“How you doin’, baby?” asks a waitress, and immediately, hopelessly, you’re wheels-up in love with New Orleans. It’s not just her words; it’s the lilt of them. The “how you doin’” delivered in praline-sweet octaves. Her “baby,” a tuck-you-in endearment, offered to a total stranger.
New Orleans! The look of the place beats the heart and widens the eye. What other American city can appear so timeless yet ever changing? New bike lanes and routes like the Lafitte Greenway—a 2.6-mile-long bike route from the French Quarter to City Park—appear. New restaurants and hotels fling open their doors on a regular basis. Expanding streetcar lines push out from Canal Street, the city’s sassy spine, into new 19th-century neighborhoods filling with 21st-century college grads. The result: an exuberant blur of banana fronds, brass bands, and bounce fueled by rising optimism and, maybe, a Sazerac or two.
The pace—the city’s Wednesdays are as busy as Fridays in other towns—will build an appetite. Luckily, no city loves food quite like New Orleans. It’s got fresh oysters—platters of them, brined from the Gulf, delivered every morning. Try the grilled drum or a bowl of Vietnamese pho. Or the alligator cheesecake. Or the shrimp and grits. Eat it all. You'll dance it off. No place can shimmy like New Orleans, either. Hear that? It’s a trumpet note hovering in the heavy, sultry air. There it is again. Is it a second line? Jam session? Party? It don’t matter, baby. It’s New Orleans, and it beckons. Here, an itinerary to discover its best of days:
You've landed. While Bourbon Street presses its Huge Ass Beers and Hurricanes on thirsty hordes, sample something more stimulating in the galleries of the Historic New Orleans Collection, with its artifacts of city history, or pay a call at the Cabildo Museum. The Presbytère (reopening in May) and the Louisiana State Museum tell the respective stories of Hurricane Katrina and Carnival in an equally colorful and absorbing manner.
Nab yourself a "go cup" on Esplanade Avenue. A Neptune’s Monsoon at Port of Call is hard to beat for watching twilight drip through live oaks on the neutral ground (the local term for a street median). Wander the Quarter past the Old Ursuline Convent toward St. Louis Cathedral and dog-leg up to Killer Poboys for a reimagined take on a New Orleans classic.
Away from the Quarter, the beat goes on at the Candlelight Lounge in the Tremé, an ancient neighborhood long associated with African Americans. You can usually catch a local New Orleans band jamming on Sundays for a $10 cover, but you can enjoy free red beans and rice. That’s called lagniappe, a French-Spanish word for “a little something extra.”
Grab some beignets at Café du Monde (they’re up 24 hours a day even if you’re not), find a bike and head downriver to Crescent Park; the city’s newest park is stretched out like a strand of green Mardi Gras beads along 1.4 miles of the Mississippi River. The views of city and river are well worth the trip, as is the park's locale: the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater are two neighborhoods dense with Creole cottages and bearded hipsters and are just right for a wander.
Need a break? Grab a freshly squeezed juice at Satsuma, a local coffeehouse and juicer, and pedal up Esplanade Avenue, past the Edgar Degas House, to Bayou St. John and into City Park for a tour of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. The park, with its trails and canopy of oak trees, is a little-known oasis in a part of the city many tourists never find. Reward your bicycling with more beignets and chicory coffee at Morning Call, a 24/7 outpost of a coffee stand that dates back more than 145 years in the park’s Casino Building.
Over the past few years, a burgeoning countercultural restaurant scene has parked itself along St. Claude Avenue, with prices as laid-back as most of the eateries. Try Arabella for some no-frills pasta.
Wander over to Frenchmen Street for its sizzling music scene at clubs like Three Muses and the Spotted Cat. There’s even the Frenchmen Art Market that’s open until 1 a.m. Locals consider these exuberant Marigny blocks to be the heir to old Bourbon Street. It’s a scene, but without “meanderthals,” the local term for rude and overly intoxicated tourists.
Muster at the National WWII Museum. Its six-acre Warehouse District campus tells the story of the United States’ involvement in the 20th century’s most historic event. The museum’s newest exhibits—“Road to Berlin” and “Road to Tokyo”—are the must-dos here. Watch the movie experience Beyond All Boundaries beforehand. Narrated by Tom Hanks, the movie sets the stage for the interactive galleries that document the United States’ biggest battles. Look and linger—it's fascinating.
Catch a ride Uptown on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar to Jackson Avenue and wander the Garden District, a historic neighborhood that is home to big white mansions and elegant “cottages” dating from the 19th century, when King Cotton and Queen Victoria ruled. The streets seem unruffled by time. (Psssst! Beyoncé’s house is on Harmony Street.) Following your ramble, reward yourself with chocolate, macaroons, or maybe a gelato at Sucré, a NOLA-based confectioner.
Belly up to crafted cocktails at French 75, the bar adjoining the famed Arnaud’s Restaurant, open since 1918. In New Orleans, bartenders are celebrities, and you’re in luck if Chris Hannah is behind the counter rattling shakers and swizzling sticks. The bar has been a semifinalist for the James Beard Outstanding Bar Program. Spirited, indeed.
Strike out for the Joint, a rollicking Bywater bar and BBQ restaurant. Their motto, “Always Smokin’,” refers to both the plates of ribs and brisket and the zesty atmosphere, which has patrons spilling out onto the street to enjoy the weather and conversation.
Start strong at District Donuts with Italian coffee, breakfast sliders, and homemade donuts in the Lower Garden District. Then it’s a lap up and down the colonnaded shops on lower Magazine Street between Felicity and Jackson. Appartique is a gorgeous antique store filled with intriguing European and American artifacts. Next door, Bella Umbrella stocks bumbershoots for the city’s subtropical rains. Or you might want to purchase one of the bespoke, NOLA-made backpacks at Tchoup Industries to carry those distinctive blue-and-white New Orleans street tiles embedded in sidewalk corners (a tradition dating from the late 19th century) and sold at Derby Pottery.
Continue to wander along Magazine Street uptown and peruse the galleries and boutiques that do so much to define New Orleans style. There’s Perlis with their iconic crawfish-logo polo shirts, and the streetcar ties, mosquito-pattern belts, and other only-in-Louisiana accessories at NOLA Couture. Find witty tees at Dirty Coast, and jewelry at Mignon Faget—the beloved “Tiffany’s of the bayou.” Should the heavens unleash one of New Orleans’ short-lived but downspout-rattling showers, you’ll see the Uptown ladies don white shrimp boots.
Take in an early dinner of coastal Southern small plates at Cavan, an elegant and low-key restaurant that is an example of the new classic eateries popping up all over town. Note: Look for the “New Orleans pivot,” the head twist locals give to scan the tables for eavesdroppers before launching into the latest round gossip. Zip back to the hotel (or not) before heading over to Rock ’n’ Bowl in Mid-City. Where else you can bowl a game with a real Zydeco band providing the musical score to your strikes?
Music and ninepins are followed by live bands when you stroll into the Maple Leaf Bar in the Oak Street Corridor off Carrollton Avenue. A legendary watering hole that inspires giddy devotion among its fans, the Maple Leaf is a classic way to end an evening in New Orleans on high notes and low ones, with a locally crafted pint, a 3 a.m. closing time, a rambunctious dance floor, and the pounding funk and brass that New Orleans puts out like no other. If that’s not your thing, try grabbing tea at Z’otz—a friendly, funky coffeehouse. It’s open until 1 a.m.
Bid farewell to New Orleans with—what else?—food. Screw the calories at the recently opened, Chef John Besh-run Willa Jean and tuck a loaf of fresh bread or muffins from this downtown bakery into your carry-on. Then dash to the Quarter one last time to buy a mask at Maskarade or a wig at Fifi Mahony’s because you’re absolutely, surely coming back for Mardi Gras.