The French Quarter’s heart and soul is a must-see, boasting a statue of Andrew Jackson at its center and a ragtag collection of artists and fortune-tellers fringing its perimeter. It’s flanked by the filligreed Pontalba apartments, site of the Streetcar-Named-Desire-inspired “Stella!” shouting contest held during the annual Tennessee Williams Festival. At the Square’s crown are three 18th-century architectural glories: the Cabildo, a former city hall where the Louisiana Purchase was signed; St. Louis Cathedral; and the Presbytère. The onetime courthouse is now the flagship of the Louisiana State Museum, showcasing Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, a fascinating exhibit on the infamous storm.
Ogden Museum of Southern Art
The Ogden Museum of Southern Art and its collections of paintings, photography, and ceramics from below the Mason-Dixon Line is located in the city’s Warehouse District. The art neighborhood is a brisk stroll or short cab ride from the Quarter. Go late on a Thursday for the chance to enjoy Ogden After Hours, when local musicians play while patrons dance, drink, and mingle in the galleries. It’s the best regularly scheduled cocktail party in town. Afterward consider nearby Cochon or a Mano for dinner. The two highly regarded restaurants are walking distance from the museum.
Stretching from Bayou St. John to Lake Pontchartrain, the 1,300-acre New Orleans City Park is one of Orleans Parish’s two green jewels. (The other is Audubon Park in Uptown.) The entire city united to restore the park after Hurricane Katrina shredded its landscaping, downing many of its 600-year-old live oaks. The cleanup is transcendent, with new walking and biking paths, a great lawn for concerts, and a revival of beloved attractions, such as Story Land and Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, that have entertained children since 1906.
Many a visitor’s love affair with New Orleans begins after a bite of these crusty hero sandwiches made from fresh French bread slathered with mayonnaise and crammed with fried Gulf oysters or shrimp. Locals have their favorite shop, and hours are spent debating the relative merits of the po-boys at the Parkway Bakery & Tavern versus those at Domilise’s or of the Vietnamese version—called a bánh mì—at Pho Tau Bay on the Westbank. Can’t decide? Show up in November for New Orleans’s annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival. Started in 2007, the festival now draws 30 sandwich-makers and more than 40,000 celebrants in the city’s Carrollton neighborhood.
New Orleans gave the world libations such as the Sazerac, the Obituary Cocktail, and the Ramos gin fizz. It’s only good manners to return the generosity by patronizing any of the city’s myriad drinking establishments. But don’t drink alone. Go where the locals go, to places like Cure, an upscale cocktail bar set on reviving the mixologist’s art; French 75, part of Arnaud’s Restaurant in the Quarter, where famed concoctionist Chris Hannah stirs and shakes; or the Carousel to sip your “sazzie” (see Sazerac) at the Hotel Monteleone’s famed revolving bar.
As Bourbon Street has filled with frat-boy-style antics, the city’s music scene has shifted to Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny, a historic neighborhood within walking distance of the Quarter. Clubs like DBA, Snug Harbor, and The Blue Nile draw renowned jazz bands and solo performers, while restaurants such as The Three Muses and the Marigny Brasserie cater to the late-night crowds. The vibe is freewheeling and enthusiastic, with a lot of shoulder rubbing between locals and travelers. At evening’s end there are plenty of cabs to ferry you home after your night on the town.
Many visitors know of the Audubon Nature Institute’s Aquarium of the Americas, but worth a look a few blocks up Canal Street in the old U.S. Custom House is their Insectarium and butterfly garden—North America’s largest museum devoted to insects and their relatives. Visitors will learn how mosquitoes influenced New Orleans’s history and gawp at exotic critters like rare pink katydids or giant hissing cockroaches. Biggest hit with kids: Bug Appétit, a snack bar featuring insects as the main ingredient in dishes like Cajun spiced crickets, chocolate “chirp” cookies, or queen-ant-topped hors d’oeuvres.
Live oaks, wrought iron, pillars, and porticos are some of the aristocratic details of the Garden District, a neighborhood of spectacular 19th-century mansions built in styles ranging from Greek Revival to Gothic. Accessible from downtown via the St. Charles line streetcar, the Garden District is made for exploring. Take time to tour Lafayette Cemetery #1, quite possibly the most photogenic necropolis on the planet. Then make a reservation to dine at local favorite Commander’s Palace, the famous Brenna Family Restaurant located across the street from the tombs.
Royal Street, and its antique shops, may still tempt some locals into the Quarter. But it’s along Magazine Street—from the Lower Garden District to Audubon Park in Uptown—that New Orleanians prefer to do their window-shopping. Stores to explore include Derby Pottery for its handmade tiles and Crescent City water-meter clocks; Hemline for its local fashion sense and sensibility; Dirty Coast for localized, graphic T-shirts; Mignon Faget for unique, Louisiana-inspired jewelry; and Perlis, a preppy clothing store known for its crawfish-logo polo shirts.
The best tour in New Orleans is only $1.25—the price of an adult fare on the city’s two major streetcar lines. (The shorter Riverfront line takes passengers along the river to the Quarter’s French Market.) The green cars of the St. Charles line head Uptown, trundling along that avenue’s “neutral ground,” the name for the landscaped medians that divide the traffic on the city’s grandest streets. Red cars on the Canal Street line terminate at historic cemeteries like Metairie Cemetery or City Park, where the New Orleans Museum of Art celebrated its 100th birthday in 2011.