Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street
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New Orleans Overview
You can't keep New Orleans down. After weathering economic turmoil in the post-Hurricane Katrina years, the city is not only back ... it's on a roll, with an influx of artists and entrepreneurs drawn to its brassy music, savory cuisine, historic architecture and cultural diversity. Mardi Gras continues to draw massive crowds of revelers, the city remains a favorite for meetings and conventions, and it seems like there's a festival just about every weekend, regardless of the season. (While Jazzfest is the big one, taking up extended weekends in April and May, Essence Fest, French Quarter Fest and even Voodoo Fest have their devotees.) And New Orleans remains a favorite with cruisers; according to Port of New Orleans officials, 60 percent of cruise passengers spend two days or more in the city before or after they board their ships.
Whether you have an afternoon in port or a few days to explore, here's some advice: Don't take the easy way out when discovering the Big Easy. There is so much more than Bourbon Street honkytonks to this gorgeous city, with its leafy garden district avenues, wrought iron balconies and gastronomic gems. New Orleans represents a gumbo of cultures, from African and Spanish to Cajun and French, a melding over the past three centuries that delivers dining, music and art so diverse it truly stands alone.
A major early port for products from the Caribbean, New Orleans was also home to a significant community of Creoles, a term that originally denoted locals with Spanish and French blood. Over time, the term has morphed to include persons of mixed ethnicity, often with Caribbean, African and Native American bloodlines. Yet its early ties to France are perhaps the strongest influence, as evidenced by the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis signet synonymous with the original French Quarter, not to mention the NFL's New Orleans Saints. The French Quarter, with its cobblestone streets and Creole cottages laced with ironwork, is the heart and soul of the town.
That said, if you have a few days or it's a repeat visit, take time to explore some of New Orleans' other neighborhoods. Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood is the hub of the city's music scene, with jazz clubs and restaurants lining either side of the street (many with no cover charges). The funky Bywater neighborhood has gone beyond its beginnings as an artist enclave, with noted restaurants joining the gallery scene. You could spend a day wandering the shops of Magazine Street, which stretches through the Garden District and Uptown before it reaches leafy Audubon Park. Take a pilgrimage to Congo Square in Treme, arguably where jazz music was born. Even the city's Warehouse District and Central Business District have a number of clubs, sports bars and restaurants, many anchored by New Orleans celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Donald Link and John Besh.
There is so much to do, you could return again and again and never be bored. You'll find yourself adopting the New Orleans slogan: Laissez les bon temps rouler! "Let the good times roll!"
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In a town where many bars never close and daiquiris are served from drive-through windows, the cocktail culture is as thick as the New Orleans humidity on an August day. But you won't get too many arguments if you head for the Sazerac Bar, a Roosevelt Hotel landmark for decades. The Sazerac is home to two real-deal libations: the Sazerac, made with rye, bitters and absinthe, and the Ramos Gin Fizz, a frothy shake of gin, lemon and lime juice, egg whites and sugar.
It's a toss-up. For music-lovers, shake your brass at home to tunes by local faves like Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty. The best place to buy music is the Louisiana Music Factory (421 Frenchmen Street) in Faubourg Marigny. The indie shop often has free in-store performances. If it's a sweet treat you're seeking, pecan pralines, buttery sweet candy patties that also come flavored, are sure to please. Buy them at Praline Connection in Faubourg Marigny and at the airport or Aunt Sally's on Decatur.
Yes, they speak English there, with an accent more Brooklyn than Southern. But New Orleanians have a vocabulary all their own. A few examples of N'Awlins speak:
Dressed: the way to order your po'boy if you want it with the works: lettuce, tomato and mayo.
Gris gris (gree gree): a voodoo spell or good luck charm.
Lagniappe (lan' yap): widely used in all kinds of contexts, it means a little something extra thrown in gratis. A baker's dozen is one example.
Making groceries: that's what the locals call going to the store to pick up dinner.
Neutral ground: called the median everywhere else, this strip of ground in the middle of a road could refer to what became Canal Street, a division between the French Quarter and American sector, or it might have been a meeting spot for the adversarial Spanish and French settlers. Now, it's a place where kids play and people walk their dogs.
Second line: the happy followers of a neighborhood brass band parade.
Where y'at?: the standard New Orleans greeting, equivalent to "What's up?" or "How are you?"
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
There are ATMs all over the French Quarter and many at banks near Canal Street. Tip: Pick up supplies at Rouses, a local grocery store with outposts in the French Quarter (701 Royal) and Central Business District (701 Baronne Street) and get cash back with your purchase (no fee) if you use your ATM card.
Where You're Docked
Located just behind the New Orleans Convention Center on the Mississippi, the Erato Street and Julia Street cruise terminals are in the heart of downtown with easy access to hotels and attractions. There is an ATM available, as well as a refreshment stand serving snacks, coffee and ice cream, and a souvenir kiosk in case you need to make last-minute purchases before boarding.
In 2014, the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk opened, putting stores such as Neiman Marcus Last Call, Coach and Tommy Bahama within minutes of the cruise terminal; it's even connected by an elevator. Thanks to the port's central location, you're a 10-minute walk or a streetcar ride away from the French Quarter, with its endless array of shopping, music and dining options. Try your luck at the nearby Harrah's New Orleans casino, where you can play the slots. Or stroll along the adjacent Fulton Street Square, a pedestrian walkway with eateries including the seafood-centric Grand Isle and a Gordon Biersch brewpub.
By Foot: Because the cruise terminals are directly behind the New Orleans Convention Center, adjacent to the Warehouse District and Central Business District and within walking distance of the historic French Quarter, you don't need to worry about a shuttle service or taxis, although cabs are available. It's 10 short blocks to Canal Street, the beginning of the French Quarter.
By Trolley: There's no streetcar named Desire anymore -- in case you were wondering, the line ran from 1920 to 1948, down Bourbon Street through the French Quarter to Desire Street in the Bywater neighborhood, before looping up to Canal Street. But the city has invested heavily in new streetcar lines to make getting around a breeze, for just $1.25 each way (transfers are $0.25 and are good for two hours; one-day and three-day passes are also available).
To get to the French Quarter from the cruise terminal, take the Riverfront Trolley line with stops at Canal near Harrah's and Decatur, where you'll find the popular French Market. Catch the trolley at the Convention Center, just steps from the terminal.
The St. Charles Line starts at Canal Street (at Carondelet) and heads uptown, around the river bend, to Carrollton Avenue. This route shows you some of New Orleans' most scenic architecture, and you'll pass antebellum mansions, restaurants, hotels, Loyola and Tulane Universities, and Audubon Park, within walking distance of the Audubon Zoo.
The Canal Line takes you up the city's main thoroughfare, with two endpoints. One spur drops you at what city officials call the Historic Cemetery District near City Park. While these aren't the oldest above-ground mausoleums in New Orleans -- that honor belongs to St. Louis #1, just off the French Quarter on Basin Street -- you can walk around and take plenty of photos commemorating your visit to the City of the Dead. The City Park/Museum route takes you into City Park, a 1,300-acre expanse that's home to oak trees more than 600 years old, as well as the New Orleans Museum of Art.
For streetcar information, call the Regional Transit Authority (504-248-3900) for transit times and info.
By Car: All the standard rental car agencies are located at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, about a 30-minute ride from downtown. Popular day trips include visits to famous plantations such as Oak Alley; swamp tours in the city's outlying bayous or nature trips to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve on the West Bank.
Watch Out For
Asking a local for directions can be a comedy of errors. Most of the older city neighborhoods were laid out following the crescent-shaped Mississippi River; the city's main nickname is the Crescent City. Except for the French Quarter, which is thankfully in a grid, streets were laid out either following the river's curves or perpendicular to them, not according to north, south, east and west. The four compass points are "up" (or "up river" or "uptown"), "down" (or "down river" or "downtown"), "river" (or "toward the river" or sometimes "in") and "lake" (or "toward the lake" or "back" or sometimes "out").
To stay oriented, just remember the French Quarter is roughly a one-mile square sandwiched between Canal Street and Esplanade Avenue, and the Mississippi River and Rampart Street. A good city map helps. If you really want to feel local, try mastering street names like Tchoupitoulas (CHOP-a-too-lis).
To see some of New Orleans' prettiest homes, take the St. Charles streetcar into the leafy Garden District, with its many live oak trees and stately mansions. Once home to new-money Yankee entrepreneurs shunned by the French Creoles in the Quarter -- and now a base for celebrities such as Sandra Bullock and John Goodman -- the Garden District is primarily a residential area with gorgeous architecture and fun shopping on Magazine Street, which features small, unique shops selling antiques, secondhand books, art, fashion and luxury items. Walking tours, either with a group or on your own, usually include a stop at Lafayette Cemetery, the setting for numerous movies and Anne Rice's vampire books. The author used to own a home a few blocks away, which plays a role in her novel "The Witching Hour."
Wandering Jackson Square (between Decatur, Chartres, St. Peter and St. Ann streets), with its cast of ragtag tarot card readers, buggy drivers and street artists, is a definitive New Orleans experience. The iconic statue of Andrew Jackson on his horse, with St. Louis Cathedral looming in the background, might be the one photograph no tourist can resist. Surrounded by a tall wrought-iron fence and filled with banana trees and flowering shrubs, the small green park was once a training ground for the military. Rechristened to honor Jackson's triumph over the Brits in the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson Square is bordered by a flagstone pedestrian mall dotted with shops and street artists.
Make time to stroll Royal Street, a shopping mecca that runs parallel to Bourbon Street, just three blocks from the river. Although known for its concentration of antique shops and art galleries, there's a little bit of everything on this thoroughfare, from well-known bars such as the rotating Carousal in the haunted Hotel Monteleone to funky little boutiques and bars. The mix of artwork is just as quirky. The Rodrigue Studio (721 Royal) showcases the iconic Blue Dog in all manner of settings, while Painted Alive (827 Royal) is devoted to artist Craig Tracy's adoration of fine art painted on the human form. There's a culinary antiques store, a shop proffering military hardware and the list goes on. It's great fun, even if you're not a shopper.
Countless walking tours are offered in the Quarter, with themes as varied as ghosts and voodoo, and art and architecture. A few to check include a haunted history stroll (504-861-2727), cemetery tours (504-525-3377) and a scandalous cocktail tour (800-979-3370). A free tour offered by the National Park Service includes a dose of history and visits several areas within the French Quarter.
Spanning the length of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street is known the world over for its strip joints, tacky souvenir shops and concentration of bars and live music venues. Expect mostly tourists along this stretch of town, with the usual collection of drunks and amateur drinkers on weekends and anytime a convention is in town. Thanks to the city's open-container laws (it's legal to walk around with a drink in a plastic cup), the street is packed with tourists drinking potent hurricanes, hand grenades and "Huge Ass Beers" from the Steak Pit at Bourbon and Toulouse. While it's fun to experience the scene at least once -- taking in the party, popping in and out of music venues -- don't define New Orleans by this hopped-up, endless party. As a rule, eat elsewhere.
In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall is a premier venue for straight-ahead jazz and brass dating to 1961. One of the few all-ages music venues in the Quarter, there is jazz nightly from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. If you're lucky, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, cultural emissaries for New Orleans jazz around the country and the world, will be off tour and in the house. (726 St. Peter Street; 800-785-5772)
With a few days to explore, reach beyond the grace and sass of the French Quarter to Faubourg Marigny, an original Creole neighborhood that's now is home to nightclubs, bars and restaurants frequented by more locals than tourists. There, you can hear traditional jazz from patriarch Ellis Marsalis, who plays every Friday at Snug Harbor with his trio (626 Frenchmen Street; 504-949-0696), and see an incredible collection of jazz memorabilia at the Louisiana State Museum Jazz Collection at the Old U.S. Mint (400 Esplanade Avenue; 504-568-6968; open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; free). Items on display include Louis Armstrong's cornet, Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet with its famous "bent" bell and some 10,000 photographs dating to the 1950s. You'll be just across the street from the French Market, with its clean public restrooms, inexpensive food kiosks and endless souvenir options -- a great stop before you head back to the ship.
Been There, Done That
Explore the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, located in the historic U.S. Custom House on Canal Street. This is a cool museum all about bugs, butterflies and everything creepy-crawly. See the world from a bug's perspective as you wander through a mysterious Louisiana swamp and a butterfly-filled garden. The museum boasts more than 75 live and interactive exhibits in addition to thousands of mounted specimens. (423 Canal Street; 504-524-2847; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $16.50 adults, $12 children 2-12)
Located in historic Uptown New Orleans, the Audubon Zoo can be accessed by the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar line, which stops in front of Audubon Park, Nola's version of Central Park, complete with jogging paths, gardens and sports fields. At the zoo, you'll find an exotic mix of animals from around the globe, engaging educational programs, hands-on animal encounters and lush gardens. Two natural habitat exhibits are worth a look: the award-winning Louisiana Swamp and Jaguar Jungle. (6500 Magazine Street; 504-861-2537; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; $17.50 adults, $12 children 2-12)
The Audubon Institute's Aquarium of the Americas features an IMAX theater in addition to its marine life. (1 Canal Street; 504-565-3033; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $22.50 adults, $16 children 2-12)
Ticket packages for the zoo and aquarium are available.
The growing museum district around Lee Circle will interest art-lovers. The handsome Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp Street; 504-539-9650; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday, after-hour concerts Thursday nights; $10 adults, $5 children 5-17) features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street; 504-528-3805; open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday to Monday; $8 adults.) across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture.
Even in a city as full of cultural gems and attractions as New Orleans, the National WW II Museum stands out from the crowd. Originally named the National D-Day Museum and located in New Orleans because the flat-bottomed Higgins boats used in the invasion were made there, this museum is a must-see for every history buff. Besides extensive and interactive exhibits on the Pacific and European theaters, the museum includes a special section on the Normandy invasion and thousands of 3D artifacts, representative of the war years both at home and overseas. From the "steel pot" helmet to the impressive Sherman tank, the museum's artifacts bring the people and places of World War II into sharp focus. On a lighter note, enjoy the retro 1940s vibe in the American Sector, a canteen tribute to 1940s comfort food, and the Soda Shop for hand-crafted sodas and quick bites. Grilled pimento cheese, anyone? (945 Magazine Street; 504-528-1944; open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; $23-$33 adults, depending on how many exhibits you see, $20-$30 for seniors, WWII veterans free)
Although heavy plant growth has ended canoe trips into Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, the park is still a prime place to spot alligators, egrets, turtles, blue herons, bald eagles, moss and more. Located 20 minutes from downtown in Marrero, the park offers wetland hikes and ranger talks. Mosquito repellant is a must. (6588 Barataria Boulevard; 504-589-3690; open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday)
With another 20-minute drive from downtown, you can visit the gators at the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, the largest urban refuge in the U.S. Walking trails offer great wildlife and bird-watching. Daily one-hour and 45-minute boat tours are offered along the refuge canals, and free staff-led interpretive programs each weekend include canoe tours, bird-watching trips and explorations by bike and trail. (61389 Highway 434; 985-882-2000)
New Orleans is the best food town in America. Those might be fighting words (sorry Napa, apologies Manhattan), but there's no better place to connect with a culture through its cuisine than the Big Easy. Order lunch there, and you get a history lesson on the side. The New Orleans table has been set by the French and Spanish, enlivened by the West African and Caribbean cuisines of the enslaved Africans, and spiced by the wave of Irish, Italian, German and Asian immigrants who landed on these shores.
With the rich bounty of the Gulf at its doorstep, New Orleans seafood is unparalleled, and its down-home comfort food is legendary. For a casual munch, try a muffuletta on crusty French bread, stacked with Italian meats and cheeses and garnished with chopped green olive salad. Typical Creole fare is on the rich side, simmered seafood bisques and garlicky etouffee stews with crawfish and sausage. Jambalaya is the local version of paella, made with seafood, chicken and sausage.
For traditional Creole fare, you simply can't do better than Commander's Palace. The grand dame of New Orleans cuisine, the kitchen housed in the sprawling turquoise building manages to excel at Creole favorites such as turtle soup, pecan-crusted fish, cochon de lait and bread pudding souffle, while remaining relevant (with kitchen alums that include Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, the kitchen continues to attract James Beard award-winning talent). The Sunday Jazz Brunch, where you're serenaded as you sip your Bloody Mary, might be one of the most fun, and certainly one of the most indulgent, meals you've had in your life. (1403 Washington Avenue; 504-899-8221)
For more contemporary stylings, head to chef John Besh's August for extraordinary European-style cuisine with Gulf Coast ingredients in an atmospheric, circa-1800s French-Creole building. A must-have signature dish is the BLT -- buster crabs, lettuce and tomato on pain perdue (a Cajun take on French toast that means "lost bread" in French). (301 Tchoupitoulas; 504-299-9777)
Located in the swanky Roosevelt Hotel, Domenica, another restaurant owned by Besh, dazzles with regional Italian cuisine, what might be the best thin-crust pizza in town, spicy seafood and bean brodetto (stew) and fazzoletti (squares of pasta) with house-cured guanciale (Italian bacon). Many ingredients are grown on Besh's farm outside of New Orleans. (123 Baronne Street; 504-648-6020)
If you get a hankering for soul food, check out Praline Connection, where great gumbo, fried pickles and excellent fried chicken should keep you full -- at least until you're ready to eat again. (542 Frenchmen Street; 504-943-3934)
At Cochon, chef co-owner Stephen Stryjewski (who earned the James Beard Award for Best Chef South 2011) and partner Donald Link (who also owns Herbsaint) pay homage to the old-style Cajun Boucherie with the hand crafting of boudin, andouille, smoked bacon and head cheese. Local seafood also stars in succulent crawfish pies and roasted gulf fish done "fisherman-style," along with comfort foods that include spoon bread with okra and tomatoes, roasted oysters and suckling pig. Try the black-bottomed brown butter banana cream pie for dessert. (930 Tchoupitoulas Street; 504- 588-212)
Seafood is the star at Peche, another Warehouse District-Donald Link offering that won the coveted Best New Restaurant award from the James Beard Foundation in 2014 (chef Ryan Prewitt tied for Best New Chef South). If you're daring, order the whole fish -- although an entree-size portion will more than keep you satisfied. (800 Magazine Street; 504-522-1744)
For a true New Orleans experience, stop by Cafe du Monde for cafe au lait and beignets, a N'Awlins version of the doughtnut, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. It's open 24/7, so go anytime the spirit moves you. (800 Decatur Street; 504-525-4544)
Also open 24/7, the Clover Grill sticks by its motto, "We Love to Fry and It Shows." The Clover, seen briefly in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," is known for its juicy burgers, cooked under a trademark hubcap (yes, really). (900 Bourbon Street; 504-598-1010)
It's not big and fancy, but Green Goddess is the real deal. Tucked away behind Royal Street on Exchange Place, GG's progressive take on soulful cuisine makes use of great Louisiana seafood and produce in an alchemy of flavors and presentation styles that rival anybody in town. Chefs Chris DeBarr and Paul Artigues blow the doors off this tiny eatery with dishes like crawfish cakes served with Spanish romesco sauce, crushed avocado and wasabi tobikko caviar; and seared yellowfin tuna, dusted with fennel pollen accompanied by local watermelon. And "notorious" isn't understating the bacon sundae made with Nueske's Applewood bacon over pecan praline ice cream with a creamy bacon caramel sauce. (307 Exchange Place; 504-301-3347)
In the heart of Frenchmen Street, Three Muses serves up delicious small plates while providing a cabaret atmosphere with live jazz. The lamb sliders are highly recommended. (536 Frenchmen Street; 504-252-4801)
If you'd like less commitment with your Marigny musical wanderings, the popular hot dog chain Dat Dog has a Frenchmen location; on Friday and Saturday, food is served until 3 a.m. Try the crawfish sausage. (601 Frenchmen Street; 504-309-3362)
Best for a Splurge: In 1886, Antonio Monteleone, a shoemaker who came to New Orleans from Contessa, Sicily, and prospered at his French Quarter boot factory, bought the 14-room Commercial Hotel and gave it his name. Four generations, and a $60 million renovation later, the family-owned, 600-room Monteleone is a six-time AAA Four Diamond award-winner and secure in its reputation as a grand hotel. The vibe throughout is retro-European, from the guest rooms' rich fabrics and marble bathrooms to the liveried doormen and the 16-story building's distinctive Baroque facade. With its central location in the French Quarter -- a few blocks from the cruise terminal, Canal Street, Jackson Square and the River Walk -- the Monteleone is an ideal home base for exploring the Crescent City in style. (214 Royal Street; 504-523-3341)
Best Deal: The Queen and Crescent Hotel is just two blocks from the French Quarter. The intimate, well-priced boutique property offers a cozy bar, compact Euro-style rooms with original artwork and all the necessities. It's also just steps from the Harrah's New Orleans casino. (344 Camp Street; 800-455-3417)
Best Location: A few steps from three streetcar lines, Harrah's and the cruise terminal, Loew's New Orleans transformed a former office building into a 21-story, four-star hotel, complete with the Brennan family-run Cafe Adelaide (named for colorful Ti Adelaide Martin, co-owner of Commander's Palace) and the Swizzle Stick Bar, named for Adelaide's favorite accouterment. Rooms are huge and boast endless amenities, from city and river views and laptop-size safes to high-speed Internet access and local art. (300 Poydras; 504-595-3300)
Staying in Touch
Most coffee houses and hotels offer Wi-Fi for a fee or free of charge. There are no Internet cafes in the French Quarter.
New Orleans is primarily an embarkation/debarkation port. Although there are no shore excursions, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, for examples, offer debarkation-day city tours. These guided coach tours include narration through New Orleans highlights, such as the French Quarter, Jackson Square, historic Esplanade Avenue, Tulane and Loyola Universities, Audubon Park and Zoological Gardens, and the city's unique cemeteries with their above-ground burial plots.
For More Information
On the Web: New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Gulf Coast Departures
IndependentTraveler.com: United States Travel Guide
--By Beth D'Addono, Cruise Critic contributor; updated by Chris Gray Faust, Destinations Editor