A first-timers whirlwind Big Easy tour
by Hannah J. Phillips
Photographs by Paul Broussard and Rush Jagoe
You need at least three days and three stomachs to do New Orleans properly — and a spare liver helps, too. First-time visitors to the Big Easy soon discover how hard it is to fit everything in, referring figuratively to the museums, music halls and monuments — and literally to the po’boys, gumbo, beignets and more. The trick is to pace yourself, as much for your digestion’s sake as to make sure you don’t miss the soul of the city while sampling everything it has to offer. Sure, check Café Du Monde off your bucket list and snap photos in the French Quarter, but don’t forget to collect the city’s smells and sounds as well: incense in the voodoo shops, the rattle of a streetcar, fresh rain on a curtain of Spanish moss and a jazz trumpet’s jubilant laugh.
A short walk from the city’s main artery, the Ace Hotel invites visitors through a portal of overgrown greenery into an art deco lobby that would win Jay Gatsby’s approval. Like New Orleans itself, the hotel’s unassuming exterior harbors hidden gems at every turn: an intimate live-music venue with speakeasy vibes at the Three Keys; three dining options for fresh, local fare; and a rooftop pool serving sips with a view. Guest rooms feature decadent dark tile and minimal décor as a welcome respite in a city that overstimulates each of the five senses.
After check-in, head to the nearby streetcar stop on Carondelet to catch the St. Charles line to Audubon Park. Commissioned in the early 1920s, the line is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world, earning a national historic landmark designation in 2014. Hopping on at Carondelet is your best chance to snag a window seat before the Canal Street crowds pile on. And you definitely want a window seat as the streetcar chugs toward Uptown. High-rises give way to wrought-iron gates and Greek columns of the Garden District’s antebellum homes, where beads from bygone Mardi Gras blend with the ferns of giant oaks.
You will be tempted to hop off at the Tulane University stop, but patience pays off at the corner of South Carrollton Avenue, where you will find New Orleans Original Daiquiris. The dive is best known for its 190 Octane mixes, but if you’re watching your Everclear intake, opt for the House Blend. Capitalize on Louisiana’s lax liquor laws by ordering to go and then retracing your steps to the entrance of Audubon Park.
Calories don’t count when you consume and walk at the same time, and the paths of Audubon Park are the perfect setting for both. The 1.9-mile loop winds over stone bridges and past weeping willows, and an extra side trip toward the zoo leads to the glorious Tree of Life. A grand example of the city’s ancient live oaks, the tree’s colossal branches create a canopy of shade, reaching heavenward like cathedral arches and drooping down to meet the earth.
Now that you’ve walked off your daiquiri, it’s high time for a three-martini lunch at Commander’s Palace before browsing the boutiques and galleries along Magazine Street. Or wander the neighborhood’s 19th-century homes. Fans of “American Horror Story” should seek out the Buckner Mansion, featured as the fictional Miss Robichaux’s on the third season.
In the evening, head back to the Ace to freshen up for a night in, New Orleans-style. One of the hotel’s best perks is not needing to travel far for live music and local cuisine. Enjoy happy hour on the rooftop at Alto before sampling Seaworthy’s fresh oyster selection around the corner: Intimate and cozy, the bar serves wild-caught oysters from the West, East and Gulf coasts.
Get back to the Three Keys early to claim a spot upstairs. Shows highlight local legends and upcoming artists alike, so check the calendar ahead of time for a sneak peek.
For some of the best views in the city, head down Canal Street to cross the Mississippi by ferry. Departing every half hour, the ferry lands at Algiers Point, a 19th-century neighborhood known as the “Brooklyn of the South” and home to the city’s Jazz Walk of Fame. Back across the river, stroll the embankment toward the French Quarter for lunch at Central Grocery & Deli, home of the unforgettable muffuletta. Italy meets the South in every bite of this sesame bread, Italian charcuterie and spicy Creole olive salad, best enjoyed with a bottle of Dixie Beer.
Savor your last bites of that delicious seeded bread before venturing out into the French Quarter maze. Wander through voodoo shops, admire the architecture and visit the crumbling graves of the 18th- and 19th-century cemeteries. St. Roch and St. Louis No. 1 are among the most popular, though after years of vandalism, the latter now requires $20 admission. Refuel and recaffeinate along the way at Café Amelie’s romantic courtyard, or let the day drinking continue at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar. Built in 1722, the tavern is reportedly the oldest bar in the country and one of the most haunted sites in the area.
For dinner, Galatoire’s has served French-Creole staples since 1905, but if you forgot to pack a dinner jacket, the nearby Longway Tavern features hearty fare to gear up for an evening on Bourbon Street. To find the city’s quintessential jazz, join the queue at Preservation Hall for one of five nightly concerts; those less patient can head to Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub as a superb alternative, maximizing time for meandering through cobblestone streets and gaslit corners.
And, of course, no trip is complete without a late-night stop at the mecca that is Café Du Monde, relishing the doughy goodness of powdered sugar-topped beignets after a long day of exploring. Your pilgrimage complete, head back to the Ace for a short night’s rest before your morning flight. Falling asleep, you’ll remember that you forgot to try a po’boy or a gin fizz, but that’s how every first trip to New Orleans should end, with a longer list of reasons to return.