There’s a full docket of trips planned for 2017, and first up to the stand was moseying down south for a visit to the Big Easy.
I’m really not into making a big to-do about my birthday, but I decided that turning 30 deserved such a to-do. A lot has happened and much has changed over the last decade, and what better way to celebrate than by a long weekend away. Along with my best friend and sister (who are turning 30 and 35, respectively), we made the decision to visit New Orleans, a place none of us had ever been but always wanted to visit. The history, the culture, the food, it all exerted a magnetic pull on us. The reasonable price for a four-night trip didn’t hurt either.
March was suitably picked not only because it fell between our birthdays, but the weather is nice and mild this time of year. Only on the fifth day, the day we were leaving, could you feel some of that legendary humidity creeping in. And let me tell you, I’m from Indiana, we know a thing or two about humidity, and I can only imagine how suffocating it is in New Orleans as the months grow hotter.
If you are interested in visiting NOLA, I have one major suggestion. If there is any flexibility in the timing of your trip, visit during the cooler months. Whether walking everywhere or hopping on and off the streetcars, New Orleans is a city you experience on your feet. Walking around in 90 degree heat and 100% humidity is not going to be very enjoyable.
We also made the distinct choice to arrive after Mardi Gras. I’ll be honest, I’m not much of a partyer, and while seeing the festivities surrounding Mardi Gras would be fun, that’s not what I was interested in experiencing during my first trip to the city. There were still a lot of people but not the overwhelming days that would have been encountered just a few days prior. The bandstands were still up along some of the parade routes and there was a bit more trash waiting for pickup down some of the side streets, but there was nothing that created an inconvenience when walking around.
Planning this trip was my brainchild, so it was up to me to pick a place to stay. While I, nor my traveling companions, did not have a surplus of funds to pay for the trip, if there is one thing I absolutely hate skimping on and avoid doing at all cost, it is staying at a cheap hotel. This is all personal preference, but nine time out of ten I am willing to pay a little extra for a nice hotel. I find that it definitely adds to the overall experience of my trips.
That being said, just as it is for any big city, there are a lot of hotel choices. Every neighborhood has a few choices in hotels, with the nicer and bigger ones centered around the French Quarter and Business District.
We wanted to be in the mix of things, where most things were within walking distance or by easy access to a streetcar line. After a lot of research and price comparison, I finally decided on the Astor Crowne Plaza. The Plaza is a recently renovated, 4-star hotel located right at the corner of Bourbon and Canal. Check-in was a breeze, the elevators were fast, and the rooms were very nice. There was an onsite dining option but it was on the expensive side; with so many options literally on the same block we never checked it out. There is an outdoor pool but it was closed as it was the offseason.
A really cool addition, which you’ll find on a lot of the hotels in the French Quarter, was the balcony overlooking Bourbon Street. Being that you’re at the start of Bourbon Street, you don’t get the full effect of the craziness of the street below, but it was still great fun to watch.
Did I mention that there was a MAC store accessible from the hotel lobby??
Even though I don’t yet have other New Orleans hotels to compare it to, I would definitely recommend the Crowne Plaza. It was a very nice hotel, and even though there was always people coming and going and the lobby was always full, it was never overly loud or annoying. The only thing that was missing was an onsite coffee shop (my sister and I have the propensity of choosing hotels with some type of coffee shop in the lobby, we need our caffeine!) but there was a Starbucks right across the street.
There is so much to do in New Orleans. I initially thought that almost four full days was going to be too much time, but it definitely wasn’t! New Orleans is a great city for a leisurely vacation. Even though there are certain areas that are tremendously busy and bustling, I never felt rushed or pushed along. And if you step onto a side street, most of the crowds noticeably die off. This city is full of big attractions and hidden gems, and every turn and street is going to unveil something new to you.
Café du Monde
I can’t even lie, this was what I was most looking forward to- to finally sit in this famous café with the green and white striped awning to have a beignet and a café au lait.
And it did not disappoint.
We happened across the Café late on our first night. I was actually trying to find something completely different when I look up and, oh! there it is.
I took a seat like a seasoned pro, my order ready as soon as the waiter stepped up to our table.
You see, the thing with the Café du Monde is that the beauty is in the simplicity. It’s open seating. The menu is taped to the side of the napkin dispenser and is only nine items long: you have your beignets (always served in an order of three) and eight drink choices. That’s it. A few minutes later your waiter brings you everything and you pay right there on the spot. The atmosphere created by the open air seating and the rumble of dozens of tables of conversations all going at the same time is incredible. It’s so unpretentious and wonderful and I loved every second of it.
The café is open 24 hours and it is always busy. There is also a take-out window, but good luck standing in that line!
St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest cathedral in North America and it is a site to behold. Whether viewing it from the front, where the grandeur of the mixed Renaissance and Spanish colonial styles are striking and breathtaking, or the back, where at night a statue of Jesus Christ is lighted in just the right as to create a imposing shadow, or from across the street, with the statue of Andrew Jackson framed squarely in the foreground. However you view it, the cathedral is an architectural wonder and one could spend all day photographing it from different angles and in different lighting.
The French Market
Spanning six blocks of commercial buildings and an open air market, the French Market reminded me of the boho center of the city.
At the farmer’s market, you’ll find everything from local artists displaying their work, souvenir knickknacks, and several bistro and counter style eateries.
The commercial buildings house everything from restaurants to tourist shops to boutique stores.
The most memorable part of the French Market was a visit to Hex Old World Witchery. Our reason for stopping in was to for tarot card readings. If you are into readings or want to try it for the first time, I would recommend Hex. This was actually our second choice (the first was booked up through the time we were there) but it ended up being great and I’d definitely go again. The shop itself was also really cool.
If you like grand house and tree lined boulevards, the Garden District is for you.
A 10-minute streetcar from Canal Street, it was nice to get away from the noise of downtown and stroll along the shady streets if the Garden District. The houses in this neighborhood are straight out of a movie and are simply stunning.
The oldest of the municipal cemeteries, Lafayette Cemetery #1, is also here. You can’t be in New Orleans and not visit at least one of the cemeteries. I didn’t know much about Lafayette #1 while we were there, but I looked up more information once we got home. Looking back, it’s very interesting to reflect on the dichotomy of the two historical districts (the Irish Channel and the Garden District) served by cemetery and the obvious chasm of wealth that separated the two, as evidenced by the range of tombs.
The cemetery is free to enter, but there are often volunteers offer tours at no expense, although tips and donations are welcomed. We wondered around on our own, taking time to read the engravings and speculate on the lives of those memorialized by the epitaphs.
Catty corner from the cemetery is a cute little shopping center. Most of the shops were closed as we were there on a Sunday, but there was a coffee shop and an indie bookstore, which you know I had to go into! The bookstore boasted a lot of New Orleans and regional title, but there was also a smattering of new releases, best sellers, and genre books.
A new thing I thought about doing (thanks for the idea, sister!) is buying coffee table books for the interesting places that I visit. Unfortunately I couldn’t find one that I loved, so that just means that I’ll have to visit again and continue the search!
The French Quarter
Last but definitely not least, is the main reason why most people travel to New Orleans- the French Quarter. The best thing about it is that the French Quarter is so much more than just Bourbon Street. In fact, you could probably say that Bourbon Street was probably my least favorite part.
The French Quarter is technically 78 square blocks, but much of that I do believe is residential. But even aside from that, there is to explore. Every turn takes you down a new street with different restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries.
I wouldn’t say that there is prime shopping in the French Quarter, although you’re likely to find a few shops worthy of spending some money at, it was just fun to see what was going to be next. One simply couldn’t get enough of peering through the storefront windows to see what is inside. For example, I’ve never seen so many chandelier shops in my life! And there was some amazing artwork displayed from within the numerous art galleries. Surprisingly, most of the touristy souvenir shops are along the major boundaries of the Quarter.
A huge part of the French Quarter is the street performers, from break dancers to kids drumming out beats on an overturned bucket to full-on jazz ensembles, there is almost a free show on every block. I was never hesitant to give a dollar or two; many of those performers have a huge talent and what they do for hours day after day is not easy. Even though I never say it aloud, I truly believe that creators of art, of every medium, should support one another. I hope that one day, when I publish my book, someone does the same for me.
Even though I enjoyed so much of the city outside of it, Bourbon Street really is a site to behold: the neon signs lighting the way for block after block, the sounds of live music drifting out from almost every bar, the endless shuffle (or stagger) of people.
I haven’t experience much of this world, but I can say with certainty that there really is no other place like this. The atmosphere was always loud and jovial; not once did I hear anyone yelling or fighting, which was kind of surprising. The ease to which one can drift along from bar to bar (some no more than a counter at which you order a drink “to-go”) or see the band performing through a window on the sidewalk is astounding. But you know what, it works.
While you’re on Bourbon Street, be sure to grab a slice of pizza from Crescent City Pizza Works or a three-piece tenders at Willie’s Chicken Shack between your frozen daiquiris or hand grenades. And to help recover the next day, stop by the Palace Café to enjoy a delicious brunch in the opulent dining room or on the sidewalk for some always entertaining people watching.
History, culture, food, and fun. New Orleans is a city that has it all. There’s plenty to do and lots to see, but take your time, there’s no hurry. After all, it’s not called The Big Easy for nothing.
Even after only a four day trip, there is just so much that I could say about this city. One post cannot do it justice. Within the first 24-hours my sister and I looked at each other and said that we loved this city and that we will definitely be back.
Laissez le bon temps rouler!