May Monthly Trip
Its Memorial Day weekend, a hot and humid May afternoon. I find myself standing outside of a 200 year old colonial mansion gazing at the intricate wrought iron framework and lush trailing ivy. The house was built for Napoleon. A safe sanctuary for him hide out though he never made it here. In my hand is a bright yellow plastic novelty cup filled with a mixture of Rum and fruit juice. A sugary cocktail concoction known here as a Hurricane. Laughter spills from the windows and doorways of nearby restaurants but here we stand in shadows and the tone is hushed.
This is New Orleans. Class, elegance, and history underneath covered in a fun-loving lets be wild and break all the rules exterior. It never gets pretentious here, nor does it ever fully dissolve into the casual disregard for propriety that you find in Las Vegas. It’s a delicate blend that has been a part of New Orleans culture since the very beginning. This is a city that lives life to its fullest and makes no apologies for it.
I could have easily spent months uncovering all of the facets of New Orleans, but I only had 3 days. That 9-5 life really bites sometimes doesn’t it? Not to let that stop me, here are 7 things I did in only 3 Days in New Orleans (and you can do them too!)
1. Explore the French Quarter
Hardcore travelers are often dismissive of tours but I have found that when you are short on time they are a very effective way to see the highlights of an area. And if you are travelling alone, they are a great way to meet new people.
My original plans hit a roadblock and I found myself using Airplane Wi-Fi to quickly book a new tour, just hours away from its start time. I found Dawn at Magic Tours and she was able to accommodate me at the last minute. She provided us with an informative and colorful taste of the French Quarter which is known for its Architecture, Shopping, and Restaurants. It’s full of life, movement, and energy. Though it remains different from any Downtown area I have ever been in. There is a very laid back, casual, easy vibe. Nothing is hurried or rushed, but that doesn’t seem to result in any loss of energy or vibrancy. Most of the older buildings have some interesting story attached, filled with colorful characters that match the colorful exteriors, so even if you aren’t an architecture buff there will be plenty to keep you amused.
2. Bourbon Street Pub Crawl
A wild night out is not for everyone and in many cases it would not be for me either. But Bourbon Street is an iconic piece of the New Orleans experience and I wanted to make sure I got to see it.
Since I was travelling alone and wanted to make sure I was safe and having fun I choose to pub crawl with a tour group. For only $15, Pub Crawl NOLA will take you to 5 varied and interesting bars along Bourbon Street. Two hosts guide you from place to place with groups anywhere from 30 to 60 people. My group was around 20. And of those 20 people I made at least 5 new and dear friends. A couple from Texas, two best friends from Tennessee on a birthday trip, and a couple of guys from Florida. It was a great chance to meet new people, who love to travel and see new things, and who just wanted to have a good time on a Friday night.
Ok, let’s be clear. This is not simply a street with a lot bars. This is an outdoor block party with thousands of people. New Orleans allows you to take your liquor to-go, drinking in public and on the street being totally legal. What this means is that you drift in and out of various bars throughout the night with the party never stopping in transition. It didn’t feel like I was in a series of different bars, it felt like the whole street was one giant party with different themed drink stations along the way. I got a drink while watching a bachelorette party attempt to ride a mechanical bull and then was cheering on a live 90’s hip hop band down the street before the drink was even finished. It was as crazy and wild as it was billed to be but I never felt unsafe (largely thanks to my awesome group of new friends!) and I ended the night without having a single drink spilled on me.
Special Tip – Find the Hot Dog cart outside of Funky 544. It’s one of the only food spots available after midnight and you will not regret it. Best tasting hot dog I have ever had and much needed at 2am!
3 & 4 – The Garden District and Lafayette Cemetery No 1.
Ok, yes, I am clustering these items together. It’s not cheating the list, it’s simply that I did them all on the same day, they are next to each other, and it will be easiest for me to explain it that way.
I have to start by telling you that as a young teenager I loved Anne Rice. Still do actually, but especially during that time I consumed her books with a voracious appetite. As a result my head has always been filled with an image of the Garden District as dark gothic manors where vampires and witches lurk. Beautiful, wealthy, sophisticated on the outside but harboring many skeletons inside. However, the morning I showed up to this illustrious neighborhood was bright, sunny, and free of vampires and skeletons. There were however plenty of impressive homes, showcasing an array of architectural styles. Trimmed green lawns spilling into wrought iron gates with a profusion of flowers lined up in rows along the edges. Everything precise and in its place.
The neighborhood was strangely deserted however. While I saw several tour groups and individual tourists roaming around taking pictures, I didn’t see a single resident of the neighborhood. No one sitting on porches or walking their dogs. No glimpse of life through the windows. It seemed like a perfectly preserved ghost town. Though when I take a minute to rein in my vivid imagination, I realize that this is likely because of all the tourists roaming around. I wouldn’t be sitting near my windows either if large groups of strangers were outside taking pictures.
The gothic vibe increased substantially as we neared the edge of the Garden District and arrived at Lafayette Cemetery No 1. If you have ever seen an image of New Orleans, you have likely seen this cemetery. It’s the one with all the above ground tombs. Rumored to be a favorite hangout of Voodoo priests and a favorite location for Anne Rice. It’s smaller than I expected it to be, you could probably walk the whole perimeter in about 30 minutes. You will find a mix of new and old here, it’s a very ancient cemetery that is still in active use by families with a history there, or those than can afford a new mausoleum. I had the strangest urge to sit there for an afternoon and have a picnic, or just relax and read a book. Which is a strange feeling to have in a cemetery, certainly a new one for me. It was a busy place and yet strangely peaceful at the same time. I wonder however if I would have felt the same way had I come to the cemetery at night…There are tours that offer that experience and I may have to sign up for one the next time I visit the city.
Fun Fact: The common belief is that the Tombs are built in this cemetery because the water level is so high in New Orleans bodies would float back to the top if you tried to bury them here. While this conjures pleasantly gruesome images, my knowledgeable and passionate guide, insists that the story of floating bodies is just a myth for the tourists. In reality, these tombs were built for the wealthy citizens of New Orleans to try to impress their European neighbors. Mausoleums were the style in France at the time and it was important to show that we here in America could be just as sophisticated.
5. Brunch at the Commanders Palace.
This event was likely the most memorable highlight of my time in New Orleans. I do not consider myself in any way a “foodie”. Quite frankly I am just too picky about what I eat to join those elite ranks. This experience was almost enough to convert me.
The Commanders Palace was built in 1880 and though it has been renovated over the years it has retained much of its historic charm. It’s a well-known foodie mecca and has produced such world renowned chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, and Jamie Shannon. Now, as an acknowledged non-foodie I’ll admit that I don’t know who those chefs are, but I am told that they are quite famous and very impressive.
What I do know is that this places oozes charm and elegance. They are one of the few remaining restaurants in the area that require a dress code, the owner is often seen standing in the front lobby greeting guests as they arrive, the service staff is well trained and friendly, and during Sunday Brunch a three piece jazz band wanders from room to room to entertain diners.
To continue this story properly I have to take a minute to pause and tell you about Tree. I ate at the Commanders Palace as part of a tour. One of the things I find most challenging about solo travel is dinning alone. Especially during a busy time at a popular restaurant the stares seem heated and I feel guilty for taking up a table. I found Tree, my tour guide, online through his business Racon Tours. He offers a tour that starts in the Garden District, takes you through Lafayette Cemetery, and ends with a meal at the Commanders Palace. This seemed like the perfect fit for the experience I wanted and would allow me to dine with a group. What I got from Tree was far more than I could have imagined. Though not a New Orleans native his passion for this city is evident in every word he speaks. Rather than just reciting a memorized script Tree has built his tour on personal research. He spends his free time digging through old books and newspapers to find stories of locals that he can stare with guests. He takes great joy in sharing what he loves and every bit of the tour has a personal touch. From the first moment, Tree seemed more like an old friend that I had come to visit who was taking me around his city on an adventure. Hands-down, the best guide I have ever seen.
So by the time our group rapped up the morning portion of the tour we were hot and tired and starving. Tree arranged for us to have a corner booth which gave us a great view of the rest of the room. The menu was four courses of pure culinary delight. We each got two appetizers that Tree had pre-selected to give us a good example of the difference between Creole and Cajun cooking. For me, it was my first taste of Turtle Soup. It was a big step for me to be that adventurous but I couldn’t let the opportunity pass. And it was very very tasty. Sorry Turtles, I now know that I like to eat you. For the third course I had Cochon De Lait Eggs Benedict. Which for the un-educated non-foodies is a basic eggs benedict with pulled pork. And desert was the Commanders Palace signature Creole Bread Pudding Soufflé. Each course was paired with a matching Cocktail and a history lesson from Tree. Completely unhurried, we sat back, chatted, listed to jazz and stuffed ourselves until there was no space left.
After food service, the restaurant shuts down for a few hours to transition from lunch to dinner. Because we were with Tree we were allowed to stay during this shut down and get a private tour of the rest of the restaurant. Each individual room has a story and a history. We got too meet the head chef and were treated to a tour of the kitchens. We also got to go inside the wine cellar. The Commanders Palace wine cellar holds over 24,000 bottles of wine! Its boozy heaven.
We finally ended our event at about 4pm. I said a very reluctant good-bye to tree and headed back to my hotel for a nap. I don’t think this particular tour would ever get old, I plan to take it each and every time I visit New Orleans. It’s worth stopping for the meal, the experience will be unforgettable.
6. Tour the Swamp
To keep things varied I also included some nature and wildlife time in my weekend. In New Orleans style, that means swamps and alligators. I used Cajun Encounters swamp tours based on Trip Advisor recommendations and because they include in their pricing a shuttle. Swamp access is about 45 minutes from the French Quarter where I was staying and I didn’t want to hassle with a rental car or pay for a taxi. As a bonus, our shuttle driver pointed out a lot of the areas hardest hit by Katrina while we were making the drive which was a great bit of additional information.
Wildlife was abundant on this tour. Within the first 10 minutes we had seen our first alligator, several turtles sunbathing, and a bunch of birds. Further out in the water, our guided slowed the boat down and pulled out a back of hot dogs. He proceeded to put a chunk of hot dog on the end of a stick and tap it on the surface of the water a few times. As if he had just completed a summoning ritual, an alligator seemed to appear from nowhere to snatch up the hot dog. Because Hot Dogs are clearly the natural prey of alligators… It’s pretty clear that the reptiles that make this area of swamp home have learned the tourist system and learned that humans mean fake, but tasty meat. Our guide was able to make the alligator come completely out of the water and balance on his back legs by raising the stick in the air. He was very close to the boat so it was not a problem to see just how many teeth these creatures possess. I felt great sympathy for the hot dog.
A particular favorite encounter of mine I have tiled in my mind “Friendly Raccoon vs Young Alligator: The Marshmallow Stand-Off”. Further into the swamp we had come across a Raccoon hiding in the foliage near the edge of the water. Our guide had sharp eyes and spotted him, pulling the boat over to the side so we could get a closer look. He dug into his magic bag of wildlife bait and pulled out a hand-full of Marshmallows. Hot Dogs are not appropriate bait for Raccoons, of course. As soon as the first Marshmallow hit the water a small alligator popped and headed toward it. The Raccoon had also started making his way to the treat and as soon as they saw each other they both froze. Neither one was willing to give up the prize and stood very still staring each other down. I had visions of seeing the poor Raccoon (Raccoons are insanely adorable in person by the way, I had to restrain myself from trying to catch and cuddle the thing) get eaten by the alligator and said so to the guide. Meanwhile the Raccoon began inching closer to the Marshmallow, determination in his little eyes. Finally the moment for action had come, with a lighting fast movement the Raccoon moved forward to snatch the treat. The alligator lunged by missed him by a fair amount. Not moving far the Raccoon stopped at the edge of the tree line to nibble on his prize with a delicate motion. I think he was pretty clearly staying in view of the alligator to taunt him. To make sure the story had a happy ending our guide tossed a hot dog to the alligator and we motored on, everyone going about their day with treats.
Disclaimer: For those of you who are concerned, this particular area of the swamp is off-limits to hunters so the alligators, wild pigs, and my sweet-tooth Raccoon are not in danger as a result of being too familiar with humans.
7. Listen to Jazz
You won’t be able to avoid hearing soul-searing music in this city, even if you try. It spills form doorways and windows, bands cluster on street corners and in hotel lobbies, formal concerts are scheduled in grand halls and dive bars alike. All of this combining to create a background soundtrack to New Orleans that just never ends.
While it’s easy to hear the music, it’s worth dedicating time to just sit back and really listen. New Orleans has a rich musical history and produces some of the finest players in the world.
My last afternoon in the city was warm and rainy. A particular favorite of mine. The streets of the French Quarter were not deserted but were definitely less busy than the previous days and I was doing some last minute shopping when I stumbled upon the New Orleans Musical Legends Park. I was drawn in by the music of course. A stage had been set up under a bright green canvas awning to shelter the musicians from the rain. The music was lively and every table under an umbrella was full, even with the rain. Toward the back of the park, which is filled with bronze statues of famous New Orleans Musicians, is a little coffee shop where I purchased three hot sugary Beignets and a Café Au Lait. My shopping was completely forgotten at this point and I spent the remainder of my last day sitting in that park, listening to the music and the rain, and eating Beignets until my fingers were caked in powdered sugar. A more perfect ending to the trip could not have been designed.
So there it is. Three amazing days of food, architecture, music, and adventure. Thanks for showing my such a great time New Orleans, I’ll be back as soon as I can manage it!
- I used airline and hotel points to pay for travel on this trip. Out of pocket total, it cost me about $300.
- I was not paid to promote any of these services or websites and receive no commission from them.