The Best Things to Do In New Orleans: An Essential Two-Day Guide

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It’s hard not to have a good time in Nola, a city that a local friend described to us as “bawdy and brassy, but never tacky,” oozing an intoxicating combination of “elegance and decadence.” For New Orleans is unlike any other city in the U.S., it just feels foreign and exotic, reflecting its rich history of Caribbean, French and Spanish influences. Many come for the legendary music scene and to eat and drink; in fact, you could spend weeks without getting to visit all the restaurants and try their iconic dishes. From a fabulous tour guide to our favorite music joints here’s Daytripper's guide to the city often referred to as The Big Easy.

Tripper Tips:

Each spring New Orleans plays host to Jazz Fest—the gospel, blues, rock and zydeco extravaganza taking place over two weekends, the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May. More than just music it’s also a celebration of the culture of the city and one hell of a party. Make sure to dress appropriately, it can get very hot and often rainy which turns the fairgrounds into a mud fest. Bring a light raincoat and inexpensive rubber boots; we got ones for $12 at Wal-Mart that we hosed down after a downpour. Make sure to allow time to explore the craft and marketplace area where we all picked up African beaded necklaces and colorful hats. And come hungry so you can sample jambalaya, crawfish, po-boy’s and gumbo from the many food tents.

The Best Hotels: Don’t let the location in the French Quarter scare you; Soniat House is a hidden oasis, a small boutique hotel with 31 rooms spread across several historic townhouses on a quiet street on the edge of the Quarter. The last few years have seen an emergence of new and renovated hotels; something the city was in need of. Challenging the grand dame Windsor Court, which we find tired, the recently renovated The Roosevelt is the city’s most luxurious stay. Then there’s the Ace, bringing its trademark hip style to a historic 1928 Art Deco building in the Warehouse District. Nearby the industrial Old No. 77 Foundry Hotel features work by local artists and is home to one of Nola’s best restaurants Compere Lapin. We’re keeping our eye on the new Nopsi Hotel, just a few blocks from the Quarter. A recent lecture in the event space off the lobby revealed a crisp, clean, elegant design. For those wanting to stay over in the Garden District look no further than the Pontchartrain

DAY ONE

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The Best Breakfast: Start your day in the Central Business District at Willa Jean. Go for acclaimed pastry chef Kelly Field’s croissants, biscuits, and griddle banana bread or order the savory pimento cheese platter, shrimp and grits or stellar BBQ Shrimp Toast.  

The Best Tour-Walking History: There’s a lot more to the French Quarter than just Bourbon Street. Book an extremely engaging, entertaining and informative tour with Frank Currie and learn a whole lot about the history of the Quarter and the city of New Orleans. We met at Jackson Square, the historic park and a popular Big Easy attraction, where on a nice day you could be tempted to spend the afternoon watching the array of street performers, amateur and professional. (You may even wind up in an impromptu second line!) Then we were off, wandering the streets with Frank, stopping at Nola landmarks such as the LaLaurie House, considered one of the most haunted houses in New Orleans, caught up in the fascinating stories and legends at each stop. We walked through Lafitte’s Blacksmith Bar, dating back to the 1700’s, where we vowed to come back later for a cocktail. Our tour ended at the Napoleon House, a landmark restaurant for over 200 years, oozing with old fashion atmosphere. We sat on the back patio sipping their signature Pimms cocktail. (According to Frank they have a pretty good muffuletta.) To organize a tour call Frank at 504 881-6015 or send him an email at fccurrie@gmail.com. Frank can customize a tour for you—some ideas include a Cocktail Tour, Literary, or Haunted New Orleans tour.  

Where to Eat Lunch: Dine right in the Quarter at one of the classic, old grand dames of the city: Galatoire's, (our favorite) Brennans or Antoine’s for gumbo, oysters Rockefeller, etouffee, and remoulade. This is old school Creole fine dining at its best, and people are smartly dressed--check the dress code in advance when you make your reservation as jackets for men may be required.  Another over the top meal can be had at R’evolution (777 Bienville St /(504) 553-2277) a John Folse, fine dining establishment also in the Quarter. 

Wander: After lunch you may want to explore the Quarter on your own, checking out the atmospheric art and antique galleries on Royal Street.  Don't miss a stop at Faulkner House Books, a literary landmark housed in the former home of William Faulkner.  

The Best Art Museum: The New Orleans Museum of Art, NOMA, is a wonderful fine arts museum in the lush City Park. Leave some time to explore the fantastic Besthoff Sculpture Garden; the 5-acre landscaped area is home to a world-class collection of 50 modern and contemporary sculptures.  

The Best Cocktails: This is New Orleans; don’t think of going to dinner without an aperitif first. In the Quarter hit Cane and Table, The Hermes Bar at Antoine’s, or The Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, for the granddaddy of New Orleans libations. Sylvain, a casual gastropub meets Southern bistro has everyone talking about their killer cocktails, another great place to try a Sazerac. You might just stay for dinner. 

The Best Places For Dinner:  Chef Donald Link helms two of Nola’s top restaurants, both in the Warehouse District. Peche, seafood-centric and always buzzy makes for a fun night out, but we prefer the traditional Cajun Southern dishes at Cochon, housed in a casual, rustic old warehouse. We still can’t stop thinking of the wood-fired oysters with chili garlic butter, one of our best bites in New Orleans! (Cochon Butcher, around the corner is the place for killer sandwiches.) But if we only had one dinner we are heading to Compere Lapin where every bite from acclaimed top chef Nina Compton was better than the next. Compton is from St. Lucia so expect West Indian flavors, there’s no gumbo in sight, but you won’t miss it once you try her Hamachi with guava and papaya, seafood pepper pot and the curried goat with sweet potato gnocchi. We were a table of 8, and we all agreed it might have been our best meal of the year.

Iconic New Orleans: There’s going to be a line at Café du Monde, it’s a given no matter what time of the day, but it’s worth the wait for the most delicious beignets and chicory coffee. A must for first time visitors (Open 24/7.) 

DAY TWO

The Best Morning Bites: Made from scratch donuts and small batch coffee at District Donuts and Sliders on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District will keep you going until brunch. (Their chicken slider on a biscuit is worth coming back for later in the day.) Next-door Stein’s Deli is the place for NY Style bagels with bacon, egg and cheese. 

The Best things to Do in the Garden District:  Spend the afternoon wandering the streets and viewing the antebellum era houses in this historic neighborhood. Make sure to stop at the Lafayette Cemetery, the oldest of the city operated cemeteries with above ground tombs. (Save our Cemeteries offers tours; click here to see the schedule.) Or reserve a spot for the Garden District Walks provided by The Spielman Gallery every day at 10 am. The tours last approximately two hours and are limited to small groups up to 15. (The cost is 30 per person) The gallery is caddy-corner from Commander’s Palace, one of Nola’s most famous restaurants all dressed up in a distinct bright blue. (They have a fantastic Sunday jazz brunch if you’re in town.)

The Best Places To Shop: Spend some time walking and shopping the 6-mile stretch along Magazine Street, a charming street that is the heart of the Uptown District. Find your own favorites or check out some of ours such as Passages and Perch for antiques and home furnishings and Hazelnut for unique gift items and homewares. For high-end women’s designer clothes stop at Mimi’s, Weinstein’s or Sosusu.  Pied Nu and Pilot and Powell specialize in younger, more casual designs. Marion Cage has built up a following for her line of jewelry and tabletop accessories. If you have more time, head to Freda in the CBD next door to the Ace Hotel. Like its sister store in Marfa, Texas everything is well curated with a bohemian vibe.  You’ll find things here you won't see anywhere else including accessories by local designers.

The Best Brunch/Lunch:  We love La Petite Grocery, Top Chef Justin Devillier’s acclaimed restaurant on Magazine Street. Order at least one of the addictive blue crab beignets for the table, followed by perhaps fettuccine with crawfish, gulf shrimp and grits or the signature turtle bolognese. Judging by the number of burgers going by that is also a good option. Perfect for a long, leisurely boozy brunch, though Petite Grocery is pretty perfect anytime. One of our favorite spots in New Orleans. 

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The Best Sandwiches: Looking for a quick bite we found sandwich heaven at hipster Turkey and the Wolf in the slightly off the grid Irish Channel Neighborhood. (Not far from the Garden District or the CBD.) Bon Appetit Magazine named it as their best restaurant of the year, yes, a sandwich shop, but one bite of the collard green melt and you’ll too be licking your fingers and singing their praises. Oh and yes, order the fried bologna as well. (Cochon Butcher is a close second, with everything from a Cubano to a spiced Moroccan lamb to duck pastrami sliders, located right behind Cochon, and close to the WW II Museum.)

The Best Way to Spend The Afternoon: Even if you’re not a history buff, don’t miss a few hours at the WW II Museum, an interactive, immersive experience with exhibits displayed throughout three large pavilions giving audiences a close up look at the Second World War. Don’t think of skipping the movie Beyond all Boundaries, a 4 D moving, cinematic experience narrated by Tom Hanks that left us wishing we had brought some tissues. Afterwards travel the Road to Berlin and Road to Tokyo exploring the lead up to WWII, its battles and catastrophic losses. A must visit when in New Orleans--we can’t recommend it highly enough—Go!

The Best For Dinner: Head to white table clothed Clancy's for classic Creole cuisine, make sure to save room for their famous lemon icebox pie. You might question us sending you for hummus and tabbouleh in New Orleans, but the modern Israeli food served at Shaya has been the talk of the town. The homemade pita bread served hot out of the pizza oven is worth the visit alone. It was a flavor explosion at Maypop, Chef Michael Gulotta’s restaurant in the CBD where South East Asia fuses with New Orleans. One trusted foodie friend speaks highly of HerbsaintMeauxbar, Paladar 511 and Brigtsens all on our list for next time. 

New Orleans Musts: You can’t leave New Orleans without having at least one po’ boy, the traditional submarine sandwich of Louisiana, usually made with roast beef or fried seafood. Mahoney’s and Parkway Bakery and Tavern are well known, but we always head to Domilise’s Po-Boy and Bar, family owned and operated for close to 100 years. Slightly off the beaten track, not far from the Garden District, you’ll know you’ve arrived by the line out the door.  Everything is fried to order; we recommend the half-and-half, one side fried oysters, the other shrimp.