It’s easy to understand why New Orleans is called the Big Easy. Between the laid-back culture and the easy access to so much good food, jazz music, historical sites, and night life – there’s so much to do spontaneously! This past weekend I had the opportunity to visit for four days, three nights with a friend of mine and boy did we make the most of our time.
Being first timers in NOLA, we really tried to value the safety of the area we were staying in above all else. Leading up to the trip, we talked to others familiar with the area and they recommended that, as first timers, we should try to stick as close to the French Quarter as possible since that’s where most of the tourists are. One person we talked to suggested staying somewhere along Canal Street, or if anything the section in between Canal St and Poydras St. From everyone we heard from, we were advised not to stay near or north of Rampart St, as that street can be unsafe at night. We ended up picking the Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown on Carondelet Street and greatly enjoyed our stay. The room was basic but we felt safe in the area, the complimentary breakfast was very filling, and the proximity to everything we wanted to do was well worth it.
A note about safety: It’s true that New Orleans can get pretty dicey at times, more so than most other cities. But when you think about it, almost anywhere can be considered unsafe depending on the circumstances. I’ve only been to NOLA once so I’m no expert (not even close) but my friend and I (both young women) kept our wits about us and as a result were fine. We took Ubers at night, stayed together while walking, and avoided alleyways/deserted areas. We stuck to crowded and/or tourist areas within a three mile radius of the French Quarter. There’s a lot of articles out there after safety which helped me leading up to the trip, but try not to psyche yourself out!
A note about payments: so, so many places in New Orleans only take cash. There’s a million ATMs on the streets but it’s always good to be prepared ahead of time.
A note about weather: It’s cold in the winter. Prepare.
For anyone curious about some good things to check out, here’s what we did (and greatly enjoyed):
Day 1: Bourbon Street — After touching down at the MSY airport early evening, we went to our hotel to unpack and then went out on Bourbon Street to meet some of my friend’s friends. We’ve heard that Bourbon St can get kind of fratty at night and it was true! I felt like the street was one big frat party between the drunkenness, young people bar hopping, and strangers dancing together. It was fun to experience the street at night though! I even tried a Hurricane which I’ve heard New Orleans is known for.
Day 2: Whitney Plantation, Cafe Du Monde, Acme Oyster House, Jazz — This was our first full day. We started it off by going on the Whitney Plantation Tour through Gray Line Tours. Our tour was actually part of a Plantation & Swamp combo where you go to a plantation one day, swamp the next for a discounted price. The tours are nice because there’s a lot of options and they arrange a Gray Line bus to take you to/from the locations.
The Whitney Plantation hosts a tour that walks you through the history of slavery through museum exhibits, memorials, restored buildings, and first-person slave narratives. To say that we were impacted by the tour is an understatement.
It was so powerful to see the restored buildings up close and personal, especially to compare the differences of the “Big House” to the slave cabins, and even the cages some were kept in. It was so impactful to see the Big House across the yard from the cages. I’m sure the cages were purposely places there, and it felt like there was a story silently standing there – of the Big House looking at the cages and the cages looking back.
The views were quite different though:
For a lot of the tour, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tour prompted me to watch 12 Years a Slave two nights ago. Going on the tour and then watching a movie about slavery is something I’ll never forget.
Afterwards, the bus took us through Cajun Country (fun to see!) back to the French Quarter. By this time we were hungry so we decided to stop at the famous Cafe Du Monde for some beignets and hot coco. Even though the line to dine-in was long, it went by quickly! If you want to just grab food to go, there’s a separate line for that.
We also spent the afternoon wandering around the French Quarter, taking in all of the incredible architecture. I fell in love with the balconies and rooftop windows!
Next, we checked out Preservation Hall at the recommendation of my boss. They have jazz performances every hour starting at 5pm (expect for 7pm) and you can either buy tickets in advance (around $30) or wait in line 30 minutes prior to showtime for $15 standing-room-only tickets. We did the latter. It was a great dose of authentic jazz in a cozy room!
We love to eat so our next stop was to Acme Oyster House. The line was long but since we only have 2 in our party, they were able to seat us pretty quickly. New Orleans has some amazing seafood and the chargrilled oysters at Acme were amazing. We also had some gumbo and jambalaya (you have to at least once while in town!).
For our night adventure we decided to go to Frenchmen Street, known for a place where locals hang out and where you’ll find more jazz bars/venues rather than your typical Bourbon late-night bar. We visited the Frenchmen Art Market, The Blue Nile, and my favorite of the night: Snug Harbor. There’s a bar but there’s also a ticketed jazz performance similar to Preservation Hall. The room itself was, you guessed it, snug but it was better that way.
Day 3: Swamp & Bayou, Garden District, Adolfo’s, Frenchmen Street — We started the day by going on our second tour (part of the combo package from Gray Line Tours) to a swamp and bayou near the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve (or perhaps we were in it?). The swamp tour itself was run by Airboat Adventures. Most of their tours go out on the water using a small airboat but since our tour group was so large, we took a larger vessel. We didn’t see much but we did see a few small alligators, birds and turtles. Considering it was winter, I’d call that a win! But I’m sure summer tours boast more alligator sightings.
After our tour got back to the city, we went to the Garden District and walked around to check out the boutique shops and the fancy architecture of the homes. We had lunch at Lilly’s Cafe – the pho really warmed our cold bodies!
As night started to set in, we made our way to Adolfo’s Restaurant on Frenchmen Street where we had some amazing Creole-Italian food. Seafood and pasta, what could be better?! From there, we hopped from jazz bar to jazz bar, including The Spotted Cat Music Club and 30°/-90°. I felt like we really got to experience late-night jazz and it was wonderful.
Day 4: Ruby’s Slipper Cafe and the National WWII Museum — On our last day of the trip, we went to Ruby’s Slipper Cafe for brunch because we’d heard so much about it. It was delicious and seemed like a very hipster thing to do. The Cafe uses the Nowait phone app which lets you “stand in line” for a table using the app instead of physically standing in line. The app will tell you what time you should arrive at the restaurant by and how many people are in front of you. This app saved us over 50 minutes! After brunch, we went to the National WWII Museum. When I went, I didn’t understand why the museum was in New Orleans but I recently found out why from the museum’s website:
New Orleans is home to the LCVP, or Higgins boat, the landing craft that brought US soldiers to shore in every major amphibious assault of World War II. Andrew Jackson Higgins and the 30,000 Louisiana workers of Higgins Industries designed, built and tested 20,000 Higgins boats in southeastern Louisiana during the war. Dwight Eisenhower once claimed that Higgins was “the man who won the war for us.”
It was really inspiring to visit this museum and I learned so much about the plans for D-Day and the events that led to Japan and Germany surrendering. We went into the museum already knowing what positions our grandparents held in the war, but it was impactful to see how their roles and locations fit into the larger scheme of things. We only had a few hours to explore but there’s definitely enough exhibits for two days worth of visits. It’s a place I’d recommend everyone going to.
So there you have it! We packed a lot into a little time and while there’s so much more we could’ve done, I left the trip feeling happy, satisfied, and glad I went. I left feeling like I got a taste of all that New Orleans has to offer and I left knowing that I stayed more present on this trip than I have on trips in the past. I’m growing as a traveler and I’m excited to keep going.