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A brass band plays at a bar in the Bywater neighborhood of New Orleans. (Photograph by Tyrone Turner, Getty Images)

NOLA Like a Local

“Eat Local” may be a national trend, but in steamy, dreamy New Orleans the focus is on local living. The Crescent City is fiercely devoted to its homegrown traditions–be they culinary, musical, cultural, or otherwise. Though some of our habits and haunts–like gumbo, go-cups, and the French Quarter–are famous the world over, others remain a bit more elusive to visitors. Here are just a few of them. 

In a city blessed with a pantheon of musical deities, the trumpeter Kermit Ruffins is a jazz Zeus. A son of the city’s famed Ninth Ward, Ruffins plays around town on a regular basis. Two places to catch him and his band the BBQ Swingers are at Mother-In-Law Lounge and Saturdays at the Little Gem Saloon.

New Orleanians treat their watering holes like wedding receptions. No one stays seated at their own table very long and everybody gossips about who’s walking through the door, and with whom.

To experience my favorite people-watching scene for yourself, head to The Delachaise in Uptown. The fashionable wine bar’s outdoor patio serves as the prow of a narrow, elongated building wedged in beside a cut-rate gas station on St. Charles Avenue. Come for a nightcap. You’ll find Pinot noir, debutantes, and a bargain on unleaded.

It’s always been a mystery to me why New Orleans’s street names are cemented into sidewalks. The drama unfolding at eye-level is far too interesting for folks to be staring at their feet, but the trademark blue-and-yellow tiles are one of the city’s undisputed charms. Visitors can pick up replica tiles to take home with them at Derby Pottery, a locally owned Magazine Street store that sells ceramics inspired by NOLA’s unique architectural elements–from crowns to fleur de lis.

When it comes to sartorial icons, we prefer crawfish on our polo shirts, not alligators (though we have those, too). Visit Perlis, a New Orleans staple, for the latest in “mudbug” fashions. Guys can birddog over to Pelican Coast Clothing Company for (mostly) locally made shirts, ties, and other apparel.

Magazine Street may offer some of the best shopping in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean the storied thoroughfare is all boutiques and antiques. There are plenty of places to make a beeline for come dinnertime. Consider La Petit Grocery–a smart Uptown bistro where locals take their favorite out-of-town guests to feast on Justin Devillier’s shellfish stew, paneed rabbit, and–a personal favorite–the LPG cheeseburger. Don’t know a soul in town? Head to the bar to order your meal–and meet a friend, guaranteed, before you finish your first Sazerac.

Bicycling is evolving in New Orleans. With its kitchen-counter flat topography the city should be right up there with Copenhagen as a bike-friendly burg. Not yet, however. We’ve got a ways to go to before we’re considered a pedaler’s paradise, but pump down our streets and you’ll be seeing New Orleans in a whole other way.

Pick up a favorite route at the Old U.S. Mint and head down Esplanade Avenue, past the Degas House and ending at City Park. If hunger pangs strike, hit up nearby Liuzza’s by the Track for a shrimp po’ boy. Should you need to rent a set of wheels, two outfits to know about are Bicycle Michael’s in the Faubourg Marigny and A Musing Bikes in the LGD.

Hipsters happen. Since Katrina, the NOLA neighborhood known as the Bywater has become a nesting ground for the twentysomething tattoo-geoise. To see them in action try Sui Generis for a weekend brunch. The name and décor may be sheer whimsy, but the food is boots-on-the-ground filling. Order the burritos or the Israeli shakshuka, a tomato-based dish featuring poached eggs and feta.

If you’re looking for a late-night trender bender, cruise St. Claude Avenue and drop by the AllWays Lounge, a performance space (with a liquor license) that plays host to edgy cabaret on a regular basis.

But don’t confine yourself to the “Sliver by the River”–the neighborhoods of New Orleans from the Bywater to Carrollton that hug the high ground along the Mississippi River. Make sure to take an afternoon to see the natural world while you’re in New Orleans.

A destination that’s cheaper than a swamp tour and boasts more wildlife than Bourbon Street is the Barataria Preserve, located in suburban Marrero, a 20-minute car-ride from the French Quarter. This little slice of outdoor heaven, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, has bayous, marshes, and native forests as well as excellent opportunities to see birds and, a perennial favorite, alligators.

While a well-constructed boardwalk provides ready access to most attractions, the more adventurous can hike the dirt trails or explore the wetlands by kayak or canoe.

Andrew Nelson is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @andrewnelson.