I just returned from one of my favorite places in the world — and definitely my most beloved city in the United States — colorful, festive and crazy (in a great way) New Orleans, Louisiana. This year marks the Crescent City’s 300th birthday, and in a town where every evening offers a party on Bourbon Street that you might not soon forget, they’ve certainly pulled out all the stops to celebrate their tricentennial milestone.
Founded in 1718 under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville of France and named after (you guessed it) the Duke of Orléans, the city is an extremely popular weekend destination. Known for its storied history, challenging topography, delicious cuisine, beautiful architecture, influential music and laid-back attitude (just to name a few), New Orleans certainly offers travelers a variety of exciting and distinctive experiences.
New Orleanian By Nature
When I reveal to others that I’ve been to the city nearly two dozen times, they’re usually curious about why I love it so much and what always keeps me coming back for more. The simple answer is… there is no simple answer — my love for the city is legion, the culmination of dozens of incredible encounters, meals and memories collected and treasured during the last 20 years.
Jackson Square just after sunrise… the mighty Mississippi at sunset… the multitude of magical moments in between. Afternoon wine sipped on the porch while the horse-drawn carriages clop down Chartres Street; the sweet and surprising smell of night-blooming jasmine as the gaslights flicker over uneven sidewalks just after dusk. Most importantly, the family and friends I’ve shared each trip with — even the fascinating strangers I’ve met during my days spent as an honorary New Orleanian. The sense of comfort that comes from knowing you’ve found a place where you truly belong.
But, this is a travel blog after all, so I’ll do my best to make a few helpful recommendations. Here’s the good news: even if you make some uninformed decisions about what to see and where to eat while you’re there, you’re still going to have a great time in The Big Easy!
ELISSA’S NOLA DOs and DON’Ts
Do try a Hurricane — the drink, of course. But don’t get one at Pat O’Brien’s. The tour books are right about a few things… Pat O’s famed flaming fountains in the courtyard are incredibly cool and their other cocktails are quite delicious, but their overpriced bright red Hurricane is a definite miss. Your first Hurricane should be made with real fruit juices — just ask the bartender at your bar of choice if they make theirs with a powder mix and if they say yes, then just say no.
My personal favorite is at the Ice House Bar in the Hotel Provincial — you’ll find it on the quieter end of the French Quarter, but when you’re making your way down to the French Market, just pop over a street from Decatur and it’s right on the way. Grab the drink to go and continue on your journey. Or better yet, avoid the noise and decadence of Decatur and enjoy the calmer residential beauty of the Quarter by strolling down Rue Chartres.
Do listen to live traditional jazz — it was born on the streets of New Orleans, after all! But don’t do so on Bourbon Street. Preservation Hall on St. Peter offers incredible trad-jazz concerts nightly. You can wait in a (long) line outside for standing-room-only space, or pay a fee to skip the line and enjoy front-row seats. Time is vital on vacay, so I highly recommend purchasing the VIP tickets ahead of time. Trust me, it’s worth it! Or, if you prefer something a little more flexible, head to Frenchmen Street (stopping at the Ice House Bar for a Hurricane first, natch) and check out the Spotted Cat Music Club or Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro. Real musicians. Real jazz. 365 days a year.
Do explore the local cocktail culture beyond the Hurricane. But again, don’t do it exclusively on Bourbon Street. Fun fact! The cocktail as we know it today was invented in New Orleans in the 1830s by local Creole pharmacist Antoine Amédée Peychaud, and sold as a medicinal tonic. He’s also credited with the invention of the Sazerac cocktail, a New Orlean’s staple you should definitely try while you’re there.
And what you’ve probably already heard is true: Bourbon is the biggest street for drinking — just be a bit selective about what you purchase. You’ll see hundreds of tourists roaming down Bourbon holding “Fish Bowls” and “Hand Grenades” filled with city’s “most powerful drink.” What they’re actually drinking is tasteless sugar water with a thimbleful of alcohol. Skip these novelties and head to the Old Absinthe House at the corner of Bourbon and Bienville, a 200-year-old bar mixing classic New Orleans cocktails (my personal favorite is the Planter’s Punch). Plus, like many locations in the French Quarter, the building itself has a unique history: according to local lore, it’s the location where Andrew Jackson and famous outlaw Jean Lafitte met to discuss the latter’s assistance with defeating the British Army in the War of 1812.
And whew, it seems this post is already running a bit long and I haven’t even addressed one of the most important parts of New Orleans culture… the delectable food! Stay tuned for future entries on the city’s best eats, as well as some must-see spots in NOLA’s coolest neighborhoods.
Given the unique nature of The Big Easy experience, I simply must leave you with a cocktail recipe and a playlist inspired by my beloved city. Most traditional New Orleans cocktails are quite complex and boast several unique ingredients, which is of course what makes them so outstanding. But one of the first cocktails ever mixed — the Sazarac by Monsieur Peychaud — is one you can make at home with just a few unconventional elements.
Directions: Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice. In a second old-fashioned glass, place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube. Add the Sazerac Rye Whiskey or Buffalo Trace Bourbon to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar. Remove the ice from the first glass and coat the glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint. Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.
And finally, a playlist packed with artists who called (or still call) New Orleans home:
What a Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans – Harry Connick Jr.
Jock-A-Mo – Sugar Boy and His Cane Cutters
King of New Orleans – Better Than Ezra
I Like It Like That – Allen Toussaint
Bourbon Street Parade – Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Treme Song – John Boutte
Hey Pocky A-Way – The Meters
Where Y’At – Trombone Shorty
Right Place Wrong Time – Dr. John
Laissez les bon temps rouler!