April 24, 2024

New Orleans’ Hidden Travel Gems

Like its iconic gumbo, New Orleans is a fascinating cultural stew. No city in the world can claim all the Big Easy offerings: French Creole cuisine, the spiritual home of jazz, one of the world’s longest (and best-known) Mardi Gras celebrations, more than 130 annual festivals and a lasting one laissez les bon temps roeller (“let the good times roll”) local atmosphere.

Whether you’re in town to don beads and cover Hurricanes or you’re here on business with a few spare hours, everyone should know that the city has more to offer than the French Quarter. Here are our favorite lesser-known things to see and taste while everyone else bumbles down Bourbon Street.

Eat your heart out

Of course, classic NOLA dishes—like bananas Foster at Brennan’s and oysters Rockefeller at Antoine’s Restaurant—should be on your must-eat list. But there are also plenty of other delicious options here from around the world. Just be willing to push past the crowds.

“Before I moved here, I was a frequent tourist and I always thought the best places to eat were in the French Quarter,” says Jenny Adams, photographer and author of two books about New Orleans. “The French Quarter has epic Old World meals, like Arnaud’s, and great newcomers, like MaMou, of course. The best meals, however, are in smaller, less-sung places. Rosalita’s serves incredible Mexican street food in a backyard in the Bywater. Another street food enthusiast is Budsi Authentic Thai, where they serve up Bangkok staples like grilled pork shoulder Yaew sauce, near a cute pink building in the Marigny. My best choice [for Vietnamese] goes to Le’s Baguette in Uptown.” Adams adds that the 20-minute drive from the French Quarter on the other side of town is worth it for the cinnamon-and-star anise-scented pho broth and lemongrass pork banh mi.

Other great restaurants touring the world include Dakar Nola’s modern fine-dining Senegalese served at a communal table, Fritai’s Haitian favorites and Mister Mao’s delicious blend of global flavors and southern influences.

Attend a (not so busy) jazz show

Preservation Hall is one of the city’s iconic venues for live jazz. But the tickets are selling out quickly. Luckily, in the birthplace of jazz, if you know where to look, you can catch a show every night of the week. The ultimate resource, local jazz radio station WWOZ’s live music calendar, is constantly updated. The New Orleans Jazz Museum also hosts free shows Tuesday through Friday at 2 p.m., perfect if you’re traveling with little ones.

In other exciting music venue news: Dew Drop Inn, known as NOLA’s most influential mid-century music club, where giants like Ray Charles and Irma Thomas regularly stopped by to perform, has been redesigned and will reopen soon.

Increase your imbibing

The art of cocktail making in NOLA is rich, deep and long. It is home to the world’s largest cocktail festival, Tales of the Cocktail, and is the birthplace of many specialty drinks of worldwide fame, such as the Sazerac, Ramos Gin Fizz and Brandy Crusta. Around Bourbon Street you’ll find plenty of glowing Slurpee-style pours, which can distract from the exquisite craft in the nearby bars.

“The Quarter is such a great place to have a drink right now,” says Neal Bodenheimer, a renowned bartender and co-author of Cure: New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix Them and managing partner of several renowned local bars. “From our spots, Cane & Table and Peychaud’s, to classics like Arnaud’s French 75 Bar or the new guard, Jewel of the South and Dovetail, [patrons can find great local bars]. And for those looking for tropical drinks, there is of course Latitude 29 and Manolito.”

Cross the river

While Steamboat Natchez is the favorite excursion along the Mississippi (and also has a brunch jazz show during the day and on Sundays), there is another ship, the Canal Ferry, with an important job: taking people to Algiers Point. From Canal Street, the $2 ferry crosses the river to Algiers Point in 30 picturesque minutes.

Algiers Point is a historic district with the Jazz Walk of Fame, Algiers Bike Path, Confetti Park (great for the little ones) and plenty of local food and drink options, such as The Little House. “There’s nothing more special than this funky little Mayberry in Algiers Point,” says Hillary Hanning, owner of Little House. “It has its own heartbeat. It is a beautiful place that everyone should cross the river to experience.”

To go outside

New Orleans is not generally known as a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. However, City Park, about 15 minutes by car or an hour and a change on the streetcar from the French Quarter, single-handedly changes this reputation. This 1,600-acre wonderland features 24 miles of hiking trails, a botanical garden, waterways, a 36-hole golf course, and the city’s oldest (and most majestic) collection of oak trees.

Kids will enjoy visiting the fairytale Storyland playground, the adjacent old-fashioned amusement park (home to one of the oldest hand-carved carousels in the US), and the highly interactive Louisiana Children’s Museum. Art lovers are also in luck, because City Park is home to the New Orleans Museum of Art and a free sculpture garden with more than 100 pieces. And the outdoor fun doesn’t stop at sunset. Ride a gondola on a romantic bayou tour or rent an LED-lit swan boat or Surrey bike.

Enjoy fritters without waiting

The Crescent City experience isn’t complete without a piping hot, powdered sugar-dusted pillow of fried dough. French Creole settlers brought the beignet to the city in the 18th century. The first Café du Monde opened in 1862 in the French Quarter. Locals and visitors have been happily lining up for those glorious paper bags of sweet treats ever since.

But if you don’t want to wait in line at some of the more popular locations, there are 10 other (some obscure) outposts where you can sample them. “Most people don’t realize that there is a Café du Monde location in the city park, which typically has no lines,” says Lauren Bates, founder of Wild Terrains, a tour company that specializes in small group tours for women. “I love stopping there for an order of their famous beignets, then walking a few minutes to the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden.”

Other places have great beignets too. Forbes Travel Guide Four-star hotel Four-season hotel Miss River in New Orleans has a divine butter-fried version (Café du Monde’s is basted in cottonseed oil). Locals go to Morning Call near City Park for the house-made fritters. Or you can adventure with wild variations, like king cake beignets during Mardi Gras season at The Vintage on Magazine Street.

Celebrate Mardi Gras all year round

Even if you don’t attend NOLA’s Carnival celebrations in February or March, you can get a taste of them all year round. While Mardi Gras World isn’t exactly a secret, the behind-the-scenes tours of parade float making are special. And the fact that you sometimes encounter artists working on their pieces is unique.

But there are also two lesser-known Mardi Gras-focused museums worth visiting. On the second floor of Arnaud’s restaurant, the Germaine Cazenave Wells Mardi Gras Museum has a small but well-curated collection of ball gowns and traditional costumes on display for free. And the Mardi Gras Museum, which channels the festival’s wilder side, includes a parade and an interactive costume closet.

WHERE TO STAY

Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans

The Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans is located on the river, a five-minute walk from Bourbon Street and steps from Vue Orleans (an interactive cultural museum and observation deck) and Audubon Aquarium. Another notable feature of the hotel is the 75-foot heated swimming pool on the roof, which is not common in NOLA.

The New Orleans hotel’s restaurants and bar are other highlights. Chandelier Bar, a beauty with a dazzling 15,000 piece crystal chandelier, is home to a much-loved martini, made with a generous pour of three different gins and DIY garnishes. The hotel’s Chemin à la Mer restaurant, from prominent local chef Donald Link, is an elegant affair with warm service, upscale menu items (oysters and foie gras, anyone?), a wine list with a whole host of surprises curated by sommelier Emily Kitzmiller and Overlooking the Mississippi River.

The Ritz Carlton, New Orleans

The Four-Star Ritz-Carlton, New Orleans offers white glove service in the French Quarter. Book one of the newly renovated Maison Club rooms or suites for access to the hotel’s fireplace-branded private club.

The newly renovated Four-Star Ritz-Carlton Spa, New Orleans is the city’s largest spa and offers the latest in restorative treatments. Enjoy live music in the hotel’s Davenport Lounge. It’s a hotspot for locals and visitors, so be sure to reserve a table in advance or make dinner reservations at M Bistro, the hotel’s signature restaurant, which overlooks the lounge.

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