It seems like there is no city more universally beloved than Louisiana's New Orleans. The colorful streets, adorned with wrought iron balconies, scream to be explored and photographed; the best restaurants in the entire country lure you in to try some of the most delicious food you will ever have in your life; and the promises of live shows until 4am contribute to the you-can-have-it-all vibrations that circulate around the city; they don't call it "The Big Easy" for nothing. It's a city that somehow continues to stay untouched by time and geography, its DNA seemingly made of otherwordly components as hard-to-grasp and unravel as those of a perfectly improvised jazz composition.
While some might point to Mardi Gras as the best time to visit this magical city, Jazz Fest is my personal favorite. It says a lot when someone who doesn't attend any music festivals, has been consistently going to this one for several years in a row now. There is a certain je ne sais quoi that surrounds the city, despite the actual festival taking place a little bit outside of the downtown area. The bars are filled with live music that spills onto the sidewalks, there are marching bands and dance parties that break out on every street corner at all times of day, and even the food tastes better than during any other time of the year, flavors coming alive with the energy of the city. With this in mind, if you find yourself in the city this week, here's a first-timer's guide to New Orleans that includes some of the spots that have made me fall in love with this extraordinary city.
Now, this is not a guide meant for locals or people who call NOLA their home away from home. This is a guide for travelers who are in Crescent City for the first or second time specifically for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—whose second round starts today and goes through Sunday—and want to get the most NOLA-like experiences out of their limited free time there. This might not list the newest or the hottest spots to visit right now, but ones that are most reliable, ones that have proven themselves over the years and contributed to the character of this one-of-a-kind city.
Ahead, where to stay and what to eat (in two parts because that's how much great food there is in NOLA), drink, and do.
Where to stay
Given the quirky and historic nature of this city, it will really be a shame to end up staying at one of the sterile hotel chains when there are so many personality filled boutique hotels and Airbnbs populating Crescent City. If you're leaning more toward a hotel, consider booking one through Mr & Mrs Smith; not only do they only work with unique boutique hotels, but they will also throw in hotel perks that are only available to their users. Or, read our list of suggestions below.
One thing to note is that the festival and the downtown area are a 15-minute car ride away from each other. If you want to stay closer to the grounds and not deal with the car/taxi wait (which can be an hour long) following the festival, you will probably be better staying in an Airbnb close-ish to them.
Ace Hotel New Orleans: Ace's hotels rarely disappoint, and this outpost in NOLA's Warehouse District is no exception. In addition to an Instagram-worthy rooftop garden, modern-chic rooms, and a New Orleans-inspired osteria, ACNO plays host to a variety of engaging music events around this time as part of its Six of Saturns series. It's reason enough for us to stay there.
International House Hotel: We love a hotel with a good craft cocktail bar where we can begin our night, have a nightcap, or just never leave for the duration of the entire night because that's how good it is. Such a bar is International House Hotel's LOA, a favorite among guests, locals, and tourists alike. The whimsical decor throughout the hotel, the spa, and room balconies overlooking the city are just an added bonus.
Henry Howard Hotel: The facade of this hotel screams Southern manor, while the interior will remind you of the South of France. The spacious rooms and suites are all airy and bright with quirky, yet not kitschy, touches and details distinguishing one from another. You will want to photograph every detail from the vintage furniture to the graphic tiles and sweetly printed wallpaper.
Where to eat (day)Jazz Festival grounds: While at most festivals, food is just a form of basic nourishment and an afterthought, at Jazz Fest, it's one of the main attractions. Sport-eat your way through as many food stalls as you can (and there are so many of them!) that feature food from some of the best chefs in the city. The best part about this lineup is that each food stand offers only a few options of its signature dishes, so no two vendors compete with each other with the same dish. Our favorites include creamy Crawfish Monica pasta, Crescent Catering cajun duck po' boy, and Cajun Nights Catering alligator pie, crabmeat-stuffed shrimp, and fried green tomato combo. Music, who?
Central Grocery: This is the birthplace of the famous muffuletta, an Italian-style sandwich on rounded sesame bread. If you go—and you really should—order a half sandwich. Trust us on this.
Cafe du Monde: Yes, this is the biggest tourist attraction you can possibly find in NOLA. Yes, it's still worth going to this iconic green-and-white-awned cafe in Jackson Square that's known for its legendary beignets. Yes, there's usually a giant line. Pro tip No. 1: It's open 24 hours, so go during an off-hour when there are fewer people. Pro tip No. 2: Don't wear black when you go here, or you'll leave covered in powdered sugar. (Actually, you still will no matter what you wear.) Pro tip No. 3: Get a hot or frozen cafe au lait to go with your beignets. You'll thank us later.
Cafe Amelie: NOLA is known for its outdoor brunches, and this one is the most scenic. You will feel like you're entering a secret garden when you make the turn into this lush courtyard featuring a fountain. Make sure to make a reservation and request a table outside as this is a known favorite among tourists and locals and can get quite busy.
Mother's Restaurant: They might proclaim that they have the “World’s Best Baked Ham,” but we’re obsessed with the red beans and rice, po' boys, and pretty much every other New Orleans comfort food staple that this casual but reliable joint prepares.
Port of Call: If you're craving a great burger, head to this French Quarter establishment known for its juicy New Orleans-style cheeseburgers served with a loaded baked potato. Have more than one of their tropical drinks, and you might then want a second burger. There is just something so comfortable about this place that you don't want to leave. Also, the drinks are strong.
Felix's Restaurant & Oyster House: If chargrilled oysters are what you're after, skip the overcrowded Acme Oyster House and head next door for what is, in our humble, food-obsessed opinion, a much better version. Or, go to Deanie's Seafood, which also serves some great seafood in a more casual environment.
The Joint: Don't forget about Louisiana's famous barbecue—it's a must-try. So is the smoked pastrami that this incredible, well, joint puts out. If you don't get lucky with the pastrami (it's only offered on certain days and gets scooped up pretty quickly), the pork ribs and the beef brisket will more than make up for its absence.
Cafe Maspero: Similar to Mother's, this long-standing Jackson Square joint that's been around for many, many generations of New Orleans families, is straight-to-the-point and a foolproof destination to get jambalaya, boudin, red beans, and po' boys.
Napoleon House: We don't know what's more impressive, that Napoleon House has been around for 200 years or that it continues to serve the best sandwiches and Creole lunch fare in NOLA.
Mahony's Po-Boys: We don't have to tell you the signature dish here, just the flavor: While the fried oyster version is super popular for a reason, be different and try the fried shrimp. We're converts.
Where to eat (night)Cochon: I was told by one local that if I haven't been to Cochon, I haven't been to NOLA. While that might seem like a gross exaggeration, they were right. It was remarkable—as in one of the best meals I have ever had remarkable—with every Cajun Southern dish better than the previous one. If you have time to make it to only one place, make it this.
La Petite Grocery: The contemporary-driven New Orleans menu here shines through dishes like the blue crab beignets (order double) and the turtle Bolognese. Thanks to a James Beard Award-winning chef at the helm, who took over a decade ago, this culinary haven continues to remain one of the most important and gastronomically interesting Southern bistros.
Lilette: Housed behind a beautiful facade, that in the late '80s held a corner drugstore, is this intimate and non-stuffy French bistro with a homemade Italian edge in the form of some mouthwatering pasta dishes. The menu changes seasonally, but, no matter what, try the gnocchi and Euro-reimagined classics like the boudin.
Mariza: This loft-like contemporary restaurant might seem out of the way for some, but it's worth abandoning the crowded streets for. Also since you'll probably be eating a lot of fried and Southern-style dishes during the day, this Italian-leaning menu will provide a nice change to for your palette.
Herbsaint: From the same group that own Cochon comes this seasonal gem featuring a menu that boasts the freshest of flavors combined with elements of French-Italian cuisine and a Southern flair. With Herbsaint's chef, Rebecca Wilcomb, having won this year's James Beard Award, you can expect this charming restaurant to be on top of everyone's list right now.
Shaya: Another 2017 James Beard Award gold medalist, Zachary Engel is now bringing even more culinary fame to this modern Israeli concept, whose hummus Tom Junod of GQ once described as "cream." You might think that New Orleans is not to be wasted on non-Southern fare, and you would be wrong. Shaya is not only the best Israeli restaurant in the city, it is one of the best in the country.
Commander's Palace: This is the most famous restaurant in New Orleans, and, as such, you should try their traditional take on boiled crawfish, gumbo, and shrimps and grits. It is as good as the reputation that precedes it (they don't lie about the hefty prices either) and deserves all the accolades that it has received. If it's too fancy for your taste, try its younger, spirited sister SoBou. We're kind of big fans.
Coquette: We love this trendy dining room that features not-your-standard ingredients. Despite the menu being on the shorter side, it won't make it any easier for you to narrow down your choices with seemingly every dish sounding better than the previous one. And don't think that you can conquer the menu with several visits, as the menu changes seasonally.
Muriel's: This place has ghosts! This should be enough to lure you in. The incredible view of Jackson Square from the second-floor balcony of this higher-end establishment and the no-frills, delicious-as-is Creole cuisine is just the praline on top.
Where to drink
PJ's Coffee: With the amount of alcohol you'll likely be consuming, you might need a break in between, and an iced coffee from PJ's should do the trick. Featuring local flavors like Southern pecan, bananas foster, praline, and more, this local joint is proof that New Orleans is a top-notch coffee port.
Bacchanal Wine: We had a hard time deciding whether to place this in the drinking, food, or entertainment category on this list for it offers all. It's a wine bar with delicious food, a scenic outdoor courtyard, and very impressive live music. If you're there on Sunday, take advantage of the jazz during brunch; if you're there Monday, don't miss Helen Gillet.
Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar: One of the oldest bars in America, Lafitte's oozes witchy vibes (so much so that it's often shown on the haunted ghost tours), with its barely lit candles, dark wood detailing, and brick fireplace. Despite this, it feels weirdly cozy. Revel in the spirits while sipping the famous purple drank (a voodoo-inspired, heavily spiked grape slushie) or, like, a beer.
The Carousel Bar & Lounge: Hotel Monteleone's famous bar is exactly what it sounds us: a bar that looks like a carousel and rotates around the room. It's definitely on the fancier side, but its giant windows overlooking Royal Street making it a prime spot for people watching. William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote are just some of the celebs who have been spotted there in years past.
The Sazerac Bar: Sazeracs are considered the world's first mixed drink and have a history in New Orleans, which is why you should check out this upscale-ish bar tucked away in The Roosevelt hotel. The elegant scenery will be a welcome relief from all the dive bars you'll inevitably end up in. The drinks may look tiny, but don't make the mistake of underestimating their strength.
Three Muses: We were tempted to throw this multipurpose establishment under entertainment, too, given how great of a music venue it is, but the cocktails are just too good to group it with the other music establishments.
Pat O’Briens: Home of the (in)famous neon red hurricane. While it might be tempting to skip this bar, due to its status as a permanent tourist trap and signature drink of choice—who drinks hurricanes nowadays?—you shouldn’t, if only to witness the gorgeous courtyard and to people watch the uninitiated stumble out of this place after drinking more than one cocktail. You were warned: The bartenders don’t mess around with their pours.
Delachaise: If your idea of dinner is of the grape variety, proceed to Garden District's Delachaise where you find more than 50 wines available. Grab a table in the outdoor seating area and make sure to order all the appetizers, like the pommes frites fried in goose fat, frog legs, and homemade pâté.
Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge: This dive bar, that looks like a shed from the outside, is not for the faint of heart or liver. It's a favorite of both Playboy and Anthony Bourdain and, as the name suggests, it's Christmas-themed. Do what you will with that. We do suggest making this the last stop of the night as it's open until 7am and not meant to be experienced sober.
Dante's Kitchen: A relatively mellow bar in the Frenchman/Marigny neighborhood, it always has reliably good music, an excellent beer selection, and decent small bites should you need something to soak up all that drinking.
What to do:
You can check off no item from the list below and just spend the days aimlessly roaming around New Orleans, and feel like you know this architecturally stunning city like a close friend; it's so easy to get lost in Jackson Square, in William Faulkner's former home-turned-bookstore, in one of the many galleries lining Royal Street (Harouni Gallery was a highlight), in record stores filled with hard-to-find gems, and in metaphysical and spiritual boutiques (we're obsessed with Island of Botanica that's operated by a priestess) endlessly dotting the city. But you'll be doing yourself a disservice by not getting to know the city via its inhabitants and not doing any of the below.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (duh!): With this year's lineup including Lorde, Kings of Leon, Maroon 5, Stevie Wonder, and so many more, don't miss out on the actual festival. While it might be tempting to skip the smaller acts that perform early on, in favor of exploring the city (been there, done that), the magic of Jazz Fest is spotting the emerging talent and getting to hear all the incredible jazz musicians who aren't always sufficiently recognized. You never know what surprises might happen during jazz fest, like marching bands breaking out in the middle of the grounds or famous guest performers joining bands last minute, unable to resist the energy.
Listen to jazz and live music, not on festival grounds: We know, chances are, you'll be listening to jazz and live music all day while at the festival, but seeing the musicians outside of the grounds in intimate bars and on small stages is truly something special. One of my favorite music memories was being squished by people in the iconic Blue Nile, close enough to the stage to touch the instruments, as the band Worship My Organ played until 2am. The list of music venues is truly endless in NOLA, but here are some places to get you started: Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, The Maison, Fritzel's European Jazz Pub, d.b.a., Balcony Music Club, Tipitina's, Maple Leaf Bar. You can also forego this list entirely, walk to Frenchman Street, and just go into any of the haunts from which music will inevitably come spilling out.
Take a cooking class at Crescent City Cooks!: From all my past trips, I've learned that it rains pretty often in NOLA around this time of year which means: (1) wear clothes and shoes that you don't mind getting dirty in and (2) have a backup plan for when you really don't want to be outside. Our plan B one year ended up being a cooking class at this part home store, part cooking school. As a local chef told us about the history of New Orleans cooking, he walked us through how to make jambalaya, rice and red beans, and bananas foster. We left feeling so inspired (also full!) that we bought half of the store—including ingredients necessary to make the aforementioned recipes—which the store shipped right to our homes in New York and Miami.
Swamp tour: While April is not prime alligator season, you will still manage to spot a few of these majestic creatures while riding along the winding swamp located about an hour outside the city. Depending on the tour operator you select, other highlights could include seeing the house facades shown in the Beasts of Southern Wild, holding baby alligators, and dying over the hysterical, insanely cute (see above), and insatiable hogs that devour everything in sight.
The National WWII Museum: Yes, really. It's impressive and historically rewarding—and not just for history and veteran buffs—showcasing photos, films, and interactive exhibits on battles ranging from Japan to Germany and Normandy. On one hand, this is a great rainy day backup; on the other hand, everyone else will be rushing to take in the impressive collection at the same time, too.
Nighttime haunted history tours: While we are not ones to typically recommend a haunted history tour, it's kind of fun to do one when in NOLA, due to the city's rich voodoo and ghost history. Sign up for one through the hotel or at one of the many companies that offer it in the city and prepare to learn about the dark and paranormal history of the city's slave trading, vampires, and spirits of corrupt powerful tycoons wronged.
Crescent Park: When you wake up feeling like you can’t drink or eat one morning (and you probably will), take a run by this scenic riverfront park. The modern industrial landscape paired with the waterfront views may work up an appetite or, at the very least, cleanse your mind and prepare you for the day ahead.
Food Shop: You might have eaten your way through NOLA, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't take edible goods with you back home. Stock up on different kind of pralines that are sold on almost every populated block (you can find our favorites at Tee-Eva's Old Fashioned Pies and Pralines), hot sauces at Pepper Palace, and spices from the World Famous N'awlins Cafe & Spice Emporium located at the French Market. (While at the market, also grab an alligator head as a gag gift.) Note: After tasting coffee at Cafe du Monde, you will love it so much, you'll want to get a jar home, but just know that many Whole Foods Markets nationwide and other specialty food stores carry the brand, so you don't actually need to go through the trouble of traveling with it or shipping it home.