I first traveled to New Orleans in 1982 with my family. For a kid whose travel outside North Louisiana had been limited to Six Flags over Texas and the beaches of St Pete, Florida, New Orleans was an exciting new world. I was instantaneously charmed by her Creole food, Spanish architecture, street music and friendly people. Over the years, as I occasionally returned, I made new discoveries, whether it was a great restaurant, a funky shop or a fascinating neighborhood. Although she had me at hello, New Orleans further drew me under her spell on each visit.
New Orleans has a reputation as a party town, and rightfully so. Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest attract large, rowdy crowds intent on having a good time. But if you are willing to wander off Bourbon Street, you will find a city rich with culture and history. Here are some of my favorite things about this fascinating city.
Let’s start with food. I love great food, and New Orleans is rife with choices. My first stop is always to Acme Oyster House. Don’t let the line outside intimidate you. It moves, and it is worth the wait. I like sitting at the oyster bar to watch fresh Gulf oysters being shucked. They are as delicious as they look. I usually order an oyster (or a shrimp) po-boy after oysters on the half shell, of course. Parkway Bakery in Mid City serves a fantastic po-boy, as well.
New Orleans birthed Creole cuisine, which originated from a variety of influences including French, Spanish, West African, Haitian and native Southern cooking. Creole food is not necessarily spicy. Rather, it is rich with flavor. My favorite dish is shrimp creole, a red sauce full of juicy shrimp served over white rice with a side of French bread. Yum!
Two of my favorite fine dining spots in New Orleans are Galatoire’s, where a jacket is required for the gentlemen, and Antoine’s, the oldest family run restaurant in the U.S. (since 1840). The Garden District boasts another date night favorite, Commander’s Palace, where the turtle soup is a must order. On the casual side, I love Port of Call, where they serve giant, juicy hamburgers with a loaded baked potato (there is always a line outside). You might want to go on a diet before visiting New Orleans, by the way!
Young chefs are flocking to New Orleans, including former Top Chef contestant Nina Compton, who opened Compere Lapin in the Warehouse District, has a second restaurant, Bywater American Bistro, opening tonight and was just nominated for the second year running for the James Beard Award, Best Chef: South. My complete list of favorite restaurants is too long to feature. Message me if you’d like a copy!
Sinners versus saints. New Orleans isn’t all bad, nor is she all good. She’s both. If we are being completely honest with ourselves, aren’t we all? La Nouvelle-Orleans was established in 1718 by the French. At that time, 80 salt smugglers were brought in to begin building the city. In 1721 Parisian jails were emptied of all prisoners who agreed to marry prostitutes and take them to Louisiana. Therefore, we should have no trouble determining why New Orleans is a “saucy” place. However, in 1727, twelve nuns arrived to establish an orphanage, feed the poor, take care of the infirmed and educate the young ladies of New Orleans. The Ursuline Convent, completed in 1750, is the second oldest structure in the Mississippi Valley. For 81 years it housed an order of nuns who made countless positive contributions to the lives of early New Orleanians.
In New Orleans you’ll find voodoo shops in the same neighborhoods as churches. The open container laws are loose in New Orleans, so you can take your drink “to go” from any establishment. Isn’t that delightfully sinful? And speaking of saints, the New Orleans football team, the Saints, has the most loyal fan base of any team in the NFL. Win or lose, they’ve got the Saints’ backs. Who Dat!
Let’s talk culture. New Orleans boasts a world class selection of museums. The National WWII Museum, which began as the D-Day Museum, takes you through the American experience in the war, how it was won and what it means today. A history buff could easily spend two days here being enlightened at its many exhibits. It is truly a masterpiece of a museum. A visit here alone makes a visit to New Orleans worthwhile. But there’s more.
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, which is associated with the University of New Orleans, houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of Southern art in the world. It is easy to navigate, and it takes less time to visit than the WWII Museum.
New Orleans’ City Park offers entertainment for all ages including a seasonal amusement park, putt putt golf, a botanical garden, the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The five-acre Sculpture Garden is enchanting. It holds more than 60 sculptures collectively valued at $25 million. These incredible works of art are nestled along meandering footpaths, reflecting lagoons, and 200-year-old live oaks. It is the most beautiful outdoor museum I’ve ever seen.
Shall we shop? You knew I would get around to shopping, didn’t you? The New Orleans French Quarter offers every kind of shopping under the sun, but what I find delightful are the antique shops. Step inside one of the many establishments on Royal Street to be transported into the luxurious lives of long ago. Each shop is like a mini museum filled with jaw-dropping delights from art to jewelry to glassware.
Beyond the French Quarter, there are numerous areas to get lost in a shopping daze in New Orleans, but my favorite by far is Magazine Street, which stretches from the edge of the French Quarter to Audubon Park. Magazine Street boasts five miles of boutiques, art galleries, day spas, jewelry stores, sweet shops and restaurants. Do I need to say anything else about New Orleans at this point? Go to Magazine Street. End of post. Ha. My favorite stops are SoSuSu Boutique, Sucre, Mignon Faget, Pippen Lane (a children’s shop), Funky Monkey, Century Girl, Sunday Shop and for one of the best meals in town, La Petite Grocery, winner of the 2016 James Beard Award for Best Chef: South.
She does not put on airs. New Orleans is a place where you slow down and let your hair down. One of her nicknames is The Big Easy, after all. No one is in a hurry, and no one is trying to impress anyone. The people are nice and engaging, some of the friendliest folks I have ever encountered. There’s just something about New Orleans that feels comfortable and homey. I’m not sure if it’s the food, the people or the rum, but you just want to sit, relax and watch life happen around you for a little while.
She is one-of-a-kind. New Orleans is multi-cultural and multi-faceted like no other city in the world. Paris is wonderful, but it is decidedly French. Madrid is very Spanish, Milan is quite Italian, and so on. New Orleans was settled by the French in an area already inhabited by Native Americans. Later, she was owned by Spain for forty years (thus much of the Spanish architecture you see in the French Quarter). Up until the beginning of the 20th century, more foreign immigrants moved to New Orleans than Americans. The largest wave of immigrants came from Germany and Ireland. New Orleans was the first American city to host significant settlements of Italians, Greeks, Croatians and Filipinos. West Africans were also a big part of the mix. You can’t put your finger on New Orleans and peg her as one thing. She encompasses almost everyone and everything.
I recently received my ancestry results from 23andme. I learned I am British, Irish, French, German with a smidge of West African. So, maybe the root reason I love New Orleans is a simple one. I am her and she is me.
All photos are my own.