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!"
New Orleans Cruise Port Address:
920 Port of New Orleans Place, New Orleans, LA 70130
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.
The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk puts 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.
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).
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.
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.
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?"
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)
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.
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.