NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA
- When: 28 May – 5 June, 2021
- Where (accommodations): Ace Hotel New Orleans
- Transportation: JetBlue 3.5 hr flight from Boston, car rental from Alamo
- Sights/attractions: French Quarter, Bourbon Street, Royal Street, Manchac Swamp tour (NOLA kayak tours), Garden District, Oak Alley Plantation, Houmas House and Gardens, Frenchmen Street, Armstrong Park, St Louis Cemetery No. 1, Canal Place, Audubon Park, National WWII Museum
- Food/drinks: Compere Lapin, French Truck Coffee, The Antidote Juice, Superior Seafood, August, Cafe du Monde, Sylvain, Bamboula’s, Cafe Beignet, Mahony’s Po-Boys & Seafood, Drip Affogato Bar, Commander’s Palace, Atchafalaya, Lilette, The Vintage NOLA, Gris-Gris, Saint-Germain NOLA, Brennan’s
Memorial Day holiday means a long weekend, which typically would take us to Quebec, Canada. This year (as well 2020), Canada borders were still closed for visitors, so we looked for a place neither of us have been and always wanted to visit. With a direct 3.5hr flight from Boston, jazz (and food!) capital New Orleans was an easy decision to make. Since we are still working from home, we decided to make a work-ation out of it. We enjoyed a long weekend and then worked for the rest of the week from the hotel. In the future, we’ll probably get an AirBnb with at least a living room/bedroom or a patio- trying to have work meetings in one hotel room is far from ideal (I ended up taking a call from a bathroom- do not recommend it 🙂 ).
Ace Hotel is located in the Warehouse District- perfect for walking to any tourist attraction, yet in a quiet and clean part of town. It has a rooftop pool which is definitely a plus in a warm New Orleans weather.
Since we had only three full days to sightsee, we rented a car for that period of time and explored more than just the city proper.
GET CLOSE TO NATURE
We booked a tour with New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours to visit the nearby Manchec. When it comes to exploring the swamps, there are array of options- kayaks, airboats, flat-bottomed boats, hikes- you name it. We heard that some tours involve feeding the wildlife and we wanted no part of that.
We also did not want to sit on a boat with a bunch of people (COVID- 19 is still a real thing), so paddling around in a kayak felt like a good socially distanced option. It ended up being around 16 people group, two per kayak plus the guide. Some were very inexperienced, but nobody ended up swimming and all had a great time.
Manchac Mystic Wildlife Kayak Tour was two hours long (not counting the driving time to the starting point). We learned a lot about the area, fauna and flora, and had an excellent upper body workout too! Besides the calming nature views, my favorite part was getting close to the alligators!
They were either swimming or just chilling in the grass and were not scary at all. My least favorite part of the tour was the huge spider that got into the kayak and was running towards me with the worst intentions (I just could tell), before Sean saved my life and ended his/hers.
IMMERSE INTO HISTORY
There is so much culture and history in this area. Some of it is very painful (slavery in the south lasted until the Silver War, but some of the plantations operated until 1970s). We chose to visit two of the well known plantations- Oak Alley and Houmas House and Gardens. They are about 30 min apart and very different.
Oak Alley Plantation
Just as the name indicates, this historic plantation features an alley of southern oak trees leading up towards the main building.
The current mansion was built entirely by slave labor and the plantation was established to grow sugarcane. No pictures are allowed inside the Big House and the guided tour is approximately every 20 minutes.
At the slaves quarters there was a separate guide, who also was very informative- definitely worth listening to, rather than exploring it all on your own.
I am not sure if you can book the tickets in advance (maybe if you are going with a tour group), but we bought them right at the entrance. On a Sunday of a holiday weekend we planned to get there a bit earlier, but even around 11 am it was not overly busy or crowded. You do need about 2 hrs to explore it and by the time we were leaving it was significantly more visitors.
Houmas House and Gardens
Only around half an hour drive from the Oak Alley Plantation, Houmas House and Gardens is a completely different historical landmark and we really enjoyed the visit. This plantation was established in late 1700s, the main house complete in 1840. Current owner lives in the house and apparently leaves it daily when the tours are happening.
One of these bedrooms is still an actively used room!
If not for the super informative house tour (our guide Patrick was phenomenal), this plantation is worth visiting just for the beautiful grounds and gardens.
EXPLORE THE NEIGHBOURHOODS
French Quarter is the most famous historic district at the heart of New Orleans that cannot be missed. Colorful buildings with the beautifully ornamented balconies, numerous restaurants, bars and cafes – there is something for everyone. One of our favorite streets – Royal Street is lined with art galleries and is only a block away from a completely different vibe (and craziness) that is a famous Bourbon Street.
Drinking is allowed outside of the establishments, so if you are walking along Bourbon St, prepare to see crowds of tipsy people, that turns into full on drunks later in the night (that contributes to the not so pleasant smells all over the street). It was a one time visit just to say we’ve seen it, but we had no desire to go back to Bourbon Street at night again.
French Quarter is very much a walking district and is located just around 10-15 min walk from Warehouse District where Ace Hotel is at. I’d highly recommend staying in this area due to its proximity to everything, but at the same time the quiet and clean neighborhood, away from all of the crowds.
Of course not all of the French Quarter is a party central. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and nearby streets are calm and peaceful. The famous cemetery is currently closed for renovations, but we were able to take a peek at it from above the fence. Even when it’s open, this cemetery is only accessible with a guided tour. Amongst others, Voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried here and Nicolas Cage has his future tomb (the white pyramid can be seen from above the fence).
We did not explore too much of this neighborhood, but visited Armstrong Park, because it was very close to the French Quarter. Louis Armstrong Park was home to the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970.
Easily accessible by the cable car (we used this mode of transportation almost daily throughout the week) Garden District is a lovely area to visit. If not for the restaurants, then for the beautiful houses that line the quiet streets.
It’s a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the downtown.
Talking about the cable car- download the RTA Go Mobile app for most convenience. Some trains took cash ($3pp for a day pass or $1.50 for a one way ride), but some did not accept it, so the app was a way to go.
Faubourg Marigny Neighborhood
I don’t know about the whole district, but one place that’s a must visit here is Frenchmen Street. Not as crowded as Bourbon St, this vibrant three or so block stretch is probably the most musical area of New Orleans. We heard all types of jazz music spilling out of the cafes and bars as well as saw musicians performing on the street. Bamboula’s Cafe had no cover charge and the live band was playing, so we stopped by to listen for a bit.
Another cable car ride gets you to the lush and green Audubon Park. Huge park sprawls across approximately 350 acres and is perfect for a walk/run/rollerblading or simply relaxing surrounded by nature.
Weather has changed and we got rained on, but still enjoyed the walk and managed our way up to the “Tree of Life“- giant oak tree with branches almost touching the ground. It’s unclear how old this tree is, but the Live Oak Society estimates it to be between 100 and 500 yrs old.
One of the areas that we probably would not have made it to if we didn’t stay in New Orleans to work for a week. I am very grateful we did, because this charming mix of colorful houses, murals, arts and the residential feel was a real pleasure to walk around to.
It also has our favorite restaurant in NOLA- Saint-Germain. More about that in the food section of this blog.
DAY AT THE MUSEUM
There are several museums in NOLA, but the one we kept hearing about as a must was The National WWII Museum. Just so happened that it’s conveniently located short 15 min walk away from Ace Hotel and we had a rainy afternoon-perfect time to be inside. I am the first to admit- I am not a big museum person, but this one left a big impression. Extremely well displayed exhibits, very interactive and moving.
In order to see it all without a rush would probably take around four hours. We had only two, so chose a few exhibits (Road to Berlin, Road to Tokyo, The D-Day Invasion to Normandy) and a 4D experience “Beyond all Boundaries”.
SHOP TILL YOU DROP
We did not do too much shopping, but checked out Canal Place, which also has a nice movie theater, where we saw the first movie in a year (“A Quiet Place 2”- amazing!). I actually found some super cute clothes in the boutiques on the Magazine Street, Garden district. One of the stores worth mentioning is “Lucky Rose” and just across the street – “Naaz“. That whole area around Lucky Rose is adorable and lined with boutiques , antique shops, cafes- fun even for those that don’t care about shopping (like Sean 🙂 ).
EAT, EAT, EAT
Even if you don’t do ANYTHING else, but come to NOLA to eat, it’s still going to be time (and money) well spent. After a week here we have rated New Orleans as the best food place from ALL of our trips. It’s a very bold statement for sure, given the fact that we have eaten at some pretty incredible places. However, New Orleans was unbelievably consistent- out of eight dinners there was not one that we did not enjoy. That rarely happens on any trip. Since we stayed at the hotel and worked for most of this stay, I cannot comment much about lunches. Most of our experience was around dinner, drinks and desserts..
Coffee, sweets and treats
We have had plenty of all three in one week at New Orleans. I think my blood is partially a sugar syrup at the moment. But it’s all for a good cause- I can now report the places we loved, so you don’t have to try them all 🙂 .
Since it was close to our hotel we had one of the breakfasts at the French Truck Coffee. They had a delicious almond croissant, Sean liked the waffle and we took some sandwiches to go (it was the swamp tour day).
Of course we could not visit New Orleans and not try their famous beignets– deep fried pastries heavily covered with powdered sugar. They are sold pretty much everywhere, but the two most famous chains are Cafe du Monde and Cafe Beignet. We made a mistake walking to the original Cafe du Monde location on a Saturday morning (the holiday weekend to boot). The line was without any exaggeration at least a quarter of mile long.
Since we had plans to see the plantations the same day, we were not about to spend two hours standing in line for pastries. Instead, we did our tour and stopped at the Cafe Du Monde on Williams Blvd in Kenner, LA- just 15 min drive from the center of town. We got our sweet tooth fix with absolutely no wait. Beignets were light and fluffy and perfect. We did return to the original location during the work week and the line was very short late afternoon. However, the pastries were not as fresh/did not taste as good as the other location.
Now we need to evaluate Cafe Beignet pastries of course. The line was a lot shorter when we went, but beignets were not as light as Cafe du Monde. We could not finish the portion of three between the two of us. They were very dense and heavy, so go hungry for these ones.
There were two other places we tried this famous New Orleans pastry. One of them being cafe connected to our hotel- Lovage. They were covered with blueberry frosting and were Sean’s favorite. I loved the ones at The Vintage Nola, where during their happy hour you can get a whole basket of beignets for only a few dollars.
From the healthy breakfast options I must mention The Antidote Juice. They sell bottled juices all over the city, but in the Union St location you can also get freshly made smoothies and healthy salads. Only 5 min walk from our hotel this place was our source of morning vitamins during the work week.
What also was close (too close!) to our hotel – was Drip Affogato Bar. A little cafe with an overwhelmed staff, but the best fresh ice cream around. They make it right there daily and we could not get enough. Cookies and cream in a waffle cone was superb!
Brunch, lunch, happy hour
While we worked, lunch consisted of either leftover dinner, a quick salad from The Antidote Juice or a sandwich from the Lovage cafe on the first floor of the hotel. However, on the days when we were exploring the city, we ate at a few places I’d like to mention.
If you like Gulf oysters, look no further than the Superior Seafood. Their happy hour is from 4-6.30 pm daily and features 75 cent oysters, 2 for 1 frozen drinks and more. This Creole fare serves traditional Louisiana cuisine and was quite busy during the happy hour time. Gulf oysters were a bit too big for us, used to the small bellies northern kind. We enjoyed the grilled seafood avocado and loved observing the staff chuck numerous oysters at the raw bar.
Mahony’s Po-Boys & Seafood is where we tried our first New Orleans classics- Po-Boy, Crawfish Etouffee Fries and the Chicken and Andouille Gumbo. All three were delightful and we further fell in love with New Orleans food.
On our last day in NOLA we booked a table for brunch at Brennan’s– fine dining place with fancy breakfasts and beautiful outside patio (it was raining, so we were seated inside). Reservations in advance are recommended/needed since it’s a well known spot in New Orleans. Food was really good, the place is a bit posh and the service is excellent. Despite some people calling it pretentious we enjoyed the experience.
Eight nights, eight amazing dinners. We’ve never had a trip where each dinner would be better than the next. Another surprising element- staff at the restaurants would recommend their favorite place in the city and we loved every one of them. I’ll start from our last dinner in New Orleans and our favorite from the whole trip- Saint- Germain. It’s a French wine bar with a separate reservation-only dining room. They serve just around 16 patrons per day, so book it well in advance (we did ours around a month ahead). Located in the hip and cool Bywater neighborhood this place wowed us with every single dish out of five course tasting menu. It changes monthly, so I am not sure if we were just lucky that this month was so incredible, but we left saying “wow, this was a really special dinner!”.
Our second most favorite dinner was at the place where Saint Germain’s chef used to work – a Contemporary Creole restaurant August. Besides the unique dishes (cauliflower soup and truffle gnocchi were my favorite), the atmosphere is something to experience as well. Located in the historic 19th century building, gleaming dining room with chandeliers sets the mood just right. Dress accordingly.
For the third place Sean and I had a different opinion. I preferred Sylvain– just their courtyard alone won me over. This elegant gastro pub in a French Quarter is located in a former carriage house and tucked away from all the craziness of the busy street. I am still thinking about their cast iron cornbread with cane syrup butter.
Sean’s pick was Atchafalaya– contemporary Louisiana restaurant in a residential neighborhood easily reachable by a cable car from downtown. They were super busy and despite the reservation we had to wait a bit to sit outside, but it was very much worth it.
While eating dinner here, we chatted with the staff and they insisted that we must try another neighborhood favorite- Lilettete. We cancelled one of the places we had booked previously and were lucky to get a reservation on a short notice for the next night. Food was great, but what we loved the most was the service. Everyone was super friendly and chatty. I don’t know if we just came at the right time, towards the end of their shift, but they were not rushed and happily answered our questions about life in New Orleans. Also, their lemon blueberry pound cake was to die for.
Another fancy Creole fare with the elegant atmosphere is a well known in New Orleans Commander’s Palace. Food was good, but we did not feel like it was better than the restaurants mentioned above. We tried their turtle soup (to me it reminded of chili) and loved their bread pudding for dessert. It’s more of an experience and a place to dress up. Gentlemen, bring your jackets.
Gris-Gris – refined Southern cuisine dinner almost did not happen. We’ve booked it well in advance for the balcony seating and the rain washed out those plans. They called us 30 min prior to let us know that they are cancelling, but since we were sightseeing Audubon Park we missed the call and showed up wet, hungry and ready to eat. Since all of the tables inside were reserved, we got lucky with two spots at the bar on the second floor. Menu was the same, and we were grateful to be seated and not have look for a last minute dinner plans. Definitely a cool place with delicious food. Would certainly eat here again.
Compere Lapin is located in the Warehouse Art district and was perfect for our first dinner in New Orleans as it was close to our hotel. We did not try a lot of meals since it was pretty late in the evening, but it was a good kickstart to our New Orleans culinary adventure.
Their cheesecake is for sure a must try!
I should have probably named this post “Eating our way through New Orleans” – there was a LOT of delicious food consumed here in one week. I am not sure if you need a week here- probably 3-5 days would allow to see most of the attractions. However, we have no regrets for staying longer and having a “work-ation”. By doing so, we were able to get a better feel of the city, explore several residential neighborhoods that otherwise we would not have ventured into, and of course try more amazing food along the way. As Mark Twain put it ” “New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin.”