More than Mardi Gras: An Insider’s Guide to New Orleans
With a beignet in hand, discover the Greek Revival mansions of the Garden District, listen to live music every night of the week, and fall asleep on a belly full of jambalaya. In the “Big Easy” it’s nearly impossible to have a bad time.
By Regis St. Louis
Photographs by Joao Canziani
Introduction by Katy Simpson Smith
Illustrations by Alex Fine
In August 2012, I was hunkered down in a wind-whipped New Orleans apartment with my bathtub full of water and a book of crosswords while hurricane parties raged across the city. My landlord had evacuated ahead of Hurricane Isaac, but I was a committed introvert and thought surely you could ride out a storm alone — I didn’t even own a cell phone.
After the lights went out and the rain lashed through, leaving the city dark and quiet, I started feeling the first tingles of loneliness. A large branch had fallen across our power line and onto the porch, so I dragged out the trash bins and got to work. Soon the sound of unexpected laughter lured me out of the yard. Up and down the street, neighbors were also clipping and sawing and cleaning, except they were doing it in tandem, loudly, sharing plates of food cooked before it could spoil. I wandered two doors down, where the resident surgeon and his guests were riotous with champagne, and was coaxed to join them. From their high porch I could see both the destruction and the people busy putting the pieces back together.
What I first loved about New Orleans was not its citizens, those models of generosity and exuberance, but the landscape surrounding them. In no other American city is a setting so alive. Giant live oaks lean into the street like alms-seekers — the oaks under which hot-blooded 19th-century men dueled to the death, whose sweeping branches children still climb like cats, that interrupt the arc of throws at Mardi Gras so that all spring long we drive under canopies of beads. The live oaks, some stunted, some missing, also tell the story of Katrina, when the city absorbed the pain and kept growing, one new leaf at a time.
The houses have as much personality as their inhabitants — Creole cottages and shotguns in shades of salmon, fuchsia, cerulean — and jungles of jasmine perfume the streets. The heat is its own character, both lover and villain, swaddling you in comfort when your Northern friends complain of snowstorms but turning summers into a slow crawl. The markers of humanity I loved best were the cemeteries: mausoleums rising like palaces from the dirt, bright signs of where the bodies lay — white, black, Vietnamese, Honduran, Isleño.
When I moved to the city, I was in my mid-twenties and trying adulthood for the first time. I walked the streets of the French Quarter with my résumé in hand, asking for work at every bookshop from Esplanade to Canal, passing people with papier-mâché birds on their heads or leather straps around their legs. How could they be so bold? In the evenings I strolled from my two-room apartment up to Bayou St. John, where people kayaked with their dogs and I could sit on the bank with my head in a book.
It turned out that the people weren’t independent from the city’s magic but were forged of the same rare stuff.
The spring after the hurricane, when the magnolias were setting out their blooms and I was finally growing curious about the humans around me, I forced myself to attend a neighborhood event — a community garden needed its fence painted. Feeling like Tom Sawyer, I painted my way right into another woman; we were instant friends. Amanda was spectacled and vibrant, an easy hugger, with a laugh that rivaled the bells of St. Louis Cathedral. She hosted crawfish boils; dragged me to local restaurants where we sampled king cakes, Alon Shaya’s mystic pita, burgers made of deep-fried red beans and rice; and stood by me for every Muses parade, an all-women spectacle on the Thursday before Mardi Gras, where she’d scream bloody murder to catch a prized shoe. It turned out that the people weren’t independent from the city’s magic but were forged of the same rare stuff. I started tentatively asking folks out for coffee, or snowballs, or walks along the bayou. I met natives and transplants, uptowners and downtowners, who weren’t just writers or lawyers or carpenters but were also costumers and saxophonists and multilinguals. It’s a city of secret lives, of people who are so rich in character that one identity isn’t sufficient.
In 2016, my realtor urged me to audition for the Sirens, one of the more than two dozen Mardi Gras dance troupes that allow grown women and men to shake their butts in silly outfits down the middle of St. Charles Avenue. Somehow, in spite of my reserve and my two left feet, I earned a spot. The loveliest troupe of them all (in my opinion), the Sirens parade 12 choreographed dances for six miles, sleet or heat, wearing wigs and corsets and fishnet tights, past kids sitting on ladders and drunken co-eds and tourists desperate for beads, under the interstate and into the heart of downtown, where the mayor sits on a dais and waves as we shimmy past. I have never felt more exposed, or more enveloped. The city, in all its abundance, had finally cracked me open and let me in. Now when someone new comes to town, I pass along this advice: Witness all the beauty of your surroundings, but put aside your shyness and find the humans, too. They’re the ones having a good time.
Katy Simpson Smith’s new novel about Rome (Harper Books) will be available in March 2020.
Slip in to a Second Line Parade
Wait, what is this parade?
A much-loved part of African American Creole culture here, the Second Line is like a roving party, with pumping brass bands and dancers in colorful suits (the main line) and spirited revelers following behind (the second line). Staged by the city’s African-American Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Second Lines are rooted in jazz funerals. In the early days, a band would play somber songs en route to the internment; after everyone left the cemetery, things would get more upbeat, with happier songs celebrating the person’s life. These days, Second Lines are held to celebrate life in the city and bring communities together. They happen most Sundays (except during the summer and major holidays) in different parts of town — typically in the Tremé and Central City.
Who can join in?
All are welcome. But you may get dirty looks if you:
- Block the main line coming down the street.
- Point your camera in the face of parade-goers or the parade group.
- Don’t contribute to the collection basket being passed.
- Get trashed and stumble through it. Drinking in public is acceptable here (you can buy drinks from bars or mobile vendors en route); just don’t go overboard.
“This city wouldn’t be New Orleans without the Second Line. It’s dance, it’s community, it’s celebration. When I hear that music, I can’t hold back.” — Cheryl Richmond, Tremé resident and frequent Second Line participant
What do I bring?
Sunscreen, and be sure to wear comfortable shoes — these parades can last for hours and wind through shade-free streets.
Local Lingo: Outsiders think it’s N’Awlins — it’s not. This is the city of New OR-luns. (And it’s never New orLEANS either.)
Landing pads for 3 common types of travelers.
Where the Hipsters Hang: The Marigny
Right next to the Bywater and just downriver from the French Quarter, the Marigny (MARE-uh-nee) is made up of colorful houses amid bohemian cafés and neighborhood cocktail dens. Another plus: Some of the city’s best music halls are here. (You’ll find them along Frenchmen Street.)
For Design Aficionados: Garden District
Towering oaks, elaborate gardens, and jaw-dropping Greek Revival mansions form the backdrop to this historic district, established in the 19th century. Residents here enjoy leisurely walks on the brick-lined side streets, dining at the neighborhood’s culinary institutions like Commander’s Palace, and browsing the Magazine Street boutiques.
Got Kids With You?: Uptown
A few miles upriver from the French Quarter, Uptown is set with leafy streets, spacious homes, and charming parks. You’ll also find a solid restaurant selection (Upperline, Patois, Gautreau’s) — and while the area is a bit removed from the action, the St. Charles streetcar can get you downtown in about 30 minutes.
“The Music Box Village is a collection of buildings made of repurposed materials, with makeshift instruments: percussion kits made of old oil drums, a pergola surrounded by air horns, and more . If you go during the day, your kids can run around while you check out the art market or craft beer stands; or go at night for a concert. Depending on the date, it could be anything from indie rock to Afrobeat.” — Scott Hourcade, Airbnb Experience host
Neighborhood Deep Dive: The Bywater
This district downriver from the French Quarter is at the epicenter of the city’s creative renaissance. Musicians, artists, and other free spirits have flocked here in recent years, fixing up the brightly painted Creole cottages. A walkable area, Bywater is home to record and antiques shops, storied music venues, laid-back gin joints, and a growing gallery scene. These five spots are standouts — and if you’re around on Mardi Gras (March 5), check out the colorful costumes in the Society of St. Anne parade as it dances by.
Near the canal in the Bywater, the tiny neighborhood wine shop Chris Rudge opened back in 2002 has morphed into an anytime outdoor hangout with a well-curated wine selection and flavorful small plates (bacon-wrapped dates, patatas bravas). There’s live music seven days a week, with a lineup that includes young jazz bands and celebrated soloists like cellist Helen Gillet. Go early to score a table in the backyard. With outdoor lights strung among the trees, it’s one of the most atmospheric settings for a show.
2. Bar Redux
For a slice of old-school New Orleans, check out the streets just up the road and pop into a no-frills watering hole like Bar Redux. “It’s a great spot for a beer and good bar food at reasonable prices,” says Steve Scaffidi, host of a film-writing Airbnb Experience. The dive-y spot has a backyard dotted with Christmas lights and a rotating roundup of nightly entertainment: blues bands, burlesque shows, and more.
When Bywater residents need a break from the urban bustle, they take a stroll over the “rusty rainbow,” a steep pedestrian bridge leading from Piety Street to the city’s newest waterfront park. Stretching for 1.4 miles along the Mississippi, the breezy green space with its meadow grasses and river views draws strollers, dog walkers, and cyclists. “There’s no better place to see the sunset, framed by the skyline and the crescent river,” says Airbnb Experience host Scott Hourcade.
Celebrated chef Nina Compton opened this industrial-chic bistro in 2018, upping the Bywater’s growing culinary cred. Just as she does at Compère Lapin in the warehouse district, Compton sources from small farms to create a seasonally inspired menu that blends Caribbean and Creole accents (think jerk chicken with butter beans, and rabbit curry with jasmine rice).
Part of the city’s craft beer renaissance, Parleaux (a playful French translation for “Bywater”) brews up small batches in unconventional varieties — including a rich Baltic porter aged in bourbon barrels. The backyard is a fine place for sampling the seasonal quaffs with gourmet snacks from a rotating lineup of food trucks, including Lucille’s Roti and Beets N Thyme (veggie empanadas). Randomly, there’s also a free yoga class every Sunday at 11 a.m.
Stretch Your Dollar!
The Big Easy doesn’t have to be hard on your wallet. These finds are all under a buck, or even better: gratis.
A visit to the Sculpture Garden at NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art). Check out the compelling works of René Magritte, Robert Indiana, and Claes Oldenburg in a verdant setting inside City Park.
Gallery-hopping along Julia Street. Go on the first Saturday of the month — that’s when parties for new exhibits are sometimes held, with complimentary wine and cheese.
A lunchtime martini at Commander’s Palace. A martini (or three — the limit per person with an entrée) goes down nicely with spicy Creole cooking. Try the pan-seared Gulf fish.
An oyster during happy hour at Superior Seafood. Every day between 4 and 6:30 p.m., this vintage eating and drinking den offers the popular shellfish for a steal.
And for just over a dollar
You can take a vintage streetcar ride through the city (one-way ticket: $1.25). The St. Charles line rattles along a scenic boulevard, past estates and oak trees so thick in parts they form a verdant archway over the tracks. Pick it up at Canal and Carondelet streets and ride through the CBD, Lower Garden, Garden District, and Uptown. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the end of the loop (South Claiborne and South Carrollton avenues).
Lagniappe (LAN-yap): A little something extra — an extra oyster to your dozen, or a free slice of cake slipped into your bag at the bakery. Let’s say you’re having a glass of wine at a bar: You can ask for a lagniappe, and the bartender might bring you a free snack or top off your glass.
“There isn’t another place where the restaurants are so inextricably linked with the identity of a place as they are in New Orleans,” says award-winning restaurant critic Brett Anderson. A writer for the Times-Picayune since 2000, he considers now to be one of the most dynamic moments in the city’s culinary scene: “There are a lot of new young chefs who are adding their chapter into the thick book of New Orleans.” For a taste of that kitchen creativity, try some of Anderson’s favorite places, both time-tested classics and newcomers.
“This idiosyncratic French Creole restaurant in a residential neighborhood in Uptown turns out hugely flavorful crab dishes, including a smoked soft-shell crab with meunière sauce.”
“The owner, JoAnn Clevenger, has developed a lot of great recipes over the years, including a shrimp rémoulade served over fried green tomatoes, now found all over New Orleans. Their duck-and-andouille gumbo is one of the best.”
“A homey restaurant with a staff that’s been there for ages. Frank Brigtsen was at the forefront of combining Cajun and Creole cooking. His panéed rabbit [breaded and pan-fried] in a spicy Creole mustard sauce is outstanding.”
“This was Nina Compton’s first restaurant in New Orleans. She’s from St. Lucia and cooks New Orleans recipes through a Caribbean lens. The shrimp with roasted jalapeño jus is fabulous, but their most famous dish is curried goat, which is seriously addictive.”
“This French Quarter spot really flaunts the beauty of New Orleans’ old architecture, and the gastropub bar food is excellent. It may not sound very exciting, but an outstanding dish is the English peas, served with cauliflower cream and country ham.”
6. The Nolan House
(Ride the St. Charles Streetcar to St. Charles and Third Street.) In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, infant Benjamin is left on the back stairway of this 8,000-square-foot Garden District mansion, which served as a home for the elderly in the film starring Brad Pitt.
“Pascal’s Manale is a must. Uptown T, an oyster shucker there, greets everyone with a big smile. Go for the weeknight happy hour (3 to 6 p.m.); oysters are half off.” — Emma Fick, visual artist and author of Snippets of New Orleans
Food Hall of Fame
Don’t leave town without digging into these iconic dishes.
A hearty rice dish with French and Spanish roots that typically includes sausage (andouille is a favorite) along with some combination of shrimp, crawfish, pork, or chicken. It’s a filling meal that can be cheap street food or more upscale depending on where you go.
Get it at: Coop’s Place, a convivial French Quarter eatery that cooks up a rich, boneless rabbit version with smoked pork sausage and shrimp.
A full-bodied soup made of a roux that’s topped with meat or seafood. It’s often served with rice.
Get it at: K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen; its decadent version is made with pan-braised chicken and andouille sausage.
The recipe, said to date back to the 1930s, is relatively free-form: Take some French bread and stuff it with grilled shrimp, fried oysters, roast beef, or other goodness; dress it (lettuce, tomato, mayo); then indulge.
Get it at: Parasol’s Bar & Restaurant; their much-imitated Firecracker Shrimp Po-boy is a spicy version made with fried shrimp that’s coated with garlic, butter, and hot sauce.
Red beans and rice
A simple but satisfying meal, which, when done right, can be one of the best things you eat in New Orleans. Traditionally served on Mondays.
Get it at: Dooky Chase’s Restaurant. It’s a signature dish of “Queen of Creole Cuisine” Leah Chase, the legendary 96-year-old chef at this restaurant in Tremé.
Freshly shucked, slathered with butter, garlic, and cheese, and thrown directly onto a grill’s open flame.
Get it at: Drago’s Seafood Restaurant, the place that popularized the dish.
Have Beignets 9 Ways
Traditionally, this pillowy French treat is dusted with a simple topping of powdered sugar. But in NOLA, the area best known for the doughnut-like confection, it also comes in some innovative spin-offs. Beignet fries, anyone?
1. Oreo beignets Luca Eats
2. Red fish beignets Royal House Oyster Bar
3. Burger beignets Loretta’s Authentic Pralines
4. Beignet fries Café Maspero
5. Beignets Café du Monde
6. Bacon cheddar beignets with chipotle crema The Howlin’ Wolf Music Club & Den
7. Pumpkin and whipped cream beignets (seasonal) The Vintage
8. Duck and sweet potato beignets with foie gras fondue SoBou
9. Chocolate stuffed beignets Uptown Coffee
Tap in to the Cocktail Culture
Some of America’s best cocktails were invented in this port city, and generally speaking, New Orleanians love a good drink. In fact, the Crescent City has been knocking back creative libations since the 1800s, when alcohol was still being prescribed by physicians for its medicinal qualities. Elizabeth Pearce, author of Drink Dat New Orleans, takes us through the boozy concoctions born in the Big Easy.
Local Lingo: Go cup: An alcoholic beverage to go. Take your unfinished cocktail with you. (Really! It’s allowed. You can ask for a go cup at even the ritziest bars.)
“Barrel Proof is this really mellow spot where I like to go after the high energy of a Second Line. They have more than 300 types of whiskey, including rare ones from Japan.” — John Foley, Second Line regular
Your Tipsy Timeline
Antoine Amédée Peychaud opens a pharmacy in NOLA, and his bitters recipe becomes key to the Sazerac. The drink evolves into a mix of sugar, rye whiskey, Peychaud’s Bitters, and Herbsaint. Try it at the Sazerac Bar, where it was popularized in the 1880s.
Philibert Guichet, then owner of Tujague’s, one of the city’s oldest bars, invents the Grasshopper, a dessert drink of crème de menthe, crème de cacao, and heavy cream with a splash of brandy. It takes off in the 1920s and is still served at Tujague’s today.
Walter Bergeron, head bartender at the Hotel Monteleone, invents the Vieux Carré, a blend of rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Bénédictine, and Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. The rotating Carousel Bar is currently the best place to try it.
The Hurricane is invented during World War II. Whiskey was not readily available, but there was a surplus of rum, so Pat O’Brien’s pub experimented with recipes to make the most of the rum glut. The winner was this rum punch, made with passion-fruit juice and a splash of citrus. Hit Tiki Tolteca for the classic cocktail.
Touted as the strongest drink in town, the Hand Grenade is a fluorescent green secret recipe that reportedly contains 13 ingredients. The drink’s melon flavor disguises the strong alcohol hidden within. Find it at Tropical Isle, which is owned by the drink’s inventors, Pam Fortner and Earl Bernhardt.
Cure opens in Uptown, fueling the bespoke cocktail craze by repopularizing vintage drinks and riffing on classics. Try the Outside Only, a twist on the Sazerac with notes of cinnamon bark, citrus peel, and caramelized Demerara.
Navigate the Music Scene
Rebirth’s cofounder, award-winning trumpet player Kermit Ruffins, honed his skills playing in the jazz bands around New Orleans and later found stardom as a soloist as well as an actor (he plays himself on the HBO series Treme). His top tip for visitors: Catch the legends. “You’ve got to go see Ellis Marsalis at Snug Harbor [on Frenchmen Street]. He plays there every Friday night.” And don’t overlook the outskirts. “On Tuesdays at Prime Example [in the 7th Ward], you can see greats like Percy Williams, who taught me how to play trumpet.”
Your Week in Live Music
Catch a stellar act (or two) every night.
Ruffins holds court at his own bar, Kermit’s Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge, every Monday and Thursday at 7 p.m. It’s a small and laid-back gig (come early, and you may get to chat him up before the show), with rice and beans or other free food included in the $20 cover. Afterward, hit Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro for the 10 p.m. performance of singer Charmaine Neville, daughter of musician Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers.
The Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band lights up the crowd at the Maple Leaf Bar from 10 p.m. on.
Try a live-music eatery: Three Muses, the Bombay Club, or the Little Gem Saloon. Admission is free at the first two (with a one-drink minimum at Three Muses). It’s typically $10 or more based on who’s playing at the Little Gem Saloon, where you can dine on crawfish mac and cheese during jam sessions.
Catch a set at Preservation Hall, a vintage-style venue that’s a pilgrimage site for jazz lovers. Founded in 1961 to ensure the survival of New Orleans jazz music, it has grown to encompass a touring band and a nonprofit that educates youth. After, stop by Siberia Lounge for Slavic soul food and Balkan beats at the weekly Eastern Bloc party.
Pop by d.b.a.,the Spotted Cat Music Club, or the Blue Nile (three top picks within steps of one another along buzzy Frenchmen Street). Or go farther afield in the 7th Ward to see the Original Pinettes, New Orleans’ only all-women brass band, at Bullet’s Sports Bar starting at 8:30 p.m.
Stop by Tipitina’s, which draws some of the best bands in the city; Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Professor Longhair, and many other luminaries have played here over the years. Buy your tickets online and get there at least half an hour before curtain time.
Hit the Maison, a multilevel space with a varied lineup of jazz, funk, and Cajun bands, plus the occasional burlesque show.
Local pick: “On a Tuesday night, I love to go to the Maple Leaf, where Rebirth plays. They’re a brass band and a New Orleans institution, and you get to see them on a small stage here. There are only a few seats, so everyone’s dancing.” — Amanda Schmadel, bartender
History and Mystery
Over the centuries, dark and strange events have unfolded on this city’s lamplit streets, where voodoo queens, pirates, and serial killers once roamed. All have left their mark, earning New Orleans a reputation as one of the most haunted U.S. cities. These mystical spots are must-sees.
This French Quarter mansion was the home of 1820s socialite Madame Delphine. The alleged sadist (played by Kathy Bates in American Horror Story) was reputed to torture and murder her slaves, and since then, there have been numerous reports of paranormal activities here: doors slamming shut, faucets suddenly turning on, the sound of running footsteps. Fun fact: Nicolas Cage once owned this house, too.
A syncretic religion from Haiti and West Africa, voodoo was first introduced to New Orleans in the 1700s. Voodoo shops still line the French Quarter today, and this one offers the best assortment of herbs, tinctures, voodoo dolls, and other objects used by believers to bring good luck, to find love, and for inner healing.
“St. Louis Cemetery №1 is the best place to see this city’s tradition of burying bodies above ground.” — Uptown T (Thomas Stewart), oyster shucker at Pascal’s Manale Restaurant (the tradition came about, in part, because of the city’s high water table; in centuries past, bodies buried below ground would come to the surface).
According to legend, this watering hole was used as the smuggling base for pirate Jean Lafitte and his brother Pierre. Spared the fires that destroyed much of the French Quarter, the 1770s building is one of the oldest in the city. The French pirate’s ghost is said to have been spotted here over the years, sometimes standing in a dark corner near the fireplace. Upstairs, whispers were reportedly heard by bar patrons who believed the source was a woman who killed herself in the house in the 1890s.
Set in one of the country’s oldest apothecaries, this Chartres Street space has cabinets full of assorted elixirs once thought to be therapeutic, along with bone saws (amputation was one of the only surgical options available in the 1800s). Upstairs, check out the medieval-looking contraptions used in childbirth, like a 1920s birthing table with wrought-iron stirrups. This is where Dr. Joseph Dupas allegedly conducted medical experiments on pregnant slaves. His ghost — said to be a mustached figure in a brown suit — has allegedly been spotted after closing time.
What to Bring Back
Food photographer and cookbook author Joy Wilson, creator of the Joy the Baker blog, moved to New Orleans in 2014, “inspired by the people, the culture, and the beignets.” Here, she shares some top takeaways from her adopted hometown.
I’ve traveled with an entire muffuletta sandwich in my suitcase. They come really well wrapped from Central Grocery, where the muffuletta originated. There are lots of places to get all kinds of them, but I always think the place that invented it has to be the best.
The local grocery store here, Rouses Market, has an amazing New Orleans section. They sell jars of the olive salad that’s on the muffuletta — a really good thing to bring back because it’s unique and you can’t find it in any regular grocery store.
A great perfume company here is called Smoke Artisan Perfume Co. Their fragrances are sold in lots of stores around town. Something about them feels very New Orleans to me. The scents are earthy, smoky, a little mysterious.
The French Quarter can be super touristy; you can get lost in it. But there’s a beautiful store called Porter Lyons. They carry the line of a jewelry maker who lives here, and her New Orleans–inspired pieces are really cool. My favorite: the brass, silver, or gold cuff bracelet engraved with the longitude and latitude of New Orleans. It’s my go-to gift.
About the author: A full-time travel writer since 2003, Regis St. Louis has covered far-flung destinations across six continents, from mountain villages in the Pyrenees to rainforest-covered islands in Melanesia. When not on the road, he lives in New Orleans.