Jan 21, 2014

A commoner’s New Orleans primer for a first-time visitor

I ran into a friend last weekend who once asked me for tips on things to see and do in New Orleans as a first-time visitor.  I happily obliged and remember sending her a way-too-long Facebook message outlining everything I’d do over a three-to-four day itinerary.  I remember her telling me it served her well on her trip, and she began sharing it with others.  And, as it turns out, she still shares my laundry list of New Orleans activities, and it seems to still be serving a useful purpose.

In hindsight, when I wrote this message, I was effectively blogging before I was a blogger.  So, I figure if the information is still worth sharing, I might as well make an actual blog out of it.  So, here it is, slightly updated and abbreviated with the blog reader in mind – a commoner’s essential New Orleans primer.

A typical morning crowd at the Cafe du Monde
Start your first day at the Cafe du Monde.  It’s in the heart of the French Quarter and a great spot for people watching.  Walk around Jackson Square (across the street) and check out all of the local artists, musicians and characters. 

French Market about to get busy
Then, continue with a stroll through the French Market. Most stands close up by early afternoon, so to see this at its most chaotic (and you should), plan to be arrive by mid-to-late morning.

The second most photographed thing at Pat O'Brien's
The most photographed thing at Pat O'Brien's
Some musts for music and drink -- Pat O'Brien's (home of the hurricane), Preservation Hall for jazz (right next door to Pat O's on St. Peter Street), and you might as well spend at least one night going up and down Bourbon Street.  The Tropical Isle Bayou Club tends to have good cajun/zydeco music if you prefer to avoid cheesy rock cover bands. 

My favorite bars in the Quarter:  Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon, Coop's Place on Decatur (also great, great food -- the jambalaya is consistently ranked best in the city!), Molly's on Decatur, Napoleon House on Chartres, Chart Room on Chartres (great local hangout). And be sure to have a drink at the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone.

Food, where do I begin?  If you like to eat, whether it’s fine dining or pub grub, New Orleans will keep your taste buds tingling:  

The Jazz ... 

... and the brunch.   You won't leave hungry.
  • The jazz brunch at Court of Two Sisters in the French Quarter is a little expensive ($30), but worth every penny.  

Nothing beats munching on a muffuletta!
  • Get a muffuletta at Central Grocery and walk up to the river and watch the world go by.  
  • If you like oysters, you must go to either Acme Oyster House or Felix's on Iberville, just off Bourbon Street (often, they're fresh out of the gulf).
  • Mother's in the central business district has outstanding breakfast, roast beef po-boys and bread pudding.  
  • Gumbo Shop is another favorite choice of mine for authentic food but at reasonable prices.
  • And if you just need a burger, go to Port of Call on Esplanade.  
  • For late night dining, Clover Grill on the quite side of Bourbon; you never know who or what you'll see there. 

I usually recommend allocating an entire day for touring New Orleans on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar and roaming the neighborhoods at your own pace.  It's the best way to get to the Garden District and nearby Magazine Street, with its own eclectic mix of shops, antiques, restaurants and bars.  Get a 24-hour NORTA pass (appx. $5), which you can use on all streetcar lines and buses.  Make sure you walk though Lafayette Cemetery while you're there.  

A much younger me, several years ago at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
After the Garden District, the streetcar will take you past Tulane and Loyola Universities, Audubon Park and other areas "uptown." It's a very scenic ride.  Make a stop at Camelia Grill where the streetcar turns onto Carrollton Avenue.  Jimmy Buffet named this one of his Top Ten Cheeseburgers in Paradise, and I can’t argue with him.

Meet Big Al, king of his section of the Pearl River, and the main attraction of the Honey Island Swamp Tour
Other things to do:
  • The combo tour of the aquarium and Audubon Park Zoo is actually really cool. There's a boat shuttle that will take you from one to the other and back.
  • Look at any tour kiosk in the Quarter for information on plantation tours (Oak Alley is popular and recognizable to most people), swamp tours, cemetery tours and (my personal favorite) haunted history tours of the French Quarter. 
  • One reason to love the haunted history tour – many of them make a halfway point pit stop at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop for a drink, and sometimes they end at Pirate’s Alley Café (which is also a great place to try absinthe for the first time).   
  • Also, consider taking a Hurricane Katrina tour if they're still offering them. It's worth it. You learn a lot.
  • Take a night to go see the live music on Frenchmen Street, just off Esplanade Avenue, which borders the north end of the Quarter. Apple Barrel and dba always have good bands.  This is where a lot of locals go to party.

As for shopping, walk Royal Street in the French Quarter for an afternoon.  Or, look into the Magazine Street shuttle. You’ll find a lot of art galleries, antiques and other curiosities on both streets.

I also recommend stopping at the tourism bureau located on Jackson Square for help with any of the above.  I always make a pit stop in there to see what's new.

Looking back, I've blogged before about many of the above items.  And I intend to blog about some of those I've yet to cover.  Still, it’s nice to see some this material is worth repeating and can hold up over time. 

This is also a good way to lead in to the fact that I'll be returning to New Orleans at the end of April for the first Sunday of Jazz Fest (Eric Clapton headlines!) and a few more days after that.  It should be an awesome time to hang out with friends, enjoy great local and regional music in the New Orleans bar scene and, as always, find a few blog-worthy places I've never been to before.  Stay tuned.   

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