Visiting New Orleans on a budget and in only a weekend
Enjoying the cultural jewel that is New Orleans
When I first visited New Orleans in the summer of 2003, I was only slightly impressed. A large number of the buildings in and around the French Quarter were crumbling and derelict. Bourbon Street seemed very over-hyped, when all I could focus on was the filth on the sidewalks and the smell of urine at every corner (especially to an 18 year old who couldn't enjoy the libations most typically visit for).
The food and coffee were highlights, even then however. We stayed in an old bed and breakfast in the Garden District, that according to their website was haunted. It was even featured on one of those haunting shows. The home was old and beautiful; decorated in period theme. The "haunting" aspects, such as the television being turned on by itself after we first checked in, were very theatrical. Perhaps though, it was the fact I had seen the innkeeper flicking with a switch under his desk while walking past him with our luggage. The entire attic level was deemed not safe to spend the night in, due to lack of easily accessible fire exits; however, the owners had put games and a Ouija board upstairs and guests were allowed to spend time during the day lounging around. The majority of pictures our family has from the B&B were actually taken up in the attic.
The day before we were set to leave, I remember saying to my mom "Well we can say we visited New Orleans, but I don't think I will ever come back". How wrong was I.
About one week later I was recounting some of the fabulous meals. The next week I found myself reminiscing of the mornings sitting in a courtyard of a French Quarter coffeehouse, while my mom and her boyfriend read the paper, and my brothers and I people watched and chuckled at the eccentric locals, or "Quarter rats" as many adoringly refer to themselves. Maybe it was the whole "Big Easy" mentality. Life indeed did seem more laid-back and easy. About a month later my mom read about the upcoming Southern Decadence Festival.
It was an annual festival held in the French Quarter on Labor Day weekend. Next to Fantasy Fest in Key West, it was known as one of the largest gay pride festivals. Party-goers drink to excess (it is New Orleans, after all) and the parade that marches through the tiny Quarter streets features patrons dressed as their favorite southern decadent character.
We decided to return to the centuries old city and give it another chance. This time the statement to my mother before we left was "I will live here someday". While I still have yet to fulfill that wish, my mother and I have made pilgrimages to the old city from Southwest Florida, on average, every four to six months ever since. The visits usually take place as roadtrips, and we usually only stay an average of three nights.
Many travelers these days find that they cannot afford to take those week-long vacations of the past, and instead opt for shorter, sometimes drive-distance trips. This article will highlight my personal favorite parts of the city and some venues we try to see each and every time we make the trip to this melting pot southern city.
Is it safe to visit?
If you have never been to New Orleans, there is no better time than the present to visit. Since Hurricane Katrina, the city has bounced back quite nicely; especially if you confine your trip to the 78 square blocks that encompass the French Quarter, or Vieux Carre (old square) as the French founders referred to it. On the east bank side (and the center of this metropolitan area), the French Quarter was one of the few areas of the city to escape flooding and major structural damage.
The city itself is known as a fishbowl, due to the positioning between the Mississippi River in the lower region and Lake Pontchartrain on the upper. The land in between sits below sea level, and as such, fills as a fishbowl when torrential downpours such as with Katrina occur. The Quarter sits higher than the surrounding land, thus keeping it drier than the rest of the city.
One fun fact (or not so fun) about the city of New Orleans is that it is sinking at a rate of one inch per year. It is believed that it has been sinking, for the most part, since it was founded. Over-development, drainage and natural seismic shifts are all believed to be contributing factors to the sinking, according to the journal Nature.
Westbank/ Algiers Point
On the west bank, the town of Algiers was also largely spared the complete devastation. This small town is one of the top, free activities, I recommend visiting during your weekend getaway. Algiers Point is situated directly across the Mississippi River from the French Quarter. From a dock there, adjacent to the Riverwalk and immediately behind the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, one can catch a free ferry across the river. The ferry runs from 6am until 12:15am, every day. If you visit during Mardi Gras, be prepared to possibly wait for a second docking, as the locals of Algiers fill the ferry all day to catch the parades and festivities in New Orleans.
Taking fifteen minutes to reach the west bank, both tourists and locals alike use this ferry as the primary means of transportation between the two shores. For one dollar, you may drive your car onto the ferry, or pay the toll for the Crescent City Connection bridge and drive around the town. While it is a mainly a residential neighborhood, there are a few quaint bars and restaurants near the river. There is no better place to view the New Orleans skyline, than from the west bank, while walking along the levee.
Cafe Du Monde & The French Quarter
Arriving back on the east bank, it is imperative that one indulges in a cafe au lait and a beignet. This combination of chicory coffee with milk and french doughnuts (fried dough sprinkled in powdered sugar) is a New Orleans staple. There is no better, or more famous cafe to enjoy this snack at, than Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. It is a 24 hour "coffee stand", that has been a staple of the city since 1862. It is only closed for Christmas Day, or when a "hurricane passes too close to New Orleans" as the website boasts.
During the day, especially in season and during one of the many festivals the city is known for, the line to snag a table (all self-seating here) is sometimes stretched past the cafe itself and several yards towards Jackson Cathedral. Local pan-handlers, playing saxophone or singing or even telling jokes, set up shop right outside the main entrance. While of course looking for a buck or two in return (there are a great deal of people in this city who make their living as "street-performers of some sort, all year round), the entertainment is usually welcome and is really as New Orleans as red beans and rice on a Monday.
My personal favorite time to visit Cafe Du Monde is between 9pm and 12am. There are a plethora of empty tables and the cafe au lait gives a much needed boost to get through a long night braving the crowds of Bourbon Street. Beware germ-a-phobes, this outdoor cafe is covered only by an awning and pigeons run rampant 24 hours a day through the stand. Add to that powdered sugar coating everything from the tables, to the chairs to the floor and for an unprepared patron it may all be slightly overwhelming. But I promise, the freshness and taste when you bite into a beignet, and the strong flavor of the cafe au lait, more than make up for the inconveniences of the outdoor coffee house.
If leaving Cafe Du Monde anytime around the hours of 9am and 6pm, any day of the week and 365 days out of the year, head "downriver" or away from Riverwalk, and take in the French Market. Covering roughly six blocks, the main entrance features a farmers market where locals come to sell fresh produce and local hot sauces and spices. There are also several eateries, specializing in seafood and Cajun or creole delicacies. The rear portion of the market is a true flea market, with locals selling handmade crafts and candles or knock-off sunglasses and purses.
Even if you do not purchase anything in the market, this historic market has been around for three centuries and is well worth the visit. My personal favorite part of the market is listening to many of the vendors speaking in their native Acadian tongue and trying to make out the Cajun dialects. And if you love a bargain, haggling is well accepted and expected in the flea market area.
When leaving the market, continue to head south towards Esplanade Avenue. After crossing Esplanade you will be entering the neighborhood known as Fauborg Marigny. Back in the 19th century the neighborhood first became popular for white creole gentlemen to set up homes for their colored mistresses and their illegitimate offspring.
The neighborhood is much like the French Quarter, with the eclectic colored cottages and serenity of the neighborhood streets. Frenchmen Street is the Marigny's answer to Bourbon, with more locals. From jazz to latin to reggae clubs, there is something for everyone. Of course there are numerous late night eateries as well.
Dinner in the Quarter
Heading back into the French Quarter for dinner, my all time favorite New Orleans eatery is Oceana Grill. Located on Conti, between Bourbon and Royal, this family owned and operated seafood restaurant & bar boasts being open until 1am, although many times, depending on the crowd, they stay open even later. Their grilled oysters are well-known and to die for. Also serving breakfast from 8am until 1pm, this restaurant really does have it all. If you are too tired from your busy day to leave your hotel room, no need to worry, they also deliver anywhere in the Quarter.
If you have access to a car, I strongly suggest venturing out a little further from the French Quarter area. Take a trip north on Elysian Fields towards the University of New Orleans campus. In the Lakeview section of town, behind the campus off of Lakeshore Drive is a small waterfront park. Situated on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain, visitors can climb the levee and take in the breathtaking views of the Lake. Cement steps, that look much like bleachers in a football stadium, are the perfect place to relax and enjoy the serenity of the lake.
Garden District/ St. Charles Avenue
Head back to the center of town, and be sure to hop onto the St. Charles streetcar. It is imperative that you refer to it as only a streetcar, not a trolley or tram. For over 165 years, these streetcars have transported locals and tourists alike from Canal Street, through the Garden District and past Loyola & Tulane Universities. After passing Audubon Park, it follows the Riverbend and ends at Carrollton Avenue. For $1.25 you can ride as far as you need. Or, purchase a one or three day VisiTour pass, and ride as often as needed.
Back in the Garden District, there are many restaurants dotting St. Charles Avenue. The atmosphere is much more laid back and relaxed here, than in the Quarter. There are many self-guided tours on the internet or in travel books that visitors may partake on. Sandra Bullock's home is listed on a few of these.
A few blocks toward the river sits Magazine Street. Stretching for roughly six miles, from Audubon Park downriver to the French Quarter, this historic street is well known for its antique shops, as well as eclectic eateries and shops.
Head uptown, towards Audubon Park, and walk a few blocks north to Prytania Street. Here is the location of The Creole Creamery. By far some of the best ice cream in town, they specialize in obscure flavors, which change daily. My favorite to date is the lavender honey. Don't be upset though if you return the next time and do not see your former favorite; just pick another and chances are, you won't be upset for long.
While in the Uptown and Audubon area, you may want to visit the Audubon Zoo. You may also purchase the Audubon Experience Package which also allows you access to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas as well as the Entergy I-Max theater and the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, back in the French Quarter.
The final highlight of your weekend getaway must include hopping onto I-10 west and driving to Metairie. Get off on the Airline Drive exit and head right. There you will find an excellent, hole in the wall seafood shack called RiverPond. The crawfish (in season) is by far the best cooked and the largest around. They serve fresh seafood, as well as po' boys and a few other staples. They also serve alcohol (again, it is New Orleans). The laid-back atmosphere is welcoming and the seating area is always clean. Every time we have gone, the owner has been hard at work behind the bar and in the kitchen, yet still has time to chit chat with the guests, most of which are locals. Trust me, the drive outside of the metropolitan area is well worth it, once you truly experience eating crawfish with red potatoes and corn on the cob served a la carte.
This article touched on just a slight few of the hundreds of activities to do, and thousands of restaurants to patronize while in the New Orleans area. You can visit every month and still discover something new each time you return. I hope though, I was able to highlight a few venues that you and your family will find as magical and welcoming as mine do.