The Big Easy. The Crescent City. NOLA. All names for the same awesome city. New Orleans.
The city has always been one of my favorite places to visit in the US. It’s filled with culture, life, music, and some the most delicious food the Americas have to offer.
When I was a kid, I remember having to ride long hours with my parents from Oklahoma down to South Louisiana to visit my family. I hated the long drive, I hated the stifling heat, the choking humidity, and, what for a fat kid, seemed like absolutely nothing to do.
But as I grew older, I began to appreciate it all that much more. The memories of the treacherous car rides have since turned into idyllic travels listening to music with my dad. What was once nothing to do, now seems like hours spent listening to the weird odes of my old cigar-smoking grandfather, with Louis Armstrong spinning on the vinyl. Our perceptions evolve as we grow older, and even the worse times can sometimes seem good in memory.
a street in NOLA
The Crescent City is one of the most historical cities in the US, with all its old town architecture still intact. In this sense, it’s one of the few major US cities to even have an area that can truly be called an “old town.” Founded at the beginning of the 18th century by the French Mississippi Colony, it was lost to the Spanish after the French and Indian War (the 7 Years War for Europeans, or as I’ve always liked to call it, World War 1/2) ended with the Treaty of Paris.
It came back to French rule until Napoleon, strapped for cash while fighting the British, sold it off to President Jefferson for nickels on the dollar, including much of the middle of North America which had been only markedly explored and was already inhabited by people who weren't even aware of the cash transfer. Land exploration back then was thus a lot like oil exploration these days.
Bourbon Street, proving New Orleans is still wild
New Orleans was a wild place, with lots of not only pirates, prostitutes, ne'er do wells, and slave traders, but also freed men, musicians, and skilled craftsmen. Most famous of the pirates were the Brothers Lafitte, who helped Andrew Jackson protect the city from the British during the War of 1812. The Battle of New Orleans was the only battle the US won in the only war which saw DC burn to the ground.
I won't lie. New Orleans can be dangerous. All my family warned us of this over and over. But it's like any city. Stay in the touristic areas--which means, for the Big Easy, the French Quarters, Marigny, downtown, and the Garden District, and don't go off hustling for drugs or prostitutes, and most certainly don't go down any alleys hunting down no Madame LaLaurie expecting for some kind of divination into your future affairs. Don't do any of that and you'll be fine. Also, that "voodoo mama" that tells you you can sleep off the mescaline on her couch is definitely going to steal all your cash and leave you to Jonny LeNonbon.
The French Quarters
This is the premium district of New Orleans. It’s possible to never leave this area and still be completely happy with your visit. That’s how I managed this last trip with my parents and wife. I don’t mind venturing to the seedier turf myself, but I know my parents aren’t so keen on it.
Looking down Chartres, towards the cathedral
Any visit starts with Jackson Square and drinks in any of the bars around. There are always painters on the street at work or selling, professional musicians on the benches jamming out on their down time, and Tarot card readers ready to make some stuff up with their magic cards. There’s a really affordable place with cheap cocktails that opens right onto the square, Café Pontalba, where you can enjoy all that atmosphere under a fan with a giant weirldy named cold daiquiri like Angry Pirate or Mama's Toothache.
your fortune is waiting to get read... and waiting... and waiting
Then just walk around for a bit and soak in the beautiful French and Spanish colonial architecture. Supposedly Paris looked more like the French Quarters does until Napoleon III knocked down most of the neighborhoods in favor of large boulevards (supposedly because it’s harder to block a boulevard with a protest and furniture blockade ala Les Miserables).
Mixed drinks are definitely the flavor in New Orleans, so abandon any preference for beer you might have. There are some microbreweries starting up around South Louisiana, but in general they all just taste like watered down versions of what they’re supposed to be. So if you’ve got time and you don't believe me, you can check them out for yourself while listening to some live jazz (though where in New Orleans can you NOT see live music?) at the Crescent City Brewhouse.
the horny gator at Tropical Isle
Bourbon Street is the evening mainstay of the Quarters, lined with bars all having their own live bands, with the parties always flooding out on the streets. Women often run around collecting bead necklaces by showing their boobs (I’m not sure why, but I won’t complain) and it’s generally just all non-stop crazy. Most bars open around two in the afternoon with the first bands coming on, and the street is the easy recipe for the 24-hour drunks that stumble around the town, one reason that earned the town's nickname as the Big Easy.
Start off at the insanely cheesy Pat O’Briens, in operation since 1933, where you can get your street-ready hurricane—a rum filled fruit cocktail that’s usually a slushy—and witness their famous flaming fountain. The interior courtyard is honestly a pretty relaxing spot, the tourist drink isn’t even overpriced, and the whole complex contains four or five different bars, including a dueling piano bar playing all your favorite Top 40s.
that fountain is lit
Then onto Bourbon Street itself there’s the Tropical Isle chain of bars, each with their own musical theme--none of them tropical--and all famous for their hand grenades, a lemony slushy rum drink that’s served in a plastic grenade. Two of their bars do zydeco, another rock, and another blues, and you can bring the drinks you bought in one of the bars to the others. Out of their bars, I found the Funky Pirate Blues Club to both have a top notch musical lineup and a great bartender with full knowledge of sazeracs, a New Orleans rye cocktail mixed with bitters and absinthe.
also served are hand grenades
Another club of note that we hit up was BB King’s Blues Club, where they serve a solid cocktail list and have nightly live music, though their blues tends to be on the pop-side of a major scale, as one might tell from the owner’s name. It’s near the French Market, so a little less touristic, but pop neanmoins.
For walking around, make sure to peak inside St. Louis Cathedral, a really beautiful 19th century Catholic cathedral, and on to the Old Ursuline Convent, which dating 1745 makes it the oldest building in NOLA.
St. Louis Cathedral
What to Eat
The Quarters, like most of the city, smells of fish. Fresh fish, blackened fish, fried fish, smoked fish, rotten fish. This is a reality that will always exist in New Orleans. When you’re there, you know you’re in a place of seafood. The food is outright.
The Quarters though might not have the best food available in New Orleans, as a lot of the spice and seasoning that Cajun and Creole food are famous for have been toned down for tourists. But there are spots that are still pretty rocking. I really enjoyed the poboys and gumbo at Napoleon House (a 1940's hole known for its gin Pimm's Cup mix) on Chartres and St. Louis. A poboy is a type of sandwich on a baguette usually stuffed with some seafood component, like shrimp, crawfish, or gator. If you feel like a walk, head over to Mulate’s Original Cajun Restaurant next to the Convention Center on Julia, which probably serves the best hands down gumbo in New Orleans, and is a one hundred percent Cajun place, complete with zydeco music in the evenings.
The Napoleon House
For breakfast, the choice is clear. You’ve got to hit up Café du Monde for an order of beignets, or French donuts served with lots of powdered sugar and no holes. It’s an outdoor café, is always packed, there’s always a street band belting out Louis Armstrong songs, and they only serve beignets and coffee, so don’t be picky. Another breakfast I thoroughly enjoyed, a crawfish eggs benedict, was dished out at the Royal House on St. Louis and Royal. But really, it’s not hard to find good food in New Orleans, just go anywhere.
Where to Souvenir
New Orleans is full of really fun souvenirs. By which I mean voodoo dolls and Saints' gear. If you want to find the cheapest and widest selection of souvenirs all in one spot, then head to the French Market. It's an outdoor market along the riverside with nearly a hundred vendors selling crafts, home-printed shirts, and Chinese-made goodies alike. It's great location means you can hit it right after eating some beignets, and then enjoy a hurricane while listening to some more great outdoor blues or jazz music at another outdoor patio café right next door.
the French Market
Where to Stay
I've been to NOLA half a dozen times at least, and I must say, my continual favorite place to stay is Le Richelieu. This is mainly for their insanely awesome customer service. They once screwed up our order and sent me and two friends to the penthouse suite, complete with a private sauna. Never mind that New Orleans IS a sauna--a dirty, smelly, public sauna--but it was sweet nevertheless.
Last we stayed was Hotel Provincial, which as an old hospital and possibly haunted spot, definitely gives Le Richelieu a run for its money. In seriousness though, it's got a pretty relaxing pool and great staff as well.
Disclaimer: this article does include affiliate links (the two hotels). So use those links when you book. Here's our policy.