New Orleans: A Local’s Guide to the Best Restaurants, Bars, & Quirky Fun
New Orleans celebrates its 300th anniversary this year, and since it’s almost Halloween, I thought this was the perfect time to talk about this haunted Southern city. On the Postcard Academy podcast, Hope Kodman, a tour guide with French Quarter Phantoms, joined me to talk about the history of the Big Easy; the origins of Mardi Gras; the difference between cajun and creole; and other fun stories. Of course, we tell you where to find the best: food and drinks, quirky shops and museums, burlesque, jazz, ‘female-owned romantic boutique,’ and more.
New Orleans’ biggest party
New Orleans is probably most famous for Mardi Gras, the Fat Tuesday blowout that comes before Ash Wednesday. “New Orleans is still a majority Catholic city because our French and Spanish background,” Hope says. “Mardi Gras is essentially the last day to revel, to party, to get all your weirdness out before you must be spiritually right with God for 40 days. So it's the last day before the first day of Lent.”
People have been celebrating Mardi Gras since the Middle Ages, but the New Orleans-style party we know today really got started in the mid-1800s. “You would have groups of people form what they called krewes,” Hope says. “You could liken them to social aid clubs, but more with a focus on revelry, with partying.”
Krewes held costume balls and parades, where they’d throw trinkets and beads and money off of the floats. “So we start to see a more modern Mardi Gras emerge, in the 1800s and it really develops from there.”
New Orleans’ best museums
Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World. If you missed Mardi Gras or prefer to avoid the crowds, you can come here in the off season to see how the floats are made, try on costumes, and enjoy a King Cake.
Pharmacy Museum. America’s first licensed pharmacist worked in this old fashioned apothecary, where today you can check out medical devices, syringes, and weird medicines from the 1800s -- people even get married here. “It's also a really terrifying look at what medicine used to be, that makes you grateful for what we have now,” Hope says.
1850 House Museum. Wandering through the French Quarter is like stepping back in time. Visit the 1850 House Museum to learn how it all began and to see the layout of the apartments from that age. If you listen to the podcast, you’ll hear the fascinating story of the female entrepreneur who survived a shooting to transform the look of the city.
New Orleans Museum of Art. Fine art lovers could easily spend an afternoon at NOMA, which has a permanent collection of almost 40,000 objects plus exhibits that are updated regularly. Don’t miss the five-acre sculpture garden.The National WWII Museum If you prefer twentieth-century history, don’t miss this war museum.
Other New Orleans must-sees
Visit St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. About 100,000 people have turned to dust in this tiny resting place, famous for its above-ground tombs. Take a tour with Hope and learn the fascinating history of New Orleans and its burial rituals.
Ride a streetcar. Streetcars are a ton of fun to ride. They’re not as regular as a subway, but if you’re not in a hurry to get somewhere, definitely give them a try.
Take the ferry. For only $2, you can ride the ferry along the curve of the river and see the whole city.
New Orleans best neighborhoods
The French Quarter. This is New Orleans’ most famous district, and where you’ll likely spend most of your time. It’s a good idea to stay in this neighborhood for easy access to independently owned bars, restaurants, and everything else you want. You’ll find booze on Bourbon Street, amazing live music on Frenchmen, and loads of art galleries and performance spaces on St. Claude.
West Bank. To experience a calmer side of New Orleans, check out the shops and restaurants in this neighborhood. Hope’s fav pub here is the Crown and Anchor.
The Garden District. A beautiful neighborhood where you’ll find Spanish moss hanging off the trees and Mardi Gras beads caught by branches in last year’s parade.
Audubon Park. On a nice day, you can picnic in this 350-acre park in the middle of New Orleans.
Foods to try in New Orleans
Creole and Cajun are not the same. Creole refers to New Orleans culture and its African, French, and Spanish roots. Cajun, on the other hand, refers to rural southeast Louisiana and people who trace their ancestry back to the French Canadians. When it comes to food, though, there are some similarities: creole and cajun are both spicy and use a lot of seafood and local ingredients.
The most traditional meals people associate New Orleans with are gumbo (soup) and jambalaya (spicy rice meal). While New Orleans can be a tough city for vegetarians, you can find veg versions of these dishes.
If you’re in the mood for a quick bite, get a Po’ Boy sandwich, filled with many kinds of ingredients and usually dressed with lettuce and tomatoes.
“Try out New Orleans’ barbecue shrimp if you’re in the mood for seafood,” Hope says, “It doesn’t have the barbecues taste, but a very delicious buttery sauce.”
These days, you’ll also find delicious Vietnamese food thanks to the number of the Vietnamese immigrants to the city.
Best places to eat in New Orleans
Muriel’s. Here you’ll find traditional New Orleans food and can also dine with a mischievous ghost (listen to the podcast to learn how the restaurant made peace with him).
Jack Dempsey’s. A family owned place that serves seafood and steak prepared according to the old family recipes.
The Cake Cafe. Try out their bagels. Or, if its Carnival season, their King Cake.
Who Dat Café. “I would always get iced coffee there. Iced coffee’s big in New Orleans because it's hot so much of the time.”
New Orleans food markets
French Market. At this riverside market, you’ll find food, souvenirs, and also gourmet daiquiris made with local New Orleans rum, fresh fruit, and ice cream. “They're not really any more expensive than the ones that you would get from the giant machines on Bourbon Street and they taste so much better,” Hope says.
St. Roch Market. Historically a fish market, you’ll find great food at this market, which was renovated a few years ago.
Dryads Public Market. If you want to get out of the French Quarter and see some other neighborhoods, visit this food market.
Best places to drink in New Orleans
New Orleans is one of the only places in America where you can drink in public. If you want to stroll around while enjoying your beverage, bars will give you a ‘go cup’ to literally take your drink to go. Of course, there are plenty of fine establishments in which you can sit to sip cocktails and/or hear music.
Voodoo Lounge “To me, this is the happiest,weirdest, silliest bar,” Hope says. “Very local. It's right on the new streetcar line on Rampart. The drinks are a good price and the bartender's are kind and funny and entertaining.”
Cane and Table. Their menu has a Caribbean vibe and delicious cocktails.
Classic drinks to try in New Orleans:
The Sazerac. If you’re a fan of whiskey, this drink is for you. Absinthe adds a nice licorice flavor.
Hand Grenade. Tropical Isle keeps this recipe secret. Be careful with this. The last time I had one I magically ended up in my hotel pool swimming in my underwear.
Hurricane. “I think this is the classic drink that people associate with Bourbon Street debauchery and all that entails. It's red. It contains, I believe, four shots of rum, passion fruit syrup, fruit juice, and lots of sugar. I can only drink one hurricane from Pat O'Brien's and then I have to take a nap,” Hope says.
Manolito. A rum-focused cocktail bar.
Best burlesque in New Orleans
Bella Blu has been performing burlesque since 2007 and produces a few different shows around town.
Best places to see live music in New Orleans
Roam the French Quarter and you’ll hear music everywhere, from the street corner to bars and restaurants. “There's usually no cover,” Hope says, “you just have to buy a drink or buy some food from the restaurant, but it's always a good courtesy to tip the band.”
Preservation Hall. If you’re a jazz fan, seeing a gig at this institution is a must. “It's not a bar. It's not a restaurant,” Hope says. “You go in and you listen to these established, older, hardcore, awesome, incredibly talented men playing jazz in a really amazing environment from a really cool historic context. Preservation Hall is hard to beat.” You can buy tickets online, but it’s also fun to wait in line and watch the throngs of tourists and colorful characters pass by.
Frenchmen Street Just outside of the French Quarter, this famous street is full of bars with live music playing everything from jazz to Latin, to blues, to reggae, and just about anything in between
Best places to shop in New Orleans
Dynamo. This is Hope’s women-owned and female-friendly sex shop. “We do a lot of workshops and classes for the community, but we are essentially a romantic boutique with a really lovely comfortable interior and place for people to come in ask questions about sex.”
Voodoo Authentica shop. This voodoo shop, which is run by people who actually practice voodoo, is less touristy than other shops of its kind. In case you didn’t know, voodoo is an actual religion and it’s not all about black magic. Listen to the podcast to learn what voodoo really is.
Fifi Mahoney's This wig, makeup, and costume accessory shop has a salon in the back and is a ton of fun. “The wigs are fabulous. They're actually really affordable. If you’re here around Halloween or Mardi Gras, at least wear a wig — please participate!”
Art Garage. If you want to support local artists and designers, visit this market in the giant garage warehouse space on st. Claude Avenue.
Is New Orleans safe?
You should conduct yourself in New Orleans as you would in any large city. The touristy places are generally safe, but the city has a history of crime and you should be aware of your surroundings. Walk in well-lit streets and don’t wander around drunk by yourself.
What culture tips should we know about New Orleans before we go?
People in New Orleans are really friendly and they will want to talk to you -- this is not a city where everyone just minds their own business and stares to the ground. Have fun speaking with a local and ask them for their best New Orleans recommendations.
Also, unless it’s Mardi Gras, do not wear beads if you want to blend in. But if you don’t care about looking like a tourist, then go to town.
How much do you tip in New Orleans?
New Orleans is a service-based economy and tipping is important. Hope recommends tipping at 20%. If you hear any live music, tip the band.
Fun New Orleans traditions
If you see someone wearing dollar bills pinned to their shirt, make sure you wish them a happy birthday, and pin a dollar if you’re feeling generous. This is a great way to meet people.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.