You should visit New Orleans because, along with perhaps New York, it is that rare city that manages to feel authentic while catering to tourists. It is accessible to the visitor, without being a theme park. It is beautiful and delicious and full of character, without being designed by a committee. And it probably won’t be around that much longer, so you best get there soon.
New Orleans is the kind of place you might end up by accident. It might be for a wedding or a bachelor party. It might be for a conference. Or perhaps you’ve just decided to Huck Finn yourself down the Mississippi. Whatever the reason, leave time to escape the bubble and see the city around you. Chances are good you don’t know much about the history of the city, so a little bit of reading can go a long ways. Take some time to re-familiarize yourself with the circumstances of Katrina as well. We’re more than ten years removed from it now, but “the storm” is still a common part of conversation and the scars it left on the city are hard to miss. AS you walk around, try to cast yourself back to those days in 2006, and wonder that the city has recovered so well.
Escaping the Bubble
The bubble in New Orleans has a name, and its name is The French Quarter. If you’re headed for Bourbon Street, you probably meant to be in Las Vegas. I hear they have drinks you can wear around your neck. The quarter has plenty to appreciate, and there’s nothing wrong with engaging in explicitly touristy things like a ghost tour. Just don’t let that be the end of your experience.
As with most places, escaping the bubble also means being part of the problem. You’re going to want to stay in an Airbnb. And Airbnb makes neighborhoods unaffordable for traditional residents. I have yet to work through the mental gymnastics necessary to hand-wave this away, so instead, let’s acknowledge it and selfishly accept it.
Whether you stay north, west or east of the French Quarter, you can’t go wrong. (Staying south of the French Quarter would be rather wet, so best to avoid that). Tremé (to the north) is home to African-American and Creole culture. Bywater, to the east, is packed with artists. The Garden District, to the west, is full of charming architecture and fancy boutiques. Take your pick.
Take the time to engage in conversations with strangers. New Orleans has a long history of visitors from anywhere, everywhere, and nowhere. People are curious and worldly. Don’t plan your schedule too tightly, and be prepared to pop into a tiny museum or a carry-out-only sandwich shop when then spirit moves you.
With a few exceptions, New Orleans is a very walkable city. And walking is the best way to see the intricacies, curiosities, and realities of the city. Wandering through neighborhoods, you’ll find voodoo art, unbelievable houses, and the aftermath of Katrina. Avoid the big streets and walk in zigs and zags. Say hello to the people sitting on stoops and don’t be afraid to take the long way.
As with many cities, the exceptions to walkability come thanks to highways and ill-thought urbanization schemes. Navigating from the French Quarter to the Garden District involves a few blocks of bleak concrete, and is probably best avoided by solo travelers at night. Pedestrian options for crossing the Mississippi are also pretty non-existent. If you’re time limited, Lyft service is abundant, and the recently launched bike share seems likely to be very popular. New Orleans is nearly totally flat, which makes biking a treat.
There’s nowhere else that looks or feels like New Orleans. For your first trip, plan to spend most of your time exploring the city, whether via formal tours or just wandering around. A typical visitor agenda would also include checking out Saint Louis Cemetery #1 and #2, and perhaps Audubon park. The real sights to see are more informal. Wandering Jackson Square and the Garden District, or popping into any bar on Frenchmen Street for some live music.
Tiny, semi-formal museums abound in the city, and provide a unique insight into the city. The Backstreet Cultural Museum, the New Orleans African American Museum, and Tremé’s Petit Jazz Museum each provide their own view of the past and present of the city. These are the kinds of places you might walk past without even realizing it, so keep your eyes peeled and be willing to deviate from your agenda.
Of course, a lot of the “sights” in New Orleans are actually sounds. You’ll find live music everywhere. Frenchmen Street is your easiest grown-up alternative to Bourbon street, but pick up one of the local weekly newspapers and find the special events for a true local experience. Music in a park, music in a church, music in a gallery – options abound.
You’re going to eat well. And if you work a little bit, you’ll eat amazingly well. You’ll need to pace yourself, and set some priorities. The food in New Orleans can leave you craving a salad though, so you need to be a bit strategic.
New Orleans is the nexus of southern food, Cajun food, and Creole food, along with the food of newer immigrants like the Vietnamese. You can have the best fried chicken in the world at Willie Mae’s, the perfect catfish Po-Boy at Domilise’s, and shrimp and grits in front of a jazz band at Buffa’s. If you try to do that all in one day though, you might be questioning your choices.
New Orleans has high end classics like Commander’s Palace and Antoine’s, along with a wealth of newer places like Shaya’s and Coquette. The real treasures are the carry-outs and hole-in-the-wall’s scattered on small streets and in shopfronts. If you’re lucky enough to have actual neighbors near your Airbnb (as opposed to just other visitors), chat them up and ask for suggestions. It’s a city where pope care about their food, and they’re all willing to give you advice. Be open to it.
Get Yourself to New Orleans
New Orleans faces an uncertain future. Rising seas and increasingly severe storms means that it could plausibly disappear in a single lifetime. Each hurricane season poses another existential threat to the city. The environmental and economic wisdom of continuing to preserve the city is questionable, but losing it is hard to fathom. You might not always have the chance, so get yourself to New Orleans sooner rather than later.