I’ve never had an urge to visit New Orleans. Personal bias is such an interesting part of travel. In my mind, I suppose I had always lumped it alongside Las Vegas in the “I’ll pass” category due to the party scene which has never really intrigued me. So when I had the chance to visit, I had extremely low expectations, and over the course of four days, the Crescent City absolutely blew me away.
Why New Orleans exceeded my expectations:
1. Preservation Hall
We were wandering down St Peter Street and came across this lovely old building, to which I exclaimed “Wow, look at this amazing building” followed by “Oh. It’s Preservation Hall”. :P
Definitely a good idea to catch it on a Sunday or weeknight if possible. I’ve heard lines can be outrageous. We showed up 10 min early and got in for the first set. We stood right behind the benches. Then after a few people sitting on the floor in the front row left, we got to sit up close for the 2nd set of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Best. Jazz. Ever. (Also, they say no flash photography, no food/drinks, and no video. However, there were three chairs on the side, reserved for VIP people. They were drinking giant daiquiris and not familiar with the camera function of ‘no flash’. So I took a couple videos. It was a case of apologize later!) And there’s a resident cat. Le sigh.
2. Frenchman Street
When you ask a local where they like to hang out to see some music, pretty much every response started with Frenchmen Street. Just across Esplanade Ave is the real deal of New Orleans nightlife. From free venues like The Spotted Cat (1 drink minimum required. Also of note: there is a PIANO in the bathroom) to cover venues across the street of Snug Harbor and d.b.a. (which has 2 little rooms with lookout windows that are awesome for some Saturday night people watching). Again. Best. Jazz. Ever. in this city.
3. Food Food Food
The food in New Orleans? Amazing. And if there ever is a city that I’m thankful to be a pescatarian instead of vegetarian, it’s New Orleans. Fish is often the only non-red meat option on the menu, apart from side dishes and appetizers. So I ate a lot of fish, and a lot of fried things, and it was all pretty amazing. My favorite brunch was at Stanley, which is right on Jackson Square. I even found a veg-friendly place for lunch that was kind of too much Portland, called 13 (shhh… I went back the next night for the tachos. Don’t judge.)
4. The M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I River
“It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
— The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
I had a huge fascination with the Mississippi River, growing up. I loved Huck Finn, and the word Mississippi, and that it was the biggest river in the country, and growing up on a river (well for a few years) it was a huge source of entertainment. So my #1 priority on my first day was to go see the river (after breakfast at Ruby Slipper, anyway). I crossed the trolley tracks and walked up the steps to the river. Ta da. The M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.
5. Sazeracs & French 75
There’s so much more to New Orleans drinking than hurricanes and daiquiris. Knowing that I’m not a huge fan of sugary drinks, my coworker recommended I try a Sazerac while in NOLA. So my first night out, I ordered one at dba, and it’s my new favorite cocktail. A Sazerac is rye whiskey, Herbsaint (anise-flavored liquor), bitters, and a lemon peel. I also tried an orange variety at Three Muses, which was also excellent. Another new drink I tried was the French 75, also at Three Muses. This one is a combination of gin, champagne, lemon juice, and sugar. Apparently named after the French 75mm gun for it’s “kick”. I like.
After thinking about taking a Katrina tour, it ended up being my last day and I still hadn’t booked. I was unsure about booking one because of what I felt could be an exploitative nature of sitting on a giant bus operated by a huge tour company. I booked a bicycle tour instead.
And our guide used to drive one of those buses. He said he started his bike tour company because he felt like there were only 3-6 people on each bus that he wanted to share his city with. Interesting viewpoint. Our bike tour covered a bit of Katrina info as we pedaled along Esplanade Ave. It is known for being on a ridge, where as the Treme was flooded. The bike tour was also full of history and fun way to learn more about the city. We also rode through Saint Louis Cemetery #3. Bike tours are my favorite way to learn about a new city.
7. Architecture & French influence
Back to my low expectations of this city. I was, for whatever reason, expecting the French Quarter to be full of drunk college students and hillbillies. I guess I’d heard too many stories about NOLA & Bourbon Street. While I crossed the path of quite a few staggering folks, the French Quarter also has plenty of little empty side streets to take in all the amazing architecture (and do a few jumping shots. I always wear Lululemon running shorts under this dress — good for jumping, well and not flashing people when I sit down wherever I please). How about all the wrought iron and shutters? Magnificent.
8. Getting a drink to go
Open container laws are fun. While Portland is pretty lax about drinking in parks (I’ve never heard of anyone having a problem with bringing wine on a picnic or beers while playing bocce), it’s also kind of fun to be able to leave a restaurant with your unfinished drink. Now there’s a reason that some of these stores are still in business… because you’d have to be drunk already to shop there? And every street in the French Quarter has at least one shop with a wall of daiquiri machines. I asked for a sample, and it tasted like an alcoholic Slurpee.
9. Streetcar & Garden District homes
I love exploring cities by train, public transit, bikes, and walking. I suppose I could just say I have a fascination for non-car transportation. It’s fun to see how people get around a city. Both in the present and the past. I thought it was cool that New Orleans has the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world! For $1.25 you can take the St Charles line all the way through the Garden District until the end of the line.
A great way to spend a lazy afternoon. On the return trip, we got off to check out Magazine Street for dinner and then walked back to the French Quarter. Oh and the Garden District homes? I didn’t understand what the big deal about the Garden District and houses was all about, but it turns out that St Charles street is lined by mansions and old historic buildings. There’s plenty to look at on the 13 mile trip. I was also pleased to overhear an older gentleman on the streetcar complaining that this $1.25 trip was better than a “real” tour of the Garden District that they’d taken previously (which I imagine was on a bus).
10. Summer in fall
Coming from Portland in October, the weather was just perfect in New Orleans. There were a few locals in boots and sweaters, meanwhile I was in a sundress. Come on people, where I’m from this is summer. :)
After visiting New Orleans, it’s hard to believe that Hurricane Katrina (and all the horrific images of the destruction) was only six years ago, and that the city and it’s amazing people have recovered their city.
A few things that surprised me about New Orleans?
- All the smoking! I’m not used to it anymore!
- Keep NOLA Weird? I was pleased to find that freak flags are flying high in NOLA. It was kind of like being in Portland.
- Safety first? Ok, I’d heard all kinds of rumors and scary stories about visiting New Orleans. I never feel too apprehensive about my safety while traveling. Really, I was told the cemeteries aren’t good to visit solo because people get robbed a lot there. Which seemed paranoid to me, and I then I went on my bike tour and I must say, as long as you’re going during daylight I don’t see the big deal, especially on bike. It was fun zooming down the lanes of the cemetery, much easier to cover a lot of ground on bike.
- Solo traveler confusion. I wasn’t a solo traveler on this trip (my boyfriend was at a work conference on my first day), so I had a day to wander about town. On Saturday morning, I went to breakfast at Ruby Slipper. There was a huge line, but thankfully I got a seat at the bar immediately. Yay! I then wandered about for a while and then stopped at JAX Brewery for a beer overlooking the Mississippi, and the guy at the door asked me three (yes, three) times if I was alone. Him: “Just one?” Me: “Yep.” Him: “Just you?” Me: “*laugh* yep, just me” Him: “oh, are you alright? Just you, then?” Me: “yes, fantastic, thank you” Him: “well then, right this way.”