The Dozen Best Things to do in New Orleans
FIRST - The French Quarter Stroll - There is no better way to soak up the essence of New Orleans than a casual French Quarter stroll. The heartland of your travels should be the strip between Bourbon and Decatur Streets, from Bienville to the west over to St. Ann to the east, including the colorful Jackson Square. (Historical note: most of the street names have historical significance, for example, the Sieur de Bienville, born Jean Baptiste Le Moyne in 1680, was an early governor of Louisiana and the founder of New Orleans.) Sunscreen and compact rain gear may be handy, depending on the season and daily weather. It is important to understand the local open container laws pertaining to the possession of alcoholic beverages on city streets: there aren’t any rules, except that your drink must be in plastic, not glass. Thus, it is fair game to lubricate your stroll with a cocktail in hand (the local recipe for spicy Bloody Mary is a morning favorite; Abita beer or a Pimms Cup are great afternoon thirst quenchers). Beer and cocktail sales are ubiquitous in the Quarter and if you want to move from a bar to the street, simply ask for a “go cup” and your drink will be poured into a plastic cup for ready travel.
SECOND - The French Quarter Roll - Just a block beyond the eastern border of the French Quarter on a street lined with jazz clubs is Bicycle Michael’s (624 Frenchman Street). Michael will hire out mountain bikes, complete with sturdy, yoke-type locks, for $5/hour, $16/day or $75/week. He will want a credit card imprint for a deposit. It would be sensible to limit your biking ventures to the French Quarter, but if you can stand the harried traffic of the Central Business District, the uptown Garden District is beautiful to behold. If you choose to go uptown, the safest and surest route is to follow the street car line up St. Charles, at least until you have passed Lee Circle and made it under the Business Route 90 overpass approach to the Greater New Orleans Bridge. Once you have made it as far uptown as First Street, beautiful side streets will beckon. At all times rely on St. Charles Avenue as your navigating star. The smaller streets parallel to St. Charles can offer relief from the traffic. The quality of neighborhoods in New Orleans is checkered. If you start to get into a bad neighborhood, reverse course and in no event, venture into one of the obvious housing projects.
THIRD - Visiting the French Market - Running along Decatur Street on the south edge of the French Quarter past Jackson Square, is a strip of four canopy-covered blocks containing the Farmer’s Market and the Community Flea market. This noisy, fragrant and colorful market provides the wholesale fruit, vegetable and seafood stores for many of the best restaurants in town. The French Market also provides a bustling street fair for tourists to shop for local artifacts ranging from jewelry, to voodoo tokens, to Cajun spices, to desiccated alligator heads. Expect live music, open-air bars and street performers (and the only public restrooms in the French Quarter).
FOURTH - Dixieland Jazz and live music - You will get samples of live music all over the city. Along Bourbon Street in particular you will hear live bands blaring (there is usually no cover charge at these bars, but there will be a drink minimum at an inflated price). As Ernie the Attorney advises in this web log, there are lots of other places to look for great music. For traditional Dixieland jazz, the venue of choice is the 1920s-era Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter Street, next door to the famous Pat O’Brien’s bar - 504-522-2841). A distinguished group of founding musicians play daily from 8:00 p.m. to midnight, cover charge $4 (cash only). You probably hanker for the genuine article if you are prepared to put up with Preservation Hall: the entrance wait is often long, seating is limited, and there are no beverages served. For a more comfortable evening of traditional Dixieland jazz in the French Quarter, try Palm Court (1204 Decatur Street - 504-525-0200). At Palm Court sustaining (but not five star) dinner is served, there is a handsome mahogany bar, and many local musicians are usually on hand. The cover is $5 and music is played Wednesday through Sunday from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. If you are looking for more contemporary music there are many premiere venues. A few blocks east of the French Quarter is an area called Faubourg Marigny with local venues famous for appearances by locally famous groups, including members of the Neville Brothers. (Snug Harbor, 626 Frenchman Street, daily sets at 9 and 11 - 504-949-0696; Café Brasil, 2100 Chartres Street, daily shows - no phone, no credit cards.) In uptown New Orleans there is the famous shrine to Professor Longhair: Tipitina’s. (501 Napoleon Avenue, daily shows - 504-897-3943.) If you want to explore and go way uptown, follow the locals to the Maple Leaf (8316 Oak Street, no credit cards, daily shows ‘til early hours - 504-866-9359). When visiting the Maple Leaf, consider having dinner a few doors down at Jacques-Imo’s restaurant at 8324 Oak St. – 504-861-0886 (see our Restaurant Review for Jacques-Imo).
FIFTH - Early Beignets at Café du Monde - Many say that the French Quarter is at its best in the early morning. The smells of bakery drift in the air together with the call of riverboat traffic. Livery drivers make their deliveries as shopkeepers spray down the sidewalks to wash away the excesses of the night before. After you grab a copy of the local Times Picayune newspaper, the best seat in the house for New Orleans in the morning is outside at Café du Monde (813 Decatur Street - 504-581-2914). From a limited menu, the order of choice is local, molasses-dark chicory coffee and an order of beignets. Beignets are deep-fried, doughnut-like squares (called a “fritter” by many), cooked golden brown and covered with powdered sugar. Café du Monde (open 24 hours) fills up fast in the morning, so start early. If you miss the chance for a table, there is a takeout window where you can pick up an order and head across the street to enjoy your breakfast on a bench in Jackson Square.
SIXTH - Streetcar Tour of the Garden District - A trip to New Orleans is scarcely complete without a ride on the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the country. The former streetcar lines out to suburbs like Desire have been abandoned for decades, but the main line still operates up St. Charles Avenue at a fare of $1.25. The best place to catch the streetcar uptown is at Carondelet and Canal streets because that is where all passengers are disembarked so there is an opportunity for new passengers to get a window seat. The route travels all the way up St. Charles Avenue, past some of the grandest homes in the south, past Tulane and Loyola Universities, and up the riverbend to Carrollton. The best of the uptown ride is between First Street and the Riverbend. When the streetcar makes its unmistakable hard right turn at the Riverbend it is a good place to disembark to reverse cars for the trip back. First, you may want to stop for coffee and a French snack at La Madeleine, or a hamburger and egg meal at the locally famous, 1950’s-era greasy spoon, Camellia Grill (look for the line of people waiting for a counter seat). For the optimal streetcar tour, time your return trip for lunchtime and disembark at Washington Street where you can walk two blocks south (crossing Prytania Street in the direction of the right side of the French Quarter-bound streetcar) to what many feel is the finest restaurant in town: Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington Street, reservations essential - 504-899-8211). Whether you eat at Commander’s or just stroll by, stop and pick up one of the walking tour maps offered in the restaurant foyer. This tour is a short walk of 19 stops highlighting some of the finest examples of Garden District architecture and history, including the home Judge Jacob Payne at 1134 First Street where Confederacy President Jefferson Davis died in 1889.
EIGHTH - Visiting Landmark Bars and Taverns - The tavern is at the marrow of the New Orleans experience. The scene is likely to be set with banana trees, a fountain courtyard, muffelleta sandwiches on the menu and local drinks like a sazerac or a hurricane. New Orleans bars come in every variety: at Igor’s (2135 St. Charles Avenue) you can do your laundry, while Mid-City Bowling Lanes and Sports Palace (4133 Carollton) offers drinking, bowling, dancing and zydeco music. Several quintessential watering holes recommend themselves to the visitor. Two classic courtyard bars in the French Quarter offer two sides of the same traditional setting. The boisterous Pat O’Brien’s is a renowned tourist attraction with five bars and a lush courtyard that was the scene of part of the 1973 James Bond movie “Live and Let Die.” Even if the swell of tourists, I.D. checking and souvenirs get you down at Pat O’Brien’s, it is well worth seeing the spacious courtyard, and the dueling piano bar is irresistibly animated entertainment for the intoxicated and/or young at heart (718 St. Peter Street - 504-525-4823). The Napoleon House Bar, with its introspective grace and classical music, is as picturesque as Pat O’Brien’s. In fact, Napoleon House has its own film credits: it was featured in parts of the 1991 film “JFK”. Napoleon House, located in the very heart of the French Quarter, takes its cocktails seriously and prides itself on its Pimms Cup (500 Chartres Street - 504-524-9752). If you want more historical substance, visit the palpably historical Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, reputedly a former livery front for the pirate’s illegal activities around the Gulf of Mexico in the early 1800s (941 Bourbon Street - 504-523-0066). For a more grandiose surrounding, travel just a few blocks from the Quarter to visit a couple of hotel bars. The second floor Polo bar of the Windsor Court Hotel features a refined English theme with oil portraits of bearded Georges and Edwards, plus nightly jazz (300 Gravier Street 504-523-6000). The location of the grand Mardi Gras ball that defines the holiday is at the venerable Fairmont Hotel. The Fairmont has a gracefully sloping lobby area that leads to the famous Sazerac bar, the finest purveyor of the local cocktail of the same name (123 Baronne Street - 504-529-7111).
NINTH - Cajun Dancing - It should be no surprise that in “the city that care forgot” dancing is no half-hearted matter. But you need not travel out to a roadhouse bar in the mangroves to participate in Louisiana swampstrutting. Two friendly uptown bars attract a lively supporting cast of local dancers while extending to visitors a hearty invitation to join in the fun. Mulate’s is across the street from the riverside Convention Center and it is a reasonable walk from Canal Street and the border of the French Quarter. Mulate’s is a huge 400-capacity room with a live band at one end and a bar at the other. Locals arrive early, eat a meal of (typically fried) southwestern Louisiana dishes, and start to cut the rug (743 Convention Center Boulevard - 504-522-1492 - www.mulates.com). In a slightly rougher business district section of St. Charles Avenue near Lee Circle, Michaul’s Live Cajun Music Restaurant is another vast dance hall that welcomes visiting outlanders by offering them dance lessons (840 St. Charles Ave. - 504-522-5517).
TENTH - Balconies, Horse Carriages and Riverboats - A French Quarter hotel with a balcony and good view is a priceless addition to a New Orleans visit. Some smaller hotels have balconies to offer if you shop for them (Hotel Ste. Helene, 508 Chartres Street - 504-522-5014), but perhaps the best balcony-rich hotel is the Royal Sonesta, although it can be a noisy location on Bourbon Street (300 Bourbon Street - 504-586-0300). The Ramada Inn on Bourbon (bought in recent years from Best Western), and to a lesser extent the Wyndham Bourbon Orleans, has plentiful balconies along Bourbon Street (Ramada - 541 Bourton Street - 800443-4675; Wyndham - 717 Bourbon Street - 504-523-2222). A more quiet and elegant balcony option is offered by the small luxury hotels that have classic New Orleans courtyards (Hotel Maison de Ville, 727 Toulouse Street - 504-561-5858; Soniat House 1133 Chartres Street - 504-522-0570). As those city spectators with hotel balconies might agree, there is an undeniable romance in the horse-drawn carriages available for hire at Jackson Square (the French Quarter ride with historical tour is $40 for two, $50 for lager groups). Carriage riding is a cool weather pastime, however. The oppressive heat of mid-day summer can take a lot of fun out of it (you may notice that the horses for these carriages have been replaced by hardier mules because of their natural resistance to the effects of summer heat). The mighty Mississippi cradles New Orleans and there is no view of the City like a river view. It should be said that New Orleans offers surprisingly few good views of the river. The best vantage from a comfortable, landlocked location is from the eleventh-floor lobby of the Wyndham at Canal Place (100 Iberville Street – 504-566-7006), which offers a commanding view of a scenic section of the river. For views from the river itself you can take the ten-minute ferry to Algiers point that departs from the very bottom of Canal Street ($1 charge, leaving on the hour and half hour from 6:30 a.m. to midnight, but hours can vary so check with 504-364-8100 and don’t step foot on a boat unless you’re sure there is return passage available). Narrated riverboat cruises up and down the river are available from New Orleans Paddle Wheel (504-524-0814) and New Orleans Steamboat Company (504-586-8777). Dinner and jazz cruises are available from the authentic Steamboat Natchez (504-586-8777) or the Creole Queen Paddle Wheeler (504-529-4567).
ELEVENTH - Street Shopping - New Orleans offers some of the most interesting and picturesque antique shopping of any American city. Royal Street between Iberville and St. Philip is the shopping Main Street of the French Quarter. Uptown Magazine Street is also famous, but not as easy to reach without a car. (In truth, the seven blocks between St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street can be walked so that the street car offers a realistic transportation option from the Quarter to Magazine Street, but some of the cross streets are more pleasing than others and the rigorous heat of the summertime precludes any lengthy pedestrian venture.) The tightest collection of interesting stores on Magazine is between Delachaise and Constantinople Streets. These are fairly highbrow offerings. There is another, more blue-collar section, good for furniture and unfinished pieces, between Melpomene and Jackson Streets.
TWELFTH - Gambling - It is surprising that a free-rolling city like New Orleans would show fastidiousness when it comes to gambling. Perhaps a long history of municipal corruption explains this, however, it has only been as recently as 1993 that casino gambling was sanctioned by the legislature, and then only for strictly controlled riverboat gambling. More recently the Harrah’s complex was approved and built in the middle of the downtown area. Harrah’s has a city block of slots and gambling tables, dining facilities and a summertime outdoors theme in the center area with faux overhanging live oak trees, a tranquil country sky and fake shooting stars. After a number of bankruptcy threats Harrah’s is open for business with its almost unavoidable location on lower Canal Street (Harrah’s across from the Canal Place Mall - tel. 504-539-5020). Harrah’s is so big and so central that one gets the impression that it is the only show in town, but the older riverboat offerings are still available north of town along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. (Bally’s Casino Lakeshore Resort, 1 Stars and Stripes Boulevard - 504-248-3200; Treasure Chest Casino, 5050 Williams Boulevard - 504-443-8000). Of course, with minors in tow you may want to consider an alternative, like the great attractions offered by the Audubon Institute, including the New Orleans Zoo in Audubon Park uptown, the Louisiana Nature Center, the IMAX Theatre or the Aquarium of the Americas (www.auduboninstitute.org).
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Last update: 9/5/2006; 8:33:22 PM.