Beignets. Jazz. Turtle Soup. Swamp Land. Alligators. Bourbon Street. JAMNOLA.
Most people think of Mardi Gras as the quintessential event in the Big Easy, but there are plenty of other exciting things to fill a wonderful weekend in New Orleans any time of year! NOLA is a melting pot of French, Spanish and West African cultures. And the food?! Yum! If you want to party on Bourbon Street, have at it! But this itinerary is filled with tastes of the local culture (outside of the French Quarter), the unique Louisiana swampland and regional cuisine that will keep you coming back for more.
We actually traveled to NOLA for Christmas, but this itinerary can be done at any time! I’ve included a unique holiday celebration at the bottom.
We stayed at the Omni Riverfront Hotel, which offers a spacious two-story executive king suite for families or friends alike. The queen pullout sofa in the downstairs living room has a half bath and wet bar. It is down the street from the Aquarium and easy to jump on a streetcar for city exploration.
If you are a party of two, I’d recommend a local bed and breakfast, such as Creole Gardens Guesthouse & Inn in the Garden District.
If you want to be in the heart of all the action, check out the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street.
Eat dinner at Irene's Italian in the French Quarter. The Duck St. Phillip is one of the best in town! Oysters Irene, an extensive wine list and scrumptious desserts round out the menu at this family-owned restaurant that feels like home. Reservations are definitely recommended!
Afterward, go for drinks at the famous Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel. Named after what is considered the world’s first mixed drink, the bar’s walnut counter and plush banquettes creates a nice, speakeasy feel. Try the bar’s namesake or a French 75!
Start the day with a strong dose of history. Head to an early cemetery tour before brunch! Lafayette Cemetery #1 is currently closed for renovations, but Free Tours by Foot offers dozens of other daily tours with a pay-what-you-like method. Currently, they have a St. Louis #3 Cemetery and Bayou St. John Tour, which starts at the Fairgrounds Coffeehouse and explores some of the oldest surviving homes in New Orleans, as well as the unique burial traditions in the city.
After wandering Bayou St. John, head over to the Garden District for jazz brunch at Commander’s Palace. The “Victorian Cuckoo” architecture is a slight misnomer to the more traditional, upscale classics served within, such as turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish and local gumbo. If you are in town during the week, the $0.25 martinis at lunchtime are a big draw! Reservations are strongly encouraged. The fine-dining restaurant also maintains a strict dress code, including no shorts, t-shirts, flip-flops or jeans. Lunch is a little more relaxed with business casual permitted.
In the afternoon, experience NOLA’s cultural funhouse at JAMNOLA (2832 Royal St) with 17 local exhibits showcasing the city’s flavor, culture and unique identity through the eyes of 30 local artists. JAMNOLA stands for Joy, Art & Music, New Orleans. This is such a unique, almost museum, experience exploring regional food, music and cultural insights that make NOLA, well… strictly NOLA. The hands-on expo features short films, historical pictures and the ability to try on Mardi Gras parade headsets. Every turn is perfectly Instagrammable! 😊
Travel back into the heart of the French Quarter for dinner, drinks and jazz at Arnaud’s off Bourbon Street. Start with cocktails in their award-winning French 75 Bar before choosing dinner in either the Jazz Bistro or the Main Dining Room. Dress code is business casual, and reservations are highly recommended. There is a $6 music fee for the Jazz Bistro but seems a small price to pay for dinner AND a show! Try the shrimp Arnaud or crab cakes. Make sure and save room for dessert.
Jump on a tram heading to the riverfront for breakfast beignets at the famous Café Du Monde downtown. Wander through Jackson Square to St. Louis Cathedral before doubling back toward the mighty Mississippi River!
If you continue through Washington Artillery Park, you will cross over a cable car line, taking the stairs that end up right on the bank. There is a pretty riverwalk with benches if you don’t want to sit on the stairs. On a good day, there will be a lovely breeze and perhaps a cruise ship or large barge passing through.
After working up an appetite, head to another favorite jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters. Indulge in some of New Orleans’ favorites, such as shrimp etouffee, turtle soup au sherry, gumbo and corn macque choux. The outside courtyard is enchanting with low-hanging trees and strung lights. A live jazz band will serenade you while you sip on a classic cocktail.
In the afternoon, leave the city to explore the swamp land! Louisiana Tour Company offers small group Airboat Swamp Tours (9706 Barataria Blvd. Marrero). Our captain had a few tricks up his sleeve for a one-of-a-kind experience! We saw 6+ foot alligators lying in the marsh, as well as numerous birds like the osprey or crane. The airboat’s stadium seating ensures every viewpoint is top notch. The company also offers transportation from downtown NOLA if you are without a car.
Other Activities in New Orleans
Haunted Ghost Tours for those daring enough to venture out in the dark night
The Audubon Nature Institute offers a wonderful aquarium and zoo for family fun
The Pharmacy Museum ($5) story of early medicinal practices, including voodoo, superstitious and medieval practices
Shopping on Magazine Street
WWII Museum, including a 4D IMAX and virtual submarine experience
Ride the St. Charles SideCar ($3 for day pass)
Additional Restaurant Ideas
Coquette on Magazine Street (Garden District) – small menu neighborhood restaurant
Hot Tin – gorgeous city views at this rooftop bar atop the Pontchartrain Hotel, first come, first served; open until 2 am
La Boulangerie – wonderful French bakery with handcrafted pastries and locally sourced coffee
Galatoire’s in the French Quarter – open since 1905, this classic NOLA restaurant has been family owned and operated for five generations
Broussard’s – another century-old establishment serving French-Creole cuisine in a fine dining atmosphere
Mosquito Supper Club – only opened for dinner Thursday to Sunday in the Milan neighborhood
Christmas in NOLA Treat
While exploring local Christmas traditions, I came across the bonfires on the levee! Mostly congregated in the St. James Parrish, these 20-foot-high pyramid bonfires light the way for Papa Noel. These unique Christmas bonfires are built by friends and family days ahead with some unique designs competing for local pride. The riverfront street by the levee becomes one large block party with tailgating, food trucks and people milling about. Just follow the crowd of cars to the Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina townships (highways 18 and 44). We loved this magical celebration on Christmas Eve!
Have you been to the Big Easy before? What are your favorite spots?
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