Jazz music. The smell of deep fried beignets and seafood gumbo. The excited chatter of the crowds and revelers throughout. New Orleans was a cool mix of the Old South, French colonial history, and Creole/Cajun culture. The Southeast Asia crew (Jay, Soham, and myself) embarked on a four-day mini-trip to New Orleans recently to explore its unique attractions, enjoy tons of food, and learn more about the history and culture of such a wonderful place.
I’ve put together a quick guide that gives a good rundown of the places we visited, the things we did, and of course – the food and drinks we enjoyed. I’ve also created a map to conveniently list out the spots mentioned. Feel free to include any other awesome recs in the comments section!
A good portion of this post will focus on the French Quarter since it’s the most well-known place to visit in New Orleans. We went on a walking tour with New Orleans Legendary Walking Tours during our second day, and we weren’t disappointed learning about the city’s rich history from pre-colonial times, admiring the many beautifully-designed homes with huge balconies and galleries, and walking through Jackson Square, one of the main squares in the area.
Our tour also took us to St. Louis Cemetery 1, a well-known historic cemetery that displayed the many above-ground vaults unique to New Orleans, built because of the many floods. We spotted the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau’s crypt, as well as actor Nicolas Cage’s strange pyramid-shaped mausoleum, which he insisted built as his final resting place. After the tour we dropped by the Louisiana State Museum to check out a very powerful exhibit about the events leading to and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
No description of French Quarter is complete without a mention of all the amazing food in the neighborhood. We ate breakfast to our hearts’ content at Cafe Beignet, which had some solid beignets and coffee. But nothing could match the beignets at Cafe Du Monde, the famous and hyped must-try cafe in New Orleans. The beignets did not disappoint – a perfect combo of crispy and chewy, with delicious powdered sugar and a café au lait (coffee with hot milk) to wash it all down. The secret? Wait in the take-out line. You can order the beignets and coffee there without the hours-long wait.
Honorable mentions go to Stanley, a Jackson Square brunch spot that offered Eggs Benedict with fried oysters, and Port of Call, a tiki dive bar that served super-cheesy New Orleans-style burgers with an entire fully-loaded baked potato on the side. Don’t forget to order their many rum-based cocktails, including their infamous Monsoons!
Yes, Bourbon Street was all it was described to be. Packed with tourists carrying all kinds of mixed drinks and filled with entertaining street performers and bands, Bourbon Street was a party at all hours of the day (and night). Rows of bars, frozen daiquiri stops, souvenir shops, and restaurants lined the 8-block radius of upper Bourbon in the heart of the French Quarter, with easy access to Central Business District.
We sipped way-too-sweet frozen hurricane cocktails while simultaneously eating powdered sugar-covered beignets. A jazz band was performing nearby so we sat for a bit to enjoy the sounds of brass instruments mixed with guitars and drums. We were starving by dinnertime so opted for the touristy Bourbon House, basically a Southern-style Cheesecake Factory. But instead of cheesecake, they offered spiked milk punches and root beer floats for dessert. Did I mention that the gumbo, grilled oysters, and shrimp were all delicious?
We’d heard from many folks that Frenchmen Street was a much better alternative than Bourbon Street for bar hopping and nightlife, and we weren’t disappointed. We were in the area a couple nights and it was by far the most unique bar hopping experience we’d encountered. Rows of bars also doubled as jazz clubs, and we listened to all kinds of jazz at some really laid-back and fun bars.
We caught a jazz performance at Blue Nile where the band played top 40 and hip hop hits as jazz. The Spotted Cat had a band playing more old-school jazz, and the place erupted after several people started swing dancing to the music. Another bar, 30/90, had an open mic night where anyone could sing and perform with the jazz band on stage. There were some really incredible rappers and singers that night!
Garden District & Magazine Street
The Garden District was a special treat since it wasn’t originally on my radar of neighborhoods to visit in New Orleans. We met up with one of Soham’s friends who’s attending med school at Tulane University, and Magazine Street turned out to be a popular spot for both students and locals. The neighborhood is a super nice one, with rows of historic Southern-style mansions and homes. We enjoyed lunch at Shaya, a highly-rated Mediterranean/Middle Eastern cuisine restaurant, and walked off our food coma while admiring all the fancy homes.
Along the way we stopped by the Magazine Street Art Market to check out some local art before grabbing coffee at Mojo Coffee House, which wouldn’t seem out of place in San Francisco or Portland. The next evening, we returned for dinner at Rum House, which served the most amazing seafood and Creole-inspired tacos, and started our bar hop at The Bulldog, a local pub that had a huge selection of beers on tap and an outdoor mini-beer garden.
Honey Island Swamp Tour
One of the coolest activities on our trip was taking the Honey Island Swamp Tour. The activity was similar to an SF resident visiting the Alcatraz, something tourists and locals alike could enjoy. Even our 45-minute drive from the city to Honey Island Swamp was scenic and eye-opening – the driver gave us a brief history of the neighborhoods we passed by and focused on the impact of Hurricane Katrina, pointing out spots that had the worst of the flooding and explaining how things changed in the years following the disaster.
Soon we were on a motorized boat carrying 20 folks into the swamp. Our guide had a thick Southern accent and gleefully stopped at various spots to point out snakes, birds, and other creatures we didn’t think anyone could see without binoculars. We blasted off in the boat, heading deeper into the swamps, and eventually spotted a family of wild boars. The trees at some points of the tour were pretty dense, giving off the impression of mini-forests in the water. Near the end of the tour, we spotted a smaller alligator hanging out near the boat. Most of its brethren were still sleeping off the winter blues.
Other Cool Spots
We spent quite a bit of time in Tremé during our trip, since our Airbnb was located there. It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and also an important center of the city’s African-American and Creole culture. The Louis Armstrong Park was a nice park to enjoy on a sunny afternoon, and there were a couple of cool bars across the street called Bar Tonique and The Black Penny to enjoy a Sazerac or a Vieux Carré.
Further out from the city center I’d highly recommend Bacchanal Wine, an outdoor beer-garden style wine bar with live jazz performances and a cool laid-back vibe. We started and ended our visit at St. Roch Market, a newly-renovated historic market filled with hip Southern and fusion food vendors and coffee shops, basically a mini-version of the Ferry Building in SF or Chelsea Market in New York. For late night eats, you can’t go wrong with Verti Marte, a 24-hour convenience store with a deli in the back that serves a mean po’ boy sandwich. Order their All That Jazz sandwich – everyone there ordered it, and it did not disappoint!