In New Orleans, the good times roll on. Back on its dancing feet after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, the city maintains its larger-than-life reputation for parades, second lines, and revelries that spill out onto neon-lit streets. But there’s more to New Orleans than beads, brass bands, and booze. Here’s how to look past the strings of jewel-toned beads for NOLA’s real gems — and still have a good time.
What locals know
The French Quarter, the historic heart of New Orleans, caters to tourists. You’re not going to find locals zigzagging in and out of Bourbon Street’s bars, for example. To be sure, first-time visitors should still see the area. It’s iconic, but it’s not New Orleans at its most authentic.
Instead of strolling around the French Quarter on weekends, locals spend time (and clock in steps) at parks. Crescent Park stretches along the Mississippi River. In Audubon Park, cement lanes for biking and jogging snake through sweeping oak trees. City Park’s bragging rights include a scenic trail, lagoons, bike and boat rentals, and a sculpture garden with works from Pierre Auguste Renoir and Robert Indiana.
Louisiana natives know how to make the most of whatever weather we’re given. (The state’s nickname: Sportsman’s Paradise. We like to be outdoors.) That said, even we can’t handle the summer heat. Summer also ushers in rain, mosquitos, and, sometimes, hurricanes. So, plan to visit around spring, fall, or winter for more moderate weather.
Know before you go
New Orleans is small in terms of population (less than 400,000 people!) and size. You won’t need to travel far to get from one part of town to another.
You can walk around certain areas of NOLA, including much of St. Charles Avenue (just watch out for streetcars!), the commercial stretch of Magazine Street, and the French Quarter. Otherwise, count on a car, cab, or a ridesharing app to get around.
Though they are a valid mode of transportation, in general, streetcars are better for sightseeing than navigating. The St. Charles streetcar line, for example, begins in the French Quarter and runs down St. Charles Avenue, an oak-lined boulevard of old mansions, restaurants, bars, and schools like Loyola and Tulane universities.
Need to try
Thanks to the influx of immigrants who have settled in New Orleans over the centuries, the food culture here can be described as a literal melting pot.
For example, West African, French, Spanish, German, and Choctaw cooks all influenced gumbo, Louisiana’s signature stew. Italian immigrants invented the muffuletta, which sandwiches salami, ham, cheese, and marinated olive salad between dense slices of bread.
Beignets — fried dough topped with powdered sugar — have French roots. King cakes also came to New Orleans from France. Baked with a brioche-like dough, pumped with a sweet filling, and frosted with icing, king cakes are the ultimate pre-Lenten (read: pre-fasting) treat. Find them from around the feast of the Epiphany until Ash Wednesday.
But don’t stop at desserts and old-school dishes. From the kitchens of newer restaurants like Saba and Molly’s Rise and Shine, award-winning chefs churn out dishes that are equal parts creative and comforting — and nothing like traditional Louisiana fare. For a quick taste of all NOLA has to offer, check out a food hall. Auction House Market, St. Roch Market, and Pythian Market show off the city’s culinary diversity, with a side of millennial-approved decor.
For a taste of the French Quarter, walk down Royal Street or Decatur Street, which merit a visit for their colorful Spanish architecture, art galleries, and antique shops.
In Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral looms above portrait artists, street performers, and fortune tellers. Take in the spectacle before catching a breather by stepping inside the cathedral, the oldest in North America.
Behind the cathedral and its manicured garden, Faulkner House Books sells new and used titles in a space William Faulkner once rented. Like the cathedral, it’s a pilgrimage for some (i.e. bookworms) and a welcome break from the Quarter.
For more culture, the Warehouse Arts District houses the impressive National World War II Museum and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. If that’s not enough, spend some time in the galleries along Julia Street, also in this district.
For some of the most stunning architecture in New Orleans, tour its churches. In the Central Business District, Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church commands attention for its Moorish design, including geometric columns, horseshoe arches, and a domed altar. St. Patrick’s Church in Lafayette Square, also in this district, boasts stained glass fan vaulting above and murals that might as well be in a museum. In Uptown, St. Francis of Assisi Church stands out for its hammer beam ceiling and light blue apse.
Make the most of your experience
No trip to New Orleans would be complete without indulging in its nightlife. Consider it cultural immersion — barhopping on Bourbon Street excluded, of course.
You’re in the birthplace of jazz. Find it on Frenchmen Street, starting with The Spotted Cat. Maple Leaf Bar has a hole-in-the-wall feel and attracts jazz, zydeco, and blues musicians, among others.
For a top-notch view of the Mississippi River and downtown New Orleans, spend an evening at the Pontchartrain Hotel’s oft-Instagrammed rooftop bar, Hot Tin. Otherwise, grab a cocktail at the Columns Hotel and watch the sunset on the veranda, overlooking the ever-scenic St. Charles Avenue.
Later, go for a slow spin on the Hotel Monteleone’s Carousel Bar, a revolving bar where writers like Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams once drank.
Last but not least, bowling at Rock‘n’Bowl draws a local crowd, but the lineup of Louisiana musicians means dancing tends to take center stage. From its music scene to its well-stocked bar to the enshrined statue of the Virgin Mary near its entrance, Rock’n’Bowl embodies a few of the traditions that give New Orleans character.
Here, eating, drinking, and merriment are traditions, too — as ingrained in the culture as Catholicism or jazz. New Orleans welcomes it all.