Beyond Mardi Gras—Local-Approved Things to Do in New Orleans
In 2005, as a student at Tulane University, I was evacuating New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina was barreling toward the coast. I didn’t know what would become of my city. For days, I waited, glued to the television, hoping the storm would dissipate, wondering how my school, my home, and my favorite people and places would fare. In the end, I was lucky, losing my car and little else. I was privileged to live in a neighborhood that endured minimal flooding. I was even luckier to be able to return to New Orleans and watch the city rebuild itself, a luxury still not afforded to thousands.
Over the following two years, I enjoyed seeing some of my most beloved haunts reopen after renovations, energized by the spirit of the community. I saw new businesses open with fresh ideas and an entrepreneurial spirit—signs of a modern city on the horizon. Every time I return to that fair city, I can’t wait to visit my old favorites, and I’m thrilled to discover a restaurant or shop I’ve never seen before. We’ve already brought you the guide to the best restaurants in New Orleans, but if you need a little more, find out exactly where locals eat, drink, shop, and more in the Big Easy. Here are the best things to do in New Orleans—a little bit of the old, a little bit of the young, and a lot of good times ahead.
Surrey’s Café & Juice Bar: My favorite place to brunch, Surrey’s Café & Juice Bar is an eclectic, funky café with locations in the Lower Garden District (the original) and Uptown. I dream of its bananas Foster French toast and crab omelet.
Parkway Bakery and Tavern: Everyone has their favorite po’ boy shop in town, and Parkway Bakery and Tavern is mine. Go fried or go home.
St. James Cheese Company: What’s not to love about cheese? Supplying piles upon piles of gourmet blues, bries, and you-name-its, St. James Cheese Company is the perfect place to pack a picnic or load up on a sandwich or salad worth writing home about.
St. Roch Market: A historic food hall that relaunched recently, St. Roch Market is a gourmet’s dream, playing host to 13 individual vendor stalls representing coastal and local foods. Shop everything from freshly made bread to specialty coffee to charcuterie to small-batch jam.
Hansen’s Sno-Bliz: Don’t leave the city without trying a sno-ball, a New Orleans confection that dates back to the ’30s and is made with finely shaved ice and flavored cane sugar syrup. You can only find one seasonally, from March to October, at sno-ball stands throughout the city. Open since 1934, Hansen’s Sno-Bliz is the city’s oldest sno-ball business in town and has been continuously family run.
Sucré: Award-winning artisanal confectioner Sucré is one of the country’s best, handcrafting French macarons, delicate chocolates, flavored marshmallows, and more. The shop’s glamorous, glittery king cake is my favorite in the city, and I have it shipped to me in California every year for Carnival season.
Commander’s Palace: More than 100 years old and famed for its sprightly teal color and striped awnings, Commander’s Palace defined (and continues to define) first-class service. Dining on Creole- and Louisiana-inspired cuisine with no fewer than three servers at your side, you’ll feel like a queen (or a king) when you’re dining here. Pro tip: Don’t miss the 25-cent three-martini lunch! Business attire is required.
Emeril’s Delmonico: We’ve all heard of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, and while it may seem predictable to be recommending one of his restaurants here, Emeril’s Delmonico is a mainstay when it comes to top-notch Creole cuisine. Try the Gulf shrimp étouffée or the pork chop with red beans and rice; you won’t be disappointed.
Lilette: Located on a quiet corner of Magazine Street, the city’s seemingly never-ending shopping corridor, Lilette is the perfect neighborhood restaurant. It’s unfussy yet elegant and serves up imaginative French- and Italian-inspired cuisine.
Cochon: As cool as it gets in New Orleans, Cochon strikes a smart balance with rustic contemporary interiors and a soul food menu of Cajun Southern dishes like fried boudin with pickled peppers and an oyster-and-bacon sandwich.
Jacques-Imo’s: Luring tourists and locals alike for its “real Nawlins Creole soul food,” Jacques-Imo’s in Uptown is known as much for its alligator cheesecake as it is for its owner, Jacques Leonardi, who roams the restaurant nightly in his printed swim trunks getting to know patrons.
Atchafalaya: With culinary roots that date back to 1924, Atchafalaya is known for its contemporary spin on traditional NOLA cuisine. It reopened after Katrina following a remodel that used salvaged materials from its rich history. With live music and a smart cocktail menu, it’s a neighborhood favorite—and serves a mean Bloody Mary.
Cure: Opened in 2009, Cure is a posh cocktail bar that brought New Orleans up to speed with the current craft cocktail renaissance that’s been taking the country by storm. It also changed the face of Uptown’s Freret Street area and is a great example of contemporary NOLA.
Le Bon Temps Roué: This bar is as classic as they come when we’re talking about the city’s watering holes, with pool tables and a decent sandwich bar. Le Bon Temps Roulé has live music every night, and the city’s beloved brass band The Soul Rebels has a weekly residency that draws locals for a contagiously fun evening. We love the bar’s Bloody Mary, which is packed with produce and served in a plastic cup.
Ms. Mae’s: New Orleans’s cheapest 24-hour dive bar—yes, it’s open all day, every day—Ms. Mae’s should be on everyone’s NOLA bucket list. It’s the ultimate dive bar, and it’s guaranteed to have a really interesting crowd.
Cane & Table: This French Quarter restaurant has a nice, rustic Caribbean-inspired menu, but for us, it’s all about the drinks at Cane & Table, thanks to an innovative, island-influenced lineup. Start with a rum punch and then see where the day takes you.
Jazz Daiquiri Lounge: You won’t find Jazz Daiquiri Lounge in any travel guide; it’s a hole in the wall that’s a bit off the beaten path for most tourists, and the area can be dangerous at night. But this spot serves the best—and probably the strongest—frozen daiquiris you’ll try in the city. Go halfsies with two flavors (I like peach and piña colada), and if you’re feeling extra special, order “an extra shot of diesel” (190 proof) for a real kick. Get your drink to go and then take a picnic in the park.
The Columns Hotel: Looking out over beautiful St. Charles Avenue, where the streetcars roll and rumble by, The Columns Hotel, a white-columned building that dates to 1993 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the best place to enjoy a cocktail before dinner. Friday happy hour draws a lively crowd, but any time is nice to go.
Hyatt Centric French Quarter: Stay in the heart of the action at the Hyatt Centric French Quarter. Start your day with a coffee and beignet at the hotel’s café, Powdered Sugar, and finish it off with delicious Southern fare and friendly service with a New Orleans flair at the hotel’s Red Fish Grill. Guestrooms overlook a quaint courtyard sprinkled with string lights where a poolside bar serves tropical cocktails in summer months.
Soniat House: A charming red-brick beauty with intricate wrought-iron balconies, green shutters, and leafy courtyards, Soniat House is steeped in history, styled with fine antiques and paintings, and just a touch of chintz. If you’re looking for a picture-perfect Southern experience, this is the place.
Hotel Monteleone: Dating to 1186, Hotel Monteleone in the French Quarter is one of the last great family-owned-and-operated hotels in New Orleans. Over the years, it has been home to many distinguished Southern authors, including Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner. Following several additions and remodels, its rooms are beautifully appointed. Don’t miss its famed 25-seat revolving carousel bar, a New Orleans classic.
Pack Your Bags
American Bicycle Rental Company: Rent yourself a bike on a sunny morning and go cruising around the French Quarter, all the way to City Park, where you can enjoy a traditional beignet at Morning Call. The American Bicycle Rental Company rents out American-made cruiser bikes so you can roll around in style.
Audubon Park: A city park in Uptown, located across from Tulane and Loyola Universities, Audubon Park is a beautiful place to spend an afternoon. With a tranquil 1.8-mile jogging path, a lagoon, picnic shelters, playgrounds, and allées of ancient live oaks, it’s a favorite spot that everyone can enjoy.
Maple Leaf Bar: Located in the Carrolton neighborhood of Uptown, the Maple Leaf Bar is one of the longest continually operating music clubs in New Orleans and hosts performers of blues, funk, R&B, rock, zydeco, jazz, and any combination thereof. Rebirth Brass Band, arguably the city’s most famed and beloved brass band, has a weekly residency. Go to dinner at Jacques-Imo’s beforehand, and you’ll have yourself a great night.
Tipitina’s: A landmark for live music and Cajun dancing, Tipitina’s is an international icon that hosts the best acts in town, along with some of the greatest bands traveling through—of all musical genres. If you have a chance to see a show in this historic venue, don’t miss it.
Krewe: Get yourself a pair of New Orleans’s very own Krewe sunglasses at the flagship store in the French Quarter. This independent brand celebrates its New Orleans heritage through its inventive designs—even serving you a drink while you shop, in keeping with true Southern hospitality.
Sunday Shop Co: The best home stores from New York City to Los Angeles have nothing on Sunday Shop Co. The small Magazine Street shop features a unique mix of vintage décor finds and popular brands, from Byredo to Hawkins New York and Apparatus Studio.
Leontine Linens: If Southern charm and monogramming are your thing, Leontine Linens is a must-visit. It’s the best of the best when it comes to embroidered bedding in this country, so just don’t be alarmed by prices.
The Stacks: Opened in 2014 in Central City,The Stacks is an independent bookseller focusing on visual and graphic arts, architecture, photography, music, and other creative offerings. If you geek out over international magazines and cool contemporary art books, this is the place for you.
This story was originally published on August 28, 2015, and has since been updated by Gabrielle Savoie.