Anybody who knows me knows that New Orleans is my absolute favorite city, but referring to it as just “my favorite city” honestly seems like an understatement. John Goodman once said, “Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here” and I really don’t think I could have said it better myself. The first time I went to New Orleans was to perform at the National Flute Convention in 2013, and I immediately fell head over heels in love. I was in love with the city, the food, the culture, the history, and the people. Being in New Orleans felt like I was living in a dream (and no, I was not just drunk the entire time). Every day was cause for a celebration, complete with festivals, parades, second lines, and brass bands around every corner.
With a drink in my hand and a longing for adventure, I spent my days not attending the various lectures and recitals of the conference (which is what I should have been doing), but wandering the streets of New Orleans exploring. I would like to note that yes I was by myself, and no, I never felt unsafe. I know that statistically, New Orleans can be a pretty scary place on paper. But just like any other big city you travel to, as long as you stay aware of your surroundings and don’t wander down any sketchy dark alleyways, you will be just fine.
After I got back home from that first trip to New Orleans, I was already itching for a reason to go back. I spent many lazy afternoons and evenings obsessively researching things to do, places to eat, where to stay, the history…everything and anything I could think of that was related to this magical city! Since that first trip, I have gone back to New Orleans at least twice a year since. I do not live in New Orleans (currently), but I am definitely a New Orleanian at heart. When I am not in New Orleans, it feels like a piece of me is incomplete. I have never in my life missed a person the way that I miss New Orleans (sorry, Mom)! I know that probably sounds so strange, but the John Goodman quote really is true. Armed with this guide, after your first trip to New Orleans you will understand exactly what I mean!
Now onto the good stuff!
(These are listed in no particular order.)
1. STAY IN A VACATION RENTAL HOME
The French Quarter is undeniably the most popular part of the city for tourists to stay in. However, on your first trip to New Orleans I always recommend staying in a vacation rental home, like a HomeAway, in one of the city’s other beautiful neighborhoods. If you are traveling with a group, this option is usually much more financially reasonable than a hotel anyway. Not to mention having a kitchen to cook in can save a TON of money versus eating out for every single meal, especially if you are staying for a week or more. The reason I recommend staying in a house is because it will immerse you in a very special part of New Orleans: the community. Be sure to find a house with a front porch, and spend some time on it! You will inevitably meet all of the neighbors, and probably get invited over for a crawfish boil if it is crawfish season! People in New Orleans are so unbelievably gracious and welcoming, and truly love telling people about their city. In New Orleans, neighbors still talk to each other. People in the grocery stores will strike up conversations and end up giving you some of the best life advice you’ve ever received. Your Lyft driver will gladly tell you what the hottest new bars in town are and where to go to eat like a local. Take advantage of this truly special quality of the city! (No, this post is not sponsored. Yet….. I’m looking at you, HomeAway.)
Fun tidbit: New Orleans has a unique type of home called a shotgun house. The history behind these homes is actually super interesting, so if you are a nerd like I am, you can read more about them HERE!
2. JACKSON SQUARE
This one is a must-do on any New Orleans list. Super photographable, so don’t forget your camera! Jackson Square is full of local artists, vendors, and street performers, and is surrounded by great shops to wander in to. One of my favorites is Trendz, a super cute accessories store that has great prices! Bring a go-cup (the term for an alcoholic beverage in a to-go cup), cash, and comfy walking shoes.
3. THE GUMBO SHOP
Right off of Jackson Square, The Gumbo Shop is often overlooked as too touristy but it is always on my list when I am New Orleans. My personal favorite is their chicken and andouille gumbo (and for my vegetarians, they make a vegetarian gumbo). They have solid classics like red beans and rice, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee...the list goes on. So if you are looking for a variety of New Orleans classics to try and share among a group, this is your place! The building itself is also noteworthy; you can feel the history of it just walking in! The building is actually one of the oldest in the French Quarter. It was one of the first buildings to be rebuilt after the fire of 1794, which burned across 212 buildings in the (now) French Quarter. The dining room walls are covered in yellowed paintings from the 1920’s that were done on the burlap covers of cotton bales!
Pro Tip: They lowkey have some of the best daiquiris in the FQ. They use real fruits and blend everything up fresh! My favorite is the banana daiquiri. Even if this doesn’t make your cut to eat at, definitely pop in and snag a daiquiri in a go-cup on your way over to exploring Jackson Square!
4. PIRATE'S ALLEY & FAULKNER HOUSE BOOKS
Pirate’s Alley runs along the side of St. Louis Cathedral and is a cute off-the-beaten-path area in the heart of the busy French Quarter. I usually duck down here to take a breather from weaving in and out of tourists who are paying more attention to their cameras than who they are about to run into (eye roll). There are a couple little cafes, along with a prime view/photo-op of one of the famous real estate signs that says “NOT HAUNTED” (the marketing genius/real estate broker who came up with these also owns the ghost tour company that is nestled in Pirate’s Alley). As you walk along, you will eventually come across an unsuspecting white double door that one could easily dismiss as uninteresting if not paying attention. My friends, behind these doors lies one of the most charming little bookstores you will ever stumble upon. William Faulkner actually lived here in 1925, the same year he wrote and published his first novel, Soldier’s Pay. Faulkner rented out the ground level of the building, the same space the bookstore is housed in today. When you go inside, be sure to check out the hangings on the wall!
5. ST. LOUIS CATHEDRAL
As one of the most recognizable landmarks in New Orleans, the cathedral is hard to miss. Many first timers photograph this massive beauty while strolling through Jackson Square, but miss that you can actually go inside as well! It is the oldest cathedral in North America, founded in 1720. They also allow you to purchase a small tea light to light in memory of a loved one if you feel so inclined. Whether or not you are religious, the ornate detailing found on the interior is not to be missed.
6. CAFE DU MONDE
A New Orleans staple. Everyone needs to try beignets from Café Du Monde at least once! I always order my beignets with a café au lait, the official beignet side drink of the city (I get vanilla put in mine though because I’m #basic, don’t judge)! They have white marble tables, so make sure you grab a table with good lighting and snap a pic for Insta!
Pro Tip: The line for this place is usually outrageous, so I always recommend going either super early or super late. I’m talking like 6/7 a.m. or midnight or later (they are open 24 hours). If you can’t finagle one of those two extremes to beat the line, there is a little to-go window on the side of the building that most tourists don’t know about and will cut down your wait significantly!
7. CAFE BEIGNET
This is where you will find my personal favorite beignets in the city (Alton Brown agrees)! This spot is great because they have other breakfast food aside from just beignets, which is a huge plus for me. If I only had fried dough topped with a mound of powdered sugar for breakfast, I would feel so crappy afterwards I would have to take a few hours to recover! Not worth losing that much precious time in a city with so much to explore. Order some beignets, the crawfish omelette, and a (vanilla) café au lait for a perfect breakfast to share with your travel buddy. Get a table with a view of the street and enjoy some morning people watching. If you prefer to blend in like a local, just grab a newspaper to read instead!
8. THE SYDNEY & WALDA BESTHOFF SCULPTURE GARDEN AT NOMA (IN CITY PARK)
After you get your beignets at Morning Call, stroll over to the Sculpture Garden, which is free and open to the public! They also offer a free audio tour that you can access through you phone, which is super helpful if you are an art/sculpture newbie, but would like to learn more. The sculpture garden is open seven days a week, but the hours change dependent on season, so be sure to check the hours online before your visit.
9. TAKE THE ST. CHARLES STREETCAR
An absolute must on your first trip to New Orleans is seeing the stunning homes of the Garden District. Unless you plan on going on some sort of bus tour, my favorite way to do this is by taking the Streetcar. It is $1.25 one way, exact change only, so be sure to plan ahead for that. If you are staying in the FQ, hop on at the stop on Canal and Carondelet. The Streetcar stops here approximately every 20 minutes. Sit back and relax, enjoy the architectural eye candy, and don’t forget your go-cup!
10. JAZZ BRUNCH AT MURIEL'S
Going to a Sunday Jazz Brunch should be at the top of your priority list for your first trip to New Orleans (and really every trip to New Orleans, to be honest). My personal favorite is Muriel’s. First of all, the building is just perfection. It will give you a great feel for traditional New Orleans design style. Second, they have an upstairs balcony that overlooks Jackson Square, so definitely get there early to grab a drink and enjoy some people watching! Third, the upstairs is also home to the Séance Lounge (insert ghost and crystal ball emojis here). Said to be haunted, the restaurant even sets out a dedicated table every single day to keep their resident haunt from causing trouble. If you are feeling brave, you can pay an extra $50 to be seated at his table…but beware, guests often note feeling like they were being touched during their meal! Finally, the food is just impeccable. On my last visit, I ordered their lobster omelette and it was seriously AMAZE. And you guys, I don’t even like eggs, but this was seriously the best omelette I’ve ever had. Make reservations and thank me later.
11. FRENCH MARKET
Not a far walk from Jackson Square, the French Market is an open air market full of various vendors. When you first enter, you will find primarily food stands, and towards the back it is more flea market style (my go to spot to find cute New Orleans jewelry or gifts to bring back for others). It is easy to lose track of time perusing, but I wouldn’t spend longer than an hour here. If you are looking for a good drink, get a banana daiquiri from…..you guessed it, a stand called Banana Daiquiri! If you get hungry, check out the Nawlins Café and Spice Emporium. They actually have some of my favorite jambalaya! I prefer the Creole jambalaya, which is tomato-based. If you would prefer something easier to eat on the go, swing by Central Grocery after you leave, it is a short walk from the French Market. It is a small Italian Grocery that has the most famous muffulettas in town! These sandwiches are MASSIVE, and come in quarters. I can eat a quarter and I’m content, but I always get a half so I have some for later, too.
Pro Tip: Get a muffuletta to take back with you, it makes a perfect meal for your plane or car ride back home!
12. WALK THE RIVER FRONT
One of the really unique things about New Orleans is that there is always something being celebrated (which is how life should be, in my opinion)! Most times I meander down to the river, there ends up being some sort of festival going on. On my last trip to New Orleans, my friend Jolene and I stumbled upon the Oyster Festival! Even if there is nothing going on, the river is a great place to feel a gorgeous breeze, see a steamboat, and snap some photos!
13. FRENCHMAN STREET
As the birthplace of Jazz, listening to live Jazz is a must (otherwise did you really even go to New Orleans?). Frenchman Street is where you go to find it. The street is lined with bars and clubs that have live music, but I recommend checking out Snug Harbor!
Get in touch with your vampire vibes and venture in to one of the cemeteries of New Orleans. As a city that is home to voodoo, vampires, spirits, and anything else that goes bump in the night, New Orleans is known for its underworld, which I am ALL about. Certain cemeteries can only be entered if a certified New Orleans tour guide accompanies you, so do your research first and decide which one you would like to visit (and if there are any restrictions). I would not recommend going alone or after dark to avoid making yourself an easy target. Bring your camera!
15. TAKE A GHOST TOUR!
Grab a go-cup and your travel partner and hit the town! Ghost tours are my favorite way to learn about the history of a city. Sure some stories may be exaggerated, but they usually have a solid foundation in actual historical events. I get my tickets from Groupon, they always have a ton to choose from!
Pro Tip: Decide which Groupon tour you would like to purchase way in advance and wait until Groupon sends out one of their 20% off coupons for the best deal!
16. RELAX IN THE COURTYARD OF THE W HOTEL FRENCH QUARTER
So to be completely honest, I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to share this tip because this is my favorite secret spot in the FQ and I really like that it is always sparsely populated. Totally selfish I know, but I really hate crowds, y’all! A local introduced me to this beautiful slice of heaven and I come back every time I visit now. It’s kinda bougie, but in the best way. When you are walking up to the hotel, there is a show stopping entrance that is lined with large blue lanterns and a trumpet chandelier. After stopping to gawk and take pictures, walk through here and it takes you directly into their courtyard, which is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Pro Tip: Dress cute and snap some Insta pics if you go during the day, or take your significant other in the evening for an uber romantic hideaway!
17. GET A HURRICANE FROM THE MARRIOTT
All this talk about go-cups and I haven’t even told you where the best drinks are! How rude of me. Although if you've been paying attention to the photos, you already know because I have one in my hand! A signature New Orleans cocktail, the Hurricane is attributed to Pat O’Brien’s circa the 1940’s. Pat O’Brien’s bar is absolutely gorgeous and if you walk by it is definitely worth checking out, but my favorite Hurricane in the city lies elsewhere (sorry, Pats). I cannot get enough of the Hurricanes from the Marriott Hotel on Canal. They use fresh juices, and it makes all the difference! If you ever see me wandering around the FQ, I will most likely be holding one of these.
18. GET A DRINK AT THE CAROUSEL BAR
As the name suggests, this bar is an actual Carousel! It spins and everything, but no it is not fast enough to make you dizzy (well, I guess that depends on how many drinks you’ve had). The Carousel Bar is inside of the Hotel Monteleone, and it is ALWAYS packed. If you want any chance of getting a seat at the actual Carousel, get there as soon as it opens. If you like something on the sweeter side order a Pimm’s Cup, and if you prefer something a bit stronger get the Vieux Carre!
19. EAT A PO'BOY & DEBRIS FRIES
There is a hot debate in New Orleans over who has the best po’boy shop, and it usually ends up between Parkway vs. Domilise’s. Both are great and you really can’t go wrong with either, but If I am choosing, I recommend Domilise’s. The tiebreaker for me is their debris, which is just SO. DAMN. GOOD. I seriously had dreams about their debris fries for a solid week after my first time trying them!
Pro Tip: Add cheese to the debris fries, and if you are feeling pretty #yolo and don't mind the heart attack potential, get a fried shrimp po'boy smothered in debris! Messy but so worth it.
20. LISTEN TO THE BEYOND BOURBON STREET PODCAST
This podcast is hosted by a native New Orleanian, and will give you so much insider info about the city! There are many topics to choose from, so scroll through the episodes and download any that pertain to things you have on your itinerary. I find that learning the history about something prior to visiting helps me appreciate and value that experience much more fully. Definitely download at least one that features author Richard Campanella, he has so many fun insights to share (if you read the article I linked on Shotgun houses, that was written by him)! My drive over to New Orleans is about nine hours, so I download some episodes and listen on my way over. After you return back home and inevitably begin to miss New Orleans, it is also a great way to continue feeling connected to the city. This is one of the only podcasts I listen to on a regular basis!
21. WANDER THE FRENCH QUARTER!
My first trip to New Orleans was spent wandering aimlessly through the FQ, and that is how I fell in love with the city. It allowed me to notice and appreciate all the intricate details, like the gorgeous ironwork, the gas lanterns flickering, and the beautiful historical markings on hand painted tiles you find on the side of many buildings. Set aside a couple of hours to meander, and you are bound to stumble upon something interesting! If you find any must-see spots, shoot me a message and let me know! I am always looking for new things to check out on my visits. But seriously though, not having a plan or a destination really allows you to live more in the moment. You observe your surroundings much more closely rather than just trying to make it to your next destination on time to keep your itinerary on schedule. Speaking of itineraries, I absolutely recommend creating one for your first trip to New Orleans! There are so many things to do, it is easy to get overwhelmed or spend way too long in unnecessary spots.
22. VISIT A VOODOO SHOP
When in Rome…! If you are feeling particularly experimental, most shops will even assist you in performing a ritual right in the store! They usually have an alter set up for customers to use. Even if you are not interested in participating, they are really interesting to explore!
23. WAKE UP EARLY
Bringing a camera is travel 101. Even if it is just your iPhone, make it a point to wake up really early at least one day of your trip to get some killer photos of the FQ. I find the best time is around 6 a.m.. Everything has been freshly cleaned from the previous night’s revelries, and the way the lighting comes through the buildings at this time is pure magic. I know it’s super early, and I am absolutely not a morning person (I’m convinced if left to my own devices I would be nocturnal), but you guys……SO worth it. Check out @davidnola's Instagram, he is the master of these shots!!
24. MAGAZINE STREET
After a busy and exhausting day of exploring the FQ, I like to dial it back a notch and do something a little more leisurely the next day. This day will usually include City Park, Sno-Balls (see #26), and Magazine Street. Magazine Street is lined with the absolute cutest shops and restaurants, and is perfect for a leisurely stroll. It is also massive, so don’t expect to get through everything. Do some research and find a couple shops or a restaurant you want to make sure you get to (which will ideally all be in the same section of Magazine), and just hit that portion. My top picks are Lionheart Prints, Sucre (get some macarons), LUSH (this is a must if you do not have one in your city!), and Basin (best mac and cheese I’ve ever had, more on this in another post).
25. GET A SNO-BALL
Hansen’s is amazing and my personal go-to, but depending on how long you are in town for, you may not have time in the schedule to stand in line for two hours. If not, there are plenty of other sno-ball places in town to choose from!
Pro Tip: No matter where you go, make sure to get it stuffed (a scoop of ice cream in the middle) and topped with condensed milk!
26. BOURBON STREET
You are in New Orleans after all! If you are not into nightlife, at least walk down during the day just to say you went. If you need an excuse, there is a Cafe Beignet on Bourbon tucked away in a cute little jazz park. But if you do go at night....beware of women offering you shots, they are NOT FREE. Politely decline or be prepared to pay up to $12 each.
My favorite bar is the 21st Amendment, which is not technically on Bourbon Street, but it is right off it. Try to go on a Saturday night to catch The Ibervillianaires!
In terms of the bars actually ON Bourbon Street, I seek out the bars that have balconies. I am not the biggest fan of large crowds so I grab a drink, post up on a balcony, and enjoy some people watching! If you go full tourist (as you should on your first trip to New Orleans!) and get a Hand Grenade or a Jester, DO NOT drink the entire thing by yourself. They taste like candy, but these guys are basically straight 151 + sugar. You will regret it the next day if you do, I promise.
Pro Tip: When you turn onto Bourbon Street off of Canal, swing into the Krystal Burger and get a bag of burgers to carry along with you. Yes, I actually do this, and no, nobody will give you a second glance. This is Bourbon Street we are talking about, there are far stranger things to see here than someone walking around with a bag of Krystal Burgers. The farther down Bourbon Street you go i.e. the more drinks you consume, you will be very thankful that you had something to help soak up all that alcohol!
I hope you enjoyed my top picks for your first trip to New Orleans! If you have any questions or would like to let me know what your top spots are in the city, please send me a message and let me know! I hope that you will love New Orleans as much as I do!
If you have any ideas for future posts you would like to see, send me a message, I would love to hear from you!
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