Home » The Irresistible Appeal of New Orleans

The Irresistible Appeal of New Orleans

by Mark Chesnut
Key Lime Pie (Photo by Tatiana Goskova)

Our city has always celebrated our culture throughout the year, as well as in June for Pride.

Celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Photo by Drazen Zigic)

Southern hospitality is legendary, but it hasn’t always included people of different orientations and identities.

Now, New Orleans, which has long been a favored destination for queer travelers, is making it easier to find LGBTQ+-friendly places, as a newly refreshed campaign picks up on previous efforts to make the Big Easy even more welcoming.

In June 2023, New Orleans & Company (neworleans.com), the city’s tourism office, partnered with the New Orleans LGBTQ Hospitality Alliance to relaunch its “Everyone’s Welcome Here” campaign, which highlights local businesses that have taken a pledge to welcome LGBTQ+ people of all backgrounds. Rainbow flag stickers now grace the windows of many businesses, and a dedicated section on the city’s tourism website (neworleans.com/welcoming) lists all those who’ve taken a pledge, including hotels like Harrah’s New Orleans Casino, Kimpton Hotel Fontenot, and restaurants like Bacchanal and Toup’s Meatery, to name a few. In addition, the tourism site maintains a robust listing of LGBTQ+-owned businesses around the city.

We feel that it’s important to underscore the fact that New Orleans has always been a welcoming city,” said Mark Romig, chief marketing officer at New Orleans & Company. “Bottom line, it’s the right thing to do.”

As if any seasoned LGBTQ+ traveler didn’t already know about the Big Easy’s irresistible appeal. I’ve been to New Orleans many times, and always loved its laidback vibe, great food, friendly people, and fascinating culture. But it wasn’t until my most recent visit that I truly began to understand the destination’s LGBTQ+ history. The purpose of my visit was to speak at two noteworthy literary festivals: the Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival (tennesseewilliams.net) and the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival (sasfest.org). I ended up learning a lot about the city, thanks to the festivals’ diverse array of programming, which every year includes readings, live theatrical performances, and LGBTQ+ history walking tours. Saints and Sinners is an LGBTQ+ literary festival, after all, and it’s well worth attending for anyone interested in queer culture and creativity.

I think the biggest evolution within the community in recent years has been how more open and welcoming the community as a whole has become,” said Paul J. Willis, executive director of both festivals. “The rise in representation in all forms of art (literary, film, television) has made young queer kids feel less alone and more empowered in exploring who they are and in how they present themselves to the world. This has resulted in the pushback that we are seeing now, with the book banning’s and the attacks on freedom of expression, and we have to be vigilant to protect the rights we’ve fought so hard for…but higher percentages than ever approve of same-sex marriage and queer rights.”

French Quarter Architecture (Photo by Mark Chesnut)

French Quarter Architecture (Photo by Mark Chesnut)

On this trip, I discovered one of the best ways to explore the Big Easy’s LGBTQ+ history: a walking tour led by Frank Perez, a local expert who’s written multiple books about the history of the French Quarter and also goes by the very appropriate name of French Quarter Frank (frenchquarterfrank.com). He offers a variety of tours, including the Rainbow Fleur de Lis Walking Tour, which he describes as a “leisurely sashay” through the city’s LGBTQ+ history. I learned a lot about the city’s queer past, including the Upstairs Lounge fire, an arson attack that ripped through one of the city’s gay bars in 1973, killing 32 people (in 2023, the city commemorated the 50th anniversary with a memorial service and various panel discussions).

Perez, by the way, credits gay men for playing a big role in the 20th-century efforts to preserve the French Quarter. “You might not have a French quarter today if it weren’t for gay men 100 years ago,” he said during our walk.

On another interesting outing, I joined actor and tour guide Marcus Shacknow (instagram.com/ms.marcusaustin__) for a Tennessee Williams walking tour that highlighted the writer’s life in the Big Easy as well as his illustrious love life. Williams, a resident of the city for many years, didn’t try too hard to hide his homosexual identity, and he found much inspiration in the Big Easy for some of his most celebrated works, including A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Marcus Shacknow, Tour Guide (Photo by DepartureLevel.com)

Marcus Shacknow, Tour Guide (Photo by DepartureLevel.com)

It shouldn’t be surprising that this picturesque city on the Mississippi River has a long history of diversity and acceptance, according to Willis. “New Orleans has always been a port city, with a wild waterfront and a steady stream of transients,” he explained. “The city is also unique among North American cities for having belonged to several different European powers before becoming American. Port cities tend to attract outsiders and artists. Outsiders and artists tend to be queer or queer-friendly. There has always been an active queer underground in New Orleans throughout its history. Many of the Storyville houses of ill repute also employed young men because there was a demand for it. Cafe Lafitte in Exile is the longest-operating gay bar in the country. There were others too, long before Stonewall. Southern queers escaped to New Orleans for decades, and still do.

Tony Leggio, a sales executive for a destination management company called Signature Events (signature-dmc.com) who is also board president of NOAGE (New Orleans Advocates of GLBT+ Elders) and serves on the board of Halloween New Orleans, is yet another expert on local LGBTQ+ life in the city. “I have lived in New Orleans my entire life, so fifty-plus years; a girl never shares her true age,” he said. “The scene has changed in many ways over the last few years. Our city may have not been as accepting of the LGBTQ+ lifestyle in the past, but I believe we have moved from being a marginalized community living on the fringe to a strong and vibrant one that makes a significant cultural and economic impact on the city. We have found our voice and our power.”

Like Willis, Leggio credits the city’s centuries-old cultural influences as creating a more welcoming atmosphere for diversity. “The European and African American cultures helped create the architecture, music, and cuisine that our city is known for,” he noted. “And I have always believed that artistic people are drawn to each other. We are also very fortunate to have had many famous authors, both gay and straight, find literary inspiration here, such as Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Sherwood Anderson, Anne Rice, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And our music scene is outstanding. Every genre of music is represented, from jazz to bounce. We are considered the birthplace of jazz.”

New Orleans hosts several large-scale annual events that attract LGBTQ+ travelers. “Our city has always celebrated our culture throughout the year, as well as in June for Pride,” said Leggio. “Mardi Gras, Halloween, Easter, and Southern Decadence are huge gay draws to the city, and the crowds are just getting bigger.

Indeed, travelers can plan their calendars around a number of great happenings, including Southern Decadence (southerndecadence.net), a Labor Day weekend celebration that dates to 1972 and features parties, contests, concerts and a parade, and Halloween New Orleans (halloweenneworleans.com), a long-running gay fundraising and party weekend.

Southern Decadence (Photo by Timothy Guarderas)

Southern Decadence (Photo by Timothy Guarderas)

It would be impossible to discuss events in New Orleans, of course, without also mentioning Mardi Gras (neworleans.com/events), the pre-Lenten carnival festival that includes a strong queer component, including multiple LGBTQ+ balls and carnival krewes (social organizations that participate in the festivities).

Romig notes how many of the city’s LGBTQ+ most popular social traditions and events go back decades, to an era when people couldn’t be as open as today. “Initially, people celebrated but they weren’t able to celebrate in public,” he said. “As the climate changed into the 1970s, where gay activism began to take hold, there was more of a sense of ‘we need to be who we are and be proud of it,’ and New Orleans provided the environment for that to happen. The longest-running gay event is called the Fat Monday Luncheon (fatmondayluncheon.com) and that kicked off in 1949, and the oldest gay social organization, the Steamboat Club (steamboatclub.org), was launched in 1953.”

Even if you can’t make it to New Orleans for one of its larger celebrations, you’ll still find lots of LGBTQ+ life every day of the year. The French Quarter is home to the largest concentration of LGBTQ+ and -friendly bars, including Café Lafitte in Exile, which dates to 1933 and is billed as the oldest bar in the United States (Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote used to imbibe there), and Crossing, a mildly “steam punk” bar with a food menu. For dancing into the wee hours, top choices include Bourbon Pub Parade, a large bar and dance club that get especially crowded on weekends and during holidays and special events.

New Orleans is home to an always-evolving array of noteworthy attractions. One of the newest, Vue Orleans, provides a wonderful introduction to some of the city’s oldest traditions as well as a stunning, bird’s-eye view of the city and the Mississippi River. The $30 million attraction, located on multiple floors of the Four Seasons tower, features high-tech, interactive exhibits about the region’s culture as well as an observation deck that offers a 360-degree view.

Walking tours, like the LGBTQ+ outings mentioned earlier, are another great way to learn about the destination. I especially enjoyed a guided architecture tour of the Marigny, one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. The fascinating tour, which is the newest offering from NOLA Tours (nolatours.com), offered insight into the area’s multicultural, multiracial background, as well as the contributions of local LGBTQ+ residents. The company also offers walking tours of the French Quarter and the Garden District, highlighting the history and architectural styles that grace those much-visited neighborhoods.

Marigny architecture tour with NOLA Tours (Photo by DepartureLevel.com)

Nature fans may also want to plan a visit to the Audubon Nature Institute’s Audubon Aquarium, which recently completed a renovation that includes a new insectarium. The National WWII Museum, meanwhile, is set to open its final permanent exhibit hall, the Liberation Pavilion, in November 2023; the new exhibit will explore the end of World War II and the long-ranging effects of the Holocaust and the war.

Foodie’s meanwhile, should consider a visit to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, which offers cooking classes that unveil the secrets of both Cajun and Creole cuisine. The facility is also home to the Museum of the American Cocktail, which showcases the evolution of iconic alcoholic beverages.

Louisiana’s culinary traditions blend with global flavors in enticing ways in New Orleans. The city’s second-oldest restaurant, Tujague’s, which dates to 1856, recently moved to a new location in the French Quarter and continues to wow patrons with its indulgent menu, which has attracted many presidents, including Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower. We could understand the attraction after savoring mouthwatering dishes including gulf shrimp remoulade and barbecue shrimp ribeye. This is a place to visit when you really want to treat yourself.

Tujagues Drag Brunch (Photo by Tujagues)

Tujagues Drag Brunch (Photo by Tujagues)

Among the newest restaurants in the city, meanwhile, is Mister Mao, a self-described “tropical roadhouse” that proudly features an “inauthentic” and always-changing menu that may include specialties like Cajun lechon pork belly and smoked-then-fried milkfish. Meat lovers, meanwhile, may want to make reservations at Toups’ Meatery, which, as the name suggests, is heavily focused on meats, with Cajun flair.

Culinary creativity is also in focus at many Big Easy hotels. During my most recent visit, my husband and I checked into one of the city’s newest hotspots: Virgin Hotels New Orleans. The 238-room property, located near the borderline of the Central Business District and the Warehouse District, exudes the playfully chic attitude you expect from the Virgin brand, with lots of great photo opportunities. We absolutely adored our well designed guest room (which is called a “chamber” in Virgin parlance); it had a dressing room that made me feel like a movie star (which is not easy at my age). We also loved the beautiful rooftop pool club and the Commons Club, a fabulous restaurant and bar with outstanding cuisine and a Bottomless Bubbles Brunch that makes it especially popular on weekends.

Hotel Monteleone Lobby (Photo by DepartureLevel.com)

Hotel Monteleone Lobby (Photo by DepartureLevel.com)

We shifted from young starlet to storied grande dame with our next move, to the stately Hotel Monteleone, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts that has been presiding over the French Quarter since 1886. The property’s lovely architectural style evokes the city’s past, while recent renovations have made the guestrooms especially attractive and up to date, with a pleasing color palate and lots of amenities. The hotel is home to a variety of wonderful features, including the Carousel Bar and Lounge, where an actual, spinning carousel provides an unforgettable place to have a drink, and a lovely rooftop pool that provides a peaceful oasis from the hustle and bustle below. If you’re looking for classic style and a central location in the French Quarter, this is one of the top options.

During our recent visit, we also enjoyed a delicious lunch at One11 Hotel, which was billed as the first new hotel to open in the French Quarter when it opened its doors in 2020. The property, set in 19thcentury sugar refinery, is home to Batture Bistro Bar, where I savored delicious boudin (sausage and rice) egg rolls with Cajun aioli.

One 11 Hotel Rooftop view (Photo by One11)

One 11 Hotel Rooftop view (Photo by One11)

The Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, another one of the city’s newer properties, also offers unique culinary experiences, including jazz brunches and dinners co-hosted by a local art gallery. And the Kimpton Hotel Fontenot recently debuted a new French brasserie called King, as part of its expansion into a historic building adjacent to the original property.

Also in growth mode is Harrah’s New Orleans, which will change its identify in 2024 after a multimillion-dollar revamp to be reborn as Caesars New Orleans. The relaunch includes the construction of a new guestroom tower and the debut of Nobu Hotel New Orleans, part of the upscale hospitality brand partially backed by Robert DeNiro.

No matter how many times I’ve visited the Big Easy, there are always new, irresistible reason to return.

New Orléans Resources

New Orleans & Co., 2020 St. Charles Avenue. Tel. 800-672-6124. neworleans.com

Four Seasons Hotel New Orleans, 2 Canal Street. Tel: 504-434-5100. fourseasons.com/neworleans/

Four Seasons New Orleans (Photo by Four Seasons)

Four Seasons New Orleans (Photo by Four Seasons)

Harrah’s New Orleans, 228 Poydras Street. Tel: 800-427-7247. caesars.com/harrahs-new-orleans

Kimpton Hotel Fontenot, 501 Tchoupitoulas Street. Tel: 504-571-1818. hotelfontenot.com

One11 Hotel, 111 Iberville Street. Tel: 855-652-0141. one11hotel.com

Virgin Hotels New Orleans, 550 Baronne Street. Tel: 504-603-8000. virginhotels.com/new-orleans

Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal Street. Tel: 504-523-3341. hotelmonteleone.com

Audubon Nature Institute, 6500 Magazine Street. Tel: 504-861-2537. audubonnatureinstitute.org

National World War II Museum, 945 Magazine St. Tel: 504-528-1944. nationalww2museum.org

NOLA Tours. Tel: 504-355-1213. nolatours.com

Southern Food and Beverage Museum, 1504 Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Tel: 504-569-0405. southernfood.org

Vue Orleans, 2 Canal Street, Tel: 504-285-3600. vueorleans.com

Bourbon Pub Parade, 801 Bourbon Street. Tel: 504-529-2107. bourbonpub.com

Crossing, 439 Dauphine Street. Tel: 504-523-4517. facebook.com/CrossingNOLA

Good Friends, 740 Dauphine Street. Tel: 504-566-7191. goodfriendsbar.com

Café Lafitte in Exile, 901 Bourbon Street. Tel: 504-522-8397. lafittes.com

Oz, 800 Bourbon Street. Tel: 504-593-9491. ozneworleans.com

Clover Grill, 900 Bourbon St. Tel: 504-598-1010. clovergrill.com

Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Avenue, Tel: 504-899-8221. commanderspalace.com

Bread Pudding at Gris Gris (Photo by Mark Chesnut)

Bread Pudding at Gris Gris (Photo by Mark Chesnut)

Gris Gris, 1800 Magazine St. Tel: 504-272-0241. grisgrisnola.com

Mr. Mao, 4501 Tchoupitoulas Street. Tel: 504-345-2056. mistermaonola.com

Toups’ Meatery, 845 N. Carrollton Avenue. Tel. 504-252-4999. toupsmeatery.com

Tujague’s, 429 Decatur Street. Tel. 504-525-8676. tujaguesrestaurant.com

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