Wanderlust editor Phoebe Smith provides 5 easy steps to make the most of your first visit to the Big Easy
Beignets are delicious, puffy, French donuts, deep-fried and sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar. They are a staple in New Orleans and eating some them with a café au lait has become something of a tradition with visitors to the French Quarter. Most people head to Café du Monde, down near the waterfront, the self-proclaimed home of beignets since 1862.
Beignet and café au lait (Dreamstime)
Sadly, Café du Monde has become a victim of its own success, with huge queues and a ‘Get them in, get them out’ attitude. Head instead to Morning Call in New Orleans City Park, a coffee stand that's been serving the deep fried delicacy for over 140 years. Here, the beignets are just as indulgent but the atmosphere much more relaxing.
For two weeks before and through Shrove Tuesday (known as 'Fat Tuesday' in NOLO - as it's the last day of indulgent eating before Lent), all the focus in New Orleans is on Mardi Gras. The colourful parade through the city is world- famous, and the promise of vibrant floats, non-stop parties and the chance to pick up a beaded necklace or ten(!), draws a lot of first time visitors to the city at this time of the year.
Celebrating Mardi Gras (Dreamstime)What most people don’t realize is that the Mardi Gras is all you will see at this time of year. The whole city becomes a penned-in party-zone. Once you’re inside your section (i.e. around your hotel), you won’t be able to go anywhere or see anything. All you can do is drink and watch the floats go by.
Locals recommend saving Mardi Gras for your second trip to New Orleans. But you could simply stay longer...
A stroll through St Louis Cemetery #1 in the French Quarter is an absolute must for any visitor to New Orleans. Established in 1789, the burial ground reveals the city’s history more vividly than any other historic site. New city regulations mean that you can only enter with a certified guide; while there is no shortage of tours on offer, I’d recommend the walking tour with Historic New Orleans Tours.
St Louis Cemetery #1 (Dreamstime)
Whereas most tours start in the cemetery itself, usually crowded around the tomb of Voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, Robert Florence starts his tour in the heart of the French Quarter (handily at a coffee and beignet stand), giving you a good understanding of the history of the city and how Voodoo evolved here before venturing in.
Robert also varies his route around the cemetery to avoid the crowds, while still seeing all the important tombs and headstones, then ends with a visit to the site of Marie Laveau's house.
Walking tours are all well and good, but to cover a lot of ground in a shorter time, take a cycle tour - or, better yet, hire a bike and a map, and start exploring. The city layout is pretty straightforward, and while getting lost is half the fun, people are generally helpful and street signs plentiful.
Try The American Bicycle Rental Company, a family owned business on Burgundy Street. They offer maps and guidance on making the most of each day and rent out American-made Cruiser bikes with comfy 13-inch wide saddles and oversized, puncture-resistant tyres. They are perfect for a long day negotiating the bumpy roads of the city and, with their chrome fenders and bells, look pretty cool too.
Bourbon Street is always buzzing and when a band is playing and the drinks are flowing, the temptation is to never leave. But if you want to dodge the crowds, jump on the St Charles Line - the oldest continuously operated streetcar in the world - that trundles all the way from the Central Business District to the Garden District. You'll feel like you've stepped back in time as this is the only streetcar in the city that still boasts mahogany seats, brass fittings and exposed ceiling light bulbs.
Streetcar to the Garden District (Dreamstime)
It's a great scene-setter to take you into the well-preserved collection of antebellum mansions, pristine gardens and southern charm of the Garden District. Here is the New Orleans of Hollywood movies. It is greener, cooler and up-and-coming. The area is bursting with new boutique shops, cafes, restaurants and family-run B&Bs.
While you’re in the Garden district, make sure you go to Commander’s Palace. This family-run restaurant has been offering Haute Creole fare and elegant jazz brunches in a chandelier-hung rooms since 1893. You can spend a fortune there, but they also serve classic dishes and cocktails for reasonable prices too - try the signature Sazerac.
More information: Commanders Palace Restaurant
A word of warning: Be sensitive talking about Hurricane Katrina. Though 10 years on, it is still a touchy subject and some locals understandably get upset at tourists taking photos of ruined houses - especially in the 7th Ward. Some people are happy to talk about their experiences from that time, but it is best to let them bring up the subject, rather than asking lots of probing questions.
Main image: Street musicians, New Orleans style (Dreamstime)