A classic getaway: Traveling to New Orleans to find the real Big Easy
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There’s no city on the planet quite like New Orleans. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s one of the most interesting cities in the country — if not the world.
The birthplace of jazz and considered one of the most European cities in the U.S., it makes sense why people flock to NOLA, as it’s called.
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Unfortunately, my experience in The Big Easy has been sullied by debaucherous bachelor parties, tequila-fueled birthday weekends and crowded Airbnbs during my college spring breaks.
On those trips, we hardly left Bourbon Street, which was, of course, fun for what it was but left me with plenty of regrets on the way home: a tourist-trap restaurant where Cajun food wasn’t on the menu, a dingy strip club instead of a vibrant jazz club and hardly seeing Jackson Square or the city’s fabled cemeteries.
Recently, I realized it was time to return to New Orleans with the goal of seeing the city beyond the confines of Bourbon Street. I wanted to experience the parts of New Orleans that didn’t necessarily involve a plastic yardstick cup full of rum or the chance to be pelted with plastic beads tossed by screaming people on a second-floor balcony.
To see the side of New Orleans I missed out on before, I took a solo, four-night trip to the city to find what really makes it tick. My mission: experience some of the classic attractions that visitors need to see in New Orleans beyond Bourbon Street, from a swamp tour searching for alligators to dining at some of the classic restaurants that invented dishes now found the world over.
Here’s what I did on my classic tour of New Orleans — and what I think you should do to really get a feel for a city that’s much more complex than your friends who went for Mardi Gras will ever tell you.
Architecture, gardens and streetcars
New Orleans is home to some of the most beautiful architecture in the country, plenty of which can be found in the Garden District where palatial homes, many owned by celebrities, dot the streets. One way to truly get away from the party scene of Bourbon Street is to join a walking tour of the area to learn about the homes and gardens, their history and the people who have lived in them over the years.
On the morning of my first full day in New Orleans, I signed up for a two-hour walking tour of the area with the highly-rated Haunted History Tours ($25).
To get to the meeting point, Still Perkin’ coffee shop, right around the corner from Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, I planned to take a ride on one of New Orlean’s iconic streetcars, as Google Maps suggested. Turns out, many of the streetcars were (and still are) closed for track repairs, so I was forced to hop in an Uber.
At the meeting spot, I joined our guide, Toast, and the only two other guests for what essentially became a private tour.
Over the next two hours, we roamed the neighborhood to learn about the stunning homes and architecture of the community, all intertwined with the fascinating (and sometimes gruesome) history of New Orleans.
Highlights of the tour included a stop at Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which is unfortunately closed to the public, where a bachelorette party dressed like a coven of witches straight out of “American Horror Story” stopped to pose for pictures.
Toast showed us celebrity houses, including those belonging to Sandra Bullock, Beyoncé, John Goodman (a really nice guy, according to Toast) and author Anne Rice. We even saw the home that some claim was the inspiration for Disney’s Haunted Mansion attraction.
All in all, it was a really lovely way to spend a warm October afternoon.
Headin’ out on the bayou
Growing up in Texas, I’d always heard stories about people riding out on airboat tours to see alligators in their natural habitat, and I’ve wanted to experience it since I was little. On my other trips to New Orleans, it was the one thing I wanted to do the most but nobody would join me.
On this trip, there was nobody to say no.
Picking the right tour can be overwhelming, as there are a handful of companies offering tours, and the experience is actually a bit out of the city. After reading plenty of reviews I booked a small airboat tour with Ragin Cajun Airboat Tours, which cost about $100 total, including hotel pick-up and drop-off.
When the shuttle picked me up I was greeted by a friendly man with the thickest Cajun accent I’d ever heard. After picking up other guests, we made the roughly 30-minute drive to Luling, Louisiana, where we were divided up by wristbands and assigned to the proper boats. When I got my small boat, I knew I’d made the right decision because the larger boats were a little more cramped than my liking — especially during a pandemic.
My captain let me sit next to him on the top seat, right next to a bag of raw meat and marshmallows we’d use to feed the alligators. Steering the boat with his left hand and smoking a cigarette with his right, we put on protective headphones and the guide powered up the airboat and we were on our way.
Starting off with a slow cruise, we almost immediately started spotting gators out in the water, many of which came right up to the boat when lured over by the meat tossed into the water. At one point, our captain got a pretty big one to come straight onto the boat, much to the shock of the two people in the front seats — and myself.
It was a wild and weird experience, and probably not for everyone. But seeing these fascinating creatures up close and personal was the highlight of my entire trip. What shocked me the most, though, was the sheer beauty of the swamps and the gorgeous flora growing out of the water.
At times, the captain would tell us to hold on, and we’d forget about the alligators and just cut loose, as fast as the boat would go. Airboats are incredible; they glide like magic, passing over all sorts of vegetation and taking quick turns that’ll make you feel like you’re flying and falling at the same time.
If you take one piece of advice from my trip, it’s head out to Luling for an afternoon you’ll never, ever forget.
Finally — jazz
As a musician, seeing live jazz in New Orleans was high on my to-do list. So, on my first night, I broke my own self-imposed rule of trying to avoid Bourbon Street at all costs and headed there to check out Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, allegedly the oldest operated jazz club in New Orleans. And I’m glad I did.
Here, being alone offered me the chance to grab the one open seat in the entire bar to sit back and listen to some incredible live music. I’ll admit, I’m not sure what makes a good jazz band, but I can say with certainty the music on that busy Thursday night was exactly what I’d been seeking.
Armed with a cold beer and good seat, I sat back and let the music wash over me for a few hours.
The setting was also the perfect place to people watch and helped me understand what kind of people New Orleans really attracted. What I discovered was that it was truly all types of people: young, old, locals, foreigners and nearly everyone in between.
In fact, I had such a great time people watching I decided after to sit on the balcony of a nearby Bourbon Street bar to kick back and watch all of the people passing by on the infamous street.
Looking for haunted New Orleans
Another key part of New Orleans is its haunted history. So, again, I signed up for a walking tour to see some of the most haunted buildings in the area.
To make the most of the experience, I joined Ghost City Tour’s Haunted Pub Crawl, thinking that a pub crawl would be a good way to make some friends during my solo adventure. I was exactly right.
Again, my tour consisted of myself and one other group, a set of friends meeting up for a long weekend from all over the country who quickly adopted me as their own. Armed with canned beers (it’s legal to have open containers here) we toured the French Quarter, learning the secrets of haunted buildings and bars, including one that claims to have a ghost in the women’s bathroom.
We stopped for drinks at Pirates Alley Cafe set in an old Spanish colonial area prison that was known for housing some of the city’s roughest characters at the time.
Over the course of two hours, we bonded over the strangeness of the city and over absinthe, before heading our separate ways, adequately creeped out by every sight and sound on the way home.
Eating my way around New Orleans
I had a serious list of food and restaurants I wanted to try in New Orleans. Let me tell you now, my experience getting reservations at a lot of places on my list, such as Commander Palace, was difficult and mostly unsuccessful.
That said, I did still manage to get to a few of the places I was dying to try.
For a classic NOLA-style muffuletta — a giant sandwich with mounds of meat, cheese and olives — head to Napoleon House, in the French Quarter, set in the building where Napoleon was supposed to go in exile (he died before he made it to New Orleans).
Here, grab a table in the low-lit dining room and order the restaurant’s signature Pimm’s Cup and a full muffuletta sandwich, which you probably can’t eat all of but will be glad you saved for a midnight snack.
Make a brunch reservation at Brennan’s, an adorable pink building with multiple Instagram-worthy dining rooms, and you won’t regret it. The move here is eggs Hussarde, their take on eggs Benedict, followed by bananas Foster, which the restaurant is said to have invented in the 1950s. Guests get to watch as the waiter flambés the bananas right on a tableside trolly.
And, of course, no trip to New Orleans is complete without some authentic Cajun food, which is how I ended up at Coop’s Place, a no-frills restaurant and bar with an affordable menu and friendly staff. To try it all I ordered the “Coop’s Plate,” which came with seafood gumbo, Cajun-fried chicken, shrimp Creole, red beans and rice and rabbit and sausage jambalaya — all for just $15.95. It was more food than I could eat, but afterward, my heart and stomach were both so very full.
Where to stay
For the sake of journalism, I stayed at four different hotels over my four-night trip to New Orleans, including Virgin New Orleans; Four Seasons New Orleans; The Roosevelt New Orleans, A Waldorf Astoria Hotel; and the Omni Royal Orleans. And while they each have something to love, for a classic trip to New Orleans — one where you want to be in the center of it all — I’d highly recommend the latter two.
At the Omni Royal Orleans, located in the French Quarter, guests are close to all of the action, from Bourbon Street to Jackson square. The hotel lobby is classic in all the right ways, though the rooms feel slightly dated but comfortable. That said, in New Orleans, you’ll likely be out and about more than you are in your room, so the trade-off is worth it. And if you do need a place to just sit back and relax, visit the rooftop pool, which was still comfortable enough for a swim in mid-October.
Not too far from the French Quarter, just across Canal, The Roosevelt New Orleans is like taking a step back in time to a glitzy age where hotel lobbies were the place to be seen. Again, the rooms here are comfortable and classic, but not too modern, aside from Hilton’s mobile keys.
But at this storied hotel, it’s what’s outside the room that matters most, like the block-long golden hotel lobby and the Sazerac Bar, considered by many to be one of the best hotel bars in the country.
There, I pulled up a sturdy stool and ordered the bar’s namesake drink on my final night in New Orleans — the perfect setting to look back on four days full of wonder, adventure, food and fright.
Featured photo by Tanner Saunders/The Points Guy.
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