USA Travel Idea: The French Quarter of New Orleans

At age 33, I’d never been to New Orleans.  In hindsight, it kinda seems like a bit of a tragegy.

I was heading down from Alaska to Washington D.C. for my 15 year high school reunion.  My wife and I figured that as long as we were making the big trip south (about 10 hours of air travel), we might as well poke around the neighborhood to see where else we might want to go (the neighborhood, in this case, being the lower-48 states!).  A 7 day cruise out of Galveston, Texas and then a climactic couple of days in the French Quarter of New Orleans seem like a first class travel idea.

If you’re ever worried that visiting New Orleans on a weekday or non-holiday might not be raucous enough for you– think again.  At least, think again if you are used to Anchorage, Alaska (population 350k or so).  We were visiting for a Tuesday-Thursday in April– and it rained the whole time (just about).  Still, the french quarter seemed chock full of music, drinking, and assorted revelry.  Enough so that the idea of being in French Quarter during Mardi Gras is a little scary.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans

Where to Stay:  After doing a fair bit of research on where to stay, we settled on The Frenchman 417 Frenchmen Street | New Orleans, Louisiana 70116, Tel: (888) 365-2775, which presented a lot like the French Quarter as a whole does– funky, friendly, comfy, and a little rough around the edges.  It has a tiny little garden swimming pool and jacuzzi, spacious rooms old rooms filled with antique furniture, fresh croissants and chicory-coffee in the morning, and delightful service.  They have a variety of rooms, ranging from $49 a night in the low season to $299 a night during “special events”.  The hotel offers a small amount of secure parking for a small fee (I think $7 a day sounds right), but in hindsight I would’ve ditched the rental car– you just don’t need it in the French Quarter.
What to Do: Unlike a lot of other destinations we’ve visited, New Orleans doesn’t seem particularly activity-centric.  The chief activity of the French Quarter appears to be wandering around– and strangely, it doesn’t get old.  Remember that we were there on three weeknights– and the French Quarter STILL seemed like it was jumping.  Wandering down the main streets (Bourbon St.,Decatur,  etc) is a riot of assorted delightful sins–  bars, strip clubs, world-famous culinary destinations, and a sleazy open-air market all make for interesting people-watching.  Walking down the main drags is a feast for the ears as you wander in and out of range of the noisy New Orleans establishments (a lot of it live, some of it canned).  We heard all flavors of jazz, blues and rock.

Even for a pair of non-partying-types, the “rules of the road” in New Orleans were energizing.  Virtually all of the bars serve their drinks in enormous plastic cups– and it’s assumed you will wander from bar to bar with your alcoholic beverages.  At night, they block off the main roads to allow for more foot traffic, the majority of which is generally carrying some flavor of booze or another.  I was delighted to find that there are tiny little booze-to-go spots– businesses who don’t even bother to offer you music or a place to sit down.  Just a big fast-food-style backlit menu full of assorted alcohol-to-go concoctions.

One activity we did decide to indulge in was The New Orleans Ghost Tour 504-628-1722.  If I hadn’t read such good things about it, I would’ve been suspicious.  I called the reservation line and never did get a call back.  A little internet research yielded that the tours started at Flanagan’s Pub (625 St. Philip Street), so we figured we’d just show up shortly before one of the tours was scheduled to depart and see if we could tag along.  When we asked the bartender, she thumbed us towards a scuzzy little ticket booth in the back, and we bought a pair of tickets for the next tour ($19 per ticket).  The tour was a walking tour led by Phillip, a flamboyant local with an obvious enthusiasm for the paranormal.  Phillip led us around the French quarter (even in New Orleans, a weirdo going on about ghosts leading 15 or so people around draws a few stares) and described the histories of a dozen or so ghosts.  It was a nice opportunity to walk around some more, drink an enormous Hurricane (the local drink), and hear about some of the local history/mythology.

Much of what there is to do in New Orleans (to me) seems centered on eating, which leads me to…

Where to Eat: My wife and I are foodies– that is to say, no matter where we go we make an attempt to find the most exceptional/interesting local food we can. This certainly doesn’t mean that we only eat at the fanciest establishments.  New Orleans is home of several of the most famous restaurants in the world, however– so it seemed a shame not to hit at least a few of the fancy places.

For our big dinner out, we had a rough time deciding.  We read that Galatoire’s (209 Bourbon Street,) (504) 525-2021 had just been named the best overall restaurant in the United States by the James Beard Foundation, so it seemed like a good bet.  We almost weren’t able to eat there.  Galatoire’s is a true white-tablecloth establishment and requires a jacket be worn for dinner and shorts are not allowed.  It obviously isn’t uncommon for people to show up sans jacket– so they graciously offered me one.  Don’t think for a moment that this means Galatoire’s is stuffy– other than appearance of staff and diners, it was delightfully casual.  Every time a birthday cake came out, the whole restaurant (staff and customers) roared out a drunken rendition of Happy Birthday.  Late in the evening, a young fellow was caught one one knee proposing by his waiter who loudly shouted out the good news to cheers from the whole place.  Our waiter (with a 5 o’clock shadow but wearing a smart tuxedo) said “All the way from Alaska?  That’s a long fucking trip.” to us, and when we were leaving said, “Um– you left some wine– you guys want it in a plastic cup?”.  Sooooo, yeah– it was the most laid back fancy restaurant I’ve been in.

The dinner menu at Galatoire’s was strange– a bit low in terms of description, and a bit free form in terms of food.  You were literally able to combine your own meats, fishes, sauces, toppings, side dishes, etc.  I’m very used to fancy chefs telling me exactly what I get on my plate (and usually artfully combining things for an exceptional plate of food).  I settled on artichoke hearts topped with crab meat and a spicy hollandaise, and my wife had a local whitefish, also topped with crab meat, and a lemon white wine sauce.  We shared the banana-bread pudding with Whiskey sauce for dessert.   All-in-all, I’d certainly put it in my top 5 culinary experiences.

If you’re on a travel budget, I’d recommend ignoring it (your budget!) and grabbing at least one fancy meal while in New Orleans– there are just too many world class restaurants to ignore.  If you are on a tight budget that simply can’t be broken, there are a gazillion great dining experiences to be had.  New Orleans has a fabulous tradition of low-budget food.

  • Beignets (Acadian doughnuts) and Chicory coffee at the famous Cafe Du Monde (800 Decatur Street),
  • muffulettas at the Central Grocery (923 Decatur St, don’t go at prime lunch time unless you want to stand in line).  The muffuletta starts with a whole loaf of round Italian bread, which is stuffed to overflowing with Italian meats and cheeses, then topped with a rich olive salad.
  • Po Boys (Uglesich’s, 1238 Baronne Street, 15 minutes from Canal St (504) 523-8571
  • Deep Fried Pickles
  • Boiled Crawfish (you can get ’em just about anywhere)

Special Considerations:  New Orleans is dirty.  If you want an immaculate destination, this isn’t for you.  When I say dirty– I don’t just mean stinky and covered with dirt (though it’s a little stinky and there is plenty of trash).  Walking down Bourbon Street is NOT a wholesome experience.  New Orleans folk seem to revel in their own naughtiness.  If I’d bothered to count, I’m sure I would’ve counted more than a dozen strip clubs, one of which promised “Live S-e-X Acts!” and had some improbably graphic photos all over the front of their establishment.  Larry Flynt (publisher of Hustler) has two clubs on Bourbon– his standard “Hustler Club” and his “Barely Legal” club.  Unlike many destinations, there isn’t a “Red-light” district that you can avoid– if you decide that you don’t want to see strip clubs, you’ll have to avoid the French Quarter entirely.