New Orleans has a raucous reputation, but the effervescent and resilient city built above swampland on the banks of the Mississippi stacks up strong against any of the most historic cities in the States. Get your culture fix, then let the good times roll in the Big Easy, where the sazeracs are strong and the beignets are sweet.
When in New Orleans
There are some things that you just have to do here. You have to experience the French Quarter, which for all its crowds and tacky souvenir shops, still retains its title and appeal as the heart of the the city. Here, Bourbon Street leaves you as intoxicated with its atmosphere as it does with its daiquiris; remember to look up between bars at the ornate iron balconies belying the storied interiors beyond. Take a walk through Jackson Square and get sticky with sweet beignets from the admittedly touristy but absolutely unmissable Café Du Monde. Have your fortune told in the French Market or dabble in the dark arts at the Historic Voodoo Museum. Window shop for high-end antiques you can’t possibly fit in your case, making do with a print from one of the many art galleries that line Royal Street instead. New Orleans without the French Quarter or ‘Vieux Carré’ is no New Orleans at all.
Beyond the ‘Vieux Carré’ is where the city’s personality starts to reveal itself, inch by inch. Clattering past grand mansions on the leafy streets of suburbia, the St. Charles streetcar to Uptown is an activity in itself. Your destination is the Garden District, specifically Audubon Park, a former sugar plantation bought by the city and redeveloped to become a sanctuary of green space. Spanish moss hangs poetically from age-old oaks that could tell a thousand stories and lagoons are alive with egrets and herons. It’s the perfect place to walk off that po’boy sandwich, before beating a path down Magazine Street for a visit to the Audubon Zoo.
The Garden District is an outdoorsy escape from the hustle and bustle of the city proper, but the real adventures await along the bayou, under the shade of cypress trees that provide a dappled disguise for the alligators and snakes in the swamps below. Knowing what lies beneath makes you hold onto the handrails of your airboat just that little bit tighter, a cocktail of fear and adrenaline reaching a crescendo the first time you meet the gaze of a reptile that would eat you for dinner and come back for dessert.
Perhaps one of New Orleans’ most underrated attractions is the National World War II Museum, a world-class complex that tells ‘the story of the war that changed the world’ from a maze of modern buildings sprawled across the Warehouse District. Touching and poignant, with personal stories that give a new perspective on the events, you’d be a fool to miss it.
Finally, there may be an element of ‘Dark Tourist’ in suggestions to visit a cemetery, but bear with us. Underlying swamp waters means burials here must be above ground, resulting in seven ‘Cities of the Dead’ including two of the best known, Lafayette Cemetery Number One and the busier St Louis Cemetery Number One. The latter is said to contain an X-marked tomb belonging to Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, along with a lavish marble pyramid destined for Nicolas Cage (don’t worry, he knows…)
If there is one thing New Orleans doesn’t do well, it’s diets. The food is so good here that you won’t want to waste a single meal on the wrong restaurant; fortunately, it’s almost as hard to find one of those as it is to find a salad in a sea of sugary beignets and soul food.
There are few places so good that locals are willing to join tourists in a queue that can tend to snake around the block, but Café Du Monde is one of them. Arguably one of the most famous of all NOLA eateries, its legendary beignets are worth every single calorie that comes with doughy, deep fried delights like these tend to. Warm, dusted in an icing sugar snow and served with creamy café au lait, they’re the best way to start or end a day, bar none.
If there’s a snack that sums up the New Orleans attitude to happy and easy, it’s the po’boy. This unassuming signature sandwich sees buttermilk fried seafood or folds of rich roast beef spilling out of French bread in a manner that makes it impossible to eat gracefully. Grab one from Johnny’s Po-Boys and eat it overlooking the Mississippi River or go gourmet at Killer Po’Boys, where French chef Camille Boudreaux puts a sophisticated twist on the traditional with more elaborate ingredients like black-eyed pea and pecan spread in amongst your ‘fixins’.
If your time in New Orleans sees you in the Garden District, as it should, it only makes sense to sample a real institution of the New Orleans food scene while you’re there. Commander’s Palace is king when it comes to classic Creole cuisine like pecan-crusted gulf fish, but we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re here for the Martinis, which cost, wait for it, 19p each at lunchtime.
Later on, if your dinner isn’t followed by live music, you’re doing New Orleans all wrong. Three Muses takes the concept of tapas, marries it with Louisiana flavours and backs it up with a soundtrack of jazz ensembles that means the place is swinging at any hour.
It isn’t often you can chalk a tipple down to being enjoyed in the name of ‘historical significance’ but you can at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar, purportedly the oldest bar in America. You’ll find it on the ever-busy Bourbon Street.
Now, we aren’t ones to denounce an icon like Bourbon Street’s appeal, but as the line at the bar gets longer, those in the know are relocating across town to Frenchmen Street for a more authentic taste of Southern hospitality with their Sazeracs. Go where the music takes you; there’s a good time to be had at any of the many music venues and bars here, though the Blue Nile and the Spotted Cat are two favourites.
If true happiness to you is live music in a courtyard strung with festoon lights, the wine flowing and the cheese seemingly never-ending, Bacchanal Wine has your name written all over it.
And if there is one rule to remember after a night on the town in New Orleans, it is this: remember your water before bed.