A Local's Guide to New Orleans: The Big Easy
Have you ever imagined a place in your mind? What it must feel like, sound like, look like... and then you get there, and it's nothing like all the pictures you had running through your head? New Orleans felt like that for me; it wasn't what I expected. Maybe I had pictured Mardi Gras happening every weekend, or expected voodoo mamas on every block, but it was just different. To begin with, I made the mistake of going to New Orleans in July, when stepping outside feels like being slapped with a warm, wet blanket you cannot take off. It also rained almost every afternoon between the hours of 2-6 pm, making it even muggier.
I have traveled enough to know all the difference a local tour guide makes. It is the difference between the best $7.99 meal you ever had and an over-priced $25.00 subpar meal. They can also tell you things like “It's really humid here in July so bring nothing but thin cotton and a portable fan.” Without a local connection, I did not know this. What I do know though, is that I am a sucker for a travel deal, so when my airline had sent me a flight I couldn't resist, I had taken it. I hadn't had the time to dig around and see who I knew or who my friends knew that was willing to be my local guide to the city. So I spent my first sweaty afternoon on Bourbon Street and left with this lesson: do not make Bourbon Street your first stop, especially if it is still daylight.
For those of you that haven't been to the main stretch of Bourbon Street- on its best and worst days it is littered with drunks and Top-40 music playing out of every open door or window. Despite what all the post cards tell you, the best things to be found in New Orleans are outside of Bourbon Street. The rest of the day felt the same; I went to all the sights around the French Quarter feeling cheated out of something. All the guide books and travel sites were conspiring to limit my experience to Canal Street and the French Quarter. I wasn't about to waste this travel deal, I needed to find a local tour guide because somewhere, something really great was happening in this city and I didn't know where or what!
On my second day I found my local guide at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar (which is a bar worth visiting in the French Quarter). After this, things took a turn for the best. When you have someone who knows and loves a city, you unlock all those gems just outside of your reach. I was no longer one of those tourists herding from landmark to landmark glued to my phone for directions and instructions. My local guide's name was Lauren and she had lived in the city all her life. She left only for college and promptly returned. We made plans to meet the next day, but only after she had taken me to Verti Marte- a cash only deli in the Quarter, notorious among the locals for having some of the best po' boys any time of day. These are the sort of things I would never discover on my own, without a local guide.
The details over the next 3 days are a haze of good food, late night music, followed by more food, before collapsing in a happy heap. My local guide took me off the beaten path and along the way I discovered some of the best places to eat, sit, and hear New Orleans. If you're not as lucky to find your own local tour guide, here's my curated local's guide to New Orleans.
Always eat local, especially if you are traveling. Which means that, of course you came to New Orleans for a po' boy, and of course you want seafood on it. If so, head to Parkway Bakery and Tavern where the Obama's dined when they were in town, or if you want something less presidential go to Domilise's. While Domilise’s may be the less flamboyant of the two, the Travel Channel seems to like dropping by there, so they must be doing something right.
If we're talking burgers and fries, The Company Burger in Uptown serves them up good for an affordable $10. Cowbell, further Uptown on the Riverbend, also serves envy-inducing (and Instagram-worthy) burgers and fanfare. Taceaux Loceaux, is a great local food truck that announces its location only via Twitter. My local guide and I spent the better part of an evening following the truck on Twitter and always just missing it. When we did finally catch up to it, the tacos were well worth it and affordable to top. If you're hungering for some New Orleans dogs, Dat Dog on Frenchmen is sure to satisfy your meat needs. They serve great hot dogs in many flavors and they make for a great late night snack if you're in the neighborhood already.
New Orleans is a city that compels you to drink and makes your liver want to retire early. This is a city where bars never close and you can take your drink to go, always. Just ask for a “go cup” and the bartender will happily hand you one. My tolerance for alcohol saw an upward spike during my trip, and as my local guide told me, “New Orleans is a city of functioning alcoholics.”
Everyone knows the Hotel Monteleone Carousel Bar is a must see, even if you don't get to sit at it, it's worth observing the slowly spinning bar while you sip on a handmade cocktail. But where do the locals drink? If you're looking for frill free good times, The Saint in the Garden District is the diviest of bars, a place where time goes to a standstill until you stumble out into the daylight and feel a slight ounce of shame for all the fun you had. My local guide also took me to Bacchanal in Uptown on my last night in town. We sat in the beautiful courtyard in the back with friends, ate good food, and drank excellent wine from an extensive wine list that's sure to impress novices and connoisseurs.
If you're looking for a truly authentic local's night out filled with music and great bars, skip Bourbon and head to Frenchmen Street. Lovingly dubbed “the locals Bourbon,” my local guide and I found free music in almost every bar, and whole brass bands playing on the street corners. As an added bonus, on Friday nights they have a late night art market ½ a block from the main strip.
If you like to round off your vacations with some artsy, cultural, or maybe historic things, New Orleans is a city filled with them. Forget the French Quarter and head to the Garden District where you can check out mansions so old you know they're haunted. While you're in the Garden District, go to Lafayette Cemetery. It's a nice change from the very busy St. Louis cemeteries, with the same bizarre charm New Orleans cemeteries have.
Because it is perpetually warm in New Orleans, take the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors and head to City Park, where you can sit under some of the prettiest and oldest oak trees you have ever seen. If you're more into water views, skip the Riverwalk off Canal Street, which is always busy with tourists, and go to The Fly. Their pitch: “tucked behind Audubon Zoo across the Mississippi River levee, this waterfront portion of Audubon Park is a great spot to relax and take a breath from the hustle and bustle of New Orleans.”
If the humidity starts to get to you, cool down with a movie at the Prytania Theatre. Built in 1914, it is one of the oldest single-screen theaters still in operation in the country. It is charming and has a great backstory to boot. Finally, if you've ever wondered about those Mardi Gras costumes or wanted to see them up close, do yourself a service and head over to the historic Treme neighborhood. Pony up your $8.00 and walk into the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Please don't take any pictures when they ask you not to. Only tourists do that.
Happy Travels in the Big Easy!
By Kari M.
Kari is a freelance writer born and raised in Nairobi and currently living in the Midwest. When not mulling too deeply over things, she is making lists out of her lists. You can follow her on Twitter @the_warm_fruit.