There are few things in this world more magical than sitting in New Orleans Musical Legend Park and listening to the crooning of Steamboat Willie as they play The House of the Rising Sun. By a string of little miracles, I found myself there in March.
New Orleans is a mistress that goes by many names: the Big Easy, the Crescent City, the Birthplace of Jazz, and for those of us that are too lazy to say the whole name, NOLA. The French Quarter is a place constantly abuzz with the faint sound of trombones, trumpets, tubas, and French horns floating through the air. As soon as you walk outside, you can hear big bands blaring their instruments and wailing catchy lyrics in the streets. You can smell seafood, the Mississippi River, and incense no matter where you go. The most wonderful thing about the French Quarter, though, is the locals.
The first day that Austin and I were there, we were walking along St. Ann’s Street and had a woman on a bike tell us as she passed, “Y’all smell real nice!” About an hour later, we saw her sitting outside of Jackson Square (one of my favorite sites seen in NOLA) with a frilly umbrella over her head and celestial patterned scarves covering the table in front of her, behind a sign that read “Best Palm Reader in New Orleans”. We also encountered waitresses, bartenders, retail workers, chefs, musicians, taxi drivers, Voodoo priestesses, tour guides, homeless people, and fellow tourists… There was not a single interaction we had with anyone, from all the demographics we met, that left us feeling sour.
On the contrary, we were feeling more welcomed than we do in our own hometowns.
I have always heard from frequent travelers that “the people make the place,” but I had absolutely no idea what that meant before I went to New Orleans. Now, I walk around the shops of my hometown and feel mournful about the fact that the Creole mindset doesn’t exist in the Southwest. Post-travel sadness is not unfamiliar for me. I get sad about coming home every single time I go on a trip. However, post-New Orleans sadness is different. I have craved po boys and oysters every day since I’ve gotten back. I have started listening to jazz music while I do homework. I have started calling people “baby” and “darling” (which is very uncharacteristic of my generally hard outer shell). When people ask me, “How was NOLA?” I respond with, “Words can’t describe it.”
Honestly, I mean that. Words don’t do The Big Easy justice. That doesn’t mean I won’t try, though! I’m gonna break NOLA down into pieces as best I can in order to fully express the reasons why the French Quarter’s food, music, architecture, history, and nightlife (along with everything else) stole my heart.
I’m a foodie. I have always had affection for delicious dishes and I’m the person that moans weirdly when they take a bite into something amazing. Between fried shrimp po boys doused in seafood bisque, charbroiled oysters, muffeletta sandwiches, and eggs Benedict topped with Cajun breaded oysters, I was in hog heaven. I had no idea just how good Cajun and Creole dishes were. The most exotic thing I usually shovel into my mouth is a chimichanga with salsa verde and pico de gallo. The way food is spiced in New Orleans is absolutely mind-blowing. It’s spicy without making your mouth hurt, it’s robust without being overpowering, and it’s filling without leaving you feeling like a grease ball. Well, maybe the last part isn’t one hundred percent accurate, but that’s only because I am a pig and cannot control myself when I’m hungry.
If you like real, hardy meals with lots of carbs and plenty of hot sauce on hand, you will love NOLA. You’ll also love it if you’re into fluffy pastries, buttery seafood, and gigantic fruity drinks. I recommend New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee for your sweet tooth needs, but Austin preferred Café du Monde. So try both, then let me know which one you like better (NOLA Famous is better, trust me on this one). You can also get pralines pretty much anywhere. Pralines are a gift from the sugary, pecan gods. For seafood, check out the fried variety of seafood and the boiled crawfish at the Original French Market Restaurant in (you guessed it) the French Market. The Gumbo Shop was the first place we ate at, and it was delicious. They have a three course meal where you can try pretty much everything Creole, so we took advantage of that and walked away with a fat smile on our faces. For breakfast, Restaurant Stanley was phenomenal. I have dreamt about Stanley’s at least once a week since leaving. For drinks, you need to go to the Bourbon House and order a frozen bourbon milk punch. There’s also the famous Pat O’brien’s, which will feed you a never ending supply of hurricanes, and the Hand Grenades and Fish Bowls that can be found on Bourbon Street. The best (and least expensive) po boy I had while I was there was at NOLA Po Boys. I have been searching for po boys since leaving and nothing compares. Finally, if you feel like treatin’ yo self, you can enjoy some of the best customer service (and mint juleps) in the world at Irene’s.
You know that feeling you get when you’re listening to live music and the band is singing a song that makes the hair on your arms stand straight up? When you can feel the notes literally pulsing through your blood and you become a product of the music? Every second lived on the streets of the French Quarter are overwhelmingly like that. There were people from all over the world dancing and bouncing around the streets while crooning at massive audiences. They weren’t performing for the audience though. They were performing in a way that made me feel like I was invading on their private thoughts, like they craved expression rather than admiration. Granted, they had buckets for you to put money into if you enjoyed it. So bring some cash.
Pat O’Brien’s and Preservation Hall were our favorite spots to go to listen to music at night. At Pat’s, they have dueling pianos every night. The pianists take requests on napkins and alternate back and forth so that everyone gets a bit of what they want to hear. We heard piano renditions of Journey, Michael Buble, Kanye West, Frank Sinatra, Tim McGraw, Neil Diamond, Nicki Minaj, and so many more artists that were never intended to be played on a piano yet were wrong in all the right ways. Preservation Hall is a legendary jazz hall that blew my mind. The hall only allows for about one hundred people per show, has four shows a night, and is first come first serve, so we were very anxious about getting in to the show we wanted to see. I recommend going to Preservation Hall early in the day and checking out the performer lineup for the night, then getting in line for the show you decide on at least forty-five minutes beforehand. The jazz artists that perform there are absolutely some of the most talented people I have ever seen. It is definitely worth the hype.
The Architecture and History
My favorite part of Disneyland has always been the New Orleans Square. The intricately designed rails, the narrow cobblestone paths, the big colorful wreaths dangling from balconies, and the colorfully painted buildings have fascinated me since I was very small. You can imagine my delight upon walking down Saint Anne’s Street and discovering that Disney didn’t dramatize the true nature of the French Quarter. Houses were painted the same colors as Easter eggs, balconies had gigantic fluffy ribbons and potted plants draping the rails, and the streets were as narrow as they were uneven. There was so much life in the littlest things.
The history of New Orleans is extensive. It has seen Spanish and French architecture, Jamaican food, white oppression, and lots and lots of voodoo. I am obsessed with the history of Marie Leveau and voodoo in general, so I was stoked to check out the voodoo shops and meet people who practice it. I even bought some spells and gris-gris bags to take home some voodoo with me!
I’m going to be completely candid with you. I used to be a total party animal. A year ago, you couldn’t have kept me off of Bourbon Street if you tried. However, I’m in a different place in my life than I have been in the past, so partying and getting blacked out on the streets of a foreign city doesn’t appeal to me as much. There were two nights while we were there that consisted of bars and nightlife, though.
The first night was an accident. We underestimated the strength of the Fish Bowl we drank and found ourselves pounding Hurricanes and laughing hysterically at street performers and karaoke singers in the Cat’s Meow. The second time was the night before Saint Paddy’s Day, when we bought way too many $3 Fuzzy Leprechauns and sang loudly along with the dueling pianos at Pat O’Brien’s, then moved to Musical Legends Park to listen to Steamboat Willie. Truthfully, we had the most fun in places where there was live music. After all, we were in the Birthplace of Jazz, so why would we go to any random bar of club playing music from a stereo? We could do that anywhere in Arizona, so we made it our goal to experience as much NOLA-esque magic as we possibly could in five days.
We had an overwhelming amount of genuinely good times in New Orleans. Enough good times for a lifetime. We got to see alligators swim around in a swamp that was much less humid than I thought it would be. It actually was a stunning area, much to my surprise. I really dug my heels in and did not want to go to a swamp (mostly because Scooby Doo’s mysteries usually happen near a swamp) but it was overall a pleasant experience. The tour guide for Jean Lafitte’s was informative and funny, the alligators weren’t that scary, and the swamp itself was all green and lush.
We also got to sit on a bench overlooking the Mississippi River and listen to the riverboat organ play obnoxiously loud and slow while munching on powder-sugar-coated beignets. We got to stay in an AirBnb hosted by the kindest, warmest hosts on this planet and at the Jean Lafitte Guest House and Gallery with a huge, soft bed and balcony overlooking Bourbon Street. We got to shop on the French Market, eat crawfish from the shell, and see the colorful art being sold by locals. We got to walk around the calm and quiet Louis Armstrong Park. We walked around Frenchmen Street and lived as the New Orleans folk do. We really didn’t do much as far as tours and sightseeing, but we left feeling very fulfilled.
Most of all, we got to expand ourselves as people. We witnessed kindness, compassion, talent, and generosity from people who simply wanted to see us smile. I consider myself better now that I carry a little bit of the Big Easy with me every day.
P.S. If you are thinking about going to NOLA, don’t walk, run. But before you go, here are some tips about the ugly side of it. After all, with every place you go, there will be some bad parts on top of all the good:
- Don’t walk down streets that have no people on them. It may look like a quaint, quiet area, but it is probably a neighborhood that was abandoned and houses homeless people and squatters. Avoid areas like this in order to avoid getting mugged or harassed. There are plenty of populated, beautiful streets to explore, so just don’t risk it.
- Avoid talking about Hurricane Katrina. I asked some of the locals, “What’s the most annoying thing tourists do?” and 100% of them said, “Ask if Katrina affected me.” Obviously Hurricane Katrina affected them. They may bring it up on their own, and if they do, feel free to have that conversation. Just please, do not assume that everyone wants to relive a very tragic and terrible time for this wonderful city.
- Bring cash! I am not a cash person because I usually lose all my money somehow when it’s in paper form, so this was difficult for me. A lot of restaurants and stores take cash only, so be prepared for that.