A friend recently asked me for some advice on what to see and do when visiting New Orleans. I know the city fairly well – my Dad’s whole family lives there so I’ve visited 25-30 times – so I ended up writing rather a lot, which I thought I may as well post here.
New Orleans is an absolutely fantastic city to visit. The best things about it in my book are the swamps, the jazz and the food, all of which are excellent. One of the things that makes it so distinctive tis that, despite it being in many ways fully in the heart of America, Cajun culture and history are genuinely distinct and separate from any other parts of the US. This is reflected in all sorts of things, including the architecture, street names and – most importantly for the tourist – its amazing cuisine.
Before diving into the guide, one recommendation if you’re there for more than a couple of days is to hire a car for at least a couple of days. It’s not that expensive and whilst there’s a lot in the city and around the French Quarter, there are a few things that are further out (in particular the swamp) which can only really be easily reached by car.
Top Five things to do
For those who don’t have time to read the full guide, below are my top five things to see and do for an unforgettable trip that captures the spirit of the city. Read on for more detail on the below and much, much more.
– Spend a day exploring the French Quarter
– Walk the Swamp Trail at Jean Lafitte National Park
– Go to the Jazz Brunch at the Court of Two Sisters
– Go to Preservation Hall
– Eat a poboy
The absolutely must visit is the French Quarter, the oldest part of the city and one of the few places in the US (certainly outside the north-east) with buildings and history that approach some of what might find in a European City. The Quarter itself is just fantastic to wander around, with lots of lovely old buildings with balconies, little curiosity shops, art galleries (of the sort that you find in Brighton and similar – i.e. shops that are selling art) and street entertainment. You can hear some of the best jazz in New Orleans simply by wandering around the Quarter and stopping to listen.
A good place to start is Jackson Square, the heart of the Quarter, where you’ll find street entertainment and people painting portraits. If you’re not staying within walking distance, you could take a taxi here or, if driving, I’d recommend parking at Jax Brewery, a block away – the parking is reasonable (for the city centre) and you can usually get a space. From Jackson Square, there are a number of ways to go.
In one direction is the French Market, a long market selling everything from food to art to tourist souvenirs. A mixture of great quality stuff and absolute tat, it’s a must to wander along – and used by local people, too, as the number of stalls devoted to fresh veg and seafood show. There are a number of places along here to grab a bite and listen to music; you could also pop in for a browse to the Central Grocery, one of the oldest shops in the city and the place that invented the Muffaletta sandwich. My Dad used to do his grocery shopping here when he lived in the Quarter, too. Returning back to near Jackson Square you can stop for chicory coffee and a beignet (awesome fried doughnuts coated in sugar) at the Cafe Du Monde. Don’t worry if there’s a queue – it moves very rapidly.
The other way from Jackson Square lies the core of the French Quarter. The way to make the most of it is just to wander up and down the streets, taking in the atmosphere, watching the street entertainers and popping into any of the shops that look interesting. Royal Street, Toulouse Street, Decatur Street and all the roads around there are great, as well as the others that go between them. I’d avoid Bourbon Street (bars, red light elements), if I’m honest, unless you’re in to that sort of thing, though you may want to walk by briefly as it’s so famous – it’s certainly safe enough in the early evening. Other notable sights include St Louis Cathedral and a number of museums, which I’ll talk about more below.
The second absolute essential in New Orleans is to go to the swamps to see alligators. A lot of people don’t do this, making do with the ones in the zoo and aquarium, or going on a swamp cruise, but this is a mistake: New Orleans offers the opportunity to be up close with exotic wildlife that people usually go on safari for.
The absolute best way to do this is to go to Barataria Preserve at Jean Lafitte National Park – it’s on the West Bank so you may need to use a taxi or (probably easier) hire a car for the day, but it’s only about 30mins drive from central New Orleans. There are two trails worth doing, the Palmetto Trail (starts at the visitor centre, c. 1 mile) and the Swamp trail (starts at the end of the Palmetto Trail but with its own car park; c. 2 miles) so, if you do both, it’s a 5-6 mile return walk. It may be easier to find the visitor centre but the Swamp trail is by far the best for wildlife – assuming you are up for walking 5-6 miles, it’s easiest to just do both. You are literally walking on board walks or a path through the heart of the swamp, with informative signs to tell you about it, surrounded by the swamp and its wildlife.
If you do the Swamp Trail, you will see alligators – I’ve done it about 30 times at different times of the year and never not seen one – the only question is whether you’ll see one or two or more than a dozen. They can be quite hard to spot as they blend into the background, or lurk with just there eyes above water, but they are there. You are also likely to see some of the following: snakes, tree frogs, nutria, herons, egrets, red cardinals, owls, spiders and turtles. It’s an absolutely amazing experience. Even better, though you will see some other people on the trail, it’s not too crowded, which makes it even better.
Reader, you are going to think this sounds complicated to get to so should I really do it – the answer is yes, you definitely should, and it’s really not too hard to get to!
Museums and Attractions
Especially for a city that’s not a capital, New Orleans possesses a number of really top class attractions in this area. Of particular note are:
Audobon Zoo: An absolutely first rate zoo, with the animal kept in great condition and at the forefront of conservation efforts. As well as all the classic animals (elephants, lions, gorillas, etc.) look out for the Louisana area which showcases a wide array of swamp wildlife (including the white alligators) and gives history of the local area.
Aquarium of the Americas: A brilliant Aquarium located just off the riverfront. Probably the best aquarium I’ve ever been in. Note that this is run by the same company as Audobon Zoo and you can get a ticket that lets you into both (including taking a riverboat ride between them); on the other hand, you can easily spend most of the day at the zoo by itself so that may or may not be worth it. There are white alligators here, too.
World War Two Museum: This is the US’s National museum dedicated to this subject and accordingly is both good and comprehensive. Of course, we have plenty about this subject in the UK, but the section on the Pacific war shows an angle that we don’t usually know as much about.
On smaller museums, I’d say that the Cabildo Museum in Jackson Square (Louisiana history) and the Louis Armstrong House Museum (about Louis Armstrong, obviously!) are both well worth seeing and easy to fit in amongst a day’s other activities.
Activities and Excursions
A few classic things to do include:
Take a street car down to St Charles Avenue and back. The street cars are themselves part of history and St Charles Avenue is the part of the city filled with old mansions.
Take a trip on a paddle steamer. Again, an absolute classic and they can be boarded quite easily from the river front.
Visit an old plantation home. There are a large number of these which show what life was like in the antebellum era portrayed in Gone With the Wind. All are a little way out of the city so you would probably need to hire a car to get to them.
Global Wildlife Centre. Most attractive if you have children, this is an opportunity to ride a land train through an area filled with large herbivores (deer, zebra, giraffe, antelope) and to feed them yourself from a bucket. It’s almost an hour’s drive from the city, but a great place to go see.
Music and Theatre
Jazz is, of course, what New Orleans is famous for and you can hear it in many places. As I say above, some of the best jazz can be heard just walking around the French Quarter. However, for the best experience, I recommend you go for a night to Preservation Hall. This small location, located just off Jackson Square is one of the quintessential homes of jazz. You can buy tickets in advance but most seats are not reserved, meaning you need to get there a little bit early for a good seat – but it’s small enough and with a fantastic atmosphere that this doesn’t really matter. Most of the bands will play requests as well as their core repertoire.
On the theatre front, the theatres are probably not a major attraction compared to the West End, but a niche delight is Le Petit Theatre, again just off Jackson Square, which puts on a wide range of plays in a friendly and intimate setting. Lucky dip what’s on when you’re there, but worth having a look at it.
Finally, if you’re in town at the same time as any of the festivals – Jazz Festival, Seafood Festival, etc. – they’re well worth going to. Regardless of the title, you can be assured of there being a large quantity of good food and good music on offer.
Food and Drink
I’m going to start by talking a bit about Cajun food, as it’s essentially unknown in the UK (the miscellaneously spiced item masquerading as ‘Cajun chicken’ does not count, pleasant enough though it sometimes is). I’ll talk about a few dishes to look out for and try if at all possible whilst there, before going on to list some specific restaurant recommendations.
Seafood is at the heart of Cajun cuisine, particularly shrimp, crawfish and catfish, but also other items such as crab, soft-shell crab (a type of crab where you eat the entire crab, including shell – usually fried) and oysters (note that ‘seafood’ will mean a combination of these items, not the mussels, squid and clams you’d find in Spain, and that ‘shrimp’ means any form of shrimp or prawn, regardless of size). These are cooked in a wide variety of ways and combinations, but one of the simplest is boiled – a big dish of boiled shrimp or crawfish is very hard to beat. Sometimes seasoned and usually served with some kind of cocktail sauce, make sure you know how to peel these items before you arrive! Shrimp in particular are often also fried (in batter) and can be found this way in many places, including in sandwiches and from fast food outlets.
Gumbo is one of the quintessential dishes and a must to try – it’s a thick, soupy stew filled with good things and served over rice. Seafood, chicken and shrimp or turkey and andouille sausage are classic varieties. Another excellent dish is etouffe, ideally crawfish but shrimp is also good, essentially seafood in a rich, thick and slightly spicy sauce. More complex seafood dishes include catfish, red snapper or other fish covered in shrimp or crawfish – perhaps etouffe, perhaps in another type of sauce – or spaghetti served with shrimp.
Both soft shell crabs and stuffed crabs are worth trying, both because they’re good and because you don’t really find them elsewhere. Both can be found both by themselves or in a poboy (see below). Crawfish pies are excellent; the best ones can be found in the Cypress Knee cafe in the Audobon Zoo. Shrimp creole is a dish with a spicy tomato based sauce with vegetables and and a remoullade sauce is a spice red sauce, made authentically using a ridiculously large number of incredients, or inauthentically (but still tastily) by mixing ketchup and horseradish. There are a whole host of other ways you might come across seafood, all of them good, but the above are the must tries.
Moving away from seafood, red beans and rice is the classic New Orleans dish; essentially a rich, thick pot of red beans cooked for hours with some smoked sausage or hunks of pork to give them flavour. Absolutely delicious if done well. Boudin is a very tasty ‘sausage’ made of pork and offal mixed with rice and spices, a bit like a spicy Cajun version of a haggis (it is not particularly like French boudin). Jambalaya is a great and filling rice dish with spices, chicken, seafood, vegetables and other good things – and trust me, nothing you’ve had called ‘jambalaya’ in the UK is anything like the real thing – whilst dirty rice is in some ways a simplified version, involving just rice with some onions, garlic, spices, liver and other things of that nature. Biscuits and white gravy are seriously overrated, rather like idli in South India, and grits are actively nasty, but you may wish to try them for the experience. Corn bread is good though.
You may be noticing that rice is featuring very strongly here. This is a rice growing region; 80 years ago, rice and bread would have been the stable starches, not potato, just as much as in India. When my Grandma cooks roast beef it’s served with rice and gravy, not with roast potatoes, and I never realised until I was an adult just how unusual the combination of rice and traditional gravy from a roast is – it may be unique to this region. And dirty rice is a staple on Christmas Day.
Vegetables are not a stand out feature of the cuisine, but corn on the cob, green beans and black eyed peas (beans) are all commonly served and good, as are things like broccoli. Smothered cabbage is surprisingly tasty – essentially it’s cabbage that’s boiled for hours until it goes grey, with bacon and onions to give it flavour. More complex vegetable dishes include casseroles involving mushroom soup to give them richness; examples include cream cauliflower (a form of cauliflower cheese) and variants of green bean and artichoke heart casseroles. I’m not sure how common stuffed artichokes are in restaurants, but if you see them, they’re very tasty (stuffed with sausage meat, Italian breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese).
The classic puddings are pecan pie, Mississipi mud pie (a rich chocolate cake) and bread pudding with whiskey sauce, all of which are fairly self explanatory and tasty. New Orleans has also fully adopted the American love of ice cream, and outlets such as Haagen Daaz, Ben and Jerry’s and Baskin & Robbins are common. For drinks, perhaps the most distinctive New Orleans drink that hasn’t spread widely is the daiquiri, particularly the strawberry daiquiri – you used to be able to find daiquiri drive-through stands, which seems like a horrendously bad idea, though I suppose one could get them for your passengers!
Finally, for when you’re walking around, the poboy is the must-eat lunch item. It’s a sandwich made from French bread and you can get them everywhere. Great classic fillings include roast beef, meatballs, fried shrimp or catfish, but you can put almost anything inside – though the best fillings are a bit sloppy due to the sauce or gravy.
If you fancy a change from Cajun food, there is also a lot of very good Mexican food to be found in New Orleans.
The Court of Two Sisters. This is literally my favourite restaurant in the entire world – and I’ve eaten in a fair few over the years, especially with work. Situated in a two hundred year old house on Royal Street, it’s known for its jazz brunch which is served in an elegant courtyard whilst a jazz band plays. The food is spectactular; a sumptious buffet of hot and cold dishes featuring many of those I’ve recommended above, including unlimited amounts of fresh boiled shrimp and (in season) crawfish. You’ll need to make a reservation. This is probably the priciest recommendation here, at $30-40 a head, but absolutely worth it for an experience you won’t forget.
The Gumbo Shop. A lovely little restaurant just off Jackson Square, it’s a great place to come for lunch in the Quarter or for an early dinner. The menu focuses on New Orleans specialities and it does them extremely well: you may want to come more than once, as if you worked your way through their menu you wouldn’t go far wrong.
Riverwalk Food Court. Located on the third floor at the back of this mall, a great food court with a wide range of seafood, poboy and other options. Very good value and good solid quality food. This is located very near the Aquarium, the place where you board the streetcars and the place where you can get a paddlesteamer, so is a great place for lunch after any of those activities.
Cafe Du Monde. The classic French Quarter cafe, specialising in chicory coffee and beignets (see above). No visit to the French Quarter is complete without a stop here.
Roadhouse/Texas Roadhouse. There are a few of these with similar names; essentially excellent steak restaurants with lavish portions and (in some cases) peanuts on the floor. Steakhouses are both better and cheaper in the US than in the UK and it would be very hard to go wrong here.
Copeland’s. A small chain of 8-10 restaurants that specialises in good quality US and New Orleans food. Relatively informal but still classy, it’s one of the best mid-range restaurants in the city. You could get most of the classics I mention above here, plus some fancier twists and also more traditional American offerings such as steak and ribs.
Popeyes. The local rival to KFC, it’s definitely better. Fried chicken is what’s on the menu, though some of the sides may be more distinctive and a few of the outlets do fried shrimp as well.
Waffle House. A big chain, maybe a step above McDonalds/KFC and does great breakfast food. The best thing to get is their hashbrowns scattered, smothered, covered, chopped, topped and diced.
Pat O’Brien’s. In the French Quarter. I’ve never been there, but my Dad always talked about this being a great bar. It actually has multiple bars inside where the drinks are different prices (e.g. the piano bar is more expensive, but nicer, than the main bar).
Italian Pie. A small local chain (c. 10 outlets) this place does some of the best pizzas and sandwiches (big, Italian-style with New Orleans elements sandwiches) around. There’s one in New Orleans near the Quarter and one on the West Bank.
New Orleans Food and Spirits. Another one on the West Bank here, but a great independent seafood restaurant serving excellent Cajun food. Classic New Orleans seafood cooked well.
There’s a whole host of things to see and do, but the above guide gives an indication of some of the best things to do, see and eat on a visit to New Orleans. And if you can’t decide, then just start with the ‘top five’ at the beginning and take it from there!