Join our writer, Kelsy Chauvin, as she revisits and takes us on a personal tour of one of her favorite cities in the world, New Orleans, the Crescent City.
Since 1835, the St. Charles Streetcar has clattered along one of the most magnificent boulevards on earth. Traveling from the French Quarter, its vintage cars round the newly renamed Harmony Circle and roll onto St. Charles Avenue, and on through the Garden District into Uptown. Hotels and touristed restaurants on the route become less-frequent sights, giving way to rows of stately New Orleans houses under a canopy of centuries-old live oak trees. After passing Tulane University and Audubon Park, the streetcar turns onto Carrollton Avenue for its last mile, concluding a journey along the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world, the authentic way, without air conditioning (the only New Orleans streetcar line without it).
As a Louisiana native, the streetcar still feels magical. Growing up, my parents often brought me to New Orleans from our hometown of Morgan City, usually to visit Audubon Zoo (6500 Magazine St. Tel: 504-861-2537. audubonnatureinstitute.org) and eat at the Camellia Grill (626 S. Carrollton Ave. Tel: 504-309-2679. camelliagrillnola.com), a beloved Uptown diner that remains suspended in time. We would ride the St. Charles Streetcar and I’d soak up the grand sights and sensations.
It’s emotional for me even to conjure these memories, now three decades later. But that’s OK, because New Orleans is an emotional town, and I’m thankful for the passion it has instilled in me. When I found myself able to relocate with my spouse to New Orleans for half a year (a silver lining of pandemic remote-work) my heart led me right back to the neighborhood where sweet childhood memories are rooted. This was a chance for me to discover New Orleans all over again, only as a resident, all grown up. Unlike my frequent-but-brief visits, here was a chance to dive deeper, to meet more people, to visit the long list of places that I always meant to check out.
In no time at all, my NOLA to-do list multiplied. Like a true global cultural capital, this city demands choices: which restaurant, which music venue, which bar, which exhibition? During my stay I made a dent in many of the best options, checked out many new spots, and added still more for future trips.
But some of my best times during these many months were when no plans were made at all. New Orleans is not a go-go-go place, so the New Yorker that I am now had to take a break. In time, my pace adapted to the beat of the Big Easy.
When I talk about New Orleans, which is often, I usually hear only two very revealing responses: “I love it there!” or “I’ve never been.” No matter your level of familiarity, take a tour. Tours here cover a lot of ground in one shot and uncover crazy layers of this 300-year-old city.
With Unique NOLA Tours (Tel: 504-777-7769. uniquenola.com), I recommend the Lewd Spirits Tour to catch up on “naughty and twisted” French Quarter stories in and around some legendary bars. Unique NOLA does less spooky tours, too, as does New Orleans Ghost Adventures (Tel: 504-475-5214. neworleansghostadventurestour.com), which offers quite an insightful Garden District walkabout, passing famous movie locations and marvelous Old-South mansions. One of the most fascinating and oddly educational tours I took, however, was the “5-in-1 Cemetery Tour” by Tour Orleans (Tel: 504-332-9830. tourorleans.com), where I learned that grave markers and adornments tell detailed stories, beyond the people they entomb.
Tours also help you understand the city layout, which begins, as it did in 1718, with the French Quarter. Hugging the Mississippi River like a crescent, the Quarter is the historic heart of town and home to iconic streets, famous restaurants, and landmarks like St. Louis Cathedral and the French Market. Personally, I love Bourbon Street and it’s wild, loud, boozy essence, because it’s always percolating with a diverse global crowd of revelers, making for extraordinary people-watching.
Bourbon Street is where you’ll find lively LGBTQ+ bars like Café Lafitte in Exile (901 Bourbon St. Tel. 504-522-8397. lafittes.com) and Bourbon Pub & Parade (801 Bourbon St. Tel: 504-529-2107. bourbonpub.com). There are plenty more dotting the Quarter, too, including Good Friends (740 Dauphine St. Tel. 504-566-7191. goodfriendsbar.com) and others on St. Ann St.
I love Bourbon Street and it’s wild, loud, boozy essence, because it’s always percolating with a diverse global crowd of revelers, making for extraordinary people-watching.
Sip more on Rampart Street at GrandPre’s (834 N. Rampart St. Tel: 504-267-3615), and over at clubs like Golden Lantern (1239 Royal St. Tel: 504-529-2860. thegoldenlanternneworleans.com) and One Eyed Jack’s (1104 Decatur St. Tel: 504-569-8361. oneeyedjacks.net), which host everything from burlesque and drag shows, to Southern Decadence (southerndecadence.net) and NOLA Pride (neworleanspride.org) soirees, to the monthly frisky fun of GrrlSpot (linkr.bio/Grrlspot), the queer women’s pop-up party.
For more LGBTQ+ enclaves and lots of friendly locals, head east from the Quarter to the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. Flirting is a way of life in New Orleans, as you may notice at spots like Big Daddy’s (2513 Royal St. Tel: 504-948-6288) and leather-loving Phoenix Bar (941 Elysian Fields Ave. Tel: 504-945-9264. phoenixbarnola.com). Things get more posh at the Country Club (634 Louisa St. Tel: 504-945-0742. thecountryclubneworleans.com), a restaurant and upscale bar, with weekend drag brunches and a pay-per-day pool out back.
Don’t miss a bit of time on Frenchmen Street, which has several good live-music venues, cafés, and restaurants. It’s also home of the charming Frenchmen Hotel (417 Frenchmen St. Tel: 504-688-2900. thefrenchmenhotel.com), occupying a series of former Creole cottages, now suavely redesigned with 27 unique guestrooms, plus a rooftop bar and music hall. It also has an excellent boutique inside where you can buy cool local souvenirs and accessories.
For an uncommon dining experience in the Marigny, reserve a table at the Elysian Bar (2317 Burgundy St. Tel: 504-356-6769. theelysianbar.com), part of the Hotel Peter and Paul that occupies a revamped former Catholic church and school. The French-inspired dinner and brunch menus are short but excellent, as are the cocktails.
Back in the Quarter, one of my new favorite restaurants is Saint John (1117 Decatur St. Tel: 504-581-8120. saintjohnnola.com), serving “haute Creole cuisine” that reworks delicious comfort food with the freshest, and sometimes surprising, local ingredients. Also beyond the expected is Palm & Pine (308 N. Rampart. Tel: 504-814-6200. palmandpinenola.com), dishing Southern and Caribbean flavors with seasonal flair.
For enduring flavors of classic Cajun seafood-forward dinner and indulgent weekend brunch, visit Red Fish Grill (115 Bourbon St. Tel: 504-598-1200. redfishgrill.com), one of the top spots for BBQ oysters and fresh catches. Miss River (2 Canal St. Tel: 504-434-5100. fourseasons.com/neworleans/dining/restaurants/miss-river), located inside the towering new Four Seasons New Orleans, celebrates and elevates shrimp, blue crab, snapper, and other local ingredient, or you can opt for caviar service and impeccable cocktails. (Side note: The Spa at the Four Seasons is one of the best new ways to pamper yourself in New Orleans.)
During my culture quest in New Orleans, I rediscovered the majestic New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins Diboll Cir. Tel: 504-658-4100. noma.org) inside City Park, just a simple Canal St. streetcar ride from the Quarter. Its permanent and temporary exhibits are always worth a visit, as is the big, fantastic (and free) Bestoff Sculpture Garden, which I now consider a must for any NOLA visitor.
To dive deeper into local arts, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp St.Tel: 504-539-9650. ogdenmuseum.org) is a Warehouse Arts District delight. It feels both compact and expansive, intimate and worldly. I also admit to indulging in what may seem touristic, but is actually whimsically worthwhile: Mardi GrasWorld (1380 Port of New Orleans Pl. Tel: 504-361-7821. mardigrasworld.com), a working warehouse where Mardi Gras floats are made on site and stored. It’s one of the most colorful spots for photography outside of an actual parade.
There is no New Orleans without music, but the “birthplace of jazz” has few museums celebrating it, instead, the whole city is like a living institution for every form of music.
That’s one reason why 2022 lit up the city with excitement for the return of spring’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (nojazzfest.com). After a two-year pandemic pause, Jazz Fest was a major highlight of my temporary NOLA residency, surpassing all expectations for musical bliss across a dozen stages, each graced by local and global performers. Mark your calendar for the next one, April 29-May 8, 2023.
In this town, you can catch live music any place, any time, be it on the street, over brunch, at a cabaret, in a tiny club, or in a giant stadium. One of the all-time best venues is Tipitina’s (501 Napoleon Ave. Tel: 504-895-8477. tipitinas.com), just beyond the Lower Garden District. Want to know who’s played this warehouse-style dive? Pretty much every important blues and rock artist from the past 45 years, including: Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Lenny Kravitz, Galactic, Patti Smith, Willie Nelson, the Meters, and local legends like Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers, and so many more. It’s the kind of place you can walk in any night and catch a new or familiar artist that may become your next musical crush.
A similarly stellar musical venue doubles as a bowling alley. (Why bowling? Because in New Orleans anything can happen.) Head uptown (perhaps aboard the St. Charles Streetcar) to Rock‘n’Bowl (3016 S. Carrollton Ave. Tel: 504-861-1700. rocknbowl.com/new-orleans), to catch real dance-worthy bands playing a variety of sounds with a focus on zydeco and “swamp pop.”
While you’re in the neighborhood, get a drink and some gumbo at Ye Olde College Inn (3000 S. Carrollton Ave. Tel: 504-866-3683. yeoldecollegeinn.com), or plan ahead for daring and delicious Cajun fare at eclectic Jacques-Imo’s (8324 Oak St. Tel: 504-861-0886. jacques-imos.com)
During the six months I was here, I added many experiences to my New Orleans education. One of my brightest discoveries was re-learning that the tempo, while slower than most places, is a way of life. It’s a way to let the stress that accumulates in other cities melt away in the heat, so you can embrace the everyday flavors and joys of life. Just like the streetcar that presses on, strictly forward-looking, the New Orleans spirit is the way to let the good times roll.