by Laura Chubb, The Independent, May 3, 2017
There’s something winningly classic about New Orleans - from the French Quarter’s elegant European architecture to its celebrated Creole cuisine, and an almost sacred notoriety as the birthplace of jazz. But while it’s true all this gives the city a unique, almost cinematic character, there’s more to explore beyond age-old tradition: post-Katrina, a number of neighbourhoods are being revitalised with ambitious modern art projects and an influx of new, creative businesses. The perfect trip, then, should make time for both classic and contemporary Nola. And it’s now easier than ever to access the Big Easy, as British Airways (ba.com) launched the first non-stop service from the UK on 27 March. The new flights take off four times a week from Heathrow.
Get your bearings
Most popular on the visitor’s hit-list are the French Quarter (1), New Orleans’ most historic neighbourhood and a picturesque mish-mash of colonial Spanish and French influences; and the leafy Garden District (2), known for 19th-century mansions built by well-to-do Americans after a swathe of Louisiana was bought from the French. The former is adjacent to Downtown, sitting on a bend in the Mississippi River, while the latter lies around four miles south-west and is best accessed by streetcar.
More up-and-coming areas that are beginning to garner attention include hip Bywater (3), east of the French Quarter, and the new Arts District (4), separated from the French Quarter by the high-rises of the Central Business District (5).
Get an immediate fix of French Quarter romance with a stroll along Royal Street (6). The antithesis of its neon-charged neighbour, hen-do favourite Bourbon Street (7), this elegant thoroughfare is known for its antique shops and iron lace balconies strung with hanging baskets. Enjoy a leisurely nosey, passing the odd horse-and-buggy ride or busking brass band. Don’t miss Frank Relle Gallery (8) (frankrelle.com), which rotates exhibitions of the photographer’s striking shots of New Orleans and Louisiana swamp country. Serious antiques hunters: head for M.S. Rau Antiques (9) (rauantiques.com), which sells everything from Baccarat to Tiffany.
Lunch on the run
New Orleans has always been a cultural melting pot, thanks to its trade links at the mouth of the Mississippi. One of the most glorious examples of this fusion is 200-year-old Napoleon House (10) (napoleonhouse.com), most famously owned by a Sardinian former mayor of the city, who was plotting to rescue Napoleon from exile in St Helena and make it his refuge. Napoleon died before the plan could come together, but the name stuck. Then, in 1914, it was bought by a Sicilian family who started serving its now legendary muffulettas - ginormous meat-and-cheese-stuffed sandwiches. The story goes that the family poured Pimm’s to keep customers at the bar longer, as drinkers tended to retire early when swigging bourbon. Recently sold to a local restaurant group, Napoleon House today has the distinction of feeling like a bohemian Parisian bar, all snug alcoves and peeling paint, while offering Sicilian sandwiches and British booze. Get there for midday, or expect queues.
A walk in the park
Facing the riverfront, Jackson Square (11) was the heart of old New Orleans. Catch jazz quartets performing in front of The Cabildo (12) - once the seat of the Spanish colonial government, and now home to the Louisiana State Museum (louisianastatemuseum.org) - and browse the artists’ colony bordering all four sides of the square. There’s everything from classic New Orleans scenes, to painterly portraits of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Next to The Cabildo (12), Saint Louis Cathedral (13) (stlouiscathedral.org) is a fairytale-worthy landmark, its three steeples stretching grandly from an all-white facade. Inside, stained glass windows recreate scenes from the life of Louis IX King of France, to whom the church was originally dedicated; buy a self-guided tour brochure at the entrance for $1. To the right is The Presbytère (14) (louisianastatemuseum.org). Formerly a courthouse, the ground floor now hosts a fantastic permanent exhibition about Hurricane Katrina. Videos and interactive exhibits tell the story of the storm, from build-up to impact, how infrastructure failed the city, and hear from those who fought to save their neighbourhoods.
The white columns, low-hanging ceiling fans and potted palms at Arnaud’s (15) (arnaudsrestaurant.com) speak to the traditional flavour of this French Quarter restaurant, open since 1918. Kick off your evening with a cocktail in its adjoining French 75 Bar, where staff in white jackets and bow-ties mix up the brandy and champers. Whether you dine at the restaurant or just pick at the bar snacks, don’t miss the soufflé potatoes - like airy, puffed-up pub chips, best dunked in the accompanying bearnaise sauce.
Out to brunch
For one last fling with the French Quarter, head to the daily Jazz Brunch at The Court of Two Sisters (16) (courtoftwosisters.com), served 9am-3pm. The courtyard setting is fairly unbeatable, shaded with overgrown vines and set around a red-brick fountain, while the all-you-can-eat buffet is your chance to try all the staples - think jambalaya, gumbo and turtle soup. A jazz trio provides a live soundtrack. It costs $30 per person.
Take a ride
Now hop on the creaky St Charles streetcar (17) (norta.com, single fare $1.25) at Gravier Street for an old-style ride over to the Garden District (2). It’s been rumbling along since the mid-1800s and passes the masses of gorgeous pre-Civil-War mansions along oak-lined St Charles Avenue. Get off at Washington to start exploring.
Take a hike
You don’t have to follow any kind of route - or be any sort of architecture buff - to enjoy the Garden District’s collection of incredible houses, built to show off the wealth accrued from booming Mississippi River merchantry. Wandering the blocks between Washington Avenue (18) and Magazine Street (19) is pure property porn, though if you want to seek out particular buildings, look up the likes of Sandra Bullock’s Swiss-cottage-style estate, and the columned house once home to an adolescent Anne Rice. (Alternatively, book a small group walking tour at $30 per person from gardendistrictwalksnola.com, meeting on Washington.) When you hit Magazine (19), have a browse of the indie boutiques, selling everything from New Orleans tees to local art.
Dine with the locals
For homey food and casual company, family-owned Joey K’s (20) (joeyksrestaurant.com) is a neighbourhood favourite - one of its most loyal customers is John Goodman, who lives down the street. Sure, there’s fried catfish and po' boys aplenty, but better still are signature standouts Eggplant Napoleon (stacked fried eggplant with fried shrimp and crawfish cream sauce) and Shrimp Magazine (garlicky butterfly shrimp, ham and artichoke hearts on a bed of delicate angel-hair pasta).
Take a view
New rooftop bar Hot Tin at the recently refurbished Pontchartrain Hotel (21) (thepontchartrainhotel.com) on St Charles Avenue gets packed on warm evenings - inevitable, given its lofty balcony views over Downtown and zippy seasonal house tipples. Stuffed with young professionals fresh from the grind, and playing indie Brit classics instead of the uniform jazz, the vibe here is a lot more contemporary than the French Quarter.
The icing on the cake
Bywater (3) is home to Music Box Village (22) (musicboxvillage.com), a “musical sculpture” meets art installation and performance venue. Comprising a series of musical treehouses and other structures-turned-instruments (a phone booth; a water tower) that play sounds when you enter or engage with them, it’s a sort-of sonic playground hidden in a yard that previously belonged to a steel fabricating plant (yup, on-trend). Or head into the formerly dilapidated Warehouse District, now the revitalised Arts District (4) (artsdistrictneworleans.com), where Julia Street (23) offers a cluster of 15 galleries showing local, modern works.
The Windsor Court Hotel (24) (windsorcourthotel.com) was built in 1984 by a local, Anglophile developer who wanted to create something echoing the style of his favourite London hotel, Claridge’s. That pleasantly old-school, upper-crust feel remains today, even after a recent $22 million restoration. The hotel is a five-minute walk from the French Quarter and rates start at $326 (£252) per night, room only.
For something completely different, brand-new boutique hotel The Troubadour (25) (jdvhotels.com) is all up-to-the-minute cool - think craft coffee drinks in the mini-bar and live bands in the mezzanine lounge. Also a short walk from the French Quarter, rooms here start from $198 (£153) per night, room only.
Truly budget hotels are hard to come by, but it’s worth seeking out deals with the likes of Best Western (bestwestern.com)
or Holiday Inn (ihg.com) if you’d rather pay around the $150 (£116) mark.
Touchdown is at Louis Armstrong International Airport (26), around 11 miles west of Downtown. Cab rides carry a flat rate of $36 (£28) to the French Quarter for up to two passengers, or $15 (£12) per person for three or more. The E2 Airport bus costs $2 (£1.50) and should reach Downtown in a little over half an hour (jeffersontransit.org).