NOLA was a 580 miles detour from our planned trip. It was absolutely worth the long drive from St. Augustine, FL all the way through Alabama, Mississippi to Louisiana. Some will tell you that there is only one place in the States that has got the same vibe and soul of NOLA, being Key West. Although I do not fully agree, NOLA is without any doubt a unique place and possibly one of the best cities I’ve visited in America so far.
Before you head here, keep in mind a few things about this city:
Music. You don’t need to be a Jazz expert to love this city and discretely approach jazz if you are not a fan yet. Music is everywhere, at every corner, in every bar, in every square, in every restaurant. It brings people together and it brings happiness and joy at any time. If you can, go and listen to this guy….Kermit Ruffins, an amazing Jazz trumpeter and singer: amazing music and great fun!
We saw him performing with his band at the Little Gem Saloon and absolute loved them. In all honesty anywhere you go, you will have a good chance to listen to great music: any of the clubs on Frenchmen Street (lots of them have amazing jam sessions) will be great fun and most of them are free entry. We tried the Bamboula’s and their live music was great too; informal atmosphere, great tip-tap dancer and excellent music.
Café Negril is lots of fun too; free entry and with great jamming sessions to keep you going all night long.
Even during day time music will be literally everywhere; just take a stroll in Jackson Square and get some great live music in the open air.
Food. Eat everything you can, because everything is terribly rich and too delicious to leave NOLA without tasting it. New Orleans cuisine is exactly like its people: a mix West European, African, Caribbean and Native American influences. Gumbo, Jambalaya, Muffuletta, Po-Boys, Oysters Rockfeller, Beignets just to name some of the most famous delicacies.
Don’t be afraid of your scales back home: you can burn a lot of calories with long dancing sessions at any of the clubs on Frenchmen Street or listening to any street performer and shaking your hips 🙂 If you are planning to spend the night going from one jazz club to another, have a bite at The Three Muses on Frenchmen St. They are right in the middle of the action surrounded by plenty of other jazz clubs, they offer great food perfect for sharing and, of course, great live jazz music. Book in advance!
We also tried the Market Café for lunch and were not disappointed. The portions are massive so we chose to have a big lunch sharing different platters and skipped dinner. A separate note should be made for their Bloody Mary, one of the best I have ever had (except probably the one at Key West Hot Tin Roof). Head there at lunch time to grab a table in the sun and sit back: it might have been the sun, the live jazz music or whatever but to me this was truly delicious!
During our wandering around the city we tried also Joey K’s on Magazine St., an very reasonable restaurant busy with locals serving generous and yummy local food. Food was so rich that we had to skip dinner once again!
Following everyone’s advice, we were almost forced to try the famous beignets at the Café du Monde but as my mum always says “I prefer to get fat with something else”. Nice but nothing overwhelming and terribly terribly fattening.
I suppose it is a sort of tradition and to be fair is not such a bad plan to pick up some beignets and enjoy some street performers on the opposite side of Jackson Square in a warm January sunny day.
Architecture. As far as architecture goes, you can easily spend a week touring around NOLA and never get bored. Its buildings are, exactly like its cuisine, a mix of several styles and epoques: creole cottages, shotgun houses, double gallery houses, American townhouses, modern skyscrapers. There is a style and a color for everyone.
As many, I truly loved the French Quarter (with the exception of Bourbon Street) and the Garden District, where unbelievable huge mansions dot the lush tree-lined boulevards. We took the St. Charles street car from Canal St. all the way to the Uptown/Carrollton Area, stopping at the beautiful Garden District, visiting the Lafayette Cemetery, taking a long walk in the Audubon Park and wandering on the grounds of the Loyola University.
Apparently the area around Maple St. is very busy and lively but we got there too early and it was still pretty quiet and a bit uninspiring.
Accommodation. It’s hard to choose where to stay in NOLA, since there are plenty of options for any budget. Personally, I would stick to the area of the French Quarter where a lot of the action is. In the Garden District there are very nice accomodation options (particularly B&B) but it’s too far out from where you want to be. There are plenty of hotels and B&Bs on both Royal and Chartres St. between Canal and St. Ann St. and the area is always quite busy. Don’t choose an hotel a couple of blocks away from the busy area thinking that “it’s just a couple of blocks” because that does not apply to NOLA. Taking advantage of a bid on Priceline, we ended up for 1 night at Springhill Suites on 301 St. Joseph St. Not a bad spot and very good value. We then moved to the New Orleans Jazz Quarters, just off N Rampart Street in the Tremé neighbourhood. Nothing to say about the accommodation (we had the cheapest room but still good size with a very big and newly refurbished bathroom) and the breakfast. Despite the excellent reviews on TA, I wouldn’t probably choose it again since it was just a bit further out in a mainly residential area with few people about during the day and absolutely no-one during the night. The owners said it was absolutely safe….just wondering why you need a 2,5 m. iron gate to protect your B&B then! Although it was a pleasant walk during the day, I didn’t feel particularly safe in coming back at late afternoon/evening. I would rather stay in the very heart of the French Quarter (avoiding of course Bourbon St.). If you are visiting NOLA with a car (like we did), try to find a B&B or hotel with a gated car park; if not, the best option would be to leave your car in a guarded car park. It was not unusual to find car windows smashed in many street car parks around NOLA. It comes without saying: don’t leave anything valuable in the car.
Mardi Gras. If you intend to visit NOLA during the Mardi Gras celebrations, be prepared to pay a significant premium for your accommodation and to be surrounded by thousands of people partying (NOLA population almost doubles during the celebrations). Even though the celebration falls any Tuesday between Feb. 3rd and March 7th (depending on the date of Easter), the Carnival season starts after the Twelfth Night (Epiphany) so you can get a good glimpse of the Mardi Gras colors (purple, green and gold that stand for Justice, Faith and Power) long before.
Safety. This should be a priority when visiting NOLA, particularly if you are a woman on your own. Even in the extremely touristy French Quarter, it’s not unusual to read about bag snatches and robberies, some of them affecting tourists as well. Bourbon Street itself is pretty safe during day time (busy with tourists, Police and cleaning teams to wash out the party of the previous night!) but it can get less pleasant in the evening after midnight (particularly the last quiet blocks towards Esplanade). From our hotel walking down St. Philip St. we saw plenty of these signs.
Just to give you some numbers: as of July 2015, the New Orleans Police Department had 1,106 officers. Before hurricane Katrina, the NOPD had 1,742 police officers. And crime is not decreasing, consequence also of the terrible effects of the hurricane that hit the city in 2005, one of the deadliest in American history when, due to the levee system failure, at least 1,400 people died and hundreds of thousands suffered the aftermaths, loosing their homes and jobs (particularly African American living in low-lying locations). This doesn’t mean that you can’t visit New Orleans and enjoy yourself, the opposite. It just means that you should use common sense (getting a cab back at late hours is always a good idea) and exercise more precaution than usual (particularly during Mardi Gras celebrations and especially if you are a group of only girls).
I loved New Orleans but I left with a kind of bitter taste in my mouth. The fact that I can’t walk on my own everywhere at anytime of the day is a big restriction for someone used to walk almost everywhere; but I am aware that this problem does affect plenty of American cities. Poverty and homelessness is unfortunately a tangible trait of New Orleans and the luxurious mansions in the Garden District (almost untouched by Katrina) or the impeccable townhouses in the French Quarter are only one side of the coin; despite the amazing efforts of some non-profit organizations like Unity in providing housing and support to the homeless, plenty of people still live on the streets or in abandoned houses without the most basic services.