New Orleans was always on my list to visit, but never #1 until recently! I’m so glad that I went. It’s very cool and different than anyplace else I’ve been. Kind of a combo Las Vegas / Disneyland / loud jazz club outside all the time / poorly ventilated laundromat…in a good way!
Read on for the tale of a 5 night visit over Easter weekend, full of recommendations for you:
- Where to Sleep
- What to Do
- Where to Eat
- What I learned , so you don’t have to
- Map of Mentioned Places
- Pin Me for Later
We did not want the craziness of Mardi Gras, but did want the full French Quarter experience, so we (2 of my BFFs since childhood and I) decided to arrive on Good Friday, and stay thru Wednesday. I am not sure if Good Friday is typically like this, but when we first stepped out of our Lyft we thought we might be in trouble!
Our Lyft could not get us right at our hotel because one street was blocked with fire engines (a frequent sight and sound for the rest of our trip) and the other (Bourbon Street) only open to pedestrian traffic. So we emerged from the air-conditioned Lyft into a wall of wet heat, pot smoke, and jazz music blaring from all directions! As we feebly dragged out suitcases through the crowds, towards our hotel, down the cobbled streets and cracked sidewalks, I turned to my pale looking friends and commented, “At least it’s relaxing here!” (haha). We finally found the entrance to our hotel, “The Royal Sonesta”, and passed through the sliding doors into an elegant, immaculate, silent, white marble lobby! 180% difference from outside!
Where to Sleep
The Royal Sonesta ended up being a great home base for our New Orleans visit. Clean, comfortable rooms; lovely lobby and courtyard. There is a coffee shop off the lobby for snacks, and drinks to go. A swimming pool is in the center courtyard of the large hotel. We didn’t swim, but did sit by the pool one afternoon and got not great sandwiches from the pool snack bar. Nice atmosphere, even if the food wasn’t great. Other than the comfort and elegance of the hotel, the location was awesome. Right on Bourbon Street! King interior facing room (I recommend that so you don’t risk hearing the Bourbon St. noise) was around $300/night.
If you are looking for a more luxurious “special treat” hotel, I have another recommendation for you: The Windsor Court Hotel. My friend, Zsa Zsa, stayed there for a few days after Mozart and I left town. The food looks delicious and I’d love to stay here someday! Zsa Zsa says, “Great location, I felt. Within walking distance to the Quarter, but outside of the general “chaos”. It was only a short stroll to the river as well. Excellent customer service. From the doorman to the front desk and down to the room service and housekeeping staff. All were very personable and friendly and generally very welcoming. The room (premium suite) was a splurge, but I thought it was worth it.” Standard King room was around $450/night; Premium Suite around $600/night.
What to Do
We took a Jazz Dinner Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez. We were able to just walk about 10 minutes from our Bourbon Street hotel to catch the 2 hour cruise. There were lots of spots to sit on several floors on all sides of the ship. A great jazz band played on the top floor. There were 2 dinner seatings for the buffet dinner. Pretty good food, no complaints. You can also take the cruise without getting dinner and save $50 or so BTW. It was a great time!
On our first full day in NOLA (after we scarfed beignets at Cafe Du Monde…we have our priorities!) we took this 3 hour tour. The large van with 4 rows of seats picked us up right from our hotel. There were about 10 people total on the tour. The driver/guide gave a great overview with historical and random interesting facts as he drove us through the French Quarter, the Garden District, Lake Pontchartrain, the 9th District (destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005), many other beautiful historic streets and the fascinating, crazy Metairie Cemetery.
We had a stop about half way through at a coffee joint for a little break. I thought this was a very good tour and a great way to start our stay in the city. Cost was around $50 per person. We were dropped off at our hotel at the end. What’s not to like?
The French Quarter
The French Quarter is the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, founded in 1718. I loved just wandering around, looking at the historic buildings and unique architecture. Nearly all of the buildings seemed ancient. A dive bar would be right next door to a white table clothed restaurant. No chain stores or restaurants that I could notice (except some souvenir shops). Cobblestone streets, black iron balconies with window boxes of flowers, constant jazz music coming from somewhere! Charming antique, clothing and knick-knack shops. Not the cleanest of cities, you could go to Disneyland for that! I felt a sort of magical, historic vibe while wandering around.
If you are going to visit a plantation I recommend the Whitney. It focuses on the plantation history from the enslaved people’s point of view, as opposed to how pretty the main house and the trees and gardens are. To get a deeper understanding of the history of New Orleans (and the US) it was important to me to make this visit a part of my visit. The Whitney is about an hours drive from New Orleans. We rented a car for the day, but there are many bus tours available.
You can do a self guided tour or guided. We took the guided tour and felt it was very much worth it. We had an excellent tour guide who presented the harsh history in a matter of fact way. It was great to be able to ask her questions and get a better understanding of the history. She mentioned that movie and TV depictions of slavery are often “Hollywoodized”, making things appear better than they were. Even the tv mini-series “Roots” wasn’t realistic in its portrayal. She said it showed families having dinner together in their little cabin with curtains on the windows. In fact, no regard was put into keeping families together, and the conditions were beyond bare minimum. When asked what the most realistic depiction was she recommended “7 Years a Slave”.
Our tour guide shows us a wall featuring all of the information that could be found about the enslaved people at this plantation. No official records were kept for them (birth/death/marriage etc) so it was hard to represent each individual. This side of the wall showed the info they have about the people taken from Africa. The other side shows American citizens who were born here (into enslavement). Very powerful and awful.
One of the best reasons to visit NOLA is to enjoy the live music. It is everywhere! Many of the cafes and restaurants we visited had a band playing. All of them excellent! We went to one paid entry show, at our Royal Sonesta hotel, in its Jazz Playhouse. This is a small venue for about 50 people. Patrons sit at tables and can order drinks and bar food. We saw an amazing show featuring Nayo Jones. It was a fun, intimate show that I highly recommend!
Why is the National WW2 Museum in New Orleans? I wondered too. Turns out those ships with the big door that brought US Soldiers ashore in the war was invented and produced in NOLA. President Eisenhower once declared that the inventor of those ships was “the man who won the war for us.” The museum started as a D-Day museum, and in 2000 opened as the National WW2 Museum.
It takes about 2 hours to go through, depending how long you study the exhibits of course. The tour starts off in a Disney-esque way with a “train ride” back through time. Then the group (whoever is ready) is ushered into a theater to watch a very good 20 minute movie (narrated by Tom Hanks) giving a WW2 overview. After that you wander through the exhibits on your own. There are European Front and Pacific Front exhibits, full of artifacts, photos and personal stories. Fascinating and sobering. There is also a cool gift shop at the museum, full of 1940s era merchandise. The museum is easily reached from the French Quarter via a streetcar ride.
After walking endlessly we were ready for some pampering! We found this highly rated spa, Spa Atlantis, right in the middle of the French Quarter. Two of us had massages, and one had a facial. We were all very pleased and it was a perfect, revitalizing break from all the eating, drinking and walking!
This (free entry) park is right across Bourbon Street from The Royal Sonesta Hotel. There are statues of jazz legends, a fountain, tables and chairs, a bar, a Cafe Beignets, and a live band playing Thursday-Monday 10AM to closing! Great, family friendly place to stop for some great music and a drink and/ or beignet!
New Orleans is famous for its parades, especially in the Mardi Gras season of course. There are 3 parades on Easter Sunday. Other big parades include St. Patricks Day, Southern Decadence, Halloween, Children’s Hospital New Orleans Holiday Parade, and the Hanukkah Parade. There are also smaller “personal” parades you will probably see randomly in the French Quarter. These could be for weddings, bachelor/ bachelorette parties, funerals and more. See here if you’d like to plan your own parade!
Madame Aucoin Perfume was started in 1910 by the first female perfumer in New Orleans. Madame Aucoin is said to have dubbed the French Quarter area around her shop “The Paris of America”. This shop and its past was an inspiration for the epic novel “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins. You can find Madame’s original perfumes, as well as other niche perfumes from independent French brands in the shop.
Here is an actual direct quote about visiting the shop from my friend, Mozart, “The woman there was pleasant. I told her I was short on time and she asked me what sort of scents I like, and she recommended a few. She keeps a feather with each perfume, if I recall right, and she sprays the feather for you to sniff the perfume. Being able to buy the variety box was perfect. It is a pretty teeny place and I was mostly very jazzed to visit the original inspiration for “Madame Duvalier’s” in the book. She even had a copy of the book.”
Where to Eat
Cafe Du Monde is a must visit when you go to New Orleans! This has been a NOLA staple since 1862. The menu is simple, coffee and beignets. Beignets are square French-style donuts, magically doused in powdered sugar. Absolutely delicious! Remember not to move, laugh or breathe while you are eating one or you will end up also magically doused in powdered sugar (see video example below).
When we arrived mid morning there was a line of about 100 people! Happily, the line moved fast and there was an entertaining jazz band performing right next to the restaurant! Once you get to the front of the line you wait to be seated. You then place your order with the waiter and your food is brought to you. There is also a window where you could order beignets and coffee to go. That also had a long line but seemed to move quickly. We tried beignets at a couple of other local spots but Cafe Du Monde’s were the best!
There are now 10 Cafe Du Monde locations in NOLA, but the original one is right across from Jackson Square on the Ol’ Missisip.
Atchafalaya was the best and our favorite of the restaurants we tried in NOLA (well, maybe except Cafe Du Monde!). We found it on Yelp as a top rated place. It’s in the beyond charming Garden District; a cottage on the corner of a street in a very residential neighborhood. There are tables outside, dogs welcome. It seemed to be a bit of a neighborhood hang-out where people would walk down for a sunset cocktail and appetizers. Inside is a full bar, rather rustic. The dining rooms are in two rooms past the bar. Charming decor and artwork with delicious and interesting food! Dinner entrées averaged $30.
This place is right on Bourbon Street. It is in the Yelp top 15 restaurants for the French Quarter. We waited in line for about 15 minutes to get in on a Friday night. It was convenient, and a good place to “knock off” all the foods we’d read about that we “had to have” in New Orleans. Prices not bad. The food was pretty good, not spectacular, in my opinion.
For Easter Brunch we went to the Palace Cafe on Canal Street, just at the edge of the French Quarter. It was a 2 story upscale restaurant with a band serenading us from the stairway. The jazz band is there for every Saturday and Sunday brunch. There are interesting NOLA-centric options to choose from (like Turtle soup, Shrimp Remoulade, Gumbo and Grits) as well as standard fare. Bananas Foster prepared table-side was a festive treat. Good food and fun atmosphere!
We visited this place on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, mainly to get a great view of the “Gay Easter Parade” which passed right by. Not a fan of oysters, we did valiantly try them out. In keeping with my “not a fan of oyster-ness”, I was not much of a fan, though these were topped with a parmesan-butter-cheese filling, so how bad could they be!? My entree was the Shrimp Po-Boy sandwich. It was very beige in all ways. The Royal House had a good sized menu and is a good place for a basic meal. The seating on the second floor was perfect for watching a parade pass by, and I imagine it would be fun to dine on the balcony at night to people watch also.
What I learned , so you don’t have to
- The French Quarter is loud, crowded, sometimes littered. If this is not what you’re looking for on your vacation you should probably stay elsewhere! That said, it is a unique atmosphere and experience you might want to try just once.
- Easter was a great time to visit (April). Weather nice, but not too hot. There are 3 different Easter Parades that go through the French Quarter. Lots of people everywhere were dressed in their “best church clothes” and wore Easter bonnets. Very festive with lots of families attending the parades.
- 4 days/ 5 nights seemed to be a very good amount of time to see the sights, wander and relax.