The city of New Orleans is like no other. With influences from the African American, French, Cajun and Creole cultures, as well as the Voodoo and Catholic religions, it’s become a melting pot robust with history and culture dating all the way back to the 1700s. The Big Easy is home to the kindest people you’ll ever meet, the most stunning architecture you’ll ever see and the most savory food you’ll ever taste. With no open container laws and delicious food around every corner, expect to gain at least five pounds while you’re here. And not to worry, the people of Nawlins won’t judge you, they’ll join you!
New Orleans doesn’t have an intricate public transportation system, so traveling by car will be your best option. If you don’t want the hassle and responsibility of renting your own, car services like Lyft are always the best option. Rides cost anywhere from $5-$15 depending on where you are going, and all of the drivers are so nice! Here, you’ll actually want to make conversation with your driver and most of them have been living in NOLA all their lives, so they can provide great recommendations of things to do while you’re in town. There’s nothing better than living like the locals do!
For the most cost-effective method, the streetcars are worth trying out. I love this method of transportation because it can get you from one part of town to the other quickly, and for a steep price too. I wish the New York subways were this cute (and clean)! A one-way fare costs only $1.25, or you could purchase a day pass for $3 (note that you will need to have the exact fare ready when you board). There are four different lines that run across town – St. Charles, Canal Street, Riverfront and Rampart. Check out this map to help you plan your trip.
A fun way to get around in the evening or when the weather is nice out are the Bike Taxis. They’re perfect if you want to relax and do some quick sightseeing in a particular area. $35 took us from Frenchmen Street in Marigny to Bourbon Street in the French Quarter within 20 minutes. Not to mention, the views were so picturesque! You can find a Bike Taxi just about anywhere or you can visit their website to reserve one ahead of time.
Where to Stay
Chris and I stayed in the Central Business District, which is a quick 10-minute drive from the French Quarter and the rest of the action. We stayed at Hyatt House mainly because they have a pool (a luxury we don’t have in NYC) and they also have a complimentary breakfast buffet each morning. Our room gave us stunning views of downtown New Orleans and we were right next to the Superdome. It’s the perfect place to stay in the fall if you’re in town for a Saints game! The hotel is also connected to the Hyatt Regency, which has a few delicious restaurants inside. We were craving sushi as soon as we got off the plane, so we popped into Vitascope Hall for a quick bite to eat. Here, we learned about the New Orleans tradition of pinning money to your shirts when it’s your birthday. When you do this, everyone from NOLA knows it’s your special day and will pin even more money to your shirt or give you free drinks at the bars. Throughout the trip, Chris probably made about $20! We still have no idea where this tradition came from, but wish it were known in every city.
If you want to be in the middle of all the hustle and bustle, I highly recommend choosing a hotel in the French Quarter, which will put you within walking distance to all the best restaurants, bars and attractions. Some cute boutique hotels to consider are Hotel Monteleone (which is where the must-see Carousel Bar is located), Bienville House and the French Market Inn.
If you’re traveling with a larger group, I recommend checking out some of the deals available on Airbnb. For an affordable price, you could have an entire apartment or home to yourself! There are a ton of Airbnbs available in different neighborhoods, so you might find something very unexpected like this historic home in Bywater or this downtown penthouse.
What to Do
For a city so quaint, New Orleans is one hell of a beast. There’s so much to do in one small area! The city is actually comprised of 72 different neighborhoods, but the ones I recommend visiting during a quick trip are the French Quarter, Garden District, Central Business District and Bywater. Each area is unique and there is so much to uncover. The guide below can give you a head start to planning your visit accordingly.
The French Quarter is where we spent most of our time, and even then, we didn’t get to see all of it. If you’re looking for a true New Orleans experience, take a ride on the Steamboat NATCHEZ for a relaxing trip along the Mississippi River. It is one of only two steam powered sternwheelers operating on the river today. The cruise features live jazz, musical performances and offers dining options too. The trip is approximately two hours long and there are a few different options to choose from – the Harbor Jazz Cruise, the Sunday Brunch Cruise and the Dinner Jazz Cruise. Click here to book your trip.
One thing about NOLA is that there is a tour for just about everything! You have voodoo tours, ghost tours, Mardi Gras tours, cemetery tours, plantation tours (Houmas House is beautiful to see if you can squeeze it in – it’s about a 45 minute drive from the French Quarter) and history tours. We had the chance to experience Gray Line’s Cocktail Walking Tour, which took us to four iconic bars in the city (Tujague’s, Manolito, Pirate’s Alley Café and Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub) where we could drink and learn about NOLA’s history along the way. We learned about the Sazerac, which was dubbed the official drink of New Orleans in 2008 – try it for the Nawlins experience, but I personally don’t recommend it because it’s actually terrible and really strong (comprised of absinthe, rye whiskey, cognac and some bitters), as well as the Grasshopper, which is an after-dinner drink that basically tastes and looks like a mint milkshake. Best part is, you can take all your drinks to go!
The French Quarter is also home to many different museums, but the most unique (and maybe a little morbid) is the Pharmacy Museum at 514 Chartres Street. Upon entering, you’re immediately whisked away to the 1800s, back to the beginning days of pharmacology. You get to see first-hand the different surgical instruments that were used on patients back then (very different from what we use today) as well as original apothecary bottles filled with crude drugs and potions that were meant to cure various diseases. The building was previously the site of the original apothecary owned by America’s first licensed pharmacist, Louis J. Dufilho Jr.
Lastly, you can’t forget about the world-famous Bourbon Street, which is an experience in and of itself. The bar-lined street is action-packed during the evenings, and if you’re traveling with kids, I don’t recommend bringing them with you past 5 p.m. While you’re on Bourbon, try out a Hand Grenade at Tropical Isle – there are three different locations spread out along the strip – it’s the perfect frozen drink to sip on in the brutal Louisiana heat. Some other spots to check out are Pat O’Brien’s, Cat’s Meow, Krazy Korner and Bourbon Bandstand. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar is another historical spot worth checking out – from 1771 – 1791, it was believed to have been a home base for brothers Jean and Pierre Lafitte’s smuggling operations. Each of the bars have their own special quirks, and don’t forget you’re welcome to take your drinks to go as you continue to explore the city!
Central Business District
The Central Business District is home to historic buildings, business offices and even more hidden gems waiting to be discovered in New Orleans. It’s also where the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is located, which is the Saints’ home football stadium. Since it’s off-season for football right now, your best bet to getting inside the Dome is to take a tour of the Saints Hall of Fame Museum. Upon entering, you’re taken back in time to the early humble beginnings of the Saints. Non-football fans alike will still find this compelling! Best part is, you’re taken into the Superdome right at the end of the tour to experience it in all its glory.
Some restaurants to check out in the area are Pythian Market, a new food hall filled with many different cuisines; Walk-Ons Bistreaux & Bar, which is owned by Saints Quarterback Drew Brees; and Mother’s Restaurant, which features classic New Orleans dishes like Seafood Gumbo, a Shrimp Po’Boy and Jambalaya. The CBD also features some great shopping – there are three levels of stores at Canal Place (check out the new MCM store!), and you can also get your menswear fix at Rubensteins, which has been around for over 90 years.
The Garden District has the most scenic views in the city, with ancient oak trees lining the streets and flowers blooming everywhere you turn. You can take the St. Charles Streetcar to Washington Street, which will take you past the famous stretch of mansions that are featured in so many movies and television shows you see today. In the Garden District, be sure to check out Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, where you can take guided tours or walk the grounds yourself and Commander’s Palace, the best of the best Creole restaurants in the city. They also have 25-cent martinis, which are a rarity to find virtually anywhere. If you’re feeling adventurous, try an alligator hot dog at Dat Dog or visit The Columns Hotel, which is said to be one of New Orleans most haunted places.
The Bywater area houses many little art galleries and coffee shops, but what stands out the most are the colorful Creole houses scattered throughout the neighborhood. Each house is unique, and the architecture is something you’ll find only in New Orleans. This neighborhood is where Frenchmen Street is located, where you’ll find live music in all the bars any day of the week. Our favorite spot was The Maison, where we discovered a funky band called Gene’s Music Machine that played California hip-hop beats and had everyone in the crowd on their feet and dancing.
If you’re in Bywater during the day, you must pay a visit to The Country Club. It’s a private day club with a restaurant and pool where you can hang out, relax, have a drink and meet some new friends. We visited our last day in New Orleans and wished we came sooner! We were surrounded by all the good vibes and made friends with a ton of people from all over the U.S. It’s the perfect spot to visit if you’re celebrating a bachelor/bachelorette party or even a birthday. The day pass is super affordable too – only $15 and there is a full-service bar right by the pool. Bonus, if you’re there for your birthday, entry is free!
Where to Eat
New Orleans has some of the best southern cooking I have ever tasted. In true Nawlins fashion, we chose to eat at restaurants with more French, Creole and Cajun offerings because you can’t get this food anywhere else. #WhenInNOLA. Some staple NOLA dishes you must to try are their po’boys, jambalaya, gumbo and anything with crawfish and gator. I even took a walk on the wild side and tried turtle soup for the first time. Some of my favorite restaurants are linked below.
Kingfish is a contemporary restaurant that offers spins on classic Southern dishes located in the heart of the French Quarter. We happened to be in town during Tales of the Cocktail, which is the world’s premier cocktail festival and also an excuse for all of the best bartenders from all over to drink with one another in NOLA. Kingfish had a special cocktail their head bartender created just for the week called Rye Not, containing rye whiskey and egg white. It’s one of the best drinks I had throughout the entire trip, and I’m usually not too fond of whiskey.
For starters, we tried the Garlic Crab Claws (definitely ask for more French bread to dip in the sauce, it’s so tasty!) and the Crab Chop, which came with an amazing corn macque choux (a Louisiana specialty). As for entrees, we had the Shrimp and Grits (a personal favorite southern dish of mine that I haven’t been able to find in NY) and the Fried Chicken. The breading on the chicken was to die for! It’s so light and crispy and had a spicy kick to it. For dessert, we topped off the meal with the “Put Up” Mississippi Mud, made of pecan shortbread cookie crumble and topped with vanilla whipped cream.
Kingfish is located at 337 Chartres Street. Click here to reserve your table.
The Court of Two Sisters
If you ever find yourself in New Orleans, one thing you must experience is a good old jazz brunch. Luckily, The Court of Two Sisters serves brunch every day of the week! They have a gorgeous courtyard with outdoor seating and tons of shade. It’s such a heartwarming experience to be around good company and listening to amazing live music! Brunch includes an all-you-can-eat buffet which features tons of classic New Orleans dishes. My favorites were the jambalaya and the crawfish pasta. I even had the chance to try out turtle soup for the first time, which was actually so delicious! You add sherry to your bowl to bring out all the flavors. Upon leaving The Court of Two Sisters, be sure to touch the gates right by the entrance – they were made especially for the restaurant and supposedly Queen Isabella of Spain had them blessed so their charm would be passed along to anyone who touched them.
Brunch is served from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. daily. The Court of Two Sisters is located at 613 Royal Street. Click here to make a reservation.
Antoine’s is another New Orleans staple you must try. Tucked away on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter, the historic restaurant has an amazing story to tell. It first opened in 1840 and features some of the original French recipes created by its founder Antoine Alciatore. For starters, we had a sampler of the oysters – Rockefeller, Bienville and Thermidor (our favorite). We also tried them à la Foch – fried and served on toast with a Colbert sauce – so tasty and unlike any other oysters I have ever tried. Antoine’s is actually where the original recipe for Oysters Rockefeller originated. Their recipe does not contain spinach, despite its distinct green color. The chef let us in on his little secret, but we swore we wouldn’t tell anyone his recipe. We also tried the Bisque d’Ecrevisses (crawfish bisque) which was similar to lobster bisque, but with a New Orleans Creole twist. For our mains, we had the Pompano Pontchartrain, which our server claimed was the best dish in the house (I absolutely agree – this was my first time trying pompano and it just oozed buttery goodness in your mouth) and the Contre-Filet de Bœuf. If you’re able to stop in, ask for Boudreaux to be your server – he took such good care of us and even shared some facts and history about the restaurant. It has been visited by notables such as Brad Pitt, Bill Clinton, Pope John Paul II, Vanna White, Kate Hudson and many others!
Antoine’s is located at 713 St. Louis Street. Click here for reservation information.
If you’re looking for peace and serenity on Bourbon Street, Galatoire’s is the only place you’ll be able to find it. Tucked in between Iberville Street and Bienville Street, it’s the perfect dinner spot to escape the madness (for a little while). The restaurant opened in 1905 by Jean Galatoire and still serves some of its original recipes from back in the day. Not much has changed with its interiors either – the same décor was kept intact, honing back to the restaurant’s history. There is a dress code at Galatoire’s too – men are required to wear jackets while dining in, but don’t fret if you don’t have one on you – they have a whole stock pile of blazers you can borrow right by the front door!
If you’re looking for something more casual, Galatoire’s 33 Bar and Steak is right next door. Stop in for a refreshing drink or one of their delicious appetizers. The Galatoire Goute was our favorite, which comes with crabmeat maison and shrimp remoulade. If you happen to wander in, ask for David and tell him Chris and Michelle sent you!
You can’t come to New Orleans without trying one of their world-famous beignets! The beignet is basically a deep-fried donut topped with lots of powdered sugar. I could eat these all day! Café Beignet has three locations in the French Quarter and for less than $5 for three beignets, it’s worth every penny. While you’re there, also try out their Chicory Coffee, which has been a New Orleans tradition from when the city was still a colony of France. I visited the Decatur location at the Jax Brewery, but the Royal Street location is the most Instagrammable!
Where to Shop
New Orleans is home to many amazing boutiques that reflect the city’s colorful fashions. For womenswear, Saint Claude Social Club at 1933 at Sophie Wright Place in the Garden District is where you can find many one-of-a-kind pieces. They have a blooming assortment of jewelry and accessories, but also have a gorgeous selection of vintage ready-to-wear, as well as some new pieces created by local and independent designers. Here, I discovered Nach, a French brand run by sisters Nadia and Nancy Koch. They make the most stunning kitschy-chic bags and jewelry!
Another great shop in the area is Armoire Boutique located at 3102 Magazine Street. They have tons of adorable ready-to-wear and carry sizes 0-22, so there is literally something there for every body! You can shop some pieces directly from their site, but they have even more styles in-store like the gorgeous rose print dress below. You can use the code MMANCO for 20% off your purchase – they ship anywhere in the U.S.
If you’re looking for little knick-knacks and souvenirs to take home to your friends and family, the French Market is a great place to look. You can find almost anything New Orleans themed at a low cost. If you love sweets as much as I do and want to take a little taste of Nawlins home with you, I recommend grabbing a box of good old-fashioned pralines. They’re a southern tradition and are typically made with sugar, corn syrup, milk, butter and pecan halves. The creamy pralines from Aunt Sally’s on Decatur are to die for. I wish I stocked up on more because I’m craving them now!
There is so much to do and see in New Orleans and this little city guide doesn’t even cover half of it! Feel free to share some of your favorite recommendations that I might have missed in the comments below. New Orleans has become one of my favorite cities to visit and I hope to be back again soon!
A huge thank you to Lyft, Grey Line Tours, Steamboat NATCHEZ, Carousel Bar, The Country Club, Kingfish, The Court of Two Sisters, Antoine’s, Galatoire’s 33 Bar & Steak, Café Beignet, Saint Claude Social Club and Armoire Boutique for accommodating us and elevating our experience while we were in town!
All photos taken by Chris Hernandez and Michelle Manco.