Yes, you read the title correctly. This is a sober and somewhat nerdy take on touring The Big Sleazy. For those of you who don’t know, I’m obsessed with New Orleans and have been for some time. When I admit this, most people assume its New Orleans’s “laissez les bon temps rouler” attitude and party scene that made me fall in love with the city. In reality, they couldn’t be farther from the truth.
I fell in love with New Orleans’s history, its culture, and its people. I first went to New Orleans as a kid for a family reunion in the middle of July and to be honest, the main things I remembered about my first trip to the city is eating a bunch of good food and falling asleep in a deck chair while taking a river tour of the famous Natchez steamboat.
I ended up returning to the city after getting a great deal on a flight for my birthday in May of 2015 (little did I know then that I would be returning to the city again a year later to work a conference). Before going I did what I usually do before any big trip: I purchased a guidebook about my destination and studied the heck out of it for a solid week. (Pro-tip: Purchase a guidebook written by a local on your destination as they serve as great reference points if you’re looking to confirm information that’s been posted online. They’re also helpful if you’re traveling in remote areas where accessing the net isn’t an option).
I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t know too much about New Orleans before my second trip, but I wanted to learn more. Therefore, I found myself gravitating towards different tours, museums, and cultural spots that were mentioned in my guidebook. I jotted down some places I wanted to hit before going, which served as a loose itinerary for my trip and guess what? Bars and nightclubs didn’t make the list.
In fact, that first trip back to NOLA had me drinking a total of two-and-a-half drinks: a beer with lunch, a glass of champagne on my birthday, and a couple of sips of New Orleans signature drink, the Hurricane (which is way too sweet for my taste) at Pat O’Briens. So, what exactly did I do while there? Read on to find out!
Cemetery Voodoo Walking Tour: I was dying to see the legendary cemeteries of New Orleans that adhere to burial practices which house remains above ground, oftentimes in ornate mausoleums. I was also interested in learning more about the origins of Voodoo, a religion that is incredibly misunderstood and misrepresented. Therefore, I was happy that I found a walking tour that incorporated explanations of the history behind both things.
I conferred the information I found on the Internet with my guidebook and decided to book a Cemetery Voodoo Walking Tour with Historic Walking Tours. This tour company is affordable ($25/adult), highly rated, and the tour guides typically have advanced degrees in history or other related subjects.
This was by far one of the best walking tours I have ever been on and we covered a lot of ground and subject matter, as the tour takes you through Louis Cemetery #1, the home of the famous Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau, and Congo Park. Also, the tour group was relatively small with a little over a dozen people in attendance.
Garden District Walking Tour: The Garden District of New Orleans is a must see. If you’re staying in or near the French Quarter, I recommend riding the trolley down to this picturesque area. Once there you can take a stroll along Magazine Street, which is full of fun shops, restaurants, and cafés.
I also recommend booking an architecture tour of the area, as the historic district is known for housing homes from various time periods, constructed in varying styles. It’s also the preferred neighborhood for celebrities, such as the acclaimed novelist Anne Rice to the Knowles-Carter family.
After having such a great time on the Cemetery Voodoo Walking Tour, I booked the Garden District Walking Tour with the same company, Historic Walking Tours. Needless to say, I had a great time. Not only was the guide knowledgeable of the homes he discussed and the area we were in, he was also a native Orleanian who had been doing the tour so long that he even knew some of the homes’ residents personally!
The tour also starts in The Garden District Book Shop, which has literature on every potential facet of New Orleanian and Lousianian life you can think of. It’s also where I purchased a book my tour guide recommended, stating that it was the best depiction of New Orleans life in culture in the 19th century: Anne Rice’s Feast of All Saints. (FYI it quickly became my favorite book.)
Bayou St. John Kayaking Tour: Initially, I wanted to do a swamp boat tour, but I wasn’t really up for going a ways out when there was so much to explore in and near the city’s center. So, I opted for a kayaking tour on the Bayou instead.
I booked the Big Easy Bayou Tour with a small tour company by the name of Kayak-iti-Yat run by a couple who takes on tour groups themselves. We ended up being a tour group of 5 including our guides, which was nice as we were able to set the pace. The tour took us up and down the bayou looking at homes inspired by the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, past wildlife (i.e., we saw a couple of baby gators), and learned more about the Bayou St. John itself.
Shop ‘Til Ya Drop
Aside from the many cool, independent shops on Magazine Street and in the French Quarter, there are also a couple of spots that you should consider hitting.
The French Market: This market is located on the riverfront in the French Quarter. It has been around for well over two centuries, first operating as a Native American trading post and then used by all as a place to barter and shop. The tradition continues to this day, as you are able to purchase food, original artwork, and other crafts from local vendors. On Wednesdays, the open-air market hosts a farmer’s market where you can also buy fresh produce. The market also boasts live music and is in operation seven days a week!
The Outlet Collection at Riverwalk: If you’re looking for a good deal at some highbrow chain stores, then the outlet shopping at the Riverwalk is the move. It’s also a great place to grab lunch and sit outside on a balcony that overlooks the Mississippi.
The New Orleans Museum of Art: Located in the City Park area of New Orleans, this museum is just a short trolley ride from the French Quarter. The museum houses European art from the 16th to 20th centuries, as well as some early American pieces. My favorite exhibits were the ones housing Asian and Native American ethnographic art.
While the interior of the museum holds some really amazing works, it’s the Besthoff Sculpture Garden that I enjoyed the most. Mainly because I’m a sucker for a well-laid out sculpture garden, but also because there are some really interesting pieces to check out. It’s also nice place to take a stroll weather permitting.
NOLA is known for its jazz scene and even hosts a huge jazz festival (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) every Spring that attracts thousands of jazz enthusiasts. There are also several great venues big and small where you can hear fantastic music like jazz, zydeco, and beyond. However, I’m going to mention just one place I went to while meeting up with a friend of a friend who lives in the city to listen to some live music.
3 Keys at The Ace Hotel: When I went this place it had just opened and I actually went to a see the friend of an acquaintance of mine play with their band. The venue is an intimate one, set in a room with a small stage in the back of the hotel. Since it’s set in a hotel there is no cover charge, which is fantastic! We ended up getting some appetizers at the restaurant and bar set on the other side of the hotel lobby and then walked over to see the show, which was a ton of fun. It’s also important to note, that 3 Keys hosts local acts that play all different genres of music, so if you’re not a huge jazz fan you can still catch a show with a musical act that’s more your speed.
I definitely understand why New Orleans is considered to be a party city. I mean, it’s so easy to bar hop, taking your “to-go” cup from one pub to the next, and it feels like there’s at least one parade a day in the French Quarter when the weather’s warm. However, it’s also a really beautiful city that is more than just affordable alcohol and fantastic food. When planning your trip there, consider looking at other fun activities to partake in that won’t leave you hungover.