New Insider spots and old-school haunts in the Big Easy
You already know that the French Quarter isn’t all there is to New Orleans: Maybe you’ve ridden the St. Charles streetcar or eaten at Commander’s Palace. But go a little farther and you’ll find there’s a whole lot more shaking all over town. Check out these old-school locals’ haunts and fresh new hangs, and find out what keeps NOLA forever funky.
1. A Little Downtown Uptown
Tucked in the heart of Uptown, near magnolia-shaded Tulane and Loyola universities, an 8-block stretch of Freret Street has emerged as one of NOLA’s hotspots. Take the streetcar up St. Charles Avenue to browse the food and fleas at the monthly outdoor Freret Market (first Saturdays) or stop in at Crescent City Comics for a good read. After an artisanal cocktail at stylish Cure, savor Bayou-Delta fusion at the festive High Hat Cafe or small plates and elevated sandwiches at Wayfare. Complete the day with blues or brass at Publiq House.
2. Bywater Nights
Come evening, Bywater’s hipsters and old-timers go looking for a good time. The gritty but gentrifying neighborhood, a 20-minute walk from the Quarter, hosts a growing array of eateries, including Creole-Southern Elizabeth’s and progressive American Maurepas Foods. Music rules here, in places like a dilapidated little shack called Vaughan’s Lounge. It’s especially fun on Thursday nights, when trumpet legend Kermit Ruffins packs the house. Anything goes on stage at divey Saturn Bar, crammed with kitsch, junk, and art.
3. Jazz in the Marigny
Between Bywater and the Quarter, Faubourg Marigny (aka the Marigny) is anchored by Frenchmen Street, a gumbo of eclectic live music, spirited bar scenes, street life, and diverse cuisines. From trad jazz to the blues, the funky Spotted Cat always throws a party for its mixed crowd. Modern jazz fans gather in the intimate cabaret at Snug Harbor and enjoy the Creole specialties. For craft cocktails, inventive bites, and sultry vocal jazz, fashionable locals favor Three Muses. And when it’s time to let loose, brass lovers head to Maison for dancing to music on three stages.
4. SCADs of Galleries
Running along the northern borders of the Marigny and Bywater, still-seedy St. Claude Avenue has become the Main Street of the up-and-coming St. Claude Arts District (SCAD). Among the 30-plus arty outposts are the Marigny spots Barrister’s Gallery, which exhibits unorthodox, provocative fine and folk art as well as decorative pieces from Africa and Asia, and Staple Goods, an artist-run collective of contemporary talent. At the Bywater end of the corridor are galleries such as Rusty Pelican Studios, where Travis Linde sells figurative sculpture and furniture he crafts from Katrina debris, and The Front, a not-for-profit gallery dedicated to avant-garde and experimental work by emerging artists.
5. Cajun Country in Mid-City
There are traces of Acadiana all over town, but it can be difficult to separate the authentic from the ersatz. Mid-City, a low-key residential district, isn’t any more Cajun than the rest of NOLA, but it’s bona fide Louisiana, relatively unspoiled by the tourist trade. One institution is Parkway Bakery and Tavern, which has been building some of the city’s best po-boys since 1911. Fuel up on one before hitting Mid-City Lanes Rock ‘n’ Bowl, the venue of choice for Cajun and zydeco bands and their two-stepping, waltzing fans (yes, there’s bowling, too). Chickie Wah Wah is another rare spot to hear zydeco, as well as local brass and roots acts.
6. Tremé – the Soul of the City
Step across North Rampart Street from the Quarter to enter America’s oldest black neighborhood, Faubourg Tremé, recently celebrated on the HBO series Tremé. Tremé’s lively if dicey streets are saturated with jazz and history. The Backstreet Cultural Museum provides a fascinating glimpse of black NOLA, from the Mardi Gras Indians to jazz funerals. Artwork from Africa, New Orleans, and the African Diaspora fills the Creole villa and slave cottages of the New Orleans African American Museum. And Congo Square, where slaves once danced and sold their wares, hosts festivals, brass bands, and drum circles throughout the year.
7. East Meets the Westbank
Some of the best dishes you can eat in the Big Easy aren’t jambalaya or étouffé, but báhn mì and pho, courtesy of NOLA’s vibrant Vietnamese community. For the best of the best, cab it across the river to the inauspicious strip malls of the Westbank, about 15 minutes from the Quarter. The two top contenders are Pho Tàu Bay, famous for its 20 versions of pho, a rice-noodle soup scented with star anise, cinnamon, and other spices, and Tan Dinh, whose huge menu includes stellar spring rolls and roasted quail. If you’d rather not travel, go for the bun (noodle salads) or báhn mì (Vietnamese po-boys) at Lost Love Lounge, a friendly tavern in the Marigny.
8. Shop Authentic
Forget those Mardi Gras beads and mass-produced pralines: If you want to take home a real piece of New Orleans, troll the city’s endless array of junque and vintage shops. On Magazine Street, Miss Claudia’s Vintage Clothing and Costumes will set you up with a 1960’s smoking jacket or a 1980’s sequined tube top. If it’s old editions of Tennessee Williams or some 1940’s postcards you’re after, nose around Faubourg Marigny Art and Books (FAB). The Bargain Center in Bywater is sacred ground for oddball used furniture, obscure second-hand housewares, and unusual nothings from various decades.
9. Sleep Funky
In a city with 40,000 hotel rooms, who wants to stay in a cookie-cutter chain? Your room can be its own little slice of New Orleans personality. At the 1924 Fleur de Lis Mansion in the Lower Garden District, eight rooms and suites have a Barcelona-meets-Miami-meets-Tribeca vibe, and property amenities include a 12-person spa, wet bars, bicycles, a fog machine, and a disco ball. The quirky 19th-century Frenchmen Hotelin the Marigny has all the wrought iron and shuttered windows you could ask for, along with 27 multicolored rooms and suites and a small courtyard swimming pool.
10. Sleep Chic
NOLA is a 24-hour town, but sometimes you just need a tranquil getaway from the hurly-burly of tourists and partiers. In a snow-white 1906 Beaux-Arts commercial building in the Central Business District, International House soothes the harried guest with glamorous public spaces such as Loa Bar, and with high-ceilinged guestrooms and suites done in tufted velveteen and indigenous wood. Up on St. Charles in the Garden District, the Hotel Indigo offers refuge in big, sleek rooms filled with bright colors and bold patterns; some rooms take in great views of the city skyline.