New Orleans is the kind of city where even the most tacky, touristy things seem to make sense, and where the actual people of the city are the real entertainment. They’re authentic and fiercely loyal to their city, incredibly friendly and tolerant, and even welcoming to the idiot tourists.
The Uber drivers will give you the best overview of the stages of New Orleans, including how New Orleans had lost its mojo pre-Katrina. The recovery was brutal, but now the city is back and better than ever. Every weekend is a celebration, a festival, a big football game, or a convention. It’s not just during Mardi Gras—New Orleans is always a party.
Other than the tacky Bourbon Street, the French Quarter is small, walkable, and filled with fascinating building details, shotgun houses, galleries, and incredible overhanging flowers everywhere. There is a bar every 10 feet, and everyone walking has a drink. The best time to be here is 9:30 a.m., after the party and before the tourists.
Garden District (Uptown, Upper and Lower District)
There are a lot of parts to the Garden District, from the incredible huge homes to the more commercial area of Magazine Street. The Garden District is currently our fave spot to stay and eat and drink up and down Magazine and St. Charles. Much less touristy and more real than CBD or the quarter. The Garden District is also home to the best of the NOLA cemeteries, Lafayette 1.
Arts District and CBD
Technically two neighborhoods, but they blend together. This area borders the French Quarter, is home to tons of hotels, and the restaurant scene is incredible—and keeps getting better. Between here and the Garden District is one of the best museums we’ve seen, the WWII Museum. And this is coming from non-museum goer’s.
This neighborhood is where the New Orleans resurgence lives. It’s a cool little area of houses that are being rehabbed with a younger, cooler crop of people moving in.
There is no shortage of hotel rooms in the city. Name a chain or brand and you can find it here.
If you want to stay in the Quarter:
The classic old dogs are the Roosevelt (a Waldorf Astoria) and the Ritz Carlton, on opposite sides of Canal Street bordering the Quarter. The Windsor Court Hotel is huge, new, and super-luxurious. If you want the Quarter with a little more seclusion, your two best bets are Audubon Cottages and Soniat House, which have the classic New Orleans hidden courtyards. Beware that almost all hotel rooms in NOLA smell a bit musty.
Close to—but not in—the Quarter:
International House and Loft 523 are our favorites for location. There is also a relatively new Ace Hotel, if you’re a fan of the more happening lobbies, quirkier rooms, and hot new restaurants (see below).
In the Garden District, you’ve got the new Pontchartarin Hotel, which is also is a scene of bars and restaurants including Jack Rose, Bayou Bar, and the rooftop Hot Tin Bar, which has a great view of the city and beyond. The Henry Howard Hotel is great if you get room 201 or 202 on the front (but it’s noisy). It’s more of a glorified B&B without the second B, but a great location.
Classic tips for New Orleans dining:
Have a Sazarac, ideally in the Sazarac bar at the Roosevelt. At least once to see the bar.
Po-Boys are everywhere: Mother’s on Poydras, Mahony’s on Magazine (and on a corner in the Quarter). Everyone stands in line for Mother’s, including us a few times. The experience is cool, but I’m not sure the ham is worth the line?
For a touristy spot (pick just one or two, or skip and do Brennan’s if you want a classic):
Commander’s Palace (best for brunch)
Hidden gems in the Quarter:
Sylvain: Score a table in the back courtyard.
Sucré: Go to a decadent brunch in the second-floor dining room.
Pythian Market: A new smallish food hall with a cool history and a big happy hour.
Brennan’s: A classic in the Quarter, but recent revamps mean that really good food is coming out from a new chef, who was nominated for a Beard Award this year.
From Chef Donald Link and co: Cochon, Herbsaint,and Péche (seafood) are some of the best places in town for dinner, and Cochon Butcher is a great fast-casual joint for lunch. Note: Cochon is pretty popular, so definitely not as good now as it was 5+ years ago.
Maypop is newer restaurant from Chef Michael Gulotta, with a flavorful, fun menu. Willa Jean is the place for inventive southern food (and they serve cookie dough for dessert) and the biscuits, monkey bread and griddled banana bread are ridiculous. Breakfast/brunch is a must, and don’t leave without a few treats from the front bakery.
If you must do Emeril: Try Meril; it’s more inventive and casual than his others.
The Garden District (we suggest a progressive):
Gris Gris: This is our new hero. Period. The chef and his wife have a great, energetic central bar/cooking station, and a bar and seating upstairs.
Coquette: Who can argue with fried chicken and Champagne?
La Petite Grocery: A historic market-gone-restaurant with fabulous food.
Shaya: Modern Israeli, and wonderful.
Saba: New, competing modern Israeli down the street from the original Shaya chef. Just go to both.
The Vintage: New all-day dining—they’re open until “the party stops,” so it’s a good nigh-ender.
Juan’s Flying Burrito (a few locations): Actually a great palette cleanser, with fantastic margaritas and mezcaland old-school Mexican.
A little further afield—spring for an Uber:
Bacchanal Wine: Great wine and small plates with a fantastic outdoor space. This is a fun spot when it’s warm because it feels like your own backyard where you buy your wine inside and head outside to enjoy.
Bywater American Bistro: New and hot (if you don’t mind the Uber ride to the Bywater, and the chef recently won a Beard at also-great Compére Lapin), with can’t-beat open-kitchen-theater surrounded by a bar.