“The Big Easy:” New Orleans, Louisiana

Every time I close my eyes blowing that trumpet of mine, I look right into the heart of good old New Orleans. It has given me something to live for.

– Louis Armstrong

We are fortunate to be able to travel quite a bit, many of our travels are induced by work and research conferences we attend or are accepted to present.  The nice thing about attending conferences is that they tend to lead us to cities that we might not otherwise visit. When planning to attend conferences, we are strategic about our travel days in order to absorb the most of the city we will be visiting, which is what brought me to NOLA.

Things to See and Do:

First and foremost, all of the architecture in New Orleans is absolutely gorgeous. As you make your way through the streets be sure to admire all of the windows, doors, porches, and ironwork on all of the buildings. Each street is completely different with their unique buildings!

We stayed a few minutes away from the heart of NOLA, in the Hyatt Place New Orleans/Convention Center, where the conference was hosted, which is about twenty five minutes from the airport. This was a nice and quiet area to stay, and within walking distance to many attractions.  Right across the street is The Outlet Collection at the Riverwalk.  This waterfront shopping center has several stores, restaurants, and a really nice patio along the water.  The most wonderful memory I have of this place is sitting right by the water watching boats come in and eating the biggest, and most delicious cinnamon roll of my life!  If I had known it was going to be the best, I would have savored it longer and probably ordered another one. Unfortunately, as I was researching for this post, I could not find the bakery that I went to, it seems that it is no longer located in the Riverwalk: such a shame to not be able to share such an amazing treat with those patrons seeking outlet deals. 

Also, just a short nine minute walk from the hotel is the National WWII Museum ($28.50 for Adult tickets) that is open daily 9-5pm (closed on Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, and Christmas Eve and Day).  Upon entrance to this museum you board an old train car to watch an introductory video of WWII and then guided to see the various exhibits.  

About five miles down the street from the hotel you will find the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas.  Nearby is also Harrah’s New Orleans Casino on Canal street where there are several hotels and restaurants to choose from.  Of these three options we visited the Insectarium and saw some awesome insects and the most amazing Butterfly Exhibit- a warm, musty, humid habitat with billions (that may be an exaggeration) of butterflies!  We even saw a Brown Page Butterfly land on its species information sign- such a fun coincidence! 

My favorite area in New Orleans is the French Quarter (duh!): an adorable, super unique, and the oldest district in the city.  The Quarter is overflowing with bars, music and great restaurants, and is considered one of the world’s most renowned neighborhoods.  Some of the top things to see and do include Bourbon Street, Jackson Square, St. Louis Cathedral, shop along Royal Street, eat beignets at Café Du Monde, and the French Market. In the French Quarter you will also find the architecturally beautiful Hotel Monteleone, where the Monteleone Hotel Carousel Bar is housed: a bar on an actual carousel that allows people to sit at the bar while the bar subtly rotates every 15 minutes. How fun?!  

When people think of New Orleans, I imagine the first thing they think about is Mardis Gras and Bourbon Street. Mardis Gras, or “Fat Tuesday” is celebrated the day before Ash Wednesday which begins the fasting season of Lent, so it only makes sense to celebrate this religious time with parties, parades, booze, and boobs. This wild day is often centered around Bourbon Street, and  is one of the most interesting streets (or people?) I have seen. This place exudes completely different feelings when you visit during the day versus when you visit at night. In the evening the street is colorful, fun, and vibrant, the streets are closed off and people scatter between the bars, the air is masked with cigarette smoke and bad perfume.  Even though we visited in a completely different month than Mardi Gras, beads were being thrown and boobs were being shown- definitely was not expecting this on a random Thursday evening! We spent an evening walking down the street, popping in and out of the bars, listening to Jazz, and the musicians on the street corners. On our stroll down Bourbon Street it was only appropriate to purchase a sugary alcoholic drink that will leave you with an immediate headache.  New Orleans does not have a law against “open containers” on the streets, nor a restriction to the time of day; as long as you are 21 years old, and your beverage is in plastic, you can drink in the streets all day long. However, drinking alcohol in parking lots is against the law. So as you can imagine, the streets during the day, are still covered with day-drinkers, only the smell is more of vomit rather than masked with cigarettes, the lights are not shining vibrant colors, and the vibe is more drab and sad.  Despite the possibility of Bourbon Street being America’s Smelliest Street, it is totally worth a stroll in the evening and daytime.  

Bourbon Street

The next morning we made our way to the French Market for some snacks and browsing of local arts and crafts booths.  We got the well-known shrimp po-boys and made some touristy purchases. Down the street, passed Café Du Monde, is Jackson Square where you can get the iconic photo of St. Louis Cathedral and rest on the steps across the street to people watch. About a twelve minute walk from Jackson Square is the Saint Louis Cemetery No 2 – an old cemetery that has been used in the filming of several movies and music videos, and is the home to the grave of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen. Super creepy, even in the day time.

Royal Street and Magazine Street are two areas that are lined with quaint antique shops and cafes.  Along Magazine Street, a 20 minute drive from The Quarter, is where you will find many locals window-shopping, and on Royal Street, since it is in the French Quarter, you will find some more kitchy shops, restaurants, and the M.S. Rau Antiques store.  This store is unbelievable. From the outside it does not look like much, a small window front, nothing too exciting.  As you approach you may notice an armed guard, which really surprised us as we thought we were just walking into a simple antique store.  As we entered and started getting lost in the maze of aisles of jewelry, porcelain, crystal vases, and chandeliers, we noticed the prices. Everything was astronomically expensive- hence the armed guard I guess.  We were wondering how on Earth a place like this could even stay afloat. What tourist is bouncing from Bourbon Street to drop $300,000 on a clock? Being curious, we asked one of the curators about the collection; the curator then invited us to see the “private collection.”  He walked us down the hall and reached toward a massive painting, and opened a hidden door- sounds like an opening scene of a horror film, right? So we entered the dimly-lit room behind the hidden door, with a stranger, as would any character in a scary movie. He then left us. Walked out of the hidden room, and told us to feel free to look around.  We were so confused. As we turned the corner there was another employee watching the security cameras- with only a tiny reading light at her desk. She nodded, and we made our way through the hallways seeing art that is usually reserved for museums! Pieter Brueghel the Younger! Norman Rockwell! My favorite- Monet!! Some rich dude just owns these pieces!  Millions and millions of dollars worth of art, grandfather clocks, and sculptures were strategically placed through the hallways. A totally unique and unimaginable experience!  

French Quarter walking route from the French Market to the Insectarium.

Where to eat 

There are so many amazing restaurants in New Orleans, simply take a look at Yelp and you will not have trouble finding a place that will suit your fancy! When in Louisiana be sure to try all things Creole such as gumbo, alligator, crawfish, and seafood. To get this Creole fix, here are some of the restaurants where we dined:

  • The first restaurant we went to was a short walk from the hotel, Mulate’s, where they serve traditional french-inspired cajun food such as fried seafood platters, gumbo, crawfish etouffee, alligator dishes and more. They also have nightly live entertainment.
  • The Gumbo Shop is a small creole restaurant with all the fare of New Orleans: jambalaya, andouille and boudin sausage, okra, crawfish étouffée, po-boys, and of course gumbo which was delicious!
  • Cochon Butcher was around the corner from the hotel and serves sandwiches, sausages, and a variety of sides. 
  • Galliano Restaurant serves traditional Louisiana meals, and was also walking distance from the hotel. A funny story about this place is that I ordered the fried chicken and it came out and it was a literal entire fried chicken! Seriously, like two wings, two thighs, two breasts; It was hilarious! 

Last, but certainly not least, the famous Café du Monde must be at the top of your list!  This cafe is open 24 hours a day and is cash only.  They serve their notorious hot beignets buried in powdered sugar, and one of my favorites, cafe au lait.  We stopped by in the middle of the night after some Bourbon Street explorations, and once in the morning for breakfast. They also had a gift shop where you can purchase their popular chicory coffee and beignet mix to take back home.

Neat places to have a drink

A popular pastime of New Orleans is their partying and drinking, so if you would like to participate here are a few cool places to check out in addition to the Monteleone Hotel Carousel Bar mentioned earlier:

  • Pat O’Brien’s created “The Hurricane” cocktail and has an awesome courtyard with a lit-up water feature. 
  • Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, established in 1772, claims to be the oldest building used as a bar, and is currently a piano bar with rich in history beginning as a hideaway for pirates.
  • The Court of Two Sisters has a gorgeous courtyard and from what I hear amazing jazz brunch (on the list for my next visit!). We got drinks and apps at the bar which was fun, and had great service. 

Other things to do

With a limited amount of time in New Orleans, we obviously did not get a chance to see and do everything. Here are a few things I would like to do the next time I visit:

An Unforgettable Night

My favorite evening in New Orleans was spent schmoozing in the Penthouse of the Ritz Carlton.  How did we get there you ask? We ask ourselves the same thing still to this day! One of the conference leaders was friends with the owner of the Penthouse and lent it to him for his stay.  This place was amazing! The hallway entrance was lined with naked portraits of the owner’s wife from her younger modelling days, and there were pictures of the owners with celebrities, like Brad Pitt, all over the apartment. The rooftop patio overlooked the French Quarter and there was an enormous charcuterie spread- my favorite! At the time we were both early in our doctoral programs, so we felt super special- especially when we were offered jobs by leaders of the field!  One of the craziest parts of the evening is that this little party of maybe twenty people was fully staffed with bartenders and servers! The bartenders did not let your glass near empty before they brought you a fresh drink, well, if you were a male. As a woman I had to ask for my drinks at the make-shift bar. WTF? Crazy societal customs.

After drinking and taking in the gorgeous twilight hours above the French Quarter, we were invited to have dinner in the private dining room of the Ritz- woah- the night kept getting better!  We of course accepted the invitation and had dinner with leaders of the conference- a small group of maybe twelve of us, and we were the only students and the youngest by like twenty years! The wine flowed and the apps kept coming, dinner and desserts were ordered, and I shared crème brûlée with a bigwig! I don’t even remember the food, what I ordered, or whether or not it was good, it was overshadowed by the sheer surprise of how the evening transpired. Not to mention, our host picked up the tab at the end of the meal. This was such a crazy and unexpected evening that gave us unforgettable memories. 

Have you ever made a spontaneous decision that lead to some of your favorite memories?  I want to hear about them!

P.S. I am still dreaming of that cinnamon roll!

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