This post is in response to a request from a high school friend of my son’s. They’ve kept in touch since starting college in the fall of 2016. She said:
Hi! It’s been a while since we’ve talked – I hope you’re doing well. I’m planning a trip for 2 to New Orleans on December 18-21st and I was wondering if, by chance, you might know of any good things to do in NOLA around that time of year.
Thanks in advance!
And I said: “Oh yeah! I will be happy to send you tips. Thanks for asking; I am so flattered! You are an excellent photographer and beautiful model, so I hope you will consider letting me post some of your experiences in my blog.” (She agreed.)
New Orleans Tips for Mallory
And so, my dear, here is my New Orleans travel advice for you and your companion. It’s probably a bit more than you expected, but I’ve been carrying around this list in my head for a long, long time; I was only 18 when I first visited the Crescent City. And by the way, don’t worry that you’re missing out by being under 21 – NOLA is one of the great all-age cities of the world. You will have a wonderful time.
Packing and Pre-Trip Mindset
- Be ready for weather that could be anywhere from 30° – 70° (or even higher), but will definitely be damp; take clothing that can be layered on and off, like scarves, vests and light jackets.
- Comfortable walking shoes are a must! And be sure to pack band-aids in case of walking-induced blisters (I speak from experience).
- In fact, unless you’re planning to go somewhere that requires fancy clothes, don’t bother with them – New Orleans is about the food, the music and the people-watching, and you won’t see many fashion mavens.
- An umbrella or raincoat with a hood is your friend. That’s me below at Jazz Fest in the spring of 2010, but believe me, the rains can strike at a moment’s notice in the Big Easy in any season.
- Bring an extra memory card and battery for your camera or be sure to carry your phone charger with you, because you will take way more pictures than you than you imagine and will need the extra memory and power.
- Get lots of sleep the night before you go, because NOLA is a 24/7 wonder and you won’t want to sleep much while you’re there (the best time to go to Cafe du Monde is in the middle of the night).
- Get in a New Orleans frame of mind early by boning up on its history. If you have time (although I know you have finals just before this trip), go to the library or download a book about New Orleans. It is so fun to walk around in a city when you know a bit about its past and the physical structures that you’re seeing. NOLA has a fascinating and diverse heritage, probably the most varied of all American cities, which adds to the enjoyment of your visit. (I’m reading a book right now called The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, which is far too long to absorb before your trip, but if you’re interested, you can borrow it next summer when you have time.)
- Or jump-start that New Orleans feeling by reading a quick novel or watching a movie set in the Crescent City. I have always liked Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, which isn’t about New Orleans, but the city is definitely a character (in my humble opinion) and a sense of place is a recurring theme. Amazon will let you download The Moviegoer for free right now with a 30-day trial of Audible. I think you will find this book interesting and thought-provoking, even beyond its connection to New Orleans and travels.
- Take a look through The Storyteller blog to see the real New Orleans through the lens and mind of a photographer. I think you will be inspired, given your interest in photography.
- If you’re driving to NOLA, park your car when you get there and leave it. It’s a pain to park and much more fun to use other forms of transportation. Parking is also very expensive, because it is at a premium.
- Walk as much as you can; much of the magic of New Orleans lies in its dynamic street life.
- When you’re not walking, ride the streetcar as much as you can.
- Uber is quick and easy, but the cab drivers have the best stories.
Stuff to Do
- Amble through Jackson Square and strike up conversations with the artists. There is usually music to enjoy, too.
- Go to the French Market and shop, shop, shop. It is seedy, tacky, touristy and full of imports like $7 sunglasses, while also offering cool local art, jewelry and other handmade items at reasonable prices. There are local foodstuffs, and some funky junk. I usually pick up a stocking stuffer or two while I’m at the market. Sometimes there’s live music, and on Wednesdays, there’s a farmer’s market. Green space, trees and tiny parks can be found in the 6 blocks of shopping, too.
- Take a whole afternoon to visit the galleries in the Arts District.
- Or plan a whole day in the Arts District and take in a museum or three after the galleries. The National World War II Museum is over there (an immersion experience; you’ll have to pick just part of it if you want to fit it into an afternoon), and so are the Contemporary Arts Center and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. All are worth the trip!
- There are many other museums scattered across NOLA that you should consider, like the Jazz Museum in the Old Mint, which frequently has performances, and, lucky you, is staging one during your trip (there will be clarinets!). There’s a sculpture garden over by City Park, and, while not a museum, I’ve always wanted to stroll through the cemetery there, too.
- If you want the holiday festival experience with rides and an amazing array of holiday lights, take the streetcar out to City Park and go to Celebration in the Oaks (even this kind of big-production, glitzy festival is different and special in NOLA, because of its unique ‘carnival’ food, jazzy music and enchanting, ancient oak trees).
- Explore the River Walk and riverfront, checking out the public art, Crescent Park and the fascinating hustle and bustle of NOLA’s river commerce.
- If you’re curious about Bourbon Street, take a walk from where it intersects Canal Street all the way to Frenchmen Street, in the late afternoon before it gets too rambunctious. It is very entertaining during the day, and not scary. (You can probably tell that I don’t care for Bourbon Street at night.)
- Take the ferry over to Algiers and check out the shops in Algiers Point or walk along the riverfront, or just do a round trip. The views from the ferry alone are worth the $2 trip. Be sure to check the schedule for the last ferry so you don’t get stuck there, because they don’t run at night.
- Get on out to the Garden District to see a different side of the city, first printing out this itinerary and map for the self-guided walking tour. This is a lovely way to spend an afternoon, and to work off the beignets, muffulettas and poorboys you’re going to be eating!
- Get off the beaten path and be open to unique adventures…talk to locals some more and find out what they’re excited about doing in the Crescent City in December.
- One more thing on the Stuff to Do List: don’t be in a hurry. Take your time; be deliberate. Look, listen, smell, taste and touch. New Orleans has a myriad of unexpected sights, sounds and people that can only be discovered – or appreciated – if you are truly in the moment. In my humble opinion, that’s the best thing about it.
Food and Drink
- Go to Café du Monde if you must (it’s an icon, has great beignets, and you can visit on the day you go to the French Market because it is close by), but also try tiny little coffee houses you stumble across and take time to chat with the proprietors and other customers. They’ll give you the best tips about where to go and what to do.
- Be a foodie-on-a-budget by going to a great restaurant at lunch; my favorite is Bayona (click here for my gushing testimonial).
- Another foodie-on-a-budget trick is to eat at the bar at popular restaurants, ordering a stellar appetizer to share and then moving on to another stop; you don’t have to have reservations and can still experience stellar cuisine.
- Have a po-boy sandwich somewhere – you’ll never have a better one than in New Orleans. Go for an oyster po-boy, or mix of fried oysters and shrimp (you’ll be having a meat-stuffed muffuletta later, so stick with the seafood on the po-boy). With creamy remoulade or tartar sauce spread liberally on freshly baked french bread, a pile of cold, shredded iceberg lettuce and thinly sliced tomatoes and hot, crunchy seafood stuffed so full it falls out, the po-boy in New Orleans will rock your world. Trust me on this. I haven’t been there, but the Storyteller blogger in New Orleans highly recommends Cafe Reconcile in Central City in this post. It’s a non-profit that helps at-risk youth turn their lives around, and I will definitely be going there on my next trip.
- In addition to the po-boy, you must have a muffuletta. They’re large, so you can split one with your travel companion. I daren’t court controversy by naming a place with the “best” muffuletta because there are huge disagreements over the amount of meat / hot versus cold / size of the bread and how / whether it is toasted, etc. You’ll have to check with the locals and report back on your findings for the benefit of Glover Gardens readers. Here’s a muffuletta picture and recipe from Emerils.com to whet your appetite.
- Another food must: have a cup of gumbo somewhere. I don’t always do this any more because I make a pretty mean gumbo myself, quite often (have you had it?), but you shouldn’t miss the chance to have gumbo in NOLA if you haven’t had that pleasure. You could order it at the bar of one of the foodie places you visit, and can be sure that they’ll bring you some crusty french bread for sopping.
- And, since you asked, most people wouldn’t call this a must-eat in the Big Easy, but the Grill-Meister and I had a wonderful and memorable lunch at the New Orleans Pizza Kitchen when we ordered their extremely tasty and memorable Jambalaya Pizza.
- My usual go-to for jazz is any place on Frenchmen Street, but since you’re under 21, most of the clubs there are off-limits, including my favorite, The Spotted Cat. However, here’s a link to some great recommendations where you can get in. I’ve been to almost all of the places listed, and you really can’t go wrong. Let me know where you go and what you think.
- Preservation Hall is an experience unto itself and worth standing in line.
- You’ll encounter small bands of musicians or solo artists camped on street corner after street corner – who are just as likely to be self-taught geniuses as they are to have had formal instruction. The music can be folksy or sophisticated, but either way, it is captivating, and you’ll want to be sure to have some dollars ready for tipping. If you feel called to dance, do it!
- Be ready to seize the moment and literally “follow the music” at any time, because you might get lucky and see a second line parade. If you do, be sure to join in and become part of the party.
The Grill-Meister and I were awestruck a couple of years ago when we happened on a 2nd line parade that was a wedding party and all of the guests following a brass band in their traditional white uniforms and dancing Mardi Gras “Indians” in elaborate costumes as they made their way from the church to the reception at a hotel a few blocks away. The street was blocked off and there were several tables covered with champagne in plastic glasses (I had one; I’m not sorry). The whole experience was a microcosm of how “living out loud” seems to be commonplace in NOLA. It was magic – the mood, the people, the music. Wow.
Well Mallory, That’s About All…’Til Next Time, or ‘Til We Hear Your Tips
Most of these tips apply at any time of the year, and NOLA is the kind of place that is fun at any time of the year. I’m looking forward to hearing about your discoveries during your December journey and posting them here.
Anyone Have Anything to Add?
And finally, here’s a request for all of you out there who love or live in NOLA: what are your suggestions for having a great time there in December, or any time? We’d love to know.
Copyright 2017, Glover Gardens Cookbook