While most people seem to visit New Orleans for the opportunity to drink on street corners, there’s so much more to the Crescent City than getting drunk and listening to jazz. While the party rages on Bourbon Street at all hours, venture further afield and you’ll find that there’s art and culture, food and nature, and a history that’s richer and more complex than almost any other city in the United States, all waiting to be discovered.
Walking around the French Quarter during the day and night are two vastly different experiences, and I highly recommend doing both. Bourbon street is the heart of the party, with music and street performances going on all night; just watch your step to avoid getting spilled on. However, don’t get sucked in to the vortex, because there’s so much more to the Quarter than Bourbon Street. Wander around the streets and you’ll find tons of restaurants and unique little stores, selling all sorts of interesting souvenirs, lovely artwork, and gorgeous clothes. If you aren’t in the mood for shopping, just walking around and looking at the architecture and pretty storefronts can fill up a couple of hours of your time. Interesting fact: although it’s called the French Quarter, due to two devastating fires, most of the surviving buildings are actually of Spanish design.
2. Walking tours
Taking a walking tour is also a great way to get to know the city, and there are a wide variety to choose from. Some focus on architecture or history, while others delve into the mysteries of voodoo, vampires, and serial killers. We opted for a vampire tour with Rose and it was supremely entertaining. Mixing fact with fiction, this two-hour walking tour was tiring but her energy and passion were infectious, and it had our whole group enthralled. She wove tales of murder and mayhem, popular culture and history, folklore and myth, and if vampires interest you in the least, I’d highly recommend joining one of her tours. Just note that the tour involves a lot of standing around, so if you’re not up for that, opt for a bus tour instead.
3. The Garden District
Originally part of the Livaudais Plantation, and declared a National Historic Landmark in 1974, the nineteenth century houses and gardens of the garden district are lovely, and tons were decked out in their holiday best when we visited, which only added to the charm. Join a walking tour if you want details about the architecture and which celebs live where, or download your own guide and follow the prompts at your own pace. If you want something less organised, just wander around, combining the residential areas with the graceful Lafayette Cemetery and boutiques of Magazine Street for a relaxing afternoon. The tombs of the cemetery are all above ground due to the high water table. This often resulted in coffins floating down the streets after heavy rains, thus the beautiful tombs arose out of necessity and not aesthetics. Hint: Use the Saint Charles (Green!) streetcar to get here easily, and note the plaque on-board that proclaims it as the only moving historic landmark of the USA. Get a Jazzy pass, and get unlimited streetcar rides for $3 per day, by far the easiest and most cost efficient way to get around town.
While most of the products on sale at the market are generic trinkets and clothes that can be found in markets the world over, it is home to a few artists and unique souvenir stalls that are worth checking out. It is one of the oldest markets of its kind in the USA, and often hosts events. The highlight here though, is the food market, selling all manner of delicious treats, from freshly made pancakes to gators on a stick. The streetcar line serves this stop, and the market is open daily from 08:00 to 17:30.
5. Eat beignets!
There are tons of restaurants and cafes that serve beignets in New Orleans, including breakfast buffets at various hotels, such as the Hilton Riverside. However, the most famous of these is Café Du Monde, for good reason. Freshly made and coated in powdered sugar, these little treats are delicious and a must-eat during your visit. Pair it with some of their chicory coffee or rich hot chocolate, and it’s the perfect decadent treat to warm you up during cold winter nights. They’re open 24 hours a day, and while queues can get long, it’s also got tons of seating so don’t get tricked by the long queues that form at the takeaway window. The busiest times are for breakfast, so visit later in the day to avoid the long wait. We went after midnight and the place was packed, but the service was decent and the place was buzzing! There are also other branches of Café du Monde, aside from the original location on Decatur Street, but we didn’t try these as they didn’t seem as authentic.
6. Visit a plantation
Much of New Orleans’ past is steeped in the horrors of slavery, and a plantation tour brings you face to face with that aspect of the city’s history. Many plantations offer tours, and we chose to visit Oak Alley as it was the most beautiful of the lot. Laura, is however the only plantation that still has the original slave quarters instead of a recreation, and the tours apparently delve into more detail than any of the others. We had read about New Orleans through fictional and true accounts prior to the trip, so we already had a lot of context for what we were seeing, but if you want a lot of background, the plantation tours sadly do not provide detailed accounts of the overall history. It does make it personal though, and allows you to see different sides of one family’s story, which was an interesting way to spend a morning. There are also tons of displays that provide information, from slave quarters and tools used, to detailed accounts of the farming methods, and even a civil war tent exhibit! Our guide was really great, and very knowledgeable about Oak Alley, even providing us with some ghost stories and supernatural incidents experienced by other tour guides at the plantation, which fit right in with the spooky side of the city’s mystique.
7. Search for alligators
We opted to spend some time out of the city and get close to nature via a swamp tour. The drive out of the city was great, with our bus driver pointing out various points of interest, telling us about Katrina and the flood protection measures employed by the city, and also gave us a glimpse into how the average person lives. We took the airboat tour, which is faster than the usual boat tour and allows you to see more of the bayou, and we loved it. Most of the ride goes at a very slow pace as the captain searches for elusive gators, apparently they’re not very active during the winter and only a few made an appearance for us. They are ridiculously difficult to spot, and many false alarms were sounded when logs were mistaken for the real thing. One of the highlights here was getting up close and personal with raccoons eating marshmallows provided by the captain. We also saw quite a few graceful birds, gliding over the canals. On the return trip, however, the captain sped it up and those of us in the first row got splashed quite a bit. It was an exhilarating end to the trip!
8. Watch an NFL game
Football is something of a religion in these parts, and while we opted not to spend our precious hours in a stadium, being in the city on game day was extremely festive. People in Saints jerseys filled the streets all day, making their way to the game or just shouting ‘Who Dat’ at all passers-by. (The full chant is ‘Who dat say dey gon beat them Saints, who dat!’ just to provide some context, since we spent a couple of hours not knowing how to respond to random people screaming ‘who dat’ at us). The energy was infectious and had us wanting to attend the game too! Fleur De Lis beckoned from every t shirt and flag in sight, and everyone seemed to have a vested interest in the game.
9. Louis Armstrong Park
The park is a lovely green space in the city, and significant statues and sculptures are dotted around a little lake. Congo Square lies within its boundaries, the site where slaves would come together on Sundays during their only free time, to play music, dance, express themselves, and just escape the horrors of their daily lives. It is a testament to the human spirit, and an integral part of the melding of different cultures that made the city into what it is today. Although there is some controversy about the construction and design of the park, it is worth visiting due to its historical significance.
10. Jackson Square and the Saint Louis Cathedral
A place so steeped in history, with events like the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, battles, and the hanging of slaves and criminals occurring here. Nowadays, it is a place where artists paint and sell their work, where people read tarot cards and predict fortunes, where walking tours meet and street performers fill the square with their energy. The Saint Louis Cathedral frames the square, flanked by two other historic buildings. It is a place where people come to socialise and get in touch with the city’s pulse, and is a lovely place to visit at any hour of the day.
11. Eat a po boy
The food scene in New Orleans is unlike any other city. Owing to its melding of French, African, Caribbean, and Southern influences, a unique food culture pervades, with many local specialties unheard of in other parts. From hearty gumbo and spicy jambalaya, Louisiana Cajun and delicious Creole seasonings, myriads of hot sauce and unique jam blends, fresh oysters and delicate shrimp, our food list was longer than our attractions list! The downside is that there aren’t really any halaal places that specialise in local cuisine, but since a lot of it is seafood based, we didn’t have to miss out on all the fun.
While no one can agree on where the name itself comes from, everyone agrees that a good po-boy has to be served on crusty French Bread, with fillings such as oysters, roast beef, fried shrimp, crab, and fried chicken, amongst others, completing the meal. After getting recommendations from locals, we decided to visit Parkway for a good shrimp po boy, and we were not disappointed. The queue snaking around the block was our first clue that we were visiting somewhere special, and when we finally entered the café an hour later, we were treated to numerous relics of the past in the form of old newspaper cuttings, fading photographs, and various knick knacks that added to Parkway’s history. When our food came, the portions were generous, the shrimp fresh, and the food was delicious! We decided to try out the fried gherkins (pickles) since that was a foreign idea to us, which just proved that Americans have a knack for deep-frying everything, but that was a welcome surprise as they were great too. So next time you’re in the city, make sure you try a po boy and see for yourself what all the fuss is about.