By Jessica Russo
Everyone talks about New Orleans like it's some magical fantasyland where all worries are forgotten - because that's exactly what it is. NOLA is sort of like Disney World for adults - but with real, raw, authentic culture. Jazz flowing out of restaurants, the sweet smell of beignets in the air, the bright colors of the French Quarter, people dancing to brass bands in the street - "The Big Easy" is a real-life dreamworld. Visiting a city with such high stakes can be intimidating - how do you know you're doing the "good stuff?" We're here to help make your NOLA vacation the experience of a lifetime.
Explore the French Quarter
Pastel-painted storefronts, colorful flowers cascading down wrought iron balconies, jazz musicians playing in the street - the French Quarter is the NOLA you've always dreamed about. Filled with restaurants, bars, shops, and jazz clubs, the French Quarter is where most tourists spend the majority of their vacation. Be sure to check out St. Louis Cathedral and the street performers in Jackson Square!
Eat Beignets at Cafe du Monde
The experience of eating beignets at Cafe Du Monde is just - they're just - we have no words. Established in 1862, this iconic 24-hour, cash only coffee shop serves up the best beignets and cafe au lait in New Orleans. The charming, yet no-frills environment of Cafe du Monde will instantly take you back to yesteryear -- and when a plate of pillowy, powdered sugar-covered beignets arrives at your table, you'll never want to come back.
Find live music on Frenchmen Street
If you're looking for the authentic New Orleans experience, head to Frenchmen Street. This is, as locals say, "where the real jazz happens." Just a 15-minute walk (or 5-minute cab ride) from the French Quarter, Frenchmen Street is a vibrant stretch of live music joints, art galleries, and restaurants. Feel the streets come alive as you hear horns pouring out of every window! If you're looking for music, you can always count on Frenchmen Street.
Enjoy a traditional jazz brunch
Just because it's morning doesn't mean the music has to stop! There's nothing like the smooth sound of jazz to go with a hearty Southern brunch. While you're enjoying biscuits, beignets, and Benedict, you'll find yourself dancing along to trumpets and trombone. Keep in mind that several NOLA restaurants offer jazz brunch, so you'll want to do some research before you choose one. Some offer buffet-style dining, while others offer individual menus. Some offer elegant courtyard seating, while others hold brunch in an ornate dining room. What we're really saying is: think about atmosphere, too. (Your Instagram feed will thank you.)
Experience Bourbon Street
(just to say you did)
Bourbon Street is like the Times Square of New Orleans. Think: souvenir cups and classic rock cover bands. While it's historic, spectacular, and the setting of many Mardi Gras celebrations, it's also a bit rowdy and overpriced. So, our advice is: go, but don't stay.
Grab a drink at one of the oldest bars in the US
Okay, so we know we just said don't stay on Bourbon Street, but we'll make an exception for Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar. Built between 1722 and 1732, Lafitte's is said to be the oldest structure used as a bar in the US! Take a seat on an old wooden chair next to the brick fireplace and take in the history of New Orleans' past.
Bonus: Since we're on the topic of bars, Pat O'Brien's is a must. Drink an iconic Hurricane in their picturesque courtyard (and keep your souvenir glass).
Go on a swamp tour
Ready for adventure? Get up close and personal with alligators, wild boar, raccoons, snakes, and owls -- all while cruisin' through the bayou! We promise, it's not as scary as it sounds. While its certainly thrilling, it feels completely safe. And, if you get scared, just focus on the unique beauty of Louisiana's serene swampland, with its calm waters and weeping greenery.
Take the historic St. Charles Streetcar to the Garden District
Filled with ornate homes and shady oak trees, New Orleans' Garden District is a must-see. What's the best way to get there? Hop on the historic New Orleans Streetcar! Download the RTA app, purchase a $3 one-day "jazzy pass," and get exploring. Experience a slice of history by simply riding on the wooden streetcar, then hop off at Washington Avenue and wander through the majestic mansions of the Garden District (you'll also find the famous Commander's Palace restaurant on Washington Ave). Be sure to check out Magazine Street, which runs parallel to St. Charles Ave, for tons of shopping and dining options.
Tap into New Orleans' Voodoo culture
Voodoo was brought to New Orleans by enslaved people from Africa's west coast in the early 1700s. Today, voodoo lives on through people who see it as part of their culture, or even as their religion. Stop in a voodoo magic shop, go on a voodoo walking tour, or visit New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. (We hope there's no curse for saying "voodoo" this many times in one paragraph...)
Indulge in local cuisine
Gumbo, jambalaya, crawfish étouffée, po'boys - New Orleans is foodie heaven on Earth. Make sure you try all the Creole/Cajun classics, and don't be afraid to try alligator and oysters, too!