In decades past, Southerners who felt out of place in their own towns had essentially one choice: move to New Orleans, which welcomed idiosyncrasy. Today the Crescent City also tempts guests with its walkable (and lively) streets, vibrant nightlife, evolving food scene, and tropical vibe.
WHY WE LOVE IT
New Orleans is often referred to as the northernmost Caribbean city and for good reason: The town feels apart from the rest of the United States. The pace, the architecture, the food, and the music all strike visitors as a little out of kilter, sort of familiar but sort of not. Too many people confine their trip chiefly to the French Quarter. The spirit of New Orleans, after all, can be found throughout its far-flung neighborhoods, which host an eccentric collection of restaurants, nightclubs, and other curiosities.
The city’s historical kernel, from which all else grew, is the French Quarter, a compact grid about six blocks by twelve hugging the Mississippi River. Over the past century, the backland swamps were drained and the city expanded toward Lake Pontchartrain, filling out a total of seventy-three neighborhoods such as Mid-City and Lakeview. An efficient way to start an argument between residents is to ask where one neighborhood begins and another ends.
The French Quarter
Most visitors spend the bulk of their time here, admiring the narrow streets fronted with Creole architecture adorned with cast- and wrought-iron balconies. During the day, Royal Street attracts strollers for the street music and antique shops. Come evening, Bourbon Street takes over, where visitors wander, mouths agape, go cups in hand. Café du Monde never closes and offers a place to process it all over beignets and café au lait.
Just downriver of the French Quarter is this more eclectic district of homes and businesses set along confusing streets. Nightclubs fill part of Frenchmen Street, with the late-night music scene spilling out into the streets. Spotted Cat and d.b.a. skew heavy toward traditional jazz. Crescent Park wraps along 1.4 miles of riverfront near the foot of Esplanade, offering sweeping views of the skyline and mesmerizing Mississippi River barges.
The Garden District
Take the St. Charles streetcar to Washington Avenue, and spend some time wandering this historic quarter—marked by grand mansions and leafy streets—developed in the early nineteenth century during the city’s economic heyday. Admire the elaborate and renowned raised tombs in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse both made a name for themselves at culinary landmark Commander’s Palace. Nearby Magazine Street is worth a postprandial stroll past boutiques, gelato shops, and much more.
Chow Down like a Carnivore
You’re watching what you eat, you say? That’s cute! While famous for gumbo and jambalaya, city chefs also approach meat as an art form. Pork in its many manifestations is the specialty at Cochon. The Company Burger has two locations and a million fans, with right-sized delicious burgers that eschew the sky-high fixings. For a local, out-of-the-way gem, seek out Crescent City Steaks, a fly-in-amber classic favored by pols and pop stars.
Tap Your Feet
Music is the lifeblood of New Orleans, with live performances at bars in neighborhoods fancy and not so much. Those without a clear plan should migrate to Frenchmen Street, with its stretch of clubs featuring music of every sort and street-corner brass bands that get people dancing al fresco. Daytime, a walk down pedestrian-friendly Royal Street yields a mix of sidewalk bands, from roots to rockabilly. For an evening of classic jazz, line up for one of the treasured bench seats at Preservation Hall, which has perpetuated a vital slice of New Orleans for two generations.
An eclectic mix of museums does a splendid job of entertaining while educating. The grandest of the bunch is the National WWII Museum, a massive, multibuilding assemblage that focuses on human stories rather than static armaments. Interested in how the city got this way? Swing by the Historic New Orleans Collections for a guided tour of documents both rare and enlightening. Located in City Park, the neoclassical New Orleans Museum of Art has outstanding permanent and visiting collections, and a world-class sculpture garden.
WHEN TO GO
One-third of the year is pretty perfect, weather-wise: October, November, March, April. Midwinter can be blustery, damp, and chilly; summer is a sauna, filled with languorous days, air-conditioned nights, and interesting hair.