We decided to skip the typical tourist agenda while in New Orleans and instead experienced life as locals for the two wonderful nights we explored this colorful city. The folks here are some of the happiest we have met along our road trip through the USA. Service at every single opportunity was at its most hospitable. New Orleans is the kind of place where no one is in a hurry, life is chill, food is fantastic, and although there obviously still is a disparity between the rich and poor, it is kept to a minimum. Those who live in the heart of the city live side by side, despite their income level, in "double shotgun" homes (think railroad-style apartments in a house version) whose facades cannot be altered in order to preserve the historic architecture. Everyone seems to know one another. There is no pretentiousness in the air. Life here is about simple living with deep relationships, great music, and incredible food. The weather this time of year is perfection. We really had the best time during our visit.
We did make one stop on Bourbon Street on our first night in town. It is ridden with tourists, drunks, and sketchy characters. We actually hated it and left immedietly. We also drove through The French Quarter during daylight and found it to be extremely crowded and overwhelmingly geared towards tourists. Luckily we found the best ways to explore the city, the true life of the city outside the more famous areas, which I will share with you below.
Book a Private Bike Tour with Confederacy of Cruisers
This slow-paced and easy three-hour bike tour will take you on a journey through New Orlean's "French Side" and load you up with the city's history while leading you through colorful neighborhoods. The sites we encountered, and the facts we learned, really immersed us in the flavor of New Orleans. There were no tourists to be found on this itinerary. Our tour guide, Jeff, is a New York native who moved here after falling in love with the culture and people. Jeff seemed to know everyone in the Marigny Bywater area that we rode through and had a story to tell about each of his friends that we encountered along the way. A ride with the Confederacy of Cruisers was the highlight of our trip. You definitely do not want to miss the opportunity to see the local side of the city.
Listen to Live Music on Frenchman Street
Outside of the main French Quarter District is a beautiful little street lined with colorful bars, restaurants, and tunes of talented musicians. This part of town has no crowds or tourists and instead offers lots of insight into life in the city. Locals get together at places like d.b.a. (run by NYC folks) and clog the storefront, gathering together on the sidewalk to watch musicians jam away on just the other side of the street. It's just so cool to see people standing around a sidewalk, with a drink in hand, dancing to the tunes of musicians in the middle of the afternoon. Even cooler is watching drivers pass through the crowded street with patience and zero signs of annoyance that pedestrians are standing in their way. I'm telling you, life here is chill baby.
Banksy left behind eleven pieces when he visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, many of them got accidentally torn down or purposefully defaced. You can still find a couple of intact pieces in the heart of the city. "Umbrella Girl" can be found on St. Claude Avenue and Kerlerec Street. "The Grafitti Eradicator" can be found on Clio and Carondelet Streets.
Venture Out to the Garden District
This charming part of the city boasts huge, historical homes and lavish mansions around Audobon Park and St. Charles Avenue, on the Mardi Gras parade route. Magazine Street is lined with restaurants, bars, and cute boutiques. The neighborhood is also home to Tulane University. You'll love watching the locals strolling in the park and you’ll equally enjoy passing the gigantic homes in this "American part" of the city. Unlike the "French Side" of town, houses here have large lots, expansive patios, and a surplus of square footage. Visiting this area provides a completely different perspective to life in New Orleans along with a tangible context of how life changed in the city after the American Revolution, which is most notable in the architectural changes.
Binge on Beignets
Beignets are an essential part of the food scene in New Orleans. These flaky, square-shaped, fried doughs are just heavenly. There is a lot of controversy around where to find the best beignets in the city. Many people rave about the ones served at Cafe Du Monde. However, if you're like me, and refuse to wait in line for over an hour then trust me on this, skip it. What most tourists don't know is that locals swear by Loretta's beignets. After binging on several to find the best ones, I can personally attest that no beignet in New Orleans' can compete with hers. Loretta is a New Orleans native who uses her family recipe to make beignets on a per-order-basis. That's right, none are pre-made so you can expect a hot, steamy, insanely delicious beignet every time. Along with the traditional flavor, please make sure to order a few of her signature praline beignets (out of this world!) and savory crab-filled beignets (OMG). These things are unreal. You can either wait in line with the tourists at Cafe Du Monde or Cafe Beignet or walk right up to the counter of Loretta's where the locals like to hang for beignets that will blow you away.
Explore the American and French Sides
New Orleans is packed with history mainly of its days influenced by France's control of the region. The city is split into two sections: French (pre-American Revolution) and American (post-American Revolution). The differences in architecture and design of the city are obvious and immediately noticeable. The best way to observe the period changes is simply by walking through the downtown area and exploring both sides of Canal Street.
Eat. All. Day. Long.
Cajun. Creole. Gumbo. Beignets. Crawfish. Po' Boys. Biscuits. The food scene here is like no other and you could, no joke, spend at least two weeks here exploring the culinary scene. We only had two nights so I knew that my researching skills had to be flawless, with little room for error in such a short visit. I am excited to share that I was spot on in selecting our eating destinations and I am even more excited to share them with you!
For the best-fried shrimp po'boys, this is your place. The sandwiches are loaded with shrimp. Like with each bite, five shrimp will drop to the floor. This is a messy meal but just stuff your face into the stuffed baguette dripping in creole mustard, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes, and wild-local shrimp. Although this restaurant is outside of the main hub of the city, expect a long line or call your order in for pick-up to enjoy in a local park like we did.
For great service and biscuits, this is your place. Breakfast in this modern and vibrant setting was the perfect way to start the day. Willa Jean whips up every biscuit variety you can think of. We opted for a fried chicken biscuit with tabasco honey, a plain biscuit with jam and butter, and an egg biscuit with pimiento cheese. Yum. Yum. Yum. Make sure to also order their delectable banana bread which is served warm, slightly seared, and will leave you oohing and aahing after each bite.
There are some meals that you'll never forget. Palace Cafe will offer you one of these rare experiences. When I look at the blurry pictures below I am reminded of how excited I was to devour the dishes presented to us that I didn't even take the time to check the quality of the images! Rest assured, I did check the quality of the food and it is outstanding. The crabmeat cheesecake in a pecan crust is unreal. Have you ever heard of such a thing? We also indulged ourselves on the shrimp remoulade prepared with Gulf shrimp, remoulade, fried green tomato, romaine lettuce, and chopped egg. Even the fried oyster salad was one of the most memorable salads. Really everything here is just so delicious. Make sure to end your meal with their famous table-side prepared banana foster. You'll be talking about it for days.
This special place makes our top ten best restaurant list in the USA. The service in this fine dining restaurant is impeccable. The cajun inspired food is flawless. The pricier-than-usual bill is worth every penny as every bite from start to finish will leave your palate doing a happy dance. Death by Gumbo is the dish that put this restaurant on the map. Because of the meats in it (I do not eat meat and really wanted in on the gumbo action!) we ordered the seafood gumbo instead, which in my opinion couldn't be any more delicious. We also enjoyed a lovely green salad with champagne vinegarette, dry age steak tartare with quail yolk, blue crab beignets that I just cannot describe in words, ricotta gnocchi with lobster which almost made our heads explode with pleasurable sensations, the special seared sea bass of the evening which was perfectly cooked, the Steen's Cane vinegar pie that was eaten in less than sixty seconds, and the dessert of the evening: carrot cake in caramel ganache. This was the perfect place to celebrate our last Friday night on the road before wrapping up this road trip. I will never forget this restaurant and I am certain you won't either.
Stay at a Historic Hotel
The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf-Astoria Hotel is exactly where you'll want to stay while visiting New Orleans. In true New Orleans fashion, the staff is cheerful, dotting, and accommodating in every way. The location is central to both the American and French sides of the city's hub. The hotel's three restaurants are sceny and lively. The outdoor pool has beautiful cityscape views and a fun bar staff that serves generous pours. The rooms are beautiful and spacious. Guest rooms are stocked with Salvatore Ferragamo products which I have only scene once before at The Portrait Hotel in Firenze. This hotel oozes old world class in a laid back, welcoming manner.
Two nights went by too quickly. Our first visit to New Orleans years ago was mainly spent in the French Quarter so we had the impression that two nights would be enough on this second visit. However, upon discovering the other, more authentic side of the city, we had a hard time peeling away. We could have easily spent a few more nights immersed in the beautiful vibe here. Note to self: next time, stay at least four nights. I can't wait to hear about your New Orleans adventures! Please let me know if I missed any other under-the-radar sites to add to our next visit becaus will absolutely be back.