American playwright, Tennessee Williams, once said “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
Well, no offense to Cleveland but after just two days in The Big Easy, I can see why this southern city stands out amongst the rest. And just the way I refuse to ever leave New York, I refuse to not return to New Orleans time and time again.
I was surprised with how much we were able to fit into just two full days but I do pride myself on being the unofficial queen of immersive, short-term itineraries. That being said, I have an extensive list of things I wish we had to time to do (which only makes my returning more necessary) as well as a few things that I wish I had done differently.
We landed in New Orleans a little before 9:00 AM (CDT) after a 6:30 AM flight from New York which means we planned to start exploring as soon as we possibly could.
The ride from Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to Le Méridien Hotel was only about a 25-minute ride which was far too short thanks to our fantastic Uber drive Kathryn. A New Orleans native, she welcomed us to the city with an unofficial history, deeper knowledge of the unfortunate outcomes of Hurricane Katrina, and information on sites we passed such as the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Greenwood Cemetery, and the local colleges. She also provided some much-needed advice, such as “eat somewhere outside of the French Quarter”.
While we didn't have time to dine at Le Méridien Hotel during our stay, we have nothing but positive things to say. We experienced the most hospitable greetings upon checking and dropping off our bags. The design of the hotel's interior is lovely and we were shocked thatwe were walking into what we considered a very affordable hotel and not a Ritz. Not to mention, the lobby bar provides some great coffee and pastries in the morning.
Our first stop post baggage drop-off was Café Beignet, an easy walk from our hotel which also provided us the opportunity to see some streetcars in action and window-shop some stores on Royal Street. We also dropped by the New Orleans Welcome Center where we got a quick Mardi Gras photo-op and a map of the city with additional recommendations written by one of the fantastic representatives.
Oddly enough, I did not get beignets at Café Beignet instead opting for a Muffuletta sandwich, a staple sandwich of New Orleans that usually consists of an assortment of Italian meats, provolone, and olive salad on an Italian bun. The most famous spot to grab this classic is Central Grocery & Deli on Decatur Street but unfortunately, we weren’t in that area just yet – and the 5 PM closing time meant we wouldn’t make it there on our trip.
It was only a little after 10 AM at this point, but the café still had a bit of a line and we had to scope a bit for a table (both inside and outside seating are available, but space is small). Eventually, we grabbed a spot and were able to scarf down our sandwiches and coffees, which brings me to mistake #1.
When asked if you would like your Muffuletta heated up, say no.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a decent sandwich but I felt the heat made the flavor a littler lackluster as each component kind of blended together. As for the coffee, it’s a bit bitter – and that’s coming from someone who swears by black coffee. That being said, it’s still a nice little spot for breakfast with both indoor and outdoor seating, if you can even get a seat. The menu also had a number of items that I’d love to try on my next go around if I don’t try out an unheated Muffuletta.
Our next stop was The National WWII Museum, which is noted as being not only one of the most worthwhile museums in New Orleans but also their #1 attraction in general. I’d go as far as to say that was one of my favorite history-based museums to date and you really do leave with a newfound understanding and respect for those who fought and lived through this world-altering war.
One local we spoke with joked that no one in New Orleans walks anywhere because of the heat, which we initially brushed off. But while we persevered and ended up strolling all the way to and along River Walk, the June heat definitely began to get the better of us.
I may have gotten some cute photo opportunities but I can’t stress enough that you should always dress for the temperature and comfortability. Unless you’re choosing your outfit based on a specific itinerary (ie. visiting a place of worship or high-end dining establishment) or following a social norm, you want to ensure that you’re comfortable and dressed properly for the weather and climate. In my case, a full-pant, double layered jumpsuit made of whatever non-breathable material that was in 96 degree southern humidity was not the best of decisions.
Luckily unlike festival season, we at least were able to enjoy our walk without hoards of people. It was a lot more comfortable, allowed us to stop and go at our own pace, and obviously felt a lot less touristy and a lot more authentic.
It’s about a five-minute walk from the Natchez, New Orleans’ only steamboat to the famous and well-photographed, Jackson Square – most known for the simple yet stunning St. Louis Cathedral.
Think of Jackson Square as the Times Square of New Orleans – though it’s busy, full of shops, tourists, and street vendors, it’s also insanely lively. Even if you’re just window shopping, some of these shops are definitely walking into. After all, how does one just walked passed a store dedicated to bloody Mary toppings or hot sauce?
But of all the shops along these streets, the must-visits are Voodoo Authentica and Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo. New Orleans truly does give off an air of magic or mystique, unsurprising considering the many myths and history of voodoo in the area.
This brings me to my next tip – do not insult the voodoo spirits.
I may have made one small Miss Cleo reference, and on our way out my phone which has lived through quite the accidents slipped out of my hand and shattered. It then continued to fall and shatter more on an almost regular basis for the next two weeks until I replaced it.
We were able to make one more stop before our scheduled brunch at 1:00pm and decided to hit a spot that was on both of our lists: Louis Armstrong Park. Aside from providing 32-acres of park space for locals to escape the chaos that can be found in Jackson Square, Louis Armstrong Park succeeds at honoring Louis Armstrong, one of Jazz music’s finest.
But one of my favorite spaces in the park is a large open space known as “Congo Square”, though it developed several names over its history. During the 18th century, those enslaved within Louisiana were typically allowed Sundays off and would frequent Congo Square. Here they would socialize, play music, sing, dance, and set up shop to sell goods. There is a way deeper history when it comes to Congo Square, which I realized upon my post-visit research, and I highly recommend reading up on it.
After scoping every inch of the park, we had finally had enough of the heat and were relieved to hop in an Uber that had the air conditioner on full-blast.
At this point we were amazed by how much we were able to see in just a few hours – and were looking forward to taking a break for brunch at the reknowned Commander’s Palace. This unfortunately brings me to the next thing I’d do different during my next visit.
Do not dine at the tourist-recommended locations.
I wanted to love Commander’s Palace, I really did, especially since it had always been on my New Orlean’s bucket list. But not even halfway through our three-course brunch, we were being haunted by the voice of our Uber driver who told us to eat anywhere outside of the usual tourist locations.
First, the good: I had gone with the heirloom tomatoes as my appetizer of choice and while it’s a simple dish – composed of several colored tomatoes, some romaine, and a vinaigrette – it was delicious and refreshing after the heat.
Additionally, while the band never made it to our table, we loved watching and listening to them go table-to-table taking requests. Shout out to the family at the table next to us who requested a well-known Louis Armstrong class and the band who made sure everyone in the room sang out “what a wonderful world”.
Additionally, dessert was pretty good. My friend had gotten Lolly’s Praline Parfait, which I wish I could’ve stolen a finished. One of the things I learned during our weekend was that anything praline-related will satisfy your tastebuds, so when throw it over some vanilla bean ice cream and add some chocolate sauce – it’s delectable. I had gone for the insta-famous Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé since I’m entirely unable to ever not order bread pudding if it’s offered on any dessert menu. The taste of the soufflé itself was fine – but the warm whiskey sauce added tableside and the warmth of the soufflé is really what makes it.
The biggest disappointment by far were the entrees. I had been scoping the online menu beforehand already knew I was choosing the crawfish fritatta – but unfortunately, and not due to any fault of the restaurant obviously, crawfish season had ended. And so the crawfish fritatta would temporarily have king crab instead. Perfect, as I absolutely love king crab. Sadly and I don’t even know how this is possible, the crab that topped my patty-shaped eggs (technically not a fritatta but a digress) had virtually no flavor. Odd since king crab is typically pretty flavorful on it’s own. I could’ve handled this if it weren’t for the fact that my fritatta was beyond overcooked. Even utilizing the sauce underneath, it was dry and flavorless so I ended up eating just the remaining crab.
My friend had ordered the black angus beef and potatoes which upon first bite, he insisted were ridiculously over-salted. Upon tasting both, I could vouch. Seeing as this was our only “big” meal, we were pretty disappointed.
Additionally, service was so-so. While our waiter was attentive, he seemed distracted or as if he wasn’t having the best day. But he did re-fill out water glasses several times mentioning the heat and humidity outside.
Directly across the street from Commander’s Palace is Lafayette Cemetery No.1, a popular stop for tours. Upon leaving Commander’s Palace it not only started downpouring but the crowds that stood outside the cemetery made it even less appealing. And so we took a nice Uber ride through the garden district, awing at the homes as we did, back to our hotel for showers and naps.
Pro tip: ask the locals where they like to eat after a night out.
After waking up from our naps we grabbed an Uber to the Bourbon street area and asked out driver what to grab before our night officially began. “You gotta get yourself a poboy with everything and some good gumbo”, he said before pointing us in the directions of NOLA Poboys. Walking in, we already knew we’d get something good here since it had the ambaince of the 24-hour delis back home. For the future reference, NOLA Poyboys is open until 4am on Friday and Saturday nights.
Anything fried is spicy, a sign behind the register lets you know. But you do have the option to order your dish “yankee” style, which is more mild, or “cursing murray (named after the owener) which is extra spicy. I stuck with a classic order and got a fried shrimp poboy with everything – meaning mayo, lettuce, tomato, and pickles. I also made sure to get a side of the sausage and chicken gumbo.
This meal was life changing and cost me approximately $15. If you need a recommendation for a pre or post-night out meal, NOLA Poboys is it. Though I’m sure you’ll find this mouthwatering classis and even unique takes on this classic (ie. Killer Poyboys) all over the city.
We ended up randomly picking our first bar of the night and honestly could have spent the whole night there thanks to Marty Peters and the Party Meters, a great jazz cover band. Unlike the rest of the bars on Bourbon Street, this one was less packed, chill, and focused on the music. There really is something about sitting back with a hurricane (just one, because three sips will knock you down) and tapping your foot to good music.
The rest of the Bourbon Street bars are a bit different. I’ve never loved over-crowded college bars (I say at only 26) but we still managed to have a good time. We grabbed some “grenades”, a classic Bourbon Street drink, at this awesome dive bar with a killer jazz band, rode a mechnical bull at Rodeo Bar, and took pictures up on one of those bar balcony’s overlooking the entire street. While it’s definitely not my scene on a regular basis, it’s definitely fun for a night.
Thankfully, the very well-known Café Du Monde is open 24 hours and soon enough we bailed for some frozen coffees and beignets. You may be asking “why would you drink coffee this late at night” Well, for starters, it’s my belief that coffee is an all-day treat but I’m also a self proclaimed coffee connoisseur (FYI I’m not really a connoisseur) and all I had heard about was Café Du Monde’s amazing frozen coffee.
Overall, Café Du Monde get’s an A+ for their coffee, their beignets, the relaxed outdoor seating, all of it. For all wondering, while it is frequented by tourists, it’s not at all overrated and I will warn that these are the best beignets and frozen coffee you may ever taste.
It was a slightly longer walk back to our hotel but by this time the humidity had subsided a bit and we loved passing all the places we had earlier again at night, especially St. Louis Cathedral. After such a packed day, even post-coffee, it wasn’t too much of a challenge to knock right out.
I had been very excited for our second day in New Orleans as we had booked a combo tour with Cajun Pride Swamp Tours that included a swamp tour up in Baton Rouge followed by a tour of either Oak Alley or Laura Plantation. We decided on Oak Alley after researching the several plantations available to visit while in New Orleans, based on how it’s one of the few that seemed to focus largely on the slave experience and those that truly made the plantations run.
We were picked up at our hotel and it took approximately 45 minutes to get to the Cajun Pride office in La Place, Louisiana. During the ride our driver pointed out a few of the different sites we passed, the history, the local universities, and some of the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina and it was a cool way to get to see a bit of Louisiana outside of New Orleans.
Upon arrival at the Cajun Prides offices we had about a half hour to walk the grounds, which included a small pond with an alligator and a couple of smaller creatures and some picnic tables to relax.
Some parts of the tour, such as the pictured above are completely exciting but a lot of the tour is mostly made up of small little baby gators swimming by. So the tour was more relaxing than anything, but we did some cool remnants of houses and some raccoons along the way.
Our driver and guide told us a lot of about his family’s history of working with alligators including the five he’s raised from the time they were babies to the limitations the state places on crocodile hunting which includes the purchasing permits.
As we sailed past former small villages we also learned a bit more about Louisiana’s haunted history. Along the swamp once lived Julia Black, a voodoo priestess who would regularly sing eerie songs on her porch with her guitar, the most known being “One day I’m going to die and take the whole town with me.” Some believe this was Julia’s way of letting everyone know she had placed a curse upon the town, one that eeringly came true. In September of 1915 on the day of Julia Black’s funeral, a massive, unforseen hurricane hit with winds of 125 miles per hour. The swamp flooded and a majority of those in the small town sadly drowned (about 300 total died in Louisiana). – Julia did in fact take the whole town wit her.
Most people know of Oak Alley due it’s instagrammable tunnel of Oak trees that line the path to the plantation house, but it has a long history. At one point the home was owned by a man and woman and their three children as well as the sugarcane plantation outback. Eventually the man passed and his wife, completely distraught, refused help when it came to the plantation’s finances and upkeep thus running it into the ground.
Eventually the house was repurchased by a woman known as Ms. Stuart and her husband Andrew. It was Ms. Stuart who started the Oak Alley Foundation to ensure that the house and its land was always preserved.
Our tour guide was super knoweldegable and explained the history of the families who had lived on the property including the enslaved who worked the sugarcane plantation. While touring the house we learned that young enslaved children as young as 12 were forced to serve the family as well, including the task of pulling a rope that pulled an old makeshift fan while the family ate dinner.
After a long day of working in the house or unfortunately in the fields, the slaves wouldmake their way back to the slave quarters as seen above. These quarters would often house several people, which is disheartening on it’s own but especially when you consider that the huge plantation house at some points housed a family of just five.
We saw and learned so much and yet there was still so much of the property that we didn’t have time to explore as we had to be back at the bus. If I could do differently, I’d rent a car or find a ride to the plantation without a tour so I could explore on my own time.
I napped most of the ride back and following some showers at the hotel, we were ready for our second evening in New Orleans. We had loved seeing the Creole Queen in person and while we would have loved to ride one of the popular boats down the river, they were about $34-45 a person whereas the ferry boat was only $2.
Of topic, but I can’t stress enough the benefit of utilizing ferry’s as opposed to tourist boats when visiting cities. Back home in New York, I always remind visitors that they can pay the cost of the Circle Line or just take the Staten Island ferry, $2 each way, for a great view of the city.
We did a roundtrip ride then headed over to the city center for some eats. We were definitely in the mood for something cheap and greasy before our night out and following a recommendation from a friend on Twitter, decided to stop by Dat Dog.
But Dat Dog isn’t your everyday hotdog joint. You can get something rather ordinary like an all-beef hotdog or Polish kielbasa or something a bit unique like an alligator or crawfish sausage. They even offer Guinness dog, which is a traditional bratwurst infused with Stout. We decided against building our own (which includes choosing a sausage then toppings) and went with some already designed options.
I had gotten the traditional Chicago dog and cheese fries and some fruity drink (the name of which escapes me). It was delicious, perfectly portioned and exactly what we needed.
Having gotten our dose of Bourbon Street the night before, we thought we’d try Frenchman Street out. Unfortunately, as it was a Sunday a lot of places were dead or lacking a musical act for the night. While we did find some chill spots – we ended up taking our drinks (legal if in a plastic cup) and walking back over to Bourbon O’Bar for a bit. But I’ll definitely be trying Frenchman Street again our next time around.
This leads to my final tip: if you’re looking for top-notch musical acts and a decent crowd, try to avoid Sunday nights.
But regardless of when you visit, you’ll always have a good time kicking’ it down in New Orleans.
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