It’s almost too easy to fall in love with the Big Easy.
The universal appeal of New Orleans lies within its versatility as a vacation spot: From nightlife to nature, and music to meals, the Crescent City offers a robust to-do list for travelers of all interests.
LGBT tourists, in particular, will feel right at home in the city. Like Philly’s own Gayborhood, rainbow flags wave high and proud throughout the city — from its famed French Quarter to the quirky Bywater neighborhood and the revitalized Arts District. An anything-goes culture permeates New Orleans, whose rich history is intertwined with its embrace of diversity, making for a trip that’s both exciting and energizing.
What to do
New Orleans has a reputation as a party town — and for good reason. A trip to NOLA would be incomplete without a jaunt over to the famed Bourbon Street. Home to dozens of bars, Bourbon is truly a sight to behold, with its flashing neon lights, jazz music floating out of open doors and street performers. You can grab a drink and go just about anywhere on the strip, leading to a congenial street-party-type atmosphere. Competition is rife among clubs, so many offer deep discounts and unique cocktail creations.
LGBT clubs are dotted throughout the 13-block corridor, with several anchored around St. Ann and Dumain streets, including longtime corner-bar joint Café Lafitte in Exile and dance clubs Bourbon Pub/Parade and Oz. If it’s LGBT nightlife you’re after, schedule your trip for Labor Day Weekend, when New Orleans hosts Southern Decadence — think an even-gayer Mardi Gras — which draws upwards of 100,000 people.
The French Quarter is exceptionally walkable so venture off Bourbon for a more laidback, and perhaps even more genuine, taste of New Orleans.
Music is a backbone of the city, and Frenchmen Street is the place to find it. From iconic jazz bars to new reggae hot spots, live music emanates from just about every bar and restaurant (we’ll get to the dizzying dining opportunities shortly!).
A night out in New Orleans may turn into an early morning, so make sure to plan accordingly.
Early risers can get in some cardio and fantastic views of the city with a kayak tour by Kayak-iti-Yat. Two- or four-hour tours down the Bayou St. John are available, with the former being a perfect fit for first-time or inexperienced kayakers. Operators (and married couple) Sonny and Sara are fountains of information on all-things New Orleans. As you glide through the water, the pair will guide you through the bayou’s evolution and role in New Orleans history, as well as point out everything from architectural marvels to unique wildlife that you’re bound to spot (you may even coast over an alligator or two!). They’re also well-versed in the unique environmental issues New Orleans faces, and their insight provides a bird’s-eye view of the city you could only get from locals.
A KAYAK-ITI-YAT TOUR OF BAYOU ST. JOHN
Across from the launch spot is City Park. The massive, 1,300-acre green space features walking, running and biking paths galore, as well as a botanical garden, sculpture garden and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Families with youngsters (or those young at heart!) can hit up the amusement park, mini-golf and playgrounds.
Depending on the time of year, outdoor activities in New Orleans come with their fair share of heat and humidity, so pack the sunscreen and water bottles.
To escape the temps, duck into the World War II Museum. Located in the Arts District, the multi-building campus is home to an impressive collection of nearly 250,000 items, presented in an immersive and often-interactive setting. Planes and helicopters used in the war are suspended from the ceiling, and guests can walk alongside Jeeps and other vehicles integral to the war. Read personal letters from soldiers and see their uniforms, weapons and other belongings; guests can even hop onto a 1940s train car to get matched up with a real World War II soldier, whose story they follow throughout the museum. The artistry involved in each exhibit is astonishing — you can learn about the USS Tang Submarine aboard a replica and about the conditions soldiers faced in Asian jungles under tree-covered trails — and drives home the realities of the war.
Another eye-opening experience can be found at The Presbytère at the Louisiana State Museum. The building, located at the picturesque Jackson Square, is home to an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, which features incredible archival material that traces the storm’s enduring impact on the city. The second floor is a colorful look at the Mardi Gras tradition; any fashion lover must stop by to marvel at the costumes.
Fashion is also a focus of Royal Street shopping. A block from Bourbon, the corridor features everything from boutiques to antiques, and art aficionados will be in their glory with the multitude of galleries. Even if your wallet will only let you window shop, a stroll down Royal Street is a great way to see the city.
The architecture around New Orleans could warrant its own column. Make sure to schedule some time for a leisurely walk to take in the beauty of the balconies and the creativity of the colors.
Where to eat
New Orleans’ culinary scene is unparalleled — you may be tempted to spend your entire vacation eating (trust us, we tried).
The city offers a good mix of longtime staples and newbies, which help tell the tale of New Orleans’ evolving restaurant community.
If you’re looking for a spot with deep New Orleans roots, visit Café du Monde, in operation for more than 150 years. Though it has lines of tourists comparable to Pat’s and Geno’s in Philly, the wait is worth it at Café du Monde (and the menu is much simpler!). The café churns out chicory-flavored café au lait and beignets — a delectable fusion of funnel cake and doughnuts. Grab lots of napkins; the treats are smothered in powdered sugar.
Parkway Bakery & Tavern is another New Orleans staple, just as popular with locals as it is with tourists. The family-run eatery is the standard bearer for the city’s famed po’boy sandwiches. Try the popular fried oyster, shrimp, catfish or roast beef, or opt for creativity with the smoked alligator sausage, steamed corned beef or sweet potato. You get a real taste of the neighborhood at Parkway, which has been serving New Orleanians at the same corner since 1911.
In operation for more than 40 years, The Country Club sits at an intersection of New Orleans’ past and future, thanks to its location in the revitalizing Bywater. With a huge rainbow flag waving on its front porch, The Country Club has long been a haven for LGBT visitors. The historic home that houses the restaurant is a feast for the eyes; marvel at the architecture in the parlor rooms, the beauty of the veranda or the people-watching potential by the pool (sorry, guys — the clothing-optional policy ended a few years ago!). Plan to spend serious time here.
THE COUNTRY CLUB
Casual meets charming at Vacherie. Chat with locals at the bar during Vacherie’s popular happy hour and then settle down in the more-upscale dining room, the perfect ambiance for a romantic night out. Despite the sophisticated feel, Vacherie’s menu is rife with comfort food (much of which embraces New Orleans’ Cajun and Creole influences). Tip: Try the crab cakes; you won’t be sorry.
Another great date spot is Josephine Estelle, located in the Ace Hotel. Cavernous ceilings, expansive windows and marquee-style lighting set the mood, and the menu follows through. Southern and Italian tastes fuse here, to great success. The quality of the homemade pastas — many of which are kicked up a notch with chili, garlic or shrimp — are out of this world, as are the meatballs.
Another hotel hot spot is Compère Lapin, situated in The Old No. 77 (more on that later!). Ingenuity abounds on the Caribbean-influenced menu, which features standouts like semolina gnocchi with collard greens and Creole spices and the seafood pepper pot. Wash it all down with a selection from Compère Lapin’s notably creative cocktail list — watching the bartenders make the drinks, with their dizzying number of ingredients, is almost as fun as drinking them.
A perfect finale to a trip to New Orleans can be found at the crème de la crème of New Orleans’ culinary community, Arnaud’s. Right off Bourbon Street, it provides a welcomed respite from the celebrations outside and, with 14 dining rooms, is the largest restaurant in the city. Arnaud’s serves classic Creole: from soups like turtle and seafood gumbo to an extensive selection of oyster dishes to chicken and other meats. The filet Charlemond was a particular standout, perfectly tender and doused in a mouthwatering Béarnaise sauce; round out the dish with sautéed wild mushrooms and asparagus hollandaise to add even more dimension to your meal. The food at Arnaud’s is matched only by the service, as the attentive waitstaff won’t let a spare crumb on the table or a melted ice cube go unnoticed. Save Arnaud’s for your final night in New Orleans (as you’ll be comparing all your other meals to it!).
BANANAS FOSTER BEING MADE TABLESIDE AT ARNAUD'S
Where to stay
With so much to do out and about in New Orleans, you may be tempted to not give much thought to your accommodations. But there are a few spots in the city that offer much more than a place to crash at night — and where a stay enhances your experience.
If you’re looking to be right in the thick of the Bourbon Street hustle and bustle, Hotel Le Marais is your best bet. The boutique hotel is just a stone’s throw from all the action but offers enough privacy that you would never know it. A courtyard boasts a saltwater pool and plush lounge chairs, making it the perfect spot to unwind from or gear up for a night out. Guest rooms feature shuttered windows, walk-in showers and flat-screen televisions, a satisfying blend of modern amenities and old-school charm. Free breakfast is served daily and its VIVE! Bar opens onto the courtyard, making for a relaxed gathering space to get your night off on the right foot.
COURTYARD AT HOTEL LE MARAIS
A few blocks outside of the French Quarter is The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery. Gorgeous hardwood floors welcome guests to the lobby, which features a bakery, access to Compère Lapin and lounges where guests can explore history and art books. The hotel embraces the building’s origins as a mid-19th-century warehouse, with exposed brick and pipes throughout, including in the guest rooms, whose decoration carries through with the vintage theme.
THE OLD NO. 77 HOTEL GUEST ROOM
Situated in the Arts District, the hotel is a strong supporter of the local arts community, with guest rooms bearing reproductions of local student pieces and the lobby featuring galleries of local art available for purchase. The Old No. 77 is just a half-mile from the heart of the French Quarter, yet it’s surrounded by art galleries, museums and a flourishing culinary scene, which can give visitors a different look at one of the many sides of New Orleans.