The first-timer’s guide to New Orleans: Everything you need to eat, see and do
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: New Orleans is pure magic. It’s unlike any other city in the country — or world, for that matter. Once you land at the airport, you’ll feel it.
The music will get a little louder, the people will get a little warmer and the world will get a little more colorful the moment you touch down. No matter how many times you visit, there’s always something new to explore (or eat), and if you’ve never been before, well, you’re in for a treat.
How do I know? Well, I went to college in New Orleans (Roll Wave!) and lived there for four of the most incredible, transformative years of my life. Seriously, anyone who knows me knows that my eyes light up whenever I talk about just how much I love this city, and I know I’m not alone here. So, get ready for the trip of your lifetime and laissez les bon temps rouler.
How to get there
You’ll find nonstop flights to New Orleans (MSY) from nearly 50 U.S. cities.; check ExpertFlyer for flight availability from a city near you. Airlines that fly to MSY include Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, Sun Country and United.
If you have the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express or the Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express, you can use the companion certificate that comes as a perk on your card anniversary. Terms vary per card but you’ll generally just pay the taxes and fees on your companion’s fare (or in the case of Alaska Airlines, from $121; $99 plus the taxes and fees).
If you’re a member of Frontier’s Discount Den, look into its Kids Fly Free and Friends Fly Free programs. And, if you’ve got a Southwest Companion Pass, now is a great time to visit New Orleans and just pay taxes and fees for your companion’s ticket.
Finally, anyone holding a Spirit credit card can access very low-cost award flights, starting at just 2,500 miles one-way. (Here’s why you may love flying Spirit.) New Orleans is kind of in the middle of the country, so it shouldn’t be too long of a flight form anywhere in the lower 48.
Where to eat
Let’s put it this way: You came to New Orleans to eat. There’s no other way around it. Leave your green juice and kale behind, and get ready to eat all of the gumbo, jambalaya, po’ boy sandwiches, beignets (deep-fried pastries) and muffalettas (Italian-style sandwiches) your heart desires. And remember: It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Naturally, we’ll start off the day with breakfast, er, brunch. You’ll definitely want to make your way Uptown to Camellia Grill; it’s a New Orleans institution known for its omelets, burgers, “freezes” and pecan pies. The line can get a little crazy, so we definitely recommend going early, especially on the weekend. It’s also counter seating, which gets a little tricky if you’re in an odd-numbered group, so just be prepared. At the very least, the friendly and funny cooks will put a smile on your face the second you walk in. I’ve been here countless times throughout my college career, and the burgers and fries after a long night never disappoint.
My absolute favorite, though, is Elizabeth’s. It’s a quirky, low-key spot in the Bywater neighborhood that is famous for its eggs Florentine and fried oysters, as well as the praline bacon. I think I just shed a tear typing this — that’s how good it is. This is the place to go to eat your weight in brunch food, but be warned that it can get pretty rowdy, especially on Sundays. Again, the key theme here is to get there sooner rather than later to beat the rush. Don’t forget about the Bloody Marys, either.
Speaking of Bloody Marys, we need to talk about Atchafalaya: They have a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar! (And people told you dreams don’t come true.) It’s slightly more upscale than the previous two choices mentioned, and is great for groups (read: bachelor and bachelorette parties). Yes, you’ve also seen it in “American Horror Story.” It’s also located in Uptown and a little bit away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Willa Jean should also be on your radar. It’s a mix of a bakery and a restaurant — with a fully stocked bar, because of course — and its biscuits are legendary. It’s located in the Central Business District, which borders the French Quarter, which is to say it’s adjacent to the tourists without actually being, you know, full of tourists.
Last, but most certainly not least, is Brennan’s. Is it the absolute best brunch you’ll have in your life? Probably not. But is it also a quintessential New Orleans haunt, famous for its bananas Foster? Yes. Get dressed up, make a reservation for Sunday brunch, have a few drinks and start your day off on the right foot.
And that’s just the first meal of the day.
Now, I know I’m going to really stir the pot when I say this, but go to Domilese’s for po’ boys. Understandably, there’s a bit of a rivalry between all of the po’ boy shops. The other ones worth mentioning are Parkway, Mahony’s and Parasol. It’s not like you can go wrong with any of them, but personally, I love Domilese’s for its no-frills vibe, and its fried shrimp and oyster po’ boys are legendary. And yes, you want it “fully dressed.” Just trust me on this.
Central Grocery invented the famous muffuletta — they spell it with two “u”s — and no trip to New Orleans is complete without one. It’s made with salami, ham, Swiss cheese, provolone and mortadella, and topped with olive spread. Said olive spread is so good, in fact, that my grandpa used to have jars of it sent back to his house in New York to make his own version. Nothing will ever beat Central Grocery’s — except for maybe Cochon Butcher. I’ll leave that one up to you.
The sandwich that really has the key to my heart, though, is the mozzarella sandwich from St. James Cheese Company. It’s a slightly more upscale shop known for, well… its cheese. Get a plate of meats, cheese and a bottle of wine, and sit at one of the tables outside on a beautiful day. It’s pure bliss. There’s a location Uptown, as well as a newer one in the Central Business District. Pro tip: If you go to the Uptown one and still have room after, go to Creole Creamery a block away. And if you don’t have room? Make room. It’s the best ice cream in the city.
Oh, and if you don’t go to Willie Mae’s, Dooky Chase and/or Mother’s, you’re doing it wrong.
And now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for: dinner.
Far and away, my top choice is Restaurant R’evolution. If you want to have a dinner where you really just go all-out, this is the place to do it. Make a reservation, and make sure you get the sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi. You might have to have someone carry you home, but I promise you, it’s so worth it.
GW Fins is also a top-choice, and its “scalibut” (scallops and halibut) is a fish lover’s dream come true. Come to think of it, pretty much all of its food is. The lobster dumplings are an absolute must-order, too. Don’t show up without a reservation.
My family and I used to be huge fans of Galatoire’s when I was in school a few years ago, but we were totally unimpressed the last time we went. The service was stale and at one point, our waiter dropped some of our food on the floor. Instead, I’d recommend Clancy’s (fried! oysters! with! Gouda!) or Peche (fried bread!). New Orleans: Where your diet goes to die.
Another fan favorite is Shaya, even though it was plagued by some drama last year. I haven’t been to Alon Shaya’s new restaurant, Saba, yet, but it’s definitely on my list for when I go back. If the food at Shaya was any indication, it’s going to be unreal. Never in my life have I had fluffier pita bread. Drool.
Honorable mentions go to Domenica, Luke, Mais Arepas, Rum House, Superior Seafood, La Petite Grocery, and of course, Bacchanal. It’s the best spot to grab some drinks and food with friends and listen to live music outdoors.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll realize I left famed restaurants Commander’s Palace and Jacques-Imo’s off the list. Personally, I think they’re way overrated and you can, and should, do better.
What to see and do
In between eating, you’re going to want to do some sightseeing (and, if we had to guess, some walking). Thankfully, the city is rich in history and culture with plenty of things to feast your eyes on.
First things first: the French Quarter. No trip to New Orleans is complete without a stroll through here. It’s the birthplace of the city and as touristy as you’d expect, but also breathtakingly beautiful and charming. Grab a picture in front of the iconic St. Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square, stuff your face with beignets at Café du Monde (it’s open 24/7) and visit Voodoo queen Marie Laveau’s burial site at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. You can easily just wander through the quarter, taking in the sights, sounds and people, and watch the day go by.
I always recommend a ghost tour or swamp tour to people visiting New Orleans for the first time. Again, touristy — but that’s what you’re here to do, right? New Orleans has a haunted history, after all, and you should absolutely learn all about it during your trip down on the bayou. There are a few different operators of swamp tours; they’re all more or less the same, but you should do some research to see which one best fits your needs.
One of my favorite NOLActivities is to go on a walk through Audubon Park. It’s a few blocks from Tulane’s campus and absolutely breathtaking. There are few things better than going on a walk here on a gorgeous, sunny day. Bring some food and drink with you, and when you get to the end of the park, keep heading straight toward The Fly. It’s a little grassy area right on the Mississippi River, and an ideal spot for a NOLA-style picnic. City Park on the other side of the city is another great option for a walk — don’t forget to stop by the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Louisiana Children’s Museum, too.
Take a few hours to visit the National World War II museum while you’re here, too. Even if you’re not a history nerd, you’ll be able to appreciate how well thought-out and informative it is. Ask anyone who’s been here, and they’ll say this is one of the highlights of their trip. The city of New Orleans was instrumental in winning the war, so it only makes sense that there’s a big tribute to that down here.
If you want to experience the best of Mardi Gras even when it’s not Carnival season, head to Mardi Gras World. You’ll have a first-class seat to see how all the floats are made, and of course, learn a little history about the world’s biggest (and best) party. Word to the wise, though: Definitely, absolutely, 100% go to Mardi Gras sometime. Just don’t go for your first trip to New Orleans — experience all that the city has to offer your first time around. In fact, if you go during Krewe du Vieux weekend, or any weekend during Carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras weekend, you’ll get the best of both worlds.
I know you want to see Bourbon Street, and it’s your first time in NOLA, you should go. Just don’t spend more than five minutes there, unless you’re hanging out at Pat O’Brien’s piano bar. It’s touristy, but so fun, and you can’t go wrong grabbing a hurricane (or two) and singing along to the dueling pianos.
Frenchmen Street is Bourbon Street’s cooler cousin that’s a fraction as touristy. It’s the best place to walk in and out of music bars all night; depending on the night and who’s playing, you might not even have to pay a cover. My favorites are Blue Nile, d.b.a, Spotted Cat, Maison and Bamboula’s. Take some time to walk through Frenchmen Art Market, too; it’s pretty magical, if I do say so myself. Top it all off with a hot dog and some cheese fries from Dat Dog. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Tipitina’s is another New Orleans music institution; you’ll have to take a cab Uptown to get here, though. If you can brave the heat during the summer, go here on Fridays — there’s no charge. Other quintessential music venues to check out are Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler, Maple Leaf Bar, Preservation Hall, Smug Harbor, Gasa Gasa and Bacchanal Wine. There’s music oozing out of every corner of this city, though, so you can’t go wrong no matter where you end up.
How to get around
I’ll be the first one to tell you that New Orleans isn’t exactly a very easy city to get around. Public transportation options are essentially nonexistent. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar (it’s a streetcar, not a trolley, people) is your best bet for getting from uptown to downtown and vice versa, just don’t expect it to run according to any set schedule or anything. There have been times where I’ve seen multiple streetcars going the opposite direction I was going in, while waiting for one for 45 minutes or more. That said, once you’re on, it will make you feel like you’re in Disney World. The fact that it’s a lot cheaper than other options — only $1.25 one-way — doesn’t hurt either. I’m more or less convinced there are few things better in life than riding down St. Charles on a sunny day.
Another budget-friendly option is to take the bus; you can buy passes and tickets depending on your needs here. The bus routes typically run parallel to each other along the length of the “crescent” of the city.
Depending on where you are, the city is somewhat walkable. You should certainly walk around the French Quarter, and then cross over to the Central Business District. Many parts of Uptown are walkable, since it’s mostly a residential area, including the Audubon, Freret and Touro neighborhoods.
If all else fails, Uber has really ballooned in the Big Easy in the past few years. Rates are definitely on the cheaper end and if you have the Platinum Card® from American Express, you can use your yearly up to $200 in Uber Cash while you’re here (enrollment required). Cabs here typically take forever, especially if you’re staying uptown (we used to call them an hour and a half before we would have to leave!). You’ll have better luck hailing one downtown, though. Here are the best credit cards to use for Uber.
Where to stay
New Orleans has no shortage of great hotels, ranging from boutiques to chains and everything in between.
My first recommendation for travelers is The Ritz-Carlton. While a $40 million renovation is currently underway (and expected to be completed in January 2020), this hotel exemplifies New Orleans elegance and charm. It’s centrally located on Canal Street, straddling the French Quarter and Central Business District downtown — not to mention only a few blocks away from the iconic St. Charles streetcar.
As a Category 6 Marriott hotel, rates start at just 40,000 points per night on off-peak nights. This is the hotel my family always stayed in when they came to visit me during college, and we all always looked forward to their stay. The staff was incredibly warm and accommodating, and the hotel itself almost made you feel like you were in a movie, in the best way possible. Pro tip: Stay on the concierge floor if you can. I’m very much looking forward to the upgrade.
You can earn Marriott points with a variety of cobranded credit cards, including:
- Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card: Earn 3 Free Night Awards (each free night award has a redemption value up to 50,000 bonus points, that’s a value of up to 150,000 total points) after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Plus, earn 10X total points on up to $2,500 in combined purchases at grocery stores, restaurants, and gas stations within the first 6 months from account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Bold Credit Card: Earn 30,000 Bonus Points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
- Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in purchases within the first three months. Plus, earn up to $200 in statement credits for eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants within the first six months of card membership. Terms Apply
- Marriott Bonvoy Business™ American Express® Card: Earn 75,000 bonus points after you spend $3,000 in eligible purchases in the first three months of card membership. Plus, earn up to $150 back in statement credits on eligible purchases made within the first three months of card membership. Terms apply.
The Windsor Court is arguably the Ritz’s biggest competitor in NOLA. Although it’s not a points hotel, it is available through Amex’s Fine Hotels and Resorts program. It has the whole quintessential New Orleans charm vibe; you’ll feel like you took a trip back in time to the 1800s. I stayed there during my last trip to New Orleans, and while it doesn’t hold the same place in my heart that the Ritz does, I enjoyed it a lot.
The Waldorf Astoria in the Central Business District is another top pick — and you might even recognize its restaurant, Domenica, from my “best restaurants” list above. As part of the Hilton Honors program, rates here start at 70,000 points per night. It’s not a bargain by any stretch, but if you have a stash of Hilton points you’re sitting on, it’s definitely worth looking into. At the very least, get the whole roasted cauliflower and thank me later.
Depending on what program you’re loyal to, there are a ton of mid-tier points hotels down in NOLAnd. Think: Hilton Riverside, JW Marriott, New Orleans Marriott, W, Aloft, Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridien and Troubadour Tapestry Collection. Oh, and a fun fact while we’re on the subject: Robert Durst, real estate mogul and suspected murderer, was arrested at the JW Marriott in March 2015.
No matter where you stay, make your way to the Hotel Monteleone at some point, too. It’s famous for its rotating Carousel Bar (don’t worry, it doesn’t move that fast), not to mention the fact that it’s, well, haunted.
At the end of the day, if it’s your first time in New Orleans, I would recommend staying in either the French Quarter or neighboring Central Business District so that you’re close to the action and all of the sights. The Bywater is also a great option, and a little off the beaten path, and home to a ton of cute Airbnbs. You won’t find any chain hotels in this neck of the woods.
In case you didn’t get the memo, I’m absolutely obsessed with New Orleans. It’s hands-down my absolute favorite place on the planet; there’s really just something about it that lights your soul on fire. Once you go, you’ll know. And in the meantime, keep these tips in your back pocket so you can begin to fall as head over heels with this city as I did.
Featured photo by f11photo/Getty Images
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