Beyond Bourbon: Small Pleasures in The Big Easy
When you hear the name New Orleans, you probably get a distinct image in your mind. Whether it’s drunk partiers flinging beads from balconies, diehard Saints fans gearing up for a tailgate, mountains of steaming Cajun cooking, or the romance of Blanche DuBois and old-: streetcars – you’re right. New Orleans is all those things at once, and so much more.
Most people who head to New Orleans for the first time head straight to Bourbon Street, and understandably so – if you’ve done even the slightest bit of research before your trip, you’ve probably been smacked in the face with advertisements claiming that Bourbon Street is the heart and soul of the city. And if you’ve come all the way here, the rowdy stretch of bars and revelers is a sight you should see. Once.
That’s right, once. Now I understand that it might not be a popular sentiment with those who go to NOLA only to party, but spending your entire visit on or near Bourbon Street is a rookie mistake. While Bourbon Street is certainly lively and sometimes even a great time, it’s also, well ... dirty. And gross at times. And not at all authentic to what New Orleans is really about. Now if drunk bachelor/bachelorette parties and Huge Ass Beers are your vacation priority, I’m not one to judge. But if they’re not, you’re in luck, because the city has so much more to offer.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you avoid all the tourist draws. After all, a lot of them are popular for very good reasons. Should you get beignets at Cafe Du Monde and a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s? Absolutely.
Do you have to choose between oysters at Acme or oysters at Felix’s? Only if you don’t have time to do both. A good oyster-off never hurt anyone. And I’ll be the first to admit that it took me way too many trips to finally try a muffaletta at Central Grocery.
The only problem with the food in New Orleans is that there’s just too much of it to try during a short visit. But as far as problems go, that’s a pretty good one to have. In fact, trying to get a real feel for New Orleans in general will take far longer than just a long weekend, but here are some good suggestions to get you started (and they’re not all food, I swear).
If you want the liveliness of Bourbon Street with less of the amateur hour tourist vibe and some killer live music, head to Frenchmen Street. The sheer number of live music options offered in this happening stretch of just a few blocks should more than keep you busy for the night. While you’re there, be sure to check out the Palace Market, an open-air art market that’s open well into the night. Sip a beer from the grocery store across the street as you wander past stall after stall of art, jewelry, and some of the most creative and interesting souvenirs you’re likely to find in the city. If you need a rest, there’s plenty of funky seating under the strings of fairy lights.
The Garden District
If you think gorgeous southern mansions with ornate wrought iron balconies when you think of New Orleans, the Garden District is calling your name. This upscale neighborhood is not only home to some of the most beautiful architecture in the city, it’s also a great excuse to ride the city’s famous streetcar. While the iconic Desire line may no longer exist, the historic streetcars still run today, with one of the main lines traversing the length of St. Charles Avenue, which is also the city’s main parade route. Even outside of Mardi Gras time, beads seem to grow on the trees here, glittering in the sun along the entire stretch of the main artery through the picturesque garden district.
Along the street you’ll find plenty of places to grab a bite, ranging from hip new eateries to classic New Orleans joints that serve seafood around the clock (that’s right, 24-hour crawfish is a real thing here). For a great photo op, duck into the granny-chic splendor of Jack Rose at the iconic Ponchartrain Hotel to enjoy a slice of Mile High Pie under the watchful gaze of New Orleans native Lil Wayne. The views from the Hot Tin rooftop bar are also worth the line for the elevator.
New Orleans has no shortage of fascinating cemeteries, and Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 is one of the most popular. Tucked a few blocks off the St. Charles Streetcar in the middle of the picturesque Garden District, the gated 19th-century burial ground is home to almost 500 aboveground tombs. It’s easy to lose track of time as wind your way through the historic marble vaults, stopping to snap pictures of the hauntingly beautiful angel statues or stray strings of beads scattered throughout. More mesmerizing than macabre, the peacefulness of the cemetery feels light years away from the partygoers of Bourbon Street.
The beautiful architecture of the Garden District all around is a nice bonus. If you’re in the market for a nicer meal, make sure to stop by the colorful Commander’s Palace across the street. Time your visit during the week and take advantage of their $0.25 martini lunch (limit 3 per person, for good reason). Afterward you’ll definitely be in the mood to drop some dough at the boutiques on Magazine Street.
If you’re looking for an area that’s off the radar of most tourists, the historic Bywater neighborhood is a great option. After a spell of gentrification, the area is finding new life as a bohemian hipster hotspot, with trendy cafes, happening dive bars, quirky shops, and hip eateries. For some solid outdoor day drinking, check out Parleaux Beer Lab or Bacchanal Wine, which features a great garden with regular live music.
Bywater is also home to lots of colorful street art and murals tucked along its side streets. I happened to discover it by accident, as I spotted an incredible mural on our ride back to our hotel and asked our Lyft driver to stop. That stop turned into an impromptu personal sunset tour of the Bywater street art scene courtesy of our driver. Moral of the story: always ask locals for tips if you want authentic experiences.
All of this barely scratches the surface. Every neighborhood has its own hidden gems to offer. A few additional notable mentions:
Sazerac Bar: In the posh Roosevelt Hotel, where the famous Sazerac cocktail was invented (though the Ramos Gin Fizz is also to die for).
Carousel Bar: Fancy cocktails. The bar spins. What more do you need?
Coops: Classic Bayou fare in a dive bar setting. You’ll probably have to wait in line, but it’s worth it. I learned about it from a man in a seersucker suit at Carousel Bar (see above), and if that’s not a stamp of approval, I don’t know what is.
Cochon: If you like bacon, or really any kind of pig, there’s no other option. Except maybe Cochon Butcher nextdoor if you’re looking for something more casual.
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar: Historic and supposedly haunted, this is claimed to be the oldest structure currently used as a bar in the U.S. A cool old building from the 1770s, and a welcome break from the chaos at a far end of Bourbon Street.
Preservation Hall: This place is famous for a reason, and you'll be treated to some great jazz music. Note that you have to line up early to get in. Also, there's no bathroom or bar, but you can bring in drinks (Pat O'Brien's is right next door).
The National WWII Museum: An incredibly well done tribute. Also a great option on rainy days or trips with older, less party-centric family members.
Mother’s: Locals may think it’s touristy, but if you have a large group, no reservation, and an appetite for local food, go here.
I could go on and on about all the things you should eat, drink, and do in New Orleans. But at the end of the day, you should venture off Bourbon and find a side of New Orleans to call your own. Laissez les bons temps rouler!