place appropriate souvenir.
The French Market is a really well-known flea market in New Orleans. It sits at the very end of the French Quarter. It was built originally as the out door market for the town in its infancy. In those early days, vendors sold meat and produce and other vital goods. Now, it is a six block hodgepodge market of artsy things and used knickknacks. Totally my thing. If this is your thing and you like unique souvenirs, not just traditional touristy stuff, check it out. If you visit Café Du Monde, it is on that same street (Decatur Street) but further down (past where Decatur turns into North Peters). You will know you have reached this market when the street starts to curve left, headed for neighborhoods.
If you don’t make it to this market, almost every sidewalk in the French Quarter is a makeshift art gallery or pop-up shop. You cannot go wrong just walking through the park across from Café Du Monde.
Take the Ferry and Enjoy a Bloody Mary Riverside
New Orleans was built around the Mississippi River. It is a major water way still used for commercial and recreational transportation. When you enter the French Quarter, you will inevitably see the river walk-way, which is lined with a mall, the aquarium, a holocaust memorial landmark, and other retail establishments. It also offers access to the Natchez and Creole Queen Steam Boat Tours. In the above picture, you see the Creole Queen. Both offer live music, drinks, and meals. Both are extremely pricey and about an hour to two hour ride. Worth it if you have the time and the funds.
If you are looking for something quick, cheap, but still enjoyable, take a ferry ride. The ferry is primarily used to take residents of Old Algiers and the West Bank into the city for work. Tourists often find their way on to the ferry too, headed toward Old Algiers, the second oldest city in New Orleans. Old Algiers sits high along on the Mississippi River, its elevation enough to protect the city from flooding during Katrina. The homes and buildings there are beautiful and well-preserved.
The ferry ride lasts about 30 minutes one way. When you exit the ferry in to Old Algiers, head to your right, pass the Louis Armstrong statue, and walk straight for the Dry Dock Café. There, you can sit inside or out, watch the game, grab some grub, or have a drink. Again, as long as your alcohol is in a to-go glass, you can exit the establishment with it. We stopped in and purchased two spicy bloody marys. Then, we wandered around until the ferry returned, looking at the coast line, the cathedral, and the old homes. It was a nice, relaxed departure from the constant buzz of the city.
Churches as well as History and Art Museums
Image I took of the St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica behind Jackson Square
Whether you drive into the city or out towards West Bank via the Pontchartrain Expressway, you will notice that you are surrounded by various places of worship. Each building has a different, intriguing architectural design. If you love churches, you could plan an entire day visiting these religious sites. One such place is the St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica, easily walked to from Café Du Monde. According to stlouiscathedral.org, St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica is the oldest Catholic Church in the U.S. You would not guess this because it has been so well maintained.
If you like museums, you have your pick:
Really, you cannot grasp the heart of this city in a weekend visit. It was so straining trying to see everything in a week. Plan you trip well.
Eat and Make a Friend
Last but definitely not least, my absolute FAVORITE part of New Orleans: food and people. You will never go hungry here. Whether you want Creole, French, American, Korean, Vietnamese, Authentic Mexican, Raw Oysters locally harvested, Chinese, Indian, or Italian, you can find it in NOLA. If you look hard enough, you can find the foodie sweet spots. In my next blog, I will list and review a few of my favorites.
The thing is, no matter where you go there will inevitably be people who share similar, if not the same interests as you. Try to make a friend, if you feel comfortable. If you don’t, that is okay too. Sometimes it is safer not to talk to strangers. Yet when you’re out eating or snacking or drinking, you will encounter strangers who can offer an entertaining moment, or an undiscovered destination in the city that could add to your positive experience. Personally, I love picking the brains of my bartenders and servers, as well as the occasional unlucky tourist who sits next to me.
While out in NOLA, grabbing a quick bite to eat, I myself met an especially interesting older gentleman. He was sitting on the curb outside an IHOP near my hotel.
“Hi, can you spare some change for a sandwich? I only need a few more dollars.”
He said he was homeless and hungry. Later, the IHOP manager would tell me that he lives with his mom. Also, that he was down on his luck because he had just gotten out of prison, and was still reintegrating into society. I didn’t have cash, just quarters, about two dollars worth. I pulled them from my pocket and gave them to him for his collection.
Normally, as a female out at night, concerned for my safety in foreign place, I would not have engaged; but the mood struck me to say hi and have a conversation. I am so glad I did.
This man, my friend, and I talked about everything from Cartoon Network to Shakespeare to Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. We acted out impromptu theatrical performances, with IHOP patrons watching through the restaurant windows. He told us he had been in his high school band and missed making music. We talked about life, topically, and enjoyed each other’s company.
At one point that early morning, I told him he was dramatic and reminded me of Othello. I told him I would call him Othello. But, after a few swigs from his can in his paper bag, he said, “that’s too effeminate.”
I offered, “Okay. I will call you Bobthello, to man it up.”
Bob is the plainest, most nondescript name I know that would go well as a prefix to Othello. I liked it. He let me run with it.
We never exchanged our real names. I think I told him to call me Susan or something. That expansive moment, cast in the bright blue buzzing light of IHOP’S neon sign and stars overhead, did not call for mundane formalities.
About an hour or so in, we left our concrete stage to buy him another beer and a few Black and Milds from the gas station next door. The time was edging close to 3 or 4 AM. My friend and I were exhausted. So, the two of us decided it to grab breakfast and head back to the hotel. Where Bobthello would go, we weren’t sure. We didn’t ask.
Before we left Bobthello, we shook his hand and he said, “I won’t be here when you come out of IHOP, but I’m glad you guys stopped to talk with me.”
We sincerely agreed and then left him for pancakes and soda water.
I expected him to be sitting on the curb when we came out, just like I had found him: clad in his black hoodie and blue jeans, ready to recite another line from another early 90’s movie. He was fond of dramas and comedies; however, he was gone, just like he said.
Meeting Bobthello was one of the highlights of my trip.
All in all, I would not recommend putting yourself in danger or talking to random people all the time—the cliché story of “stranger danger” is a real thing, especially in New Orleans… seriously, watch yourself in new places and new cities. But, when you have a good feeling about someone you bump into on your trip, and you’re in a safe public place, maybe say hi and have a conversation.