New Orleans has this way of trapping you in its web and making you love it, a way of leaving you constantly plotting how to make your way back to it.
I’d say it was the food that did it for me (which it was), but it was also the music and the people and that thing you can’t put your finger on that makes New Orleans New Orleans. Also, beignet.
I won’t pretend I’ve at all figured the city out, or know all the spots to go, but for the short time I was there, here’s what I learned, tried and loved.
Beignet at Cafe Beignet is better
I’m sure I’ve already made clear my undying love for beignet, those deep fried choux pastry delights doused in glorious powdered sugar. They are everything fried dough should be. The norm on a trip to New Orleans tends to be beignet and coffee at Cafe du Monde, the original coffee stand in the New Orleans French Market that’s been there since 1862. Now, while I was there (after already lining up for my Cafe du Monde beignet) a friend told me I had to have beignet from Cafe Beignet because it was better. My immediate reaction was to send him the skeptical face emoji, but I thought to myself, if there’s even a chance he’s right, it would be worth knowing. So I tried them, and he was right. I don’t know what it is exactly that makes Cafe Beignet beignets more joyful, but it might be that they’re doughier or fluffier or something. Also, the little bistro on Royal Street is cute, open in the front for that feel of inside/outside dining, and there’s hardly ever a line (I went three times in two days…but don’t tell anyone). Try them and you’ll decide.
Hear jazz at Preservation Hall
Just like its name suggests, Preservation Hall in New Orleans’ French Quarter has been dedicated to the preservation of pure jazz roots and history since 1961. When you leave the slightly grimy debauchery that’s Bourbon Street and turn off onto the quieter St. Peter Street, you’d almost miss the hall if it wasn’t the only place with a line outside. Showtimes are at 8 p.m., 9 p.m.and 10 p.m. every night, with an extra 6 p.m. show on Thursday to Sunday. You’ll pay your $20 cash-only cover and enter a dark, intimate, non-descript room that feels like a place those in the know would have gone to hear the jazz greats play way back when. Then, without pomp or circumstance, the hall’s big jazz band goes to town playing traditional New Orleans jazz—that kind that’ll give you goosebumps and make you feel alive with the spirit of the city. Plus, the musicians, some old, some younger, still come dressed in suits and bowties and are visibly having a blast playing the music they love. Try not to miss this one. It’s something to appreciate.
But hear jazz on the streets too
In New Orleans, it’s actually not necessary to pay a cover to hear good jazz if you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s just out on the street when you’re passing by. And I’m not talking run of the mill musicians just trying their hand at something to see if they can earn a dollar. They are real musicians playing really beautiful jazz, and they’re often all over the French Quarter. I’ve had my best luck hearing them on the end of Bourbon Street that’s closest to Canal Street, and the big band jazz sounds somehow have an even livelier vibe when just played out in the streets.
Eat at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen
OK. There’s obviously no shortage of good eats in NOLA and how I would love to be tasked with writing a guidebook on eats in the city that would require me to try every single restaurant for my research. I’d worry about the pounds I’d pack on later. Anyway, one spot I’d say to try is K-Paul’s. The food is Cajun and Creole and absolutely worth drooling over. The restaurant is known for its blackened dishes like Blackened Louisiana Drum, a fish seasoned and blackened in a cast iron skillet and sometimes served with a sprinkle of crawfish on top. I had eggplant pirogue with shrimp étouffée and I’m still having daily fantasies about it. Whatever you decide for your main, do not do not do not, miss ordering the Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp Caper Dill Remoulade. I honestly can’t put its magnificence into words so I won’t try. K-Paul’s won’t be your cheapest meal but you should treat yourself at least one night. The menu changes up a little day to day depending on what’s fresh, so keep that in mind.
Catch a NOLA wedding
I didn’t know NOLA was one of the top cities for destination weddings, but now I know why. Any place where part of your wedding can pay homage to Mardi Gras has to be fun. I was in Jackson Square when suddenly the beautiful music of a brass band started playing and wedding people started pouring out of the church and marching down the streets of the French Quarter party/parade style. Turns out this tradition is called the Second Line parade and it’s meant to signify the start of a new life for the new couple. The brass band leads the newlyweds, who hold decorated parasols, and their closest friends and family, who wave white handkerchiefs, in the parade, and that’s considered the First Line. The rest of the wedding guests (and anyone off the street who wants to) join the lively parade as the Second Line, marching and dancing through the city streets. It’s brilliant to see and it’ll make you run out of whatever shop or place you’re in to get a glimpse of the happily parading couple and hear some of the best music in town. On Saturdays near Jackson Square, you can catch one of these Second Lines nearly every hour.
Hit up Royal Street for shopping
For us shoppers, checking out what’s on offer in a city or a country is part of the whole travel experience. And Royal Street in the French Quarter is a good place to do this. From boutiques with unique dresses, to galleries with New Orleans original art to shops selling ornate Mardi Gras masks and antique shops galore (though many of them are on the over-priced side if you ask me), there’s a little of everything. Plus you’ll get to hear music playing in the streets as you walk around and you can stop at Cafe Beignet to refuel (win!).
Eat at Willie Mae’s
One of the few times I really ventured outside of the French Quarter was to eat at Willie Mae’s Scotch House. (And to be fair, I’m told some of the city’s best eats are outside of the French Quarter, but I wasn’t there for long enough to explore them all, nor did I have an insightful local to guide me). Anyway, Willie Mae’s. This is the place known for its fried chicken. And for the long lines to get its fried chicken. It started as a bar (hence the Scotch House part of the name) in NOLA’s historic Tremé neighborhood (Tremé is one of America’s oldest African American neighborhoods and where a handful of jazz greats were born and bred) in 1957 but was then moved to where it is now just blocks away in the 6th Ward. Since then, Food Network and the Travel Channel have called it “America’s Best Fried Chicken.” I know, it’s a bold claim to make and I won’t be the one to overhype this for you and risk a letdown later. But the fried chicken was GOOD. It was clean and crisp and seasoned and hot and delicious. The man walking out of the restaurant rubbing his obviously satisfied belly while I waited in line to go in was probably the best description for how eating at Willie Mae’s will make you feel.
The gumbo at The Market Cafe is highly delicious
Last only because it was the last thing I ate before I left—and one of the things I’m still craving the most—was the gumbo at The Market Cafe in the French Market. No matter where you get gumbo, even if it’s the same person making it one day compared to the next, it’s going to taste different, and not everyone’s going to love everyone’s gumbo. For me, though, this one nailed it. Right amount of flavor, right amount of kick, perfectly fresh shrimp and delicious sausage. Plus, you can eat it in open air and listen to free live jazz while you do it.
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