I’m as guilty as every other tourist who has staggered out of a pulsating bar on Bourbon Street at 7:00 AM, surprised to find the sun shining and the birds chirping. But as my husband and I age, the all day (and night) drinking and loud music are less appealing and we find ourselves venturing further and further from Bourbon Street with each visit to New Orleans. On our last visit we didn’t even stay in the French Quarter, a first for us. So, if you are here looking for the loudest, hardest partying bars in New Orleans (my vote is on The Dungeon), this article won’t satisfy you. However, if you’re interested in history, culture, music and food (and a few bar suggestions, of course), I hope this article will help you find your way to our favorites in the Crescent City.
New Orleans is comprised of many neighborhoods and parishes, but most of your sightseeing will likely be spent in the French Quarter, CBD and Garden District. Each area has its own vibe and architectural styles. The French Quarter (sometimes calls the Vieux Carre), is where you will find a heavy Spanish and French influence and all the wrought iron balconies your heart desires. The Garden District is more traditional Old South antebellum. All of my experience in New Orleans is from the perspective of a tourist so I’m probably not going to shed a lot of light on the deep-local haunts and restaurants (I always encourage readers to leave tips and advice, however!). If you’re looking for festival advice, try visiting the New Orleans Visitor’s Guide.
Where to Stay:
When picking a neighborhood, the French Quarter will put you in the closest proximity to many bars and restaurants. It’s also closest to noise and rowdy partiers so pick your street carefully (more on that in a minute). The CBD (Central Business District) has some beautiful turn of the century (and contemporary) architecture and is at the beginning/end of the St. Charles streetcar line, which is a good way to get to the Garden District. Your vacation rental options will be the best in the CBD, and some of the top hotels are in this area as well. The Garden District is more residential and where you will find many of the grandest homes in New Orleans (especially in the blocks around Tulane and Loyala universities). Wherever you decide to stay, I suggest you visit Google Earth and explore the area before you book. New Orleans is not one of the safest cities and picking the right location can determine how much you enjoy your visit.
Should you decide to stay in the French Quarter, I suggest finding a hotel or rental on Chartres or Royal, in between Iberville and Esplanade (steer clear of Jackson Square which is full of vendors and tourists at all hours). Bourbon street will be very noisy, and the streets north of Bourbon are not very safe. Avoid North Rampart. Along the Mississippi, Decatur is home to a gazillion souvenir shops and will be crammed with tourists. Canal is a hot mess of traffic, loud, seedy bars, and sketchy people. Unless you’re determined to stay at the JW Marriott, look elsewhere.
On our most recent visit (March 2019) we stayed in a rental on Carondelet, one block from Canal. We liked this location because it was an easy walk to the Quarter, a block from the streetcar (never a “trolley” in New Orleans!), and it was mostly quiet. Other hotels we like in the Quarter are the Hotel Provincial, the Bourbon Orleans, the W on Chartres, the Omni Royal Orleans and the historic Hotel Monteleone. The Provincial is old-school but has been recently renovated, the courtyards are magical and the location is excellent. It’s always quiet but an easy walk to everything. The Omni has a coveted roof-top pool with views of the Mississippi River, and the W’s pool area is a chic, luxury oasis. The Bourbon Orleans is another old school gem with a marvelous interior courtyard and pool, although the rooms can be cramped and dated. In the Garden District, you might treat yourself to a room at the historic Hotel Pontchartrain. A ton of new boutique hotels are cropping up in New Orleans and the options for a stylish stay have never been better.Shopping:
- Royal & Chartres Streets in the French Quarter: This is the best place in the Quarter for shopping and seeing galleries. If you’re looking for antiques, local art, or some funky clothes at one of the many boutiques, this is a good place to start. Lucullus is a neat shop on Chartres that has kitchen antiques, silver, etc.
- Decatur St has a gazillion tourist shops that sell souvenirs. If you’re looking for beads, a voodoo doll or an alligator head, this is the place for you.
- The French Market is close to the river by Frenchmen. This is another good place to find trinkets and just wander, and there are a few stalls selling beer or ice cream. You’re more likely to be able to barter for that alligator head here than the shops on Decatur. Although you’re less likely to find high-end merchandise at the French Market, it’s a great place for people watching and cheap souvenirs.
- Magazine Street is another great place to shop. Take the St Charles streetcar to Washington Ave and walk the 1.5 miles to Upperline. There are tons of restaurants too so plan to stop for lunch or dinner.
- Right around Jackson Square there are some wonderful historic sites to tour. Our favorites are the Beauregard-Keyes House, the 1850 House, the Cabildo and of course the majestic St. Louis cathedral. For fans of the movie, Interview with the Vampire, a scene where Claudia claims a victim (with Lestat watching in the shadows) was filmed here.
- A little further down from the Quarter you’ll find the Riverwalk (which is just a mall – don’t bother unless you need something specific), the Aquarium and the ferry to Algiers. Algiers is a residential neighborhood of shotgun houses, which are typical in Louisiana. Many have been restored and it makes for a quiet walk if you want to escape the chaos of the Quarter for a few hours. The ferry is $2 per person each way (pedestrians only) and takes about 30 minutes.
- On the other end of the Quarter is the funky neighborhood, or marigny, of Faubourg. The main thoroughfare is Frenchmen’s Street, and is wall to wall with music clubs. Snug Harbor is one of the most famous (followed by the Blue Nile) and you’re sure to catch some good acts at both. Check their websites for upcoming acts and charges; if you’re lucky you’ll catch Kermit Ruffins and his band at the Nile while you’re in town.
- Speaking of music, be sure to visit Preservation Hall for some genuine New Orleans jazz. You’ll sit on a wooden bench and there’s no booze, but the music is some of the best in the city. A bit further afield is the famed Tipitinas where some of the best live acts come to play. If you like Zydeco music and bowling, you can do both at the Midcity Lanes (also known at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl). The Howlin Wolf is also a great music venue and attracks some bigger names. Vaughan’s Lounge in Bywater has live music on Thursday, and the owners serve up delicious red beans and rice after the band’s first set. Kermit Ruffins used to be a Thursday regular but now he’s an occasional special guest. The HBO series, Treme, made Vaughan’s famous and what used to be a hidden neighborhood gem is now packed to the rafters with tourists. We haven’t been in a few years because of the crowds but it might have quieted down again. If you decide to go, take a taxi to the door… the neighborhood can be dangerous at night.
- In case you’ve been living under a rock, New Orleans is rumored to be one of the most haunted cities in the US. Ghost / Vampire tours are abundant, and although campy, they can be great fun with the right guide and group, and can provide a fascinating history of the macabre. Once you hear about the atrocities committed in the Lalaurie Mansion you might have nightmares for days!
- New Orleans is famous for its above ground cemeteries. Due to being below sea level, the deceased are buried in crypts, tombs and “oven” vaults. I find the tours of the cemeteries to be fascinating, but do NOT go alone or at night. You should only explore the cemeteries with a tour group, and only during the day time. You may be determined to knock on Marie Laveau’s tomb and leave an offering, but don’t risk your safety to do so. You should also probably avoid Armstrong Park. Even during the day it’s unsafe.
- One of the best ways to spend an afternoon in New Orleans is to take a walking tour of the old mansions in the Garden District. You can book a guided tour or download a walking tour app. Bike rentals are also a good way to get around in the Garden District. Fans of Anne Rice may know that the author lived at 1239 First St. for years and the house is featured in many of her novels, especially the Mayfair Witch books. The legendary Commander’s Palace is here also, but if you’re thinking of eating there, be sure to dress the part. Near the end of the Garden District is Audubon Park, a peaceful green space with trails and a golf course. My favorite way to get to the Garden District is to take the St. Charles street car to First Street and start there. For $3 (cash only) you can get an all-day pass to ride the streetcars.
- If you’re looking for a plantation visit, there are literally dozens along the Mississippi, about an hour outside of town. There is an abundance of group tour operations, or you can rent a car for the day and do your own tour (which is what Dave and I did). We only visited Oak Alley since we got a late start on the day and had an early dinner reservation, but Laura Plantation is a few minutes from Oak Alley and can be covered easily. Expect to pay $25+ per person to visit each plantation (a good reason to prioritize). If you can only do one, do Oak Alley. The restoration is wonderful, the tour guides engaging and knowledgeable, and there is a restaurant on site if you want to grab a snack and a mint julep.Where to eat:
One of the draws of New Orleans is the food, which is renowned world-wide. Traditional creole and Cajun dishes can be found in countless restaurants around the city, but you can also nosh on any kind of ethnic food you’re craving, as well as tuck in to mouthwatering steaks and fresh seafood (crawfish are a highlight!). Whatever your stomach desires, it can be found in New Orleans.
Touristy but you must do once:
- Court of Two Sisters: Legendary jazz brunch with more food than humanly possible. The attraction here is the beautiful courtyard, the jazz brunch and the massive buffet.
- Arnaud’s: Classic creole with white linens and “old New Orleans” style. Many nights they have live music which creates a really festive vibe. Despite its proximity to Bourbon, you will feel like you’re in a nice place. Next door, Arnaud’s French 75 is a great upscale cocktail lounge that serves some of the lighter fare on the restaurant’s menu.
- Any of the Brennan Family restaurants. Be sure to call for reservations and ask about the dress code before you arrive. At Commander’s Palace, jackets are required for the gents. While considered touristy because of their popularity, the food at the Brennan restaurants is the real deal, and they have great wine lists. All of their restaurants are recommended.
- Café du Monde: This isn’t really a restaurant, per se, so if you’re wondering why there is a line around the building, it’s to sample the famous beignets (a fried, puffy dough) and chicory café au lait. You probably don’t want to wear black here; you’ll likely be covered in powdered sugar by the time you leave. To avoid the long lines, consider making a late night visit.
- Commander’s Palace: This is a bucket list restaurant for many people, and rightly so. When you dine here, you feel like you are a special person in a special place. You’ll want to dress for dinner or brunch… shorts and sandals are not permitted.
- Bayona: This restaurant is located on Dauphine, a block from Bourbon. The dining room is stylish and romantic and the creative menu is updated regularly. Chef and co-owner, Susan Spicer, has been turning out amazing fare since they opened in 1990.
- Galatoire’s: If you want to go old-school, this is the place (Antoine’s is another old school classic). Waiters in white jackets will treat you like a VIP, and you can sample classic New Orleans recipes such as oysters Rockefeller.
- Irene’s: The best Italian food in New Orleans in my humble opinion. They’ve recently relocated to a new spot on Bienville, but the food and ambience haven’t changed. The heavily garlic scented air of Irene’s is a precursor to a fine meal with kind, attentive servers and great wines.
- Stanley: great breakfast/brunch, right on Jackson Square. Can be really crowded. On the pricey side for brunch/breakfast but really tasty.
- Café Amelie: One of the best casual restaurants in the Quarter, offering great food and an excellent brunch. It’s usually very crowded with a long wait so make a reservation.
- Central Grocery: The home of the best muffuletta in the city (they invented it). This is an actual Italian grocery so be sure to stock up on olive salad and other Italian delights before you grab your sandwich. You can eat in or take it to go.
- Napoleon House: A great old bar with atmosphere, history and decent food. They have a reputation for having cranky waiters, but we’ve had nothing but good service every time. They too have a great muffuletta, but theirs is served hot. They have a good Pimm’s Cup and a nice courtyard.
- Mother’s: Mother’s used to have the best po’boys near the French Quarter, but their ratings have slipped and the dining room ventures deep in to dive territory. Regardless, it’s a classic – give them a visit and judge for yourself.
- Acme Oyster House: Another somewhat divey spot, but if you’re in the Quarter and need oysters, this is your place. I don’t care for the bivalves personally, so we go for the shrimp po’boys and cold beers.
- Green Goddess: This funky little kitchen cranks out some interesting food and is definitely worth a visit for something different. Its location in an alley adds a lot of charm. Be sure to get a reservation, and try to sit outside if weather permits. The tiny inside dining room can be stuffy.
- Café Pontalba: The food here isn’t much to write home about, but its location on Jackson Square is excellent for people watching. You can’t go wrong with a shrimp po’boy, a cup of gumbo, a cold beer and a spot at the window. Go at lunch to enjoy the show.
Newsflash! New Orleans is a great place to party and drink! I know – shocking, but on the off chance you like to imbibe, below are some of our favorite places to grab a beer or fancy cocktail. Also, you can take your drink to go in New Orleans so if you don’t like the bar just get a go-cup and move on.
- In the fancy cocktail category, Arnaud’s French 75 is tops. We love the swanky interiors and old school service. You don’t have to be dressed to the nines to enjoy a drink here, but you definitely need to act like an adult. This is where the well-heeled come to drink so leave your beads and hand grenade cups outside.
- The Old Absinthe House: At one time there were two bars with “Old Absinthe” in their name, both on Bourbon St. The “right” one has dozens of dusty old football helmets hanging from the ceiling and yellowing business cards covering the walls (the other place is a daiquiri bar). The Old Absinthe House is a dive with the BEST Cajun Mary’s we’ve tasted anywhere. They also serve a legalized absinthe if you’re willing to give it a try (although don’t expect to see any green fairies). From your perch at the bar you will have a front row seat to the spectacle of Bourbon Street, and enjoy some classic tunes on the juke. During cold weather there is a wood fireplace that adds to the atmosphere.
- Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop: This is a bar on the far end of Bourbon (by St. Ann), near the end of the gay section. It’s a serious dive, but is purportedly the oldest bar in the US, is haunted and has a lot of character. Some nights they have a piano bar / singing which can be fun but don’t expect them to take your requests unless you fork out the $$. This is a fun place for a drink and a photo op, but avoid the restroom if possible, they are filthy. If you make Lafitte’s a late-night stop and you’re hankering for a snack, stop at the Clover Grill, a true greasy spoon with a ton of character (and usually a hangout for some interesting locals).
- Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone: Most nights this is a piano bar, and tends towards a more upscale and 30 and older clientele. It’s less rowdy but fun.
- The Cat’s Meow: This is a cheesy karaoke bar on Bourbon that can be REALLY fun depending on the vibe that night and your frame of mind. If there are awful singers singing awful songs it will be horrible. Always a gamble but worth a stop. And their happy hour beers (3-for-1) are a steal.
Whether you’re visiting New Orleans for the food, music, or culture, you’re bound to have a memorable visit and see things you’ve never seen before. Fill your belly with some delicious food, tap your foot to the best music you’ll ever hear, and let this very European city in the south steal your heart.