Every year, New Orleans (or “The Big Easy”) ritually faces the threat of devastating hurricanes. And yet, walking through the loud, boisterous, round-the-clock partying in the downtown French Quarter, you wouldn’t know it. In fact, were you to be suddenly transported there, it would be some time before you could say for certain you were still inside the U.S.
The Big Easy is an eclectic melting pot of French, American, African, and mostly predominantly the LGBT community in the last handful of years, all earning it a unique status among American cities, perhaps surpassing even New York City’s renowned multi-culturalism. This cultural hub gives you the opportunity to be in the middle of the overlaps of culture, and surprisingly, people say they feel like they belong all the more. One of the folks I was lodging with had just moved to the city from Phoenix, and said it felt like home, despite the fact she’d never been to New Orleans before.
Consider how close you want to be to the epicenter of the festivities that are Bourbon Street and the French Quarter and base your accommodation off that. There are countless great hostels and younger-crowd-oriented stays in the French Quarter, including The Quisby and HI New Orleans Hostel, as well as many Airbnbs to choose from (there’s more availability the further out you book). For a calmer experience, book a nice Airbnb in the Garden/Uptown district, for beautiful oak-lined streets and a quieter, safer neighborhood. The Pontchartrain Hotel is a fantastic, more up-market stay.
Take a streetcar from downtown St. Charles Ave all the way to uptown for a perfect lay of the land; there’s not much elevation around so this is your best bet. When you’re ready, head over to the French Quarter. Bourbon Street is about as uninhibited as any street in the USA could be. Local open-container laws, seemingly nightly festivals, tourists, locals, and merrymakers are all here, and come sundown, it’s prime people-watching and people-meeting. (New Orleanians are perhaps some of the most engaging folk I’ve had the pleasure of meeting.) And of course, if you happen to be here for Mardi Gras — February 16, 2021 — bring an extra pair of shoes, as you’ll dance through them.
If you seek (a little) more refinement and enjoy all things live music, head to Frenchmen Street, which runs perpendicular to Bourbon Street. Performers fill the clubs and bars and spill out onto the street, filling neighborhoods with jazz so integral to New Orleans, it’s actually called “New Orleans’ Jazz.” Also expect all things blues, reggae, and rock.
With any international meeting place, good food — however you define it — is on hand. In fact, the food traditional to the city even has its own name: Creole cuisine, from a mix of French, Spanish, West African, and Native American, after so many Creole dishes had their origin in the city. Seafood and Soul Food and all things southern are staples — expect deep-fried seafood on every menu. A Po’boy, the iconic Louisiana sandwich, is always a must; head to Liuzza’s by the Track for one of the best in town.
There are a handful of plantations roughly an hour out of the city. Oak Alley is perhaps the most notable, with free roaming of the 28 acres of the estate, with guided interior tours. It is a strange, humbling experience, and perhaps one of the most tangible manifestations of America’s more tragic history.
Closer to the city are two beautiful local parks, the vibrant, marshy vegetation almost as disorderly and beautiful as the city. Audubon, the smaller of the two, hugs the Mississippi river, and hosts the “Tree of Life,” which is supposed to be anywhere from 100 to 500 years old. It’s great for climbing, too. City Park, located just north of MidTown, is about 50 percent larger than Central Park in NYC, with plenty to explore, including the New Orleans Botanical Gardens, tennis courts, and sculpture gardens.
This column is taken from the February 2021 issue of Dockwalk.