NOLA, The Big Easy, The Birthplace of Jazz…. just some of the pseudonyms for this iconic and romanticised city nestled way down in Louisiana, on the banks of the Mississippi. With architecture perfectly maintained from a French Colonial past, there is a feeling here of stepping back in time. Music, mainly Jazz, seeps from the pores of a city that is hot and sticky but loves to dance… and to drink! Creole, that unique mix of European and Caribbean cultures (but native to Louisiana), is what distinguishes the food, the language and the broader culture from anywhere else in the US. Because there really is something that sets New Orleans apart from other cities and makes comparisons difficult – something more than music, more than food and more than architecture – but very much influenced by all three.
So without further rambling…. here are my highlights of NOLA, condensed into a 24 hour itinerary.
Arrival & Check In:
Arriving at the airport there are lots of options to transfer to the city centre. We opted for a taxi, as we had been travelling for 12 hours at this point and it was the quickest, most convenient option. Unlike many European cities, the system was well-ordered and efficient and the price was fixed. For the more budget conscious traveller there is a really cheap, but much slower, public bus system and there are several other options including shared shuttles and Uber.
After an effortless transfer, it was time to check in. And believe me, our New Orleans hotel was a triumph. I loved everything about The Eliza Jane… from the romance of the fact that it was once home to a busy newspaper office (Eliza Jane being the paper’s first female editor), to the trendy but elegant mid-century furnishing… it was just a dream. It was tasteful and stylish, with high quality toiletries in the rooms and quality cocktails at the bar. Throw in a great location, super friendly staff and excellent wifi and you will be starting to realise why I was so smitten. I cannot not recommend this place enough, just go ahead and book if you find yourself in town!!!
And then when you are all settled in…. what should you get up to?
Well here are some of my suggestions……
Eat breakfast with more calories than you would normally consume in a month:
I assume most Americans save the diner breakfast experience for the weekend, especially in New Orleans, because otherwise I would give the inevitable coronary about a week before it struck. I don’t think I got halfway through any NOLA breakfast but I enjoyed the challenge and I do have a couple of recommendations.
The first is The Ruby Slipper cafe, where they serve Southern comfort food in GIGANTIC portions. Now I have a big appetite but I managed less than a quarter of the brioche French toast batons!!! You can get a bowl of oatmeal here but hearty omelettes, massive pancakes and fried chicken with grits were more representative of the norm. In fact, I didn’t see a single bowl of oatmeal being served.
But as breakfasts go, this is a fun spot. We sat at the counter, had our cups refilled with a smile and watched tourists who had luxuriated in a lie-ie queue for 45 mins for a table. BTW this something I just don’t understand. Yes, The Ruby Slipper is a good place to eat, but it is still just bacon and eggs people – definitely not something I would stand under the hot southern sun waiting an hour for. Remember good American diners are actually quite plentiful in America!!!
My second breakfast recommendation is Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar…. because sometimes to counteract the excesses of holidays you really need the vitamins contained in a freshly squeezed juice. This is a small, eclectic little spot on a residential corner of the historic Magazine Street. There is a distinctive Latin flavour to the menu, but more appealing to me was the inclusion of some lighter and at least slightly more healthy options. Fruit plates, simple bagels and tofu platters. All breads and juices are made in house and from scratch, a really appealing quality in a predominantly fast food society. It was a thumbs up from me. But yet again be mindful that this place is perpetually busy so come early or be prepared to wait in the sun.
Take a Stroll through the Garden District and Ride a Vintage Streetcar:
Appetites sated, we passed the morning wandering down Magazine Street, enjoying some leisurely window shopping in the neighbourhood’s independent stores and galleries. There is lots to enjoy but remember that it is a long street and stuff is very spread out, so if there are specific things you want to see/buy then do some research.
It is just a short hop from Magazine Street to the Lafayette Cemetery so we took a little detour in that direction. Obviously being a cemetery you will see lots of graves, but more interesting is the fact that the site has appeared in many movies and other productions. Not a great one for popular history the two productions that stick in my mind are Double Jeopardy and a scene in the New Kids On The Block legendary hit, The Right Stuff. Both of which I have been known to appreciate…. in my youth of course!
When you tire of wandering around the graves of people you have never heard of, stroll a few blocks to where you can pick up the classic St. Charles streetcar. For $1.25 you can hop aboard the oldest continuously operating street car in the world. With mahogany seats, brass fittings and huge windows providing the ventilation, this is a ride both through New Orleans and back in time. Definitely not something you should miss.
Grab some Lunch at St. Roch Market:
I confess that I am a complete sucker for a slightly hipster food hall. You know the type – where doughnuts are an artisan product and bar counters are too cool to include a stem on the wine glass. Ostensibly they are street food joints but ones with great air con, wifi and lots and lots of monochrome inspiring the interior decor. Well the St. Roch Market is one such joint. They also have an outpost in Miami, which may tell you all you need to know about the urban vibe they are going for. This was definitely a place designed with the cool kids in mind, and although I may not fit right in, I love places like this. Places where everyone can eat a different cuisine but sit together and enjoy it. Places where the food is simple but high quality. Places where the it feels like a local market but served with a side of chic and a garnish of comfort.
We sampled a gyro platter from the super friendly Rafik, who once ran a food cart in Cairo and who creates food inspired by his own family and heritage. Man would I like to be a guest at one of their family dinners. Perfectly cooked chicken skewers with fresh pita, potatoes, labna (a mint yoghurt) and a Greek salad. My mouth is watering all over again now.
And of course there was a Po Boy, a type of sandwich synonymous with New Orleans. In this case it was a blackened catfish po boy, stuffed with garlic mayo, pickled turnip, lettuce and tomato. It was delicious and not something you would easily find on this side of the Atlantic (despite an abundant turnip crop!).
So I can concur with the New York Times who describe St. Roch as “an obvious choice” for diners in The Big Easy.
Take a tour outside the city centre:
Given New Orleans’ unique location and fascinating history, there are a few tours that seem to make it on to the must-see lists of many visitors – one is a swamp/ bayou tour and the other is the near-by plantations. Personally if I were just choosing one or the other I would choose the former – but then driving in a fast boat and hoping not to get my nose bitten off by a wild alligator is just more my jam than learning about the dark days of the cotton planters and their slaves. But if it is not a coin toss, there is merit to seeing both sides of Louisiana culture and colonial homes like Laura and Oak Alley are very beautiful to see.
For our tour we opted for a somewhat controversial offering, partaking in a tour called Gators and Guns. And relax, we did not (as one friend feared) attempt to shoot any alligators. Or any other living creature for that matter. Nope, the guns part was strictly target practice and given my hand eye co-ordination even the paper target was safe. Essentially this tour involves a stop, en route to the swamps, at an indoor shooting range, where participants fire MP5s and other machine guns at a target.
Why? To be fair I wondered that myself, especially as I was trembling while accepting the loaded weapon into my hand. It was partly because neither of us had ever fired a gun…. now to be fair I was quite happy with that reality… but safely discharging such a powerful weapon was on my husband’s bucket list. And given how frequently he indulges my penchant for trendy food markets, this was a suck it up and see how it goes kind of moment. They say marriage is all about compromise.
It was also appealing to him to have that experience in the Deep South, a region that the media portrays as extremely right wing when it comes to defending gun laws that no longer appear to serve the USA well. A kind of a, “let’s see what it’s all about?” sentiment. We do, after all, like to try things for ourselves. And if I said it wasn’t fun or wasn’t a huge adrenaline rush I would be lying. It was a real once in a life time opportunity for two peace loving Irish people to fire rounds of bullets from a semi-automatic. It won’t be for everyone, but if it is for you then it really was an experience to remember.
After that quick detour, we were airboat bound and spent a couple of hours getting up close and personal with alligators and other wildlife in their natural habitat. When moving at full speed, the airboats themselves are a lot of fun to travel on. The fact that they don’t have brakes adding to the excitement. And when things get slow and quiet and the alligators are close to the boat, you are back in the realm of those once in a lifetime moments. But if neither of these experiences sound like your cup of tea there are loads of other tours on offer from the very tourist-centered NOLA. Biking in the city would be a great one to try.
An Evening Walk in The French Quarter:
The French Quarter is definitely the beating heart of New Orleans and the way they have preserved the architecture of the area is truly unique and wonderful. Although I was somehow unprepared for how heavy on the bachelorette parties and booze it was (think Temple Bar on a Saturday night), it is still a really cool place to visit. The heart of the quarter is Bourbon St., where bars compete for business by blaring loud music into the street and serving various alcoholic concoctions in plastic cups. It is fun to see and has fantastic energy but it is not really my scene. Maybe once when all night drinking was more appealing than early morning strolls to breakfast but not so much now.
For me, the jewel of the French Quarter was Royal Street; so much more elegant, with beauty not compromised by brashness. There is still jazz and voodoo and cafes and bars…. it’s just a little more temperate. And if music and a few beers are on the itinerary (and they are a huge part of what New Orleans is about), I would also be sure to make off Frenchmen Street – still great music and all the party vibes – but just a little more date night than stag party.
A Romantic Dinner:
Back on Royal Street, even the hardest of hearts would melt at the sight of the fairy-lit courtyard, complete with fountains, that is Cafe Amelie. This is al fresco dining at its best. If you have to wait for a table (we did) there is a full bar serving great cocktails and the friendly staff will just tap you on the shoulder when a seat becomes available. And thankfully, it is not all about the setting, the food is impressive too. Now before I get to the positives, can someone please explain to me how poutaine has suddenly become fashionable???? Do people not realise that it is chips soaked in gravy and topped with cheese curd???? Wrong on every level. But we tried it. And one can only assume Cafe Amelie constructed it as well as anybody but nothing can change the fact that it is just WRONG!! I appreciate the irony of slagging off the cuisine of others while hailing from a land that may well have patented the curry cheese chip… but one wrong does not deserve another. Wrong plus wrong just creates multiples of wrong.
But onto the mains. My dining companion chose oven roasted pork chop with corn served with mash and green beans and appeared to happily clear his plate. I, never a pork fan, had delicious mango glazed lamb chops also with mash and greens and it was so good I wish I could recreate it here on my own hob. But like holiday wine, if the food was removed from the setting something would surely be lost along the way. We then shared a crumble with ice-cream while he taunted me with the tantalising smell of espresso (I remain a recovering coffee addict!) before we strolled back to the hotel for a cheeky nightcap.
And that is at least one way to spend 24 hours in New Orleans.