Photo Courtesy of Derek Bridges
New Orleans, on Lousiana's Gulf Coast, is never short of an excuse to laissez les bon temps rouler—and the city’s rebirth has been driven by what the Big Easy does best: eating, drinking, and being merry. The French Quarter has plenty to entertain beyond the neon-lit Bourbon Street, so it’s worth ex…ploring the city’s outlying neighborhoods, from the manse-lined streets of Uptown to the boho Bywater. And one need only wander into any of the bars along Frenchmen Street to be convinced that New Orleans’s musical heritage beats on—and that no matter how small the venue, there’s always room to dance.
What to know before you go to New Orleans
Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, the city’s biggest events, take place in winter and spring—that is, after hurricane season and before it gets too hot and steamy. Still, it’s worth considering a non-peak trip to avoid the tourist throngs and exorbitant hotel rates. August’s Satchmo Festival is a celebration of native son Louis Armstrong, while the holiday season brings bonfires, Reveillon dinners, and caroling in Jackson Square.
New Orleans’ Louis Armstrong International Airport is about 25 minutes from the French Quarter by taxi. The fare is a flat rate of $36 for the first two passengers, plus a $15 surcharge for each additional person. Airport shuttles are slightly more—$24 for a one-way ticket, $44 round-trip—and run every half-hour or so to hotels and other locations.
The French Quarter is easily navigated on foot, and the city’s streetcars can be useful if you’re planning to explore well-trodden parts of the city like the Garden District, City Park, and the Superdome; a day pass costs $3. For everywhere else, taxis are readily available.
If you're within earshot of a marching band, chances are good it's a second line; drop anything you're doing and follow that sound, you won't be sorry.
A crawfish boil—ideally in someone’s backyard—is an iconic New Orleans pastime. If you don’t have a backyard to borrow, pick up crawfish, potatoes, corn, and sausage from KJean’s, and head to City Park.
New Orleans’ already renowned restaurant scene has only gotten better in the post-Katrina world. Not only are there more restaurants—more than 1,200 compared to 800 pre-storm—but they’re helmed by innovative young chefs who are shaking up the old guard, jazzing up Cajun classics, and bringing new flavors to the forefront. Lunching at Commander’s Palace (when martinis are a quarter apiece) or queuing for fried chicken at Willie Mae’s Scotch House are essential—but so are whole grilled fish at Donald Link’s Peche, globally-inspired street food at Booty’s, and cocktails at Cure.
In Cajun cooking, the holy trinity is a riff on mirepoix that refers to onion, celery, and bell peppers and is the base for iconic dishes from gumbo to jambalaya. If the city of New Orleans had a holy trinity, it would be food, music, and the Saints. To understand the city's culture, go for Friday lunch at Galatoire’s, grab a bench at Preservation Hall, and catch a game at the Superdome. There’s also a burgeoning gallery scene along Julia Street and a handful of worthwhile museums, including the Contemporary Arts Center and the National WWII Museum.
New Orleans is a city that likes to get its party on, and its festivals are nothing short of epic. The most famous are Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, but also of note are alternative music festivals like Satchmo Summerfest and Crescent City Blues and BBQ, plus the (free) French Quarter Festival. Even if you don’t plan your trip around a special event, there’s almost always a parade or a party going on somewhere in the Big Easy.
The French Quarter—Bourbon Street in particular—is where the tourists go. If you’re a native, chances are you’re hanging out elsewhere.
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Wayne Curtis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Bon Appetit, Men's Journal, American Archeology, American Scholar, Canadian Geographic, Islands, AARP The Magazine, Travel+Leisure, Down East, Preservation, and Yankee. He has also contributed to the radio show This American Life and has been a contributing editor at The Atlantic since 2005. Wayne splits his time between New Orleans and Maine.
Geraldine Campbell New Orleans Local Expert After living in the South for several years, Geraldine developed a fondness for grits, gumbo, and all things deep fried. She also loves mini-bars, curated bathroom amenities, and room service in five-star hotels. When she’s not plotting return trips south of the Mason-Dixon line, she lives in Pennsylvania, where she spends her days writing, editing, and testing recipes in her itty-bitty kitchen.