Travel Guide to New Orleans
Get to know the musical heritage of New Orleans during its annual celebration of culture and jazz.
Written By: Erin B. Murray
We may be known as Music City, but that crown could just as easily be worn by the Queen City of the South, New Orleans. The birthplace of jazz music harbors deep musical roots that can be heard all over town, from the pavement outside of the clubs on Frenchman Street to the historic walls of Preservation Hall.
This month, the city’s rich history, culture, and music collide on the concourse of the Fair Grounds Race Course at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which runs from April 22 to May 1. Jazz Fest is proof that there’s more to Crescent City than the debauchery found along Bourbon Street. Centered at the fairgrounds in Mid City (and a short drive or bike ride from the French Quarter), the seven-day event spans two weekends every spring. Anchor your visit around one of those weekends and use the rest of your time to take in the city’s other cultural charms, including top-tier restaurants, walkable neighborhoods, and the living, breathing history that permeates every corner of town.
Centrally located and yet just far enough removed from Bourbon Street, the Loews New Orleans underwent massive renovations that wrapped up in 2014. Request one of the grand rooms, which are spacious enough to feel like suites. Amenities like the Balance Spa (which offers a full range of massages, facials, and nail treatments), an indoor pool, and a workout facility will keep you refreshed throughout your stay. Downstairs, the newly revamped Café Adelaide & the Swizzle Stick Bar, run by the same team behind New Orleans’ famed Commander’s Palace and Brennan’s, is a fine spot to grab an Adelaide Swizzle, made with rum, bitters, lime, and soda.
For a more boutique experience, the Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery, which opened in 2015, puts its historical roots front and center with a beautiful coffee bar preceding the check-in desk—that’s a nod to the building’s heritage as a coffee and wholesale trading warehouse. Part art gallery, part coffee bar, the lounge-like lobby also serves as the entrance to the ever-hopping Compère Lapin—not to mention a great place to wind down after a day or two at Jazz Fest.
The blending of so many cultures and perspectives lends a unique flavor to New Orleans—most notably in its food. You could build an entire trip around the culinary experiences of the city, getting to know everything from the Creole and Cajun influences found in variations of gumbo and etouffee to the opulence of old-school dining at the country’s oldest family-run restaurant, Antoine’s, where you’ll find the exotic (escargot and alligator bisque) and the luxurious (fried puffed potato sticks). Balance those experiences out with a muffaletta from the Italian-food market, Central Grocery, or a classic Southern-Creole breakfast at Mother’s, whose red bean omelet is served piping hot all day long.
Meanwhile, the newest arrivals on the scene are making national waves—consider Shaya, the modern Israeli concept from chef Alon Shaya, who also runs the dining rooms of Domenica and Pizza Domenica. Having graced just about every best new restaurant list published in the past year, Shaya is a tough table to get, so book ahead or aim to score patio seats, which are saved for walk-ins. Once settled, go right for the chef’s elevated interpretations of classic Israeli fare, including a hummus plate topped with butternut squash and black garlic butter or simply roasted lamb kebabs. The highlight is watching chef Shaya man the brick oven, deftly maneuvering the heat to bake off what has arguably become country’s tastiest pita bread.
Also gaining adoration from the food community is Compère Lapin, set inside The Old No. 77 Hotel. Here, chef Nina Compton, a former Top Chef contestant, blends her own Caribbean background with the Creole influences of the region in dishes like braised goat over sweet potato gnocchi and Brussels sprouts accented with bits of crispy chicken skin.
Breathing new life into a historical space, chef Slade Rushing was tapped to reopen Brennan’s two years ago, and his reinterpretation of the classic has garnered accolades and an avid fan base. Rushing puts out New Orleans favorites such as turtle soup and roasted oysters but also offers updates and twists, like a black drum filet crusted in Indian vadouvan spices.
If food is your passion, don’t miss the National Food and Beverage Foundation for its vast collection of food memorabilia, rotating exhibits of food art, and endless opportunities to explore bric-a-brac from every corner of the South. Once you’ve worked up your appetite, duck into the neighboring Purloo for a Southern board loaded up with pimento cheese, deviled eggs, and housemade pickles.
Get beyond the frozen Hand Grenade and you’ll find that New Orleans is well established as a proper cocktail mecca—and the birthplace of many old-school favorites. For proof, there’s the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference, which invites the country’s best mixologists to pour, study, mingle, and of course, imbibe. But you can simply create your own cocktail tour, hitting spots like Hotel Monteleone, where the famed Vieux Carre was first poured, or The Carousel Bar & Lounge, which spins in place, providing a ride for both the bartenders and the patrons wobbling as they step up to their stool.
For a taste of something true to the region and crafted right in town, make your way toward the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery on Frenchman Street. Tours of the facility offer a glimpse into the distillation and barrel-aging process as well as a few tasty samples and cocktails made from their signature juice.
Founded in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz Fest shows off all of the best parts of the city—starting with the broad variety of tunes you’ll hear over the course of two weekends, like jazz, zydeco, funk, rock, and folk. This year’s festival features headliners Stevie Wonder, My Morning Jacket, and Pearl Jam plus regional legends like Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and Jon Batiste and Stay Human (whom you might recognize from The Late Show with Stephen Colbert). Nashville artists including Brothers Osborne and Michael McDonald will hit the stage, too.
The festival is relaxed with a strong community vibe—the city’s own residents consider it on par with Mardi Gras as an excuse to celebrate. There are multiple stages, so between sets it’s easy to saunter from one to the next, making a pit stop at the Grand Stand for oysters on the half shell or a po’ boy and some jambalaya. The state also boasts its ancestral history in the Louisiana Native Nations area, where indigenous craftsman exhibit their skills. Meanwhile, groups of Mardi Gras Indians parade through the site, displaying their intricate, hand-woven garb.
Though you can wile away a few days at the festival, there’s plenty more to explore, including the downtown scene and the Riverwalk, which leads from the Warehouse District down to Jackson Square, where you can settle in at Café Du Monde with a few beignets. Or get out of the hubbub completely and head toward City Park, a 1,300-square-foot stretch of green space comprising the city’s botanical garden, sprawling lawns, a children’s playground inspired by storybooks, and an 18-hole golf course.
For a look at the extravagance and culture behind the city’s other marquee attraction, consider a visit to Mardi Gras World, where floats used in the annual parades are on display along with a number of costumes and other paraphernalia. Set in a cavernous warehouse, it’s one of the best ways to glimpse the intricacy and detail that goes into the yearly fête.
Photos courtesy New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, Link Restaurant, Provenance Hotels, Loews New Orleans Hotel.