New Orleans is a magical place. There is no other place like it in the world. It doesn't even feel like being in America, more like a cross between Europe and the Caribbean. Good drinks, good food, good music, and good people.
There is so much more to New Orleans than the French Quarter, and if you want to do New Orleans like a local, let me be your guide.
A cemetery might not sound like much of a tourist destination, but it is in New Orleans.
We can debate whether or not the cocktail was invented in New Orleans, but what isn't up for debate is that many of the cocktails we enjoy today were invented here, including Ramos Gin Fizz, the Grasshopper, and the Hurricane.
The signature drink of New Orleans is the Sazerac, made of absinthe (or Herbsaint), simple syrup, Peychaud's Bitters (also invented in New Orleans), and rye whiskey. You can visit the original home of the Sazerac at the Pharmacy Museum, but its spiritual home is The Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel.
It's a dark, seductive place to have a drink, and when you order your Sazerac, raise your glass to the forward-thinking group of New Orleans women who stormed the newly renovated bar in 1949 when it was announced women would be allowed in year round and not just on Mardi Gras day as had been the previous policy.
Remember, you can ask for a "Go Cup" at any bar. They will give you a plastic cup to pour your drink into, and you can stroll around the city imbibing. Public drinking is allowed in New Orleans as long as the drink is not in a glass container.
Want to drink in the footsteps of literary giants like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tennesse Williams, and Truman Capote? Head over to the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.
The bar itself is indeed a carousel, but don't worry if you've had a few too many. It turns so slowly you almost don't notice until your view has completely changed.
The bar is always crowded, so if you run out of patience waiting for a seat at the carousel and want to continue the literary theme of your day drinking, head to the nearby Pirates Alley Cafe.
It's my favorite bar in the world, tiny but with nice outdoor seating in a pedestrian-only cobbled alley. Great people watching. Pirates Alley is known for its absinthe. My favorite drink there is Death in the Afternoon, invented by Papa Hemingway himself and named after his book on Spanish bullfighting. It's a heady mix of champagne and absinthe.
You're going to need some food to go along with your cocktails, and you can eat a bit of food history at the Central Grocery where the muffuletta was invented in 1906.
New Orleans has a long history of Italian immigrants (If you want some spooky reading on this, read up on the Axeman of New Orleans, a serial killer who targeted Italian grocers in 1918-1919). We're known for our seafood, but we have a huge tradition of Italian food, too, and the muffuletta is perhaps the most famous example.
It's a big, round sandwich filled with olive salad, salami, ham, Swiss and provolone cheeses, and mortadella. It's enough to share. Take your sandwich and walk the few blocks up to the river and enjoy the best picnic of your life.
If you're in the mood for some Gulf seafood, check out Frank's, which is on the same block as Central Grocery. Order the barbecue shrimp, and you'll be licking the sauce off the plate.
Café du Monde
If you're in the mood for some dessert after your muffuletta, head to nearby Café du Monde, which has been a city staple since 1862. Café du Monde sells café au lait and beignets.
The café au lait has chicory in it. There was a coffee shortage during the Civil War and chicory was added to stretch what coffee there was. Beignets are a sort of deep fried, square donut, very light and airy and absolutely doused in powdered sugar.
A few tips. Beignets come in threes known as an order. So if you want a café au lait and three beignets, you ask for "A coffee and an order." No one can eat more than three, not even you. The place is almost always packed. It's open 24/7 364 (closed Christmas day). Do not stand in line waiting to be seated. Walk in, spot an empty table, and sit. If it's dirty, someone will appear and clean it before your cheeks even hit the chair.
Walk off your calories at the nearby French Market, a sort of open-air flea market with every kind of souvenir you and your shopping companion could desire.
Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture
Mardi Gras season is something everyone should experience once. It's not all beads and Bourbon Street. Rather, it's a like a huge block party with elaborate parades. If you're not lucky enough to be in town over Carnival, you can still get a little taste of it at the Mardi Gras Museum of Costumes and Culture.
There are ever-changing special exhibitions, but any time you go you'll learn about the origins and traditions of Carnival and Mardi Gras, see costumes for Carnival Royalty, Mardi Gras Indians, Cajun Mardi Gras, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and Walking Clubs.
The best part? The museum has a big costume closet (something every self-respecting New Orleanian has), and you get to try on the costumes and take silly pictures of each other!
House of Broel
Let's get out of the Quarter and head to the Garden District. You can take the St. Charles Street Car for just $1.25 each way. The Garden District is full of beautiful home and mansions, some that are well over 100 years old. You're dying to get a peek inside one, but most are private homes.
That's why we brought you to the House of Broel. Prior to Katrina, it was a bridal shop. Now it's an event venue and a dollhouse museum. I'll admit to being a little creeped out by this place with all those unseeing eyes staring out at you, but it is an experience. Plus, as I said, you get to see what those big beautiful houses are like on the inside.
Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Let's stay in the Garden District and continue with our spooky vibe. A cemetery might not sound like much of a tourist destination, but it is in New Orleans. We bury our dead above ground, so our cemeteries look like miniature cities and are full of ornate monuments and crypts.
People think we bury above ground because the city is below sea level. Really it's because New Orleans is largely Catholic, and it's a Catholic tradition. That's why there are similar cemeteries in Paris.
Unlike some cemeteries in the city, you don't need a tour guide to get into Lafayette No. 1. It's open roughly from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. It's also very near Commander's Palace (reservation and jacket required), one of the best restaurants in the country, and a few blocks from Magazine Street, a great street full of local shops, restaurants, and bars.
No One Comes to New Orleans Only Once
New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the world. There is a long line of people before me who moved to the big easy after coming once on vacation or for a conference and just not being able to get the place out of their blood.
If you're planning your first trip, don't worry about trying to squeeze it all in. You'll be back because no one comes to New Orleans only once.