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Ten things to do in New Orleans
New Orleans has the dubious honor of being one of the most haunted cities in the United States, and you guys know by now that I’m a huge fan of getting creeped out for fun. From the malaria outbreaks that plagued the first settlers as they attempted to establish a settlement, to the great fire of 1788 which destroyed more than three quarters of the French Quarter, and culminating most recently with the disastrous effects of hurricane Katrina in 2005, and then the Gulf Oil debacle of last summer, New Orleans sure has a rich history of tragedy which some paranormal enthusiasts feel goes hand in hand with a higher than normal prevalence of spooks and haunts. I definitely recommend going on a ghost tour of any city you visit, since they’re a fun and nontraditional way to learn about the history of the place you’re visiting, get your bearings, and you’ll get to walk around a bit with a local who knows the ins and outs of the neighborhood (even if they are the places most likely to give you the creeps.) One of the best parts about a ghost tour in the French Quarter is the very relaxed open container policy. As long your beverage is in a plastic cup you’re good to go.
* Fun travel tip: We went on a Spirit tour for a sweet discount since I always join the Groupon site of any city I plan on visiting to get a heads up on good deals and fun things to do.
Tucked away on a quiet side street in the quarter, Preservation Hall is one of the coolest music venues in the city with a rich tradition of preserving the jazz music scene and culture of NOLA. It was constructed in 1961 and it is very sparsely furnished, more often that not there is just standing room only, but it is a fantastic place to hear amazing jazz music. The bands rotate, and it’s an extremely intimate venue. We just happened upon it one evening and stuck around for a set. It was so cool of a spot, that we decided to visit again another night and heard the Treme Brass Band. They also take requests for a buck or two, but if you want to hear the Saints, according to the cheeky sign near the stage, you’ll need to shell out ten. Which brings me to another point, most of the musicians performing depend on tips for a large portion of their livelihood, so tip often and generously when “Philip” ( sounds like "Fill up the tip jar") gets passed around.
Frenchmen Street is in a part of New Orleans just outside the Quarter called the Marigny. It is a long street with jazz clubs, restaurants, bars, and little shops. We really enjoyed this part of the city since it’s off the beaten path, and it wasn’t quite so bustling as say, Bourbon Street. If you’re into craft beer and good booze definitely check out DBA (which stands for Drink Better Alcohol). The Spotted Cat is just across the street and there was a really fun Big Band Era style band playing the evening we were there. Just down the street is another bar called Three Muses which serves fun tapas sized plates and features live music and an eclectic specialty cocktail selection. DBA had a small cover charge, but Three Muses and the Spotted Cat both were cover-free. What I loved about Frenchmen Street is how easily accessible it was, and we got to hang out with a bunch of locals.
*Another travel tip is to pick the brain of your servers while you’re out to eat. Our super helpful and cool server at the Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar and Bistro steered us to Frenchmen Street when I told him that I was totally freaked out and a little overwhelmed by the all out craziness on Bourbon Street. Waitstaff are one of your best non-guidebook guides for fun places to go and things to do, definitely use them as the rocking resources they are.
Cafe du Monde
A trip to New Orleans wouldn’t be complete without some chicory coffee and beignets, and it took us until our last morning on the way to the airport to get there, but it was totally worth the wait. I feel like I should preface this with the absolute truth. I’m so not a donut person, anything fried sweet (or savory) totally freaks me out, but I think it’s fair to say that I may be down with beignets. Beignets are pillowy, yet not too doughy, confectioner’s sugar covered, bites of deliciousness. They’re messy and fun to eat; and our rental car looked like an absolute disaster since we ate them on the way our flight. You should definitely stop by the iconic Café du Monde for a true taste of the Big Easy and perhaps early into your visit rather than later, so if you become a beignet enthusiast like me you’ll have a few more opportunities to get them.
The French Market
Café du Monde is actually in the French Market, so you can kill two birds with one stone if you’re so inclined. There are absolutely tons of shops, restaurants, and produce stands in this part of the Quarter. It is also where a film was in production while we were visiting. (I didn’t recognize any actors in particular, but there was the distinct important person vibe around a handful of folks near the production equipment.) The French Market is also right alongside the mighty Mississippi River, which makes for scenic strolling. The absolutely gorgeous Saint Louis Cathedral is also near this part of the city so you’ll be able to check out the square there as well. Tons of local artists, performing and otherwise, hawk their wears in this area, and you can scoop up some cool souvenirs that weren’t perhaps manufactured abroad, all the while supporting local folks making a living. It is a great place to spend an afternoon browsing, and definitely a must-visit in New Orleans.
Since we had a rental car we decided to take a bit of a road trip and check out some of the historic plantation homes that are spread out along the Mississippi River. One of the closest plantation homes to New Orleans is the Destrehan Plantation which is also the oldest plantation home in the lower Mississippi RiverValley. We opted to venture a little further away and made the hour and half drive to Oak Alley Plantation for a tour. It is an immaculately maintained plantation home, and our guide was in period dress. She had an encyclopedic level of knowledge regarding the history of the property and its owners. Our guide was super informative and very patient answering all of the questions tour-goers had. Oak Alley also is supposedly quite haunted as well, but we didn’t run into any spooks that I know of, however I can see how eerie the location might be at night with the sprawling 250 year old oaks and nightly settling sounds that old homes notoriously make. You can also sample a stiff mint julep to support the Oak Alley Plantation Historical Society. They're tasty and for a good cause, can't beat that. While the legacy of the plantation homes is a very sad one, it is worth a visit for sure.
The Garden District
The Garden District is just a short street car ride away, and it is filled with some of the most gorgeous homes in the city. It also is the home to Commander’s Palace, the restaurant where the amiable Emeril Lagasse started his culinary career. We spent the afternoon ambling around, and checking out some of the striking mansions. Sometimes the attractions of a city are housed in museums, but in NOLA the city itself is like one giant museum so you can spend hours just cruising around taking it all in. There are cafes and shops dotting the area, and a few blocks over is Magazine Street which also is a fun shopping destination. Near the Garden District is Tulane’s campus as well as the Audubon Zoo.
Cities of the Dead
Due to New Orleans’ low elevation and high water table, the cemeteries in the city feature raised vaults, mausoleums, and crypts to keep the departed cozy and safe. These cities of the dead are absolutely breathtaking and feature beautiful architectural elements and elaborate structures. They serve as visually powerful memorials to the inhabitants of a city with an unbelievably rich history. St. Louis No. 1, 2, and 3 are the oldest cemeteries and they are near the Quarter. The infamous Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, Marie Laveau, is believed to be buried in St. Louis No. 1. If you’re in the Garden District you could checkout Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 which is known to be in slightly better shape than the oldest cemeteries. While the subject matter could be perceived as macabre, it really is a super interesting way to spend an afternoon.
The French Quarter
Most of our time spent in New Orleans was in and around the French Quarter which doesn’t really make it a thing to do I suppose, but more like a place to be. There are tons of bars, hotels, restaurants, shops, and residences in this visually striking part of the city. One can find as much trouble as they would like in New Orleans, particularly on Bourbon Street. I loved the spectacle of Bourbon Street, and if I’d been braver I would have dabbled in some of the adult entertainment venues that dot the blocks closer to Canal Street. I appreciated the variety of options throughout the Quarter from the cozy and romantic, to the bawdy and salacious there really is something for everyone. New Orleans is very much more than Bourbon Street, but it is definitely worth seeing; my impression was that I could have had a positively scandalous amount of fun if I had been with a handful of friends from college (who will go unnamed), but since it was just the two of us on this trip we picked more low-key destinations to check out. Based on advice from other folks, watch out for drinks called hand grenades, or anything in a rat-shaped cup.
All in all, New Orleans is a fantastic and culturally diverse place to visit. If you’re even remotely into food, music, night-life, art, culture, ghost hunting, architecture, history, or any combination of the above it’s an absolutely must-visit vacation spot. The thing I love about the city of New Orleans is the tenacity of its residents to defy adversity and their willingness to pick up the pieces, dust-off, and rebuild. They are absolutely inspirational, and despite the ridiculous, devastating, and unforeseeable series of events within the last decade the heart of New Orleans remains hospitable, kind, and generous to those of us lucky enough to visit. Laissez les bon temps rouler.