For decades, eccentric Southerners who felt out of place in their own towns but were dead set in staying below the Mason-Dixon Line had essentially one choice: to move to New Orleans, which welcomed idiosyncrasies of every stripe. Today the Crescent City also tempts even the more conventional with its walkable (and lively) streets, vibrant nightlife, complicated and 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 slightly 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 eclectic selection of restaurants, nightclubs, and various 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. Here is how to make the most of just a few of those districts.
The French Quarter
Visitors tend to spend the bulk of their time here, admiring the narrow streets crammed with Creole architecture adorned with cast- and wrought-iron balconies. Royal Street attracts strollers for the street music and antique shops during the day. Stop by Croissant d’Or in the morning for coffee and tasty baked goods in their bonsai-sized courtyard. Café du Monde, with its famed beignets and café au lait, never closes. Come evening, Bourbon Street takes over, where visitors wander, mouths agape, go cups in hand. You can also slake your thirst at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29, Peychaud’s, or Manolito, before setting off for a meal. Upscale French bistro fare makes up the menu at Justine’s, and you can find innovative regional fare at both Palm & Pine, along the Quarter’s upper edge, and Sylvain, just off Jackson Square. Or try one of the city’s famous po’boys at Killer Poboys, with two locations in the French Quarter.
Just downriver of the French Quarter lies a colorful, Caribbean-esque district of homes and businesses set along often-confusing streets. Stretch your legs and watch barges slide gracefully around the eponymous crescent at Crescent Park, which wraps along 1.4 miles of riverfront starting near where Esplanade and Elysian Fields meet. Nearby, Paladar 511 offers a relaxed bistro setting, with perfectly prepared seafood and pasta served in a former warehouse. For more distant culinary adventures, seek out Budsi’s Authentic Thai or head to charming neighborhood boîte the Franklin for French- and Italian-inflected meals. Burn off your indulgences dancing at the nightclubs along Frenchmen Street, where Spotted Cat and d.b.a. offer reliable diversion skewing toward the city’s traditional jazz.
The Garden District
Take the St. Charles streetcar from downtown to Washington Avenue, then 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 boom times. The elaborate and renowned raised tombs of Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 offer a worthy detour. Across the street lies the culinary landmark Commander’s Palace, where the chefs Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse both made a name for themselves. For extravagant, funky breakfasts or lunches, make your way to Molly’s Rise & Shine on Magazine Street, where fast food meets fine(ish) dining. (This is the sister restaurant to nearby lunch destination Turkey and the Wolf, which offers creative sandwiches—and may make for the meal you remember most.)
Upriver of the Garden District, you’ll find the sprawling Uptown neighborhood, which extends to the crown jewel of the 350-acre Audubon Park. The greenspace features a 1.8-mile jogging path under impressive live oaks that will take you past the city’s famed Aububon Zoo. Magazine Street runs for three miles from the Garden District to the park, passing through a variety of urban ecosystems—stretches of indie boutiques as well as eclectic bars and restaurants. For a picnic for the park, swing by St. James Cheese for a sandwich or a trio of cheeses and a baguette. For a more formal evening meal, Costera offers delicious coastal Spanish interpretations of Gulf seafood.
Chow Down Like a Carnivore
You’re watching what you eat, you say? 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 sister restaurant to Donald Link’s James Beard darling Pêche). The Company Burger has one location 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 alfresco. 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 Collection 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.
WHERE TO STAY
Uptown elegance and quirky charm inform the Chloe, with fourteen rooms and an inviting pool and bar. Another new addition to city’s burgeoning boutique hotel scene: the Hotel St. Vincent in the Lower Garden District, housed in a former orphanage built in 1861. Closer to the action lie the Hotel Peter & Paul, in a former church complex in the Marigny, as well as Maison de la Luz in the Central Business District, a sister property to the nearby Ace Hotel (the last two are an easy walk to James Beard Award–winning Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin). Prefer to stay in the Quarter? Hotel Monteleone is a family-owned classic that’s been around more than a century; the distinguished Soniat House offers a quiet and elegant Caribbean guesthouse vibe.
WHEN TO GO
One-third of the year is pretty perfect, weather-wise: October, November, March, April. Days can be mild and dry, and so it should come as no surprise that many of the city’s festivals get staged in these months. And, man, this city loves a festival—it’s a rare weekend when you can’t find a place to celebrate something while indulging in nutritionally questionably food.
These two are scheduled for the fall this year, due to COVID, but early April is the traditional time for the French Quarter Festival, which fills the Quarter’s streets with music and food. That’s followed by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (last weekend of April; first weekend of May), which draws tens of thousands to listen to acts both local and national.
New Orleans drops into low gear in the summer, which can be sweltry with an almost tactile thickness to the air. Yet celebrations go on. Essence Festival celebrates all things contemporary African American, with motivational speakers by day and top-flight music at night. Tales of the Cocktail in mid-July chiefly serves the international bar industry but offers seminars and events for the cocktail-obsessed consumer as well. Close out the summer with Labor Day weekend festivities at Southern Decadence, a half-century-old celebration of the city’s historic LGBTQ culture.
The return of cooler weather merits celebration, and festivals start to fill the calendar. Highlights include regional fetes like the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival in October, and November’s Bayou Bacchanal, honoring the city’s historic connection with the Caribbean.
Winter brings all the weather—from the chilly, damp, and blustery, to sunny spring-like days. The season has embedded within it the crown jewel of New Orleans celebrations: Carnival. Celebrations start on Epiphany (January 6) and culminate in Mardi Gras, in February or March, depending on the moon. Mardi Gras is essentially a confederation of festivals, with Fat Tuesday bringing a citywide series of parties, from resplendent Uptown parades to DIY bacchanals spilling out of the Marigny and into the French Quarter.