They call it The Big Easy. But that’s a fib. Sure, the lifestyle of New Orleans is laid-back by prim Minnesotan standards, and the French Quarter — its heart and soul — is simple to enjoy.
But here’s the hard truth: It’s never easy to cram all the attractions of this warm city — celebrating its 300th birthday in 2018 — into a single visit.
So relax. Give in to its allure as you sample its cultural stew, flavored with food, architecture and music with a Creole accent. Then plan to come back.
Beignets and balconies
Start your day (or end it: It’s open 24/7) at the Café du Monde by ordering its entire menu — café au lait plus beignets, served in drifts of powdered sugar — as you watch the world go by and listen to street musicians coaxing wails from horns.
The legendary café on Jackson Square faces St. Louis Cathedral, named to please the French, who once owned the land.
The gent on the bronze horse in the park between them is Andrew Jackson, perpetually tipping his hat to the ladies. On either side, platoons of elegant apartments from the 1850s flaunt their lacy, wrought-iron balconies, sheltering sidewalks occupied by caricature artists and fortune tellers plying tarot cards.
Behind the cathedral, you can find the former digs of William Faulkner (bookstore, too), Tennessee Williams (yes, that famed streetcar really stops at Desire) and Truman Capote.
Sign on for a walking tour for insider info on the townhouses of history’s aristocrats, their slaves’ voodoo parlors and the Ursuline Convent of 1750, the oldest building in the city.
Then amble past the antique shops and art galleries on Royal Street and the bars lining Bourbon Street (where a permit to carry refers not to firearms but cocktails in to-go cups) as Dixieland tunes from pop-up bands put a grin on your face.
That music also is part of funeral parades. In New Orleans, the deeply departed reside in stunning above-ground cemeteries called Cities of the Dead, open for tours and scattered around the town.
Most famous among them is St. Louis Cemetery #1, walking distance from the French Quarter on historic Basin Street.
Near Jackson Square you can pick up the Moon Walk, a riverside promenade on the Mississippi River that’s home to a paddleboat cruises, ferry rides to Algiers on the opposite bank (ideal for skyline photos) and a waterside aquarium, featuring gators as well as more global swimmers.
On Canal Street, hop on the St. Charles streetcar for a trip that jangles you past the Audubon Zoo and the fancy mansions of the Garden District, housing celebs past and present from Confederacy President Jefferson Davis to author Anne Rice.
Those avenues are packed — packed! — with parade-watchers during Mardi Gras. But you don’t have to immerse yourself in the insanity to get a behind-the-scenes view of those fabled floats: Simply visit Mardi Gras World to peer into its “den” — featuring platoons of floats and their papier-mache “celebs” — including Winston Churchill, Elvis and King Kong. You can also tour the studios of artists preparing for next year’s extravaganzas. Indeed, more than 50 events are slated between Jan. 6 and Fat Tuesday, which is Feb. 13 this year.
You’ll get a bite of King cake to enjoy while viewing a film of past proceedings, with crowds screaming “Throw me somethin’, Mistah!” as bangles, coins and candy hit the streets.
Also in the Garden District, grab an elegant lunch at the award-winning, historic Commander’s Palace, featuring its famed turtle soup and 25-cent martinis with an entrée purchase: “Limit three per person — ’cause that’s enough.”
Another above-ground cemetery — Lafayette No. 1 and No. 2, dating back to 1832 — sits across the street and is open for daily tours by reservation.
Immerse yourself in history
Back downtown, be sure to set aside at least half a day (minimum, trust me) of your attention — the National World War II Museum, which covers both European and Pacific fronts through gripping newsreels from the times (hear Roosevelt’s famed fireside chats while sitting aside a fireplace of the Forties) and video accounts from former servicemen.
Across the street, stands another don’t-miss museum — the Ogden Museum of Southern Art — a showplace for regional artists.
Finally, head back to the French Quarter to visit an under-the-radar outpost of the multifaceted (and free) Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Visitors can follow the evolution of the city as well as its unique accents, both Cajun and Creole: “Want your po’ boy dressed?” (translation: sandwich garnished) “with my-nez?” (that would be mayo). Listen, too, to a panoply of music — zydeco, brass band, folk — whatever’s your fancy.
To hear those tunes live, head to the venerable, always-crowded Preservation Hall, or the many restaurants and bars on Frenchman Street.
Where, oh where, to eat?
Now to the most pressing question: Where to eat? Here, dining is a contact sport, and “diet” is a swear word. The centerpieces to this heritage are its holy words — gumbo, jambalaya and etouffee.
They star on many a menu, including the fabled Antoine’s, graciously serving folks for five generations. The Gumbo Shop serves a delicious version of its namesake, along with po’ boys and a dandy bread pudding.
For contemporary interpretations, visit NOLA, by “bam!” Chef Emeril, or any restaurant by Chef John Besh, vested in preserving the city’s multi-cultural heritage.
For oysters, Acme shucks them in front of your eyes.
Muffaletta sandwich? It’s stacked best at Central Grocery; carry it across the street to enjoy it on the levee. Or have a sit-down muffaletta experience (whole, half or even quarter) at the 200-year-old Napoleon House, offering another New Orleans classic, the gin-based Pimm’s cup, garnished with a cucumber slice.
But my all-time favorite spot is Mother’s, since 1938 serving eggs-and-bacon-and-grits, biscuits-and-gravy and anything else your Southern-beating heart desires, delivered by career waitresses who call you darlin’.
Doesn’t get better than that.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.