Weekend City Picks: New Orleans
New Orleans can boast that it has been a world center for music, culture and cuisine for 300 years, and things may even have picked up in recent years. The burgeoning music and restaurant scene in up-and-coming neighborhoods like Faubourg Marigny and the Bywater are pulling visitors out of the historic French Quarter. Despite the Big Easy’s devil-may-care reputation, attractions like the Audubon Aquarium and City Park are plenty family-friendly.
Arts & Entertainment
The Jazz Market opened in a refurbished Central City department store as the headquarters of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra as well as concert and event space for the city’s many jazz musicians. The 360-seat theater and Bolden’s Bar are an intimate setting for some of the city’s top performers, from Ervin Mayfield to Kermit Ruffins.
Spread over several storefronts in the French Quarter, the Historic New Orleans Collection provides a chance to see images and objects that illuminate the city’s 300-year history, including guided tours of Collection founders’ 1890s-vintage French Quarter residence.
Visitors get a rare chance for an up-close look at the manicured grounds and ornate architecture of one of the city’s many stately mansions at Long Vue House and Gardens, an early 20th Century beauty on the outskirts of the city.
This tiny French Quarter museum is mildly creepy, but the staff are friendly folks who are unlikely to hex you for asking questions. Snake scales and chicken feet are available for purchase, and a disturbing number of human skulls are on display. Admission is $5.
Food & Drink
Elite cocktail craftsmanship and an extensive menu of spirits consistently earn Bar Tonique tops on lists of America’s best bars, but locals love the lack of pretense and neighborhood vibe here. Just down Rampart Street is beer-centric Black Penny.
Chef Donald Link has won multiple James Beard awards in recent years for his multiple restaurant outposts in New Orleans’ trendy Warehouse District. Herbsaint, the bistro where the Louisiana native first showcased his modern take on Southern cooking, was Link’s first restaurant, and his acclaimed Peche and Cochon are just blocks away.
Bayona’s cozy dining rooms and French Quarter courtyard are charming enough, but Chef Susan Spicer’s menu is what has kept diners enthralled for 25 years. Bayona has its staple menu items, but Spicer takes pride in letting her staff’s creativity show with daily specials that emphasize locally sourced ingredients.
Burger-lovers have to queue up for the legendary half-pounders at Port most nights, but the equally well-known Monsoon and other tiki-bar concoctions will help pass the time while you wait.
Kids can reach out and touch a stingray in the Geaux Fish exhibit, or watch the Aquarium’s colony of penguins feed or step into a rookery with hundreds of parakeets. The aquarium is located on the Mississippi at the foot of the French Quarter, and you can also buy a combo pass good for admission to the Audubon Butterfly Garden Insectarium a few blocks away, or to the Audubon Zoo in Uptown.
The towering rows of 300-year-old live oak trees on the grounds of Oak Alley have made it the most famous in the area. At the smaller Laura, guides pay more attention to bringing creole culture to life. The newly restored Whitney Plantation is a museum of the institution of slavery in America, taking on full-bore a topic that gets far less attention at its more established rivals.
Check out NOLA Social Ride’s calendar for mostly low-key opportunities to pedal through New Orleans on trips that often have a theme (pirates! zombies!). There are daytime trips every Saturday and Sunday, and night rides leave from Armstrong Park every Tuesday (rides include live music) and from varying locations on Thursdays. The latter typically winds up at a bike-friendly local tavern or restaurant.
Add some old New Orleans flair to your workout at this fitness institution on the fringe of the French Quarter. Spread across three floors of a 19th Century building, NOAC has a pool, boxing gym, weights and cardio, and ballroom for Zumba and yoga. Daily passes are $20 for any visitor staying at a hotel anywhere in the city—bring your room key and an ID.
Paddling the extensive lagoons inside City Park aboard a canoe or pedal boat is the best way to traverse the grounds of this urban gem. You’ll have to step ashore to get a good look at the park’s massive live oak trees. Fortunately, there are also bikes for rent to get you around the 1,300 acres of parkland.
The “moonwalk”—nicknamed for former Mayor Maurice “Moon” Landrieu— provides a view of passing container ships and tugboats on the Mississippi, and more often than not is hosting a festival or concert. Turn your back on the river, and you’re looking into the French Quarter.
Tucked away at the edge of Audubon Park, the Fly offers views of the Mississippi in a setting that is often nice and quiet—if locals aren’t crowded in having a crawfish boil, or lined up along the fences of the massive little league complex.
Less than an hour outside the city are a slate of different swamp tours. Your guide matters: some tour companies focus their attention on teaching you about the ecosystem of the swamp. Others will dangle chicken legs over the side of the boat to lure alligators.
Merchants have been hawking their wares along the five-block stretch of the French Market since the 1700s, and the Market remains vital thanks in large part to the Farmers Market Pavilion. Most visitors will probably stock up on local artists’ wares rather than fresh produce. If the hubbub of the bazaar gets to be too much, wander upriver to Crescent Park and relax.
Girdling the city from the French Quarter upriver to Audubon Park, Magazine Street is lined with some of the city’s best small restaurants and sharpest boutiques. Check out fine jewelry from local artist Mignon Faget, or get the most stylish NOLA-centric T-shirts from Dirty Coast or Fleurty Girl. Stop in for a meal at Cocquette or Noodle and Pie to rest your feet.
The merchants in the stalls of the recently refurbished St. Roch Market offer slightly hipper fare than most of their counterparts in the French Market: Korean-Creole fusion at Koreole; pulled pork crepes at Dirty Dishes; and a variety of other locally sourced food and drink.