Insider Recommendations For Visiting New Orleans
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New Orleans is known as the home of Jazz, Mardi Gras, and Cajun cuisine. It is also a city with many names – The Crescent City, The Big Easy, NOLA, and my favourite name of all – N’Awlins.
Our Insider’s Hit List For New Orleans!
In a previous post, I explained how we’d made friends with people travelling with us on the Greyhound bus to Key West. And, how a young man on that bus, a musician from New Orleans, had kindly shared with us his own top places for the very best in music and for the very best experiences in New Orleans.
And how – from his insider recommendations – how I’d ended up with a fabulous ‘hit list’ for visiting New Orleans.
In this post, I want to share that list of amazing places that he recommended to us with you and to tell you how – using his insider’s list as our guide – we were able to experience some of the very best of New Orleans during our four fabulous days there.
Before we had these insider recommendations, I was already curious about New Orleans although I’d never been there.
It’s a city I felt I already knew something about because I’d done a lot of online research on New Orleans for a novel I’d written several years earlier entitled NOLA. In my story, my fictional heroine travels to New Orleans to meet her fiancé’s family who lived in the French Quarter.
Also, part of the plot involves a 1920’s painting of Marie Laveau – the famous witch-queen of New Orleans – that’s on view in the Louisiana State Museum in Jackson Square, and so I’d also done a lot of meticulous research on the painting but had never actually seen it for myself in real life.
So, armed with the list provided to us by our young musician friend and with my own writer’s curiosity, we’d booked our flight to New Orleans directly from Key West and we chose to stay for four nights in the gorgeous Chateau Hotel on Chartres Street, which looked to be in the centre of all the action as far as we were concerned.
Our hotel was just one street away from the infamous Bourbon Street in the oldest part of the French Quarter.
As soon as we arrived at the hotel, we were excited and keen to get checked in and to drop off our luggage and immediately go out to explore the surrounding neighbourhood and the famous bars. As it turns out – Rue Bourbon – is named after the French royal family ‘The House of Bourbon’ rather than after my husband’s favourite tipple.
And, nowadays, it seems that Bourbon Street is more famous for its tawdry strip clubs than ambiance.
We actually strolled the length of Bourbon Street holding our nose against the stench of urine and sidestepping vomit in the sidewalk while averting our eyes from the scantily clad ladies calling out to prospective clients from shady-looking doorways.
We did stop off for a couple of drinks in a bar and we did witness a passing ‘jazz funeral’ – but we soon decided the action as far as we were concerned and also according to our insider hit list of remendations for visiting New Orleans – was elsewhere.
Luckily, we soon discovered the delightfully picturesque Jackson Square, in the Faubourg Marigny and just a block away in the opposite direction, with its street jazz bands and its ragtag collection of colourful entertainers and tarot readers.
And it was here, in Jackson Square, at the Louisiana State Museum – a one-time courthouse and city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed that I came face to face with the so-called Witch Queen of New Orleans – or rather a 1920’s painting of Marie Laveau by Frank Schneider.
This very famous 1920s portrait of Marie Laveau is based on an 1835 painting (now lost) by George Catlin.
It was a fabulous and rather surreal experience to walk in the footsteps of my fictional heroine and stand in front of the masterpiece myself! You can find out more about my novel NOLA or my other books on my Book Page.
That evening, back at our hotel in the historic neighbourhood to freshen up in our beautiful although atmospheric and spooky-looking room with its dark oak furniture and four-poster bed – we went out to find Frenchmen Street – and it was just a short walk away.
We had drinks in a bar listening to a traditional washboard blues band and then, following the hit list of insider recomendations and instructions provided to us by the young musician we’d met on the Greyhound bus to Key West, we went on to the famous Snug Harbour Jazz Club at 626 Frenchmen Street – where we’d been promised some of the best music in the world in a small and intimate setting.
Well wow – what can I tell you about that night – our first night and our first experience of jazz and blues in New Orleans?!
Music in New Orleans was everything I’d dreamed and hoped it would be – we had a truly unforgettable evening.
Snug Harbour Jazz Club is a music ‘hot spot’ high on our ‘hit list’ and is easily located in an old and unassuming doorway between some shop doors on Frenchmen Street. We paid a cover charge and we went downstairs into a small cellar called The Music Room at The Snug, where there was a small cabaret-style stage, and the atmosphere was intimate and old and wonderful.
We were glad we arrived early to grab a couple of seats and a table and we ordered some drinks. Soon the band came on and we were treated to an amazing cultural experience and live top-quality jazz and blues incorporating the sounds of gospel and soul. It was a fabulous evening and we felt we truly experienced the true and timeless essence of New Orleans.azz, blues, oyster bars, and voodoo!
Jazz, Blues, Oyster Bars, and Voodoo!
The next morning we did some sightseeing and took a leisurely walk through the streets of the Quarter, stopping to tip back our heads and admire amazingly authentic 19th-century mansions and beautifully decorated balcony apartments adored with draping greenery and flowers.
We strolled along the banks of the Mississippi River to admire the riverboats before stopping off for beignets (pronounced ‘Ben Yeah’) and coffee. Beignets are a New Orleans signature sweet pastry made from deep-fried dough sprinkled with sugar.
In Jackson Square, in the lively heart of New Orleans, we joined the throngs of tourists to hear the street musicians and to see the tarot readers and fortune tellers and portraits artists who were all touting their talents and their wares.
Later, for lunch, we stopped off at the French Market at 1001 Decatur Street and ate baked Creole Char-Grilled Oysters.
After our incredibly delicious oysters, we explored the famously haunted side of the city, where the notable above-the-ground graves in ancient cemeteries were decorated with flowers and candles and voodoo coins in exchange for spiritual favours.
Back on Frenchmen Street, we found enchanting and spooky-looking voodoo shops selling broomsticks and voodoo dolls and cubby holes where practising witches would do a psychic reading for you and where the witchcraft shops were filled with candles and potions and strange ingredients for making magic spells to either enrich your life or to exact revenge on your enemies.
Feeling bewitched and compelled by the scent of a heady incense, in a shop called HEX that claims to be a witchery and actually has an ‘Altar of the Dead’ for people to leave notes to their dearly departed, I felt compelled to buy some tarot cards.
I’ve actually always been a bit curious about the tarot and I suppose my thinking was, that in buying tarot cards in the spookiest shop in New Orleans, they must be extra special and even more magical than those you might buy elsewhere.
To this day, I still consult my tarot cards on occasion for myself or for friends and I still believe that my cards – bought in that incredibly spooky shop in New Orleans – to be very special.
A Crawfish Boil at ‘The Leaf’
Next on our ‘hit list of top things to do in New Orleans was to attend a ‘Crawfish Boil’.
So, that evening we took a taxi downtown to The Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street in the ‘Uptown’ part of New Orleans.
‘The Leaf’ as our new friend on the Greyhound bus had called it – is a world-renowned music venue – as well as hosting the best crawfish boil in town. It sounded fantastic and not to be missed.
But I was perhaps even more impressed when he told us that Bruce Springsteen was often seen popping into The Leaf to ‘jam’ and that many of the bands who regularly played there were Grammy Awards winners.
We got out of our taxi on Oak Street and we were a little nervous, wondering if we’d found the right bar, as we couldn’t hear any music. It turned out that we were a little early, so we again paid a cover charge and we bought a drink at the bar while eyeing the curiously long narrow trestle table that was covered in a plastic tablecloth along the middle of the adjacent room.
Soon lots of people started to arrive, buying drinks and congregating along the length of the table. Then the musicians arrived and climbed up on stage to do a tune-up. In no time at all the place was packed out and not long after that, there was a commotion starting at the top of the table and the certain feeling of something about to happen.
Everyone lined up to stand along the length of the table. There were no chairs and no plates and no cutlery.
I was amazed to see that several huge tin steaming bathtubs full of food – which was the Crawfish Boil – was being tossed onto the table by several burly men. Several steaming bathtubs later, and the table was totally filled with crawfish, potatoes, corn cobs, and sausages, and a feeding frenzy ensued.
If, like me, you are not quite sure what a crawfish is: well it looks and tastes something like a small lobster.
A crawfish boil is a coveted traditional southern meal and an important social event throughout Louisiana USA.
The crawfish – lots of them – are boiled in a giant pot along with potatoes and corn and garlic and sausage and then everything is literally thrown onto the table for people to eat with their hands and with absolute gusto.
I looked up the Classic Louisiana Bayou Crawfish Boil Recipe and this is it:
Once the seasoned water comes to a boil in a large tin bath, add the potatoes, corn, garlic, and sausage. Cover and cook for 10 minutes. Add the crawfish, cover, and cook for 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow the pot to sit, covered, for 10 minutes. Serve to the hungry masses by tipping the meal onto a scrubbed clean wooden table. No cutlery is necessary!
It was all kind of crazy to eat standing and with your hands but it also looked fun especially after a fellow diner had seen my confused expression and kindly demonstrated the correct and the quickest way to eat the crawfish. First, you pull off the head and discard it (on this occasion that’s onto the floor!) and then you suck on the headless body to extract the juicy stock then you quickly peel the shell and pop the crawfish meat straight into your mouth.
I can tell you it’s a sticky and messy business!
And, well, after the food frenzy was over and the mess quickly cleaned up and the floor brushed and wet mopped while we had more drinks at the bar, the band had started up and we danced the night away in true Maple Leaf style. It was fantastic.
We had booked a taxi at the bar to take us back to our hotel around 10.30 pm.
As a travel tip: I would actually caution you to always use official taxis to get around in New Orleans at night for your security.
We usually like to walk around to get a great feel for places and because we enjoy walking, but to be honest, New Orleans is not the safest of places for tourists. I would suggest that you ask your hotel to tell you the safest routes for walking in the area so that you don’t end up getting lost and that’s usually about keeping to the main roads and the busiest well-lit streets.
Also, do ask your hotel receptionist for some local taxi numbers that they would recommend to you.
Being a sensible and savvy traveller will always help you to keep you safe while in unfamiliar places.
We finished off our wonderful stay in New Orleans by eating at Irene’s Place on 539 St. Philips Street.
Irene’s Place is a highly regarded Italian/French restaurant that was just a short walk from our hotel at 529 Bienville Street.
On the outside, with a small swinging sign and modest canopy, Irene’s looks unpretentious – but don’t be fooled. Inside the atmosphere is of old-world decadence, the food is delicious, and the wine list is fabulous.
The restaurant opens at 5 p.m. but do be warned that it’s so popular that’s almost impossible to get a table.
I’d recommend booking in advance and you can do so easily via Irene’s website. We went early on spec and we were lucky to get a table. But if you do arrive and find it busy, you can always choose to wait and enjoy having a glass of wine at the bar.
The essence of New Orleans:
It was the recommendation of legendary jazz and blues music and the promise of fabulous Cajun food that drew us to New Orleans. We chose to stay in the French Quarter because of the old-town atmosphere and the proximity to the places we planned to experience without having to hire a car.
We found the city diverse. It really is a melting pot of culture and hedonism!
Bourbon Street was quite a shock but the rest of our New Orleans experience was just as I’d imagined if not even better.
We stayed a total of four nights in The Big Easy and made the most of our time there – so this was a long enough stay for us – but you may have other reasons to visit New Orleans: The Carnival referred to as Mardi Gras, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival commonly known as ‘Jazz Fest’, the Voodoo Experience aka ‘Voodoo Fest’, The Essence Music Festival or the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.
New Orleans is like nowhere else I’ve ever been.
Have you ever been to New Orleans or are you planning to go?
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Find out about my book NOLA set in new Orleans or my other bestselling romantic adventure novels on my Books Page.
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