There is so much to see and do in New Orleans. The Crescent City draws visitors of every age and inclination all year long to explore its architecture, uncover its centuries of history, to shop and to live it up down on Bourbon Street. Others—lots of others—make the trip almost exclusively for the food. While I enjoy all that NOLA offers, I definitely fall into that last group. Feasting on the Cajun-Creole-Southern-infused cuisine that spills out of this city’s countless kitchens is a soul—and stomach—expanding experience.
I recently enjoyed a so-perfect-in-every-way brunch at Commander’s Palace that I’d make the four-an-a-half-hour drive from Montgomery to New Orleans again for nothing more than a repeat of that one experience. I’d hop in the car without thinking twice.
If you’ve got a few days to take it easy in the Big Easy, here are my recommendations for a few things to see and do, but mostly, for places to eat.
SEE & DO
Sixteen million Americans served in World War II, and currently, every two minutes, a U.S. veteran of this war dies. Yet their memory lives on thanks to The National World War II Museum in New Orleans: it tells their stories in vivid detail, while also giving visitors a sense of the scale and scope of the war. It can easily take a full day to go through its many exhibits, oral histories, and more, but save time for the “Beyond All Boundaries” interactive film, narrated by Tom Hanks.
Garden District & Cemeteries
Walk through the Garden District to find lovely homes (with immaculate landscaping) as well as LaFayette Cemetery No. 1. Here you can seek some refuge from the sun under a magnolia’s shade after pondering the artful masonry and interesting epitaphs on the headstones and massive mausoleums.
French Market & Jackson Square
Near the bank of the Mississippi River, the French Market area has a bevy of shops worth wandering into. Pop in the Dutch Alley Artist’s Co-Op and snag a piece of local folk art to take home. Don’t miss the Faulkner House bookstore or Evans Creole Candy Factory, where eating at least one sensationally sweet praline is required. Next, check out Jackson Square, where even more art created by Crescent City citizens abounds. At sunset, stroll the riverfront’s “moonwalk” and watch barges and boats float by.
Hop a streetcar leaving the French Quarter headed for City Park and then wander under ancient oaks to discover the blooming beauty of the New Orleans Botanical Garden, including fountains, sculptures, and the colors and heady scents of thousands of flowers and plants.
Unwind from a long day of walking (and of course, eating) with the smooth sounds of live, local jazz bands at legendary Preservation Hall, established in 1961 to honor and preserve this uniquely American art form. Be prepared to stand in line and sit on the floor (if you make it in) and hope that the Preservation Hall All-Stars are the guys blowing in brass and tickling the ivories on the night you’re there.
EAT & DRINK
Café De Monde
It may be a tourist trap, but it’s earned its popularity with spicy chicory coffee and airy, warm beignets that are must-tastes if you’ve never had them.
This longtime favorite is the king of NOLA cuisine, and its Sunday Jazz Brunch is the only way to eat on an end-of-the-weekend mid-morning. The atmosphere is refined; the service is stellar—the wait staff move like attentive ballet dancers, graceful and quiet—and Chef Tory McPhail’s renditions of area classics like turtle soup, pecan-crusted Gulf fish, gumbo, and pralines are deliciously elevated.
This seafood-centric restaurant is one of the newer stars in NOLA’s culinary scene, earning two James Beard awards in 2014. Weathered wood dominates the rustic décor that’s warm and inviting thanks to a few elegant touches. Check the menu on the raw bar and order for a dozen or two Alabama- or Louisiana-farmed oysters if they’ve got ’em. Salty and just a tiny bit sweet, they’re an apropos way to start a meal here.
Felix’s Oyster house is a NOLA tradition and sits right across the street from another NOLA tradition, ACME Oyster House. Ask ten people on the street which one is better, and you’ll probably get five “Felix’s!” and five “ACME!” answers. Both often have long lines just to get in, a sign that they’re both probably doing something right. Felix’s is certainly doing its red beans and rice right. Humble beans, onion, garlic, and bay leaf meld into a hearty but comforting dish that wraps your taste buds in a warm hug. This Creole classic is served with grilled Andouille sausage, fluffed white rice, a sprinkle of scallions, and there’s plenty of Tabasco on the table it you want to add extra spice.
Cheery sunshine streams into this airy bakery and cafe through floor-to-ceiling windows where the hungry gather to indulge in hearty, mostly baked good-based, breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner fare. For the morning meal, start with a pour-over latte and then build your own big biscuit sandwich with choices like country fried steak or chicken sausage (embellished further with a fried egg and American cheese). Or opt for Eggs in Purgatory. Bites of country sausage and a veggie-laden tomato sauce bubble underneath a layer of eggs in a sizzling cast iron skillet with crusty grilled bread on the side for soppin’.
With a pig-heavy menu, it’s hard to go wrong at this restaurant, one of famed Chef Donald Link’s six establishments in the Big Easy. The onion-braised pork cheeks speak for themselves, with little added fanfare in the way of seasonings or sauces and none needed. Also on the plate: rustic grits that are not too thin, not too thick. Order two extra sides, the smothered greens and homey mac & cheese casserole, and you’ve got a real meal.
James-Beard-award-winning Chef Alon Shaya brings the flavors of his Israeli heritage to NOLA in this addition to the Besh Restaurant Group, including pita bread that alone is worth the visit. Piping-hot rounds, still puffed with steam, arrive at your table seconds after being pulled from the dome-shaped wood-fired oven in the back of the dining room. Rip one open, inhale the intoxicating scent, and then scoop up a mouthful of velvety hummus (choose from multiple varieties) or earthy baba ghanoush.
This new French Quarter favorite is the work of Alabama native, Chef Alex Harrell, who named his eatery after his mother. Flickering gas lanterns softly usher guests into a warm, cozy space. Nibble on pork-fat cornbread muffins while you wait for Harrell’s contemporary Southern cuisine that’s based on his cooking experiences in South Carolina and New Orleans (as well as his personal food memories of Alabama) and laced with Mediterranean influences, dishes like Mississippi Rabbit Milanese.
St. Roch Market
This circa-1875 marketplace was given new life in 2015 when it opened as a food hall. Inside its wide-open, light-filled space, a collection of food vendors offer produce from area farmers, baked goods, and a diverse array of delights that you walk up, order, and then eat at the seat-yourself, high-top tables in the middle section. Enjoy regional classics from King Creole, cured meats and artisan cheeses from Shank Charcuterie, or made-to-order savory crepes from Dirty Dishes.
Tucked inside the lovely lobby of The Roosevelt Hotel, this famous bar is named after the Sazarac, one of the world’s first cocktails (and maybe the first) that was invented in New Orleans. The bar is a dimly lit, intimate space; the drink is a stout mix of rye whiskey, bitters, a hint of sugar, and Herbsaint. If you’re after something a bit lighter and sweeter, opt for the Ramos Gin Fizz, another notable NOLA potable.
Imbibe cocktails in the round inside the Hotel Monteleone at its iconic Carousel Bar. The circular bar slowly rotates 360 degrees, creating a unique drinking experience that’s made the hotspot a favorite hangout for Southern writers and other literary luminaries.
The Roosevelt Hotel
This 120-year-old luxury property is the grand dame of accommodations in New Orleans. It’s as comfortable and welcoming as it is opulent and historic, and only a few blocks from the Quarter, it’s centrally located amid many of NOLA’s best sites and bites.