Whenever we think of New Orleans, this is the first thing that comes to mind – the first line of the lyrics to the song of the same name, originally recorded by Louis Armstrong (a very famous New Orleanian), Billy Holiday, and many others including Pete Fountain, Harry Connick, Jr., Fats Domino and Al Hirt to name just a few. Since David’s father grew up in New Orleans, he made many trips throughout his childhood to The Big Easy – generally to visit family. But those trips were also about getting a bit of that “Laissez les Bon Temps Roulez” (or loosely translated from French: Let the Good Times Roll). If you have ever been to New Orleans, you know that it is a city that sticks with you. The sights, sounds, smells, and tastes – the music, art and food scene here are incredible! As are the people – you will not find a more interesting and eclectic collection of personalities than in New Orleans. A common saying about New Orleans goes something like this – You can live anywhere, but New Orleans is the only city that lives in you. No matter where you go, New Orleans will always be on your mind.
Over our past 30+ years together, we have made numerous trips to New Orleans ourselves. At least a dozen trips so far – mainly for vacations and visiting family, but also weddings and a couple funerals. And each time we go, we discover another fascinating little corner of the city that we didn’t know existed (or has been “reborn” since we had been last). Our most recent visit in 2019 was no exception.
The French Quarter (Vieux Carre’)
For first timers (and even locals), the French Quarter is a must. It is the area where the French founded the City of New Orleans (La Nouvelle-Orléans) in the early 1700’s and is essentially considered to be bounded by Decatur Street, Rampart Street, Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue. So much history resides here, and around every corner you are sure to see something you have never seen (or even thought you might see). And if you think that Bourbon Street represents all that New Orleans is, please check out some of the other parts of the Quarter and other parts of the city. While Bourbon Street gets a lot of attention in the news and travel guides, and certainly has something to offer and should be experienced at least once, there is so much more to this town. We highly recommend venturing off the main touristy streets (Decatur, Bourbon, and Canal) and finding a slightly quieter spot to explore – but just not too quiet (and especially after sunset). Just like in any large city, if you see a street with nobody on it there is probably a reason for that and you probably shouldn’t be there either. Definitely pay attention to your surroundings and hang on to your personal items (cameras, bags, phones, etc.) at all times.
For example, take Jackson Square. It is a great place for strolling, visiting with the local artists displaying their latest creations, or simply sitting on a bench and people watching. As St. Louis Cathedral overlooks the central gardens of this entire square block dedicated to pedestrians, local artists are typically set up around the perimeter of the square. At the same time you can see street performers just about anywhere in the area, or get your fortune told (if you dare). The street performances typically consist of dancers, singers, bands, living statues – if you can think of it, you can probably find it. They often attract large crowds – sometimes closing down an entire intersection – and if you enjoyed their performance, took a picture or recorded video, please tip them. If a carriage ride is something you have always wanted to do, this is the place to catch them as they are generally lined up on Decatur Street.
The artists and entertainers around Jackson Square are extremely talented. If you are really interested in arts and antiques make your way to Royal Street where you can spend several days just perusing the numerous shops. Art galleries and antique shops literally line both sides of the street from Iberville Street to Saint Philip Street (about 9 blocks). And be sure to check out some of the Voodoo Shops – one of the few cities in the world where you can pick up a bit of black magic paraphernalia (and maybe change your luck – for good or bad!). Just be very careful what you bring back home – you may end up with a charm that brings you bad luck. And getting rid of that unlucky charm is more difficult and more painful than you might think – and we know that from firsthand experience! Beware of the Voodoo Dolls.
Live Music – It’s Everywhere!
If you are in the mood for some serious jazz or blues, the most famous place in the Quarter is Preservation Hall. Since Big Shot Tickets (VIP Tickets) are generally sold out long in advance of the shows, the best way to get in is by standing in line 30 to 45 minutes before the show you want to see. The entrance is on St. Peter Street right next to Pat O’Brien’s. Tickets are $20 at the door, with shows at 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10 pm nightly. Some truly fantastic musicians have played (and still do play) here!
Still looking for some more live music? Work your way over to Frenchmen Street (just a few blocks off The Quarter – though we highly recommend that use a cab, Uber or Lyft to get to/from the area for personal safety reasons). The two blocks of Frenchmen Street between Decatur and Royal contain some of the best jazz clubs (and musicians) in the city. Here you can listen to and cheer on many of the up-and-coming local musicians as well as some of the most seasoned veterans. We had the good fortune of being able to enjoy the incredible Ellis Marsalis Quintet at Snug Harbor last year. What a treat! But in addition to this establishment, the street is lined with revelers working their way from one hip place to another – The Spotted Cat (one of our favorites), d.b.a, Apple Barrel, Blue Nile, Café Negril, The Maison, Three Muses, 30^/-90^ and Bamboulas. And when you are done listening to jazz/blues/rock /country (or even in between sets), swing by the Art Garden and Floating Gallery directly across the street from d.b.a. This open-air artist market is open Thursday-Sunday from 6 pm until midnight. The artists there are super talented and willing to talk about their art, and the place is vibrant and beautiful after dark!
If you happen to be outside of the French Quarter and looking for live music, we have found some really fun bands at the Rock-n-Bowl (yes, it is a bowling alley with live music most nights of the week!) on Carrollton, the Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street near Carrollton, and Tipitina’s on Tchoupitoulas Street (and you will need to ask a local how to pronounce that name!) at the corner of Napoleon Avenue in Uptown. Note that you should check their websites to be sure there is music that night. Nobody wants to get all dressed up to hear some great music only to be disappointed upon arrival when the doors are locked and the lights are out. This has happened to us…..
Relaxing in the Park
If you need to find a low-key place to hang out after too many late nights at the clubs, one of our favorite places to relax and just take it easy is in City Park. There is so much to see (and do) here for everyone – just walking around and enjoying the magnificent old oaks in the park with the Spanish Moss (though the moss is actually a parasitic plant that is slowly killing the tree), the ducks and geese (watch out for the geese – they can be aggressive), and the fish in the meandering creeks. Such a grand park! It is also home to the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Botanical Garden, a free outdoor Sculpture Garden (we happened to get there just as a docent was starting a free tour last time and learned a lot of cool facts about the pieces in the garden – or you can download the app for your phone as well and get a self-guided tour).
There is also a mini golf course (City Putt) that is great for kids and adults, along with Storyland right across the street – a theme park for kids in which lots of childhood story characters have been created in life size (and sometimes larger) 3d format (think The Three Little Pigs, Cinderella, Little Miss Muffet, Dragons, and such).
And don’t forget to grab an order or 2 of beignets and coffee (café au lait of course!) at the City Park location of the Café du Monde at some point during your visit here.
If you happen to be at City Park, you are super close to the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. A short 5 minute drive from the parking lot and you are on the south shores of one of the largest salt-water bodies of water in the United States. Take a leisurely drive along Lakeshore Drive – start at the intersection of Lakeshore Drive and Robert E Lee Boulevard just west of City Park and follow it along the canal and then along the south shore of Lake Ponchartrain, past the University of New Orleans and on to its terminus at Leon C Simon Drive. There are several parking areas along this route, with picnic benches and seating right at the waters’ edge.
If you are looking for some more outdoor time in this city, a trip to Audubon Park is also a lovely way to spend part of an afternoon. Biking, running or simply strolling the park and enjoying the old oak trees and wildlife is a great way to pass the morning or afternoon. There is an exceptional number of birds here in spring/fall during migration season. And if you fancy a bit of golf, there is an 18 hole course within the park. Or, if you prefer the zoo – they have one right there as well. Elephants, giraffes, gators, lions, white tigers (and bears, oh my!) Other parks closer to the French Quarter include Crescent Park and Woldenberg Park – both linear parks along the Mississippi that give you an opportunity to walk off some of the extra calories you are no doubt consuming or just sit back on a bench or the grass and watch Old Man River just rolling by (as well as the significant amount of river traffic – barges, cargo/container/cruise ships, and riverboats). If you don’t have a car and are staying in the French Quarter or along the St Charles streetcar line (or even if you do have a car – just leave it in the parking lot/ramp), the streetcar stops right next to Audubon Park (though if you are going to the zoo it is a pretty long walk to the zoo entrance – maybe close to a mile. So wear your good walking shoes for that one!
Speaking of the St Charles streetcar (please don’t call it a trolley!) – we highly recommend that you at least ride it once. Try and find a time outside of the normal commuting times (say after 9 am and before 3 pm) to be sure you can get a seat. A ride on this treasured piece of transportation history costs all of $1.25/person each way – and it runs from the French Quarter to Carrollton Avenue, and then makes the big turn up Carrollton. It eases past some of the most beautiful homes in the city, with numerous restaurants along the way. While not a quick way of getting around, it is an easy way to spend a lazy day of not doing much yet still doing something. And check out the benches in the streetcar – they are adjustable so you can switch the back so that you are facing your friends/family (unless you have seen enough of them and just want to get lost in your thoughts).
If history museums are something that interest you, there are several great ones here. Without a doubt, the World War II Museum in New Orleans is arguably one of the best WWII museums in the United States (if not the world) and it is ever expanding. A full day at this museum is not nearly enough – but it can be overwhelming. We suggest you spend as much time as you feel is not too much (maybe a half day), and come back another day (or another year if you are pressed for time). There is just that much to see and take in. The Cabildo, next to Saint Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square is another excellent museum – though it’s main emphasis is on New Orleans history and culture. And if you want to see some unusual fish, we suggest you check out the Aquarium of the Americas. Lots of really interesting sea life here – along with one of the largest shark tanks we have ever seen. It is impressive!
With the great Mississippi River right there, obviously someone needed to capitalize on that wonderful amenity. The Creole Queen offers a morning and afternoon historical river tour, as well as an evening dinner jazz cruise. Downstream from the Creole Queen (and right next to the JAX Brewery Shopping Center), the Steamboat Natchez (run by the New Orleans Steamboat Company) offers jazz cruises twice a day and during the evenings. Both of these steamboat operators have excellent reputations and dedicated crew. You can’t go wrong – lots of fun and a unique vantage point from which to see the city. Fun for adults and kids!
Want to get out of the city for some unusual entertainment? A swamp tour is a must-do (unless of course you live on the bayou, then why would you want to see another bayou?). Many tour operators have locations in the French Quarter where they will pick you up, take you to their bayou tour starting location, and bring you back to the French Quarter at the end of the tour. Or if you have a car, you can drive out to their location as most of these are a 30 to 60-minute drive from the city. Just keep your hands and feet in the boat during the tour – them gators is hungry! There are a number of companies that offer this type of tour – we suggest you do your research and pick a reputable company. We have been on several of these tours and they are quite entertaining. Unfortunately, we have never been able to take an air boat tour in the swamps – the weather has always caused those trips to be canceled (too cold, too rainy, or too cold and rainy).
Well, that’s all we have time for today, kids! Come back soon to read Part Two of our New Orleans Travel Tips – Where to Stay and When to Go, as well as The Food, The Drinks, Unique Tours, Neighborhoods and Shopping! Until next time, we wish you happy and safe travels!