Whether feasting on beignets dusted with powdered sugar, joining an impromptu brass band parade, or throwing Mardi Gras beads from balconies, New Orleans certainly knows how to celebrate. And there’s all the more reason now, as the city prepares to ring in its tricentennial. Here’s how to time-travel through three centuries worth of landmarks that, like New Orleans itself, only get better with age.
Drink: Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop (1720s)
Boisterous Bourbon Street is known for its lively bars, but it’s worth heading farther up the strip to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Allegedly the oldest drinking establishment in the entire U.S., it is also one of the few French Quarter structures that survived the devastating fire of 1788. It’s named for regular patron Jean Lafitte, a privateer who conducted business in its divey halls and was instrumental in winning the Battle of New Orleans. Toast his legacy with the Purple Drank, a frozen cocktail that is, in fact, purple, while enjoying the croons from the back room piano bar.
Tour: Old Ursuline Convent (1752)
Catholicism and New Orleans are like gumbo and rice—you can’t talk about one for too long without mentioning the other. And you can’t explore too far without coming upon a sacred structure. We say, skip the lines at St. Louis Cathedral and visit the Old Ursuline Convent in a sleepier portion of the French Quarter. The historic convent is the oldest surviving example of French-colonial architecture in the city. Having operated as a nunnery, school, residence, and even a meeting place for the Louisiana Legislature, the convent is now a museum, offering self-guided tours through its gardens, convent, and adjoining St. Mary’s church. Check out this video for an advance peek inside the convent.
Stay: Hotel Monteleone (1886)
The oldest operating family-owned hotel in the U.S. continues to hold court on Royal Street, where it’s welcomed literary luminaries William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Ernest Hemingway. Hotel Monteleone continues to channel a bygone glamour thanks to its Beaux Arts-style façade and regal lobby chock full of chandeliers. (You might recognize it from the films Double Jeopardy and Glory Road.) Its most lauded attraction is the Carousel Bar. Built in 1948, this revolving lounge—which makes a full turn every 15 minutes—sits up to 25 patrons ready to drink and ride merrily around.
Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny lays claim to the finest music venues in New Orleans—and to a rich history dating to the early 1800s when it was a neighborhood for free people of color. Now locals and visiting jazz lovers of all stripes turn up at the landmark Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro for toe-tapping tunes seven nights a week; one longtime local favorite, Charmaine Neville, takes the stage most Mondays. Other hot spots for catching local and national acts include The Spotted Cat Music Club, Maison, and d.b.a. Before you tune in, hit the evening Frenchmen Art Market for wares that are one of a kind and anything but kitschy (open Thursday through Monday).
Eat: Hansen’s Sno-Bliz (1939)
Snoballs (not “Snowballs” and never “Shaved Ice”) is the signature sweet snack of New Orleanians. Don’t let the unassuming storefront of Hansen’s Sno-Bliz fool you. The James Beard Foundation named this simple cinderblock structure an American Classic in 2014, and it attracts long lines of people craving its concoctions of fluffy ice and homemade syrups. While it has a fair share of snoball competition, like Plum Street and Sal’s, Hansen’s wins the popular vote for inventive, made-fresh flavors like Brown Pelican (cream of root beer) and Honey Lavender. Insider tip: a condensed milk topping is not required, but highly recommended.
Visit: Mardi Gras World (1984)
Blaine Kern, Sr.—better known as Mr. Mardi Gras—designed his first parade float in 1947. Inspired by the over-the-top craftsmanship of European carnivals, Blaine Kern Studios brought those practices to New Orleans, with legendary Krewes like Rex and Zulu rolling down the streets with their grand designs. After decades of requests from visitors and locals for behind-the-scenes tours, the Kerns opened Mardi Gras World in Algiers in 1984. In 2009, a new 400,000-square foot facility debuted near the convention center—with plenty of room for a float factory, a museum, and an event space. With nearly 500 floats as well as a working studio for previewing next year’s lineup, it delivers a taste of Mardi Gras every day of the year.