I’ve just arrived home from the airport and I feel compelled to write about our crazy, indulgent, jazz & booze filled city break to the land of good music, good party and good times.
I’m talking about New Orleans. Or NOLA for short (New Orleans Louisiana).
I get the feeling that New Orleans isn’t a typical UK break kinda place, considering we only bumped into a grand total of ONE British person during our stay. But I urge you to put it on your ‘travel wishlist’ – especially if you’re into fantastic live music. More about that later.
TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS & HOTEL
We flew out from London Heathrow on 28th December for a week long trip. It’s a ten hour plane journey so it is a long way to go for a week, I guess, but you have to weigh up if it’s worth it. And we decided it totally was.
New Orleans Louis Armstrong Airport is only 30 minutes from NOLA city centre, so once you’re out the other end you’re practically there. We did have an insane wait at passport control on landing though, so be prepared for that.
We stayed at the very chic & very hip ‘Old Number 77 Hotel’ in the up & coming Warehouse District. This borders the hustle bustle of the touristy French Quarter and it’s a 15 minute walk from the infamous Bourbon Street. The location was perfect for us – far enough from the tourist trap centre but close enough to walk home from the bars of an evening.
As with all the cool places popping up in the Warehouse District, this hotel is a converted warehouse, oozing in personality and quirks. High ceilings, polished wooden floors & industrial chic. It also boasts an award winning restaurant and a lovely little bar where my favourite drink was served in a giant copper bunny.
Let’s just say that the place was very Instagramable.
(Although I really fell down on the photo taking front on this holiday. I guess some things you just have to experience for yourself).
WHAT IS NEW ORLEANS LIKE?
I heard on more than one occasion New Orleans described as a ‘melting pot of culture’. At first it irked me hearing this phrase being used over and over by various tour guides and locals but then I realised that there really was no other way to describe it.
With a complex and rich history rooted in a collision of different cultures (French/Spanish/American/African/West Indies) it would be unfair to clobber NOLA in with the rest of America. It’s a separate entity entirely and its multicultural roots are very much felt in both the architecture and traditions that still exist today.
New Orleans is a vibe. I never thought I’d hear myself use that phrase but hey here we are. It has a feeling. It’s lively. It’s super friendly and every day is a cause for celebration.
If you’re looking for a chilled one this holiday is not for you.
If you’re looking for a good time, 24 hours a day, then you’re going to fit right in.
STUFF TO DO:
Experience the madness of the French Quarter. It’s important to explain that NOLA has 17 districts and the French Quarter is just one of them. But it is where New Orleans was founded so it quite rightly deserves its mega tourist status. There is never a dull moment as you wander around the super busy streets. Admire the historical architecture – French/Spanish townhouses in an array of colours with their iconic balconies. Your senses will be bombarded with rich smells of creole cooking (some good, some not so good) and the sounds of live music wafting out of bars and from street performers on corners.
Spots to check off your list include Jackson Square which is always awash with street performers and artists. Behind Jackson Square is the port for the traditional Steamboat Natchez. Well worth going to see and you can even take trips out. And you can’t visit the French Quarter without stumbling onto Bourbon Street – an infamous strip of bars famed for it’s nightlife.
Top tip? Have a few drinks before you go. This street needs some rose tinted glasses. It’s a bit rough round the edges and not dissimilar to strips in other party towns. But it is a good night out and there’s an abundance of live music, dancing and a fantastic opportunity for some people watching.
Hit the swamps. We headed out to visit the swamps with New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours. It was fantastic to get out on the water and see a different part of NOLA. In high season, you can expect to see an abundance of wildlife including alligators and snakes. Unluckily for us (or luckily depending on your stance) we saw neither due to the season, but we did see turtles which was cute. We loved paddling through the low hanging trees covered in ‘grandpa’s beard’ and learning about the complex ecosystem of the swamp. Our tour guide was perhaps a little lacking on the ‘tour guidiness’ front but we enjoyed every minute of it none-the-less.
Explore the Garden District. My my my, what pretty houses you have. The Garden District is famed for it’s sprawling mansions and wealth, a juxtaposition to the Shotgun Cottages that line the streets below it. If you just want to eyeball insane mansions, then take the Green Line Streetcar (tram) up St Charles Avenue – the further up you go the bigger the houses get. But I would say the best way to experience and understand the city’s evolvement is through a bike tour. We booked on with Fat Tires Bike Tours and made our way from the French Quarter out towards the Garden District, where we learnt along the way about the reasons for the differing architecture in each district and how the city has grown and developed since the days of segregation and class differences.
Spend an evening (or two or three) in Frenchman Street. The locals answer to Bourbon Street. I’d been told about the abundance of live music before our trip but nothing could prepare me for the movie-like feel of walking down Frenchman Street. Music literally poured out of every bar, with some places filled with so many listeners that you couldn’t possibly squeeze another person into the joint. Expect to be shoulder-to-shoulder and getting intimate with strangers to listen to the musicians – it’s part of the experience. There’s no frills here, just the simplicity of really bloody good musicianship with a good drink in hand. Some of the finest musicians around play in these bars and it’s absolutely worth a visit.
Get your music fix at a jazz club. NOLA is the self proclaimed centre of jazz. A very worthy title in my opinion. We were lucky enough to visit two ticketed jazz shows on our trip. The first was Preservation Hall, an iconic venue set to preserve New Orleans traditional jazz values. This was our most intimate jazz experience of the trip. We were led through to a small, ramshackle room with three wooden benches where we were told that this was an unplugged experience – strictly no phones, no recording, no photos. The zero-distractions added to the show experience immensely and we left saying to eachother ‘what did we just watch?! What just happened?! That was insane!’
Our second ticketed jazz night was at Snug Harbour Jazz Club. We had no idea when we squeezed ourselves onto the tiny table in front of the stage that we were in fact at some sort of special memorial evening. We were watching the Storyville Stompers, a band who’s oldest members had been together for 40 years. Tonight we were celebrating the birthday of their late Grand Master (leader of the band – yep I had no idea what this was either). Funerals in New Orleans are HUGE celebrations with jazz music and dancing. This was no exception. We listened to their songs and stories of their dear friend whilst the audience cheered and danced to celebrate his memory. It was hands down the most feel good musical experience of the week.
Experience a New Orleans Street Parade. Nola pride themselves on throwing the best street parties and street parades. I mean, you only have to hear the stories of Mardi Gras to believe this. We were lucky to experience their New Years Eve Parade to celebrate the upcoming Sugarbowl. People went nuts for it. I’m talking cheerleaders and marching bands and themed floats. It was just really good feel good fun. I’m told there’s parades all year round so be sure to check their calendar of events before you go.
See a game at the Superdome. Probably not a traditional thing to do in New Orleans but it was absolutely a highlight of our trip. The Sugarbowl final (American Football) was on during our trip which meant that 85% of the people walking around the city were in team colours. I’m talking full families in full on team sports tops, caps, colours. The lot. Naturally Max & I felt left out so we got ourselves some tickets to go the game and chose a team to support (Baylor Bears – ‘Go bears!’)
Sports games in America are not like our sports games. The actual game is shadowed by the complete theatrics of the pre-show, half time, full time celebrations. There’s hundreds of people down on the pitch. There’s cheerleaders. There’s marching bands. There’s mascots. There’s gymnasts. There’s majorette dancers. There’s over a 100 players. It was mind blowing.
Get spooked on a Ghost Tour. Nola is supposedly the most haunted city in America so if you’re into that kinda stuff there’s all sorts of stories to hear. Granted, our tour guide was really quite rubbish but there are tons of ghost tours going on every night and some of them looked pretty good. Their cemeteries are also well worth a visit (and even a tour) as they’re not like any other cemeteries you might have seen. All graves are raised in NOLA and their tombs are actually pieces of real estate owned by each family. It’s pretty interesting (in a morbid, weird kinda way) and it’s worth popping in to see – it’s become a big tourist attraction to visit.
I have to say that I was expecting big things on the eating front in NOLA. If you read info online people rave about the food. I’m a massive foodie (Max prefers the label ‘food snob’) and I have to say the food didn’t set my heart a-flutter. I think possibly it’s just not the cuisine for me, but also a lot of the food is (in a typically American way) very heavy and rich.
Expect mammoth portions and tons of traditional Creole food (grits, biscuits, gumbo, po boys, beignets & reels of seafood). Yeah don’t worry I had to google some of that food too.
Notable places we ate were:
Willa Jeans for breakfast/brunch. So good we ate here twice. It’s in the Business District not far from the Warehouse district so it’s got that downtown New York feel. There’s an extensive bakery section as well as a cute little brunch menu that includes sexy stuff like avo on toast, grain bowls, and summer hash bowls. I had a cracking Iced Honey Salted Latte from here (I know, what even is that?!) and the Monkey Bread was to die for. Reserve a table or expect a wait – the queue was out the door both times we visited.
Celler Door is a lovely setting for dinner. We went to celebrate Max’s 30th Birthday. I wasn’t BLOWN AWAY by my dinner but it was Max’s fave dinner all week. I think I chose the wrong thing as all the food looked pretty ace coming out. Plus we did have some marvy cinnemon beignets for dessert which were 5 star sexy.
French Toast for breakfast/brunch. We went on our last morning. It’s situated on the busy Decatur Street near the French Market. It’s got an American Diner feel and you can expect all the good American Diner faves. Waffles and pancakes are the standout stars on the menu. Oh and their first question when you sit down is ‘do you want a round of mimosas to start?’ The answer is always yes.
Café du Monde is easily one of the biggest tourist spots in the city, famed for it’s deep fried beignets topped with a ton of sugar icing. It sits at one corner of Jackson Square and it’s open 24 hours a day. You’ll see people queuing in the day so my top tip is to go at night. We hit it up at 1am in the morning after a night on Frenchman Street and although it was still busy, we didn’t have to wait too long for a table. However, I have to admit that I did not rate the beignets at all – they were as heavy as rocks. But I’m glad we did it as it’s such an iconic spot.
FUN FACTS TO FINISH:
Did you know that it’s legal to drink on the streets or New Orleans? You can ask for drinks ‘to go’ from every bar. I had many a fancy cocktail made into a plastic cup for me – it was the best accompaniment for strolling round the streets listening to music. (And also the fastest way to get hella drunk as I discovered on our first full day. Whoops).
Drive Through Daquiri Stands are a thing. Yep, that’s right, instead of a burger you can pick up a frozen daiquiri without getting out of your car and it’s a perfectly normal part of everyday life in NOLA. It dates back to when it was legal to drink and drive in New Orleans. After the law changed, the law for Drive Through Daiquiri Stands changed slightly too – you can still pick one up but the lid must be on and the straw cannot be in the drink. Blurry line, right?!
Beyoncé owns a deserted church along Melody Street in the Garden District. In fact, lots of famous faces can be found amongst the mansions in the Garden District. Nicolas Cage famously starting buying up haunted real estate back in the day which he then lost through bankruptcy. He now still owns his very own pyramid tomb in St Louis Cemetery which he is rumoured to have purchased on the recommendation of a Medium to try to reverse the curse of bad luck that his haunted properties befell on him. You can’t make this shit up.
And on that note, I’m going to stop writing because if I tell you anymore you might as well not visit.
If you’ve made it this far, well done you. Ten gold stars.