Taste Cajun, Creole, soul food, Vietnamese, and more on your next trip to NOLA.
New Orleans is a melting-pot port town where generations of immigrants — from Creoles to Cambodians — have shaped the city as enduringly as the waters of the Mississippi River.
The Big Easy is a beacon for artists, from practitioners painting along the fence in Jackson Square to the silver-screen renowned (John Goodman and Jennifer Coolidge both own houses here).
At 400,000 residents, the city doesn’t suffer the traffic issues of other popular destinations in the American South, like Nashville and Austin. You can visit a museum in Mid-City, have lunch Uptown, and take a French Quarter cemetery tour all in a single day. And you don’t need a car to do so — opt for a storied streetcar or just walk. Some of the biggest upcoming headlines? Jazz Fest will expand to eight days in 2024, and in 2025, New Orleans will host the Super Bowl LIX. There are highlights aplenty, but to truly understand and love New Orleans is to also bear witness to the hardships.
Community is king, and giving back to NOLA’s community is simpler than one might anticipate. You can support New Orleans’ culture at foundations like Preservation Jazz Hall, for example, and choose to dine in restaurants like Café Reconcile, which has scholarships for at-risk youth.
You can’t understand New Orleans in a weekend or even a lifetime, but therein lies the joy. One of America’s oldest cities is forever fresh and feisty. Consider the following suggestions some of the best ways to experience all it has to offer.
Where to stay
In some cities — New York and London come to mind — you hardly see your room outside of sleeping hours. New Orleans presents a diametric problem. The hotels are so divine that it’s tempting just to stay in bed. The Chloe is housed in a Victorian mansion, built in 1891 by famed architect Thomas Sully. The 14-room boutique property has a dark-and-dreamy parlor bar, a full restaurant, and a Palm Springs-worthy swimming pool. The rooms feature William Morris fabrics, four-post beds, and soaking tubs, as well as vinyl turntables and prime views of the streetcars passing out front.
The Marigny neighborhood was laid out in the early 1800s, largely developed by Louisiana Creoles of color and German immigrants. Today, it retains original, colorful shotgun architecture and a residential charm. The Hotel Peter & Paul leans into a cozy, European monastic style, which makes sense given the property is a reimagined 19th-century Catholic church, rectory, school house, and sanctuary. The 71-room interiors are by Ash NYC, mixing iron chandeliers and marble mantles, grand staircases, and pocket doors with soft additions of gingham and downy velvet. The Elysian Bar is the hotel’s award-winning dining concept for coffee, cocktails, daily lunch, and weekend brunches held in the ornate sanctuary.
Those looking to loll in luxury are amply accommodated in New Orleans. The original Grande Dame is the 1908 Beaux Arts, Ritz-Carlton, in the French Quarter. It received a $40 million revamp in 2022 and now boasts the state’s largest spa (100 treatments and 22,000 square feet of space), along with 528, suite-styled rooms and an exquisite penthouse residence, with a 3,200-square-foot private terrace. Booking here also gives back — its Community Footprints program funds various city philanthropies.
Blocks away, The Four Seasons opened in 2021 in a riverside tower that was built in 1968 by modernist architect Edward Durell Stone, who also designed Radio City Music Hall. Falling on hard times, it was on an endangered buildings list by 2013 until a $500 million transformation resulted in 341 rooms and 92 residences, a roof pool, a spa, the dazzling lobby Chandelier Bar, and two independent, fine-dining restaurants.
Where to eat
Daydreaming of that Deep South hospitality, a heaping plate of grandma’s vegetables, and a big glass of sweet tea? You want Café Reconcile. It’s a soul-food and philanthropy-focused joint, with a workforce development initiative giving 2,000 young men and women graduate-level skills in hospitality. The fried green tomato sandwich is a real must-eat, served on jalapeño cornbread toast.
Trying Creole cuisine is requisite. The classics are refined at establishments like Brennan’s for breakfast, Arnaud’s for decadent turtle soup, and Commander’s Palace for the city’s iconic bread pudding.
This port town is home to one of America’s most vibrant Southeast Asian communities, and the Vietnamese options are incredible. Check out the tiny, family-run Le’s Baguette Banh Mi Cafe, where the pho broth is infused with star anise and cinnamon, hit with a litany of herbs and pink slices of tender flank steak. Also make room for Thai at Budsi’s, where Bangkok street foods are done justice — particularly the stellar, grilled pork shoulder with herbaceous, spicy jaew sauce.
Really Really Nice Wines opened in the summer of 2023. Amid racks of natural wines, the bar serves rotating weekly pours, paired with cheese, charcuterie, duck-fat popcorn, and Lady Nellie Oysters on weekends. Every Tuesday, the shop hosts pop-ups with rolls from Sushi Mercenary or Get Your Mom & Dim Sum dumplings.
Plates Restaurant & Bar is another 2023 newcomer, opened in a former cotton mill in the Warehouse District. The concept is shared, family-style portions, and the flavors are comforting, from mustard-braised rabbit with German-style spaetzle to a huge, fried chicken coq au vin.
Things to do
New Orleans has a reputation for revelry. (Ahem. Yes, that’s our polite way of phrasing it). However, it’s also a hidden gem for rubbing elbows with Mother Nature. Rent a kayak and paddle down Bayou St. John. Or visit City Park; it’s 50% larger than Central Park and home to a grove of the world’s oldest live oak trees, as well as water features, a city-themed putt-putt course, the botanical gardens, the Museum of Art, and an outdoor sculpture garden. Pro tip: You’ll find a second location of Café Du Monde at City Park, where you can get beignets without the long lines of the French Quarter original.
After working up a sweat, park it by a pool. Most cities require you to stay somewhere to access a hotel pool but not New Orleans. The Chloe sells day passes, as does The Drifter Hotel. This rehabbed Mid-City ‘70s motel has non-guest passes for $10, a craft cocktail bar, disco balls, and a clothing-optional policy. The Country Club — a cheeky twist on that designation — isn’t a hotel, but a yellow mansion, complete with wild drag brunches, frozen tipples, and a huge backyard pool.
Towel off and grab your wallet. Shopping is a sport. Magazine Street — one of America’s longest stretches for independent retail — offers options like Century Girl and Miss Claudia’s for vintage, as well as Sunday Shop and Spruce for textiles, wallpapers, and glassware. The Good Shop is full of ethically sourced, local made wares.
Music makes this town go around, and a first or 50th visit should include Preservation Hall, a venue and nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of traditional New Orleans jazz since 1961. Shows happen in a hallowed, ancient space in the French Quarter, and the sister foundation supports elder musicians and provides music education to children. Next, stroll over to Frenchman Street in the Marigny, where music venues line both sides of the road. Every night, d.b.a. offers a serious craft beer list and a major roster of national acts on an intimate, wooden stage.
Vaughn’s, on the edge of the 9th Ward, has live bands on Thursdays only. At this ramshackle dive, the roof is rusted, the paint is peeling, and your whiskey comes in a flimsy plastic cup. But come spring, there’s nothing more magical than dancing on the sidewalk as Cajun crawfish is plated curbside to the sounds of trumpet and trombone.
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