How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans

I'm definitely not alone in this sentiment: New Orleans is probably my favorite city in the United States to visit.

It's not just the history and character, or the food, nightlife, or music - though on their own merits, those are enough to make any trip worthwhile.

No. It's something else. There's something about New Orleans that feels welcoming to all, in its embrace of both the high and low.

A bit rough around the edges, but still refined. Quirky and idiosyncratic, yet classic and vintage. Undeniably significant, yet unpretentious.

It's a mood that descends upon you as soon as you step outside baggage claim or your car door into the muggy gulf climate. It swims around in the air until you arrive in the historic French Quarter, where it lands into place and begins to make sense.

I've now visited New Orleans four times in the form of long weekends over the past nine years: two road trips, and two flights. I've had enough time there to fall in love with the French Quarter and to venture outside a bit. That's a disclaimer for the New Orleans natives and purists, because in no way do I claim to be an expert on the city. I know enough to be dangerous in this article, but not enough to do this incredible place justice. 

But I am confident that I know what makes for a solid introduction to the city, based on my own experiences. If you're considering visiting New Orleans for the first, second, maybe even third time, this is for you. 

Bourbon Street. Go once, then avoid.

Bourbon Street. Go once, then avoid.

Where to Stay

Most of the restaurants, bars and experiences I recommend are either within (or just outside of) the French Quarter, or in the Garden District, which is a very cute area worth visiting just a quick Uber or Lyft ride away.

If it's your first time in NOLA, you will probably spend most of your time around the French Quarter, so I recommend staying either in the Quarter or close by. Avoid hotels on Bourbon Street specifically, because the noise will make sleeping difficult at night, and you'll grow a little tired of dodging questionable substances on the sidewalk as you traipse back and forth to your hotel.

Hotels and Airbnbs are notoriously expensive in New Orleans, so when I travel there I am not loyal to any particular hotel and instead focus on the best deal I can find. 

On our last trip, we stayed at the French Market Inn which was perfectly located, cute, historic, and beautifully appointed with a view of Decatur below. Like much of the Quarter, it's supposed to be haunted, but we didn't have any ghostly run-ins. I'd stay there again if the price was right the next time. 

I've also stayed at one of the hotels along Canal Street (a busy strip on the west edge of the Quarter) that's a good spot to catch a streetcar or taxi) and found that location ideal for getting around the city, especially for heading to the Garden District.


Where to Eat

The food is probably my main motivation for visiting New Orleans. There are so many incredible restaurants that it was painful to even consider listing them all here. So below are my favorite three restaurants from my most recent trip in 2018 - but I've included even more suggestions (including those of the more classic NOLA flavor) in a separate article, "Where to stuff your face in New Orleans." Check it out here.

Shaya. Who would've thought an Israeli restaurant would be at the top of every food writer's list for New Orleans? One visit here, however, and you will fully understand why the place won a James Beard award - and find yourself scheming how to come back before your flight home. I was first turned on to Shaya after a friend made a repeat visit to the cozy, chic restaurant in the same weekend, and then stumbled upon article after article praising the place in my own research.

What you need to get here are the dips and spreads - specifically, the tahini hummus and ikra (whipped cream cheese, paddlefish caviar and shallots). Don't be dismayed by the single pita that's brought with your dish - you don't want more right now. Hot bubble-shaped pita bread comes freshly baked to your table on a regular basis, and in that form, it's an equal player in the flavor profile that will have your eyes turning heavenward. Any cooler, and it'll have lost its magic.

How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans
How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans

Good luck ordering a main dish after this. In fact, I would suggest not even bothering with mains, because you won't finish them anyway. Just get some more hummus.

Shaya is by reservation only, and it's quite popular - so I'd recommend making a reservation as soon as you have flights booked, even before you settle on a hotel. 

Turkey and the Wolf. Don't be fooled by the casual, whimsical ambiance of Turkey and the Wolf. There's a reason this nostalgic sandwich joint was recently named the #1 Best New Restaurant in the U.S. by Bon Appetit.

How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans
How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans
How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans

Both the fried bologna sandwich, with crunchy, vinegary kettle chips smashed between bologna and bread, and the collard green melt - which somehow tastes like a reuben, despite being vegetarian - might not sound like much, but are totally worth the hype. No reservations, just show up, but be ready for a line, or go just before or after the rush.

Cochon Butcher. Butcher is the more casual sandwich joint attached to the fancier Cochon. Cochon also came highly recommended to us, but we dined there in 2015 and were a bit underwhelmed; Cochon is also hard to get into and pricey. Butcher, however, has been a real treat on multiple trips to NOLA. On my last trip to New Orleans, I insisted on going there twice. Le Pig Mac is an indulgent and high brow (but still, somehow, high-fidelity) take on the Big Mac, and the pork belly with mint and cucumber blew my mind. 


Where to Drink

Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. There are a number of fancier cocktail joints in New Orleans worth checking out, including Sazerac Bar in the Roosevelt Hotel, but if you hit only one fancy bar, it should be the Carousel Bar

Carousel Bar is an actual rotating carousel bar, making it one of the most unique bar experiences you can have in the Quarter. Grab one of the fixed stools and saddle up for a slow-moving but unique ride. It's also in high demand, so I recommend coming at off-peak hours and being ready to have a drink or two at the seating areas nearby until spots open up at the rotating bar. The drinks are also top notch (the Vieux Carré was invented here).

Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. Lafitte's was originally most likely built as a home in the 1700s, and is now one of the oldest surviving structures in New Orleans. The Lafitte brothers were purported to run a smuggling business from the shop, and whether or not it was ever a blacksmith shop is in debate. Now, it's... something else. 

Several frozen drink machines sit behind the bar, the most famous being the purple drink. I've had it on multiple occasions years apart, and it's nothing to write home about. But if you find yourself near Lafitte's on a night with relatively few tourists, it's worth a venture inside for the history. I enjoy coming here for that reason alone. The U.S. is a relatively young country, so anytime I find an opportunity to spend time inside a structure that's older than our nation, I jump on it. You should too, whether you sip on some purple stuff or not.

Chart Room. This cash-only bar has been my go-to for late night drinks on each of my last three trips to New Orleans. Somehow, after eight years, I still wind up at this bar at the end of a night out. The drinks are cheap and the vibe is friendly and comfortable, just as it should be for a dive. But the morning after my last visit to Chart Room, I woke up to pack for my flight home and discovered my small travel wallet was missing, ID and all. 

After panic-Googling how to get through airport security without ID (which apparently you can do), I sent the bar a message via its Facebook Page. Within an hour, the manager had written back and texted me: they had my wallet and I could pick it up anytime. Look, if you haven't done something like this at some point on a trip to New Orleans, you're probably not doing it right. Nonetheless, this isn't the least embarrassing way of saying: they're good people, and it's a chill bar, so you should drink there.


What to Do During the Day (Besides Eat)

New Orleans is the kind of city people travel to for the food, music and nightlife - so you'd be excused for sleeping in late most days, taking a leisurely brunch, heading back to the comfort and air conditioning of your hotel for a nap, then reviving yourself for dinner and libations in time for the sun to set.

But if you're looking for a bit more to do, NOLA will not disappoint.

Take a cemetery or haunted French Quarter tour. It wasn't until my third trip that I actually took a tour of the French Quarter, and the experience was so interesting that I now think it should be everyone's priority when they first come to NOLA. I did a haunted ("ghosts and vampires") tour of the Quarter, and it was fascinating to learn about the history of the neighborhood through the lens of the supernatural. Even if you're a skeptic, you will likely find it fun and kitschy while still learning something. I haven't taken a cemetery tour, but those are so revered that I have to include them here, too - and it will be high on my list for next time. 

My tour was with French Quarter Phantoms, which also has a variety of options including the cemetery, Garden District, and one that's true crime themed.

Get inspired at Ashley Longshore Studio & Gallery. Ashley is a louder-than-life, grab-life-by-the-balls artist creating fun, colorful pop art that has sold for millions and landed her deals with Bergdorf Goodman. Ashley lives and works in New Orleans and has a studio gallery in the Garden District that is open to the public and is the definition of sensory overload.

Ashley's art is provocative and in-your-face, which I love. There's a tongue in cheek humor and edge that draws everyone in, not just those who have one or both feet in the art world. But in my opinion as both an artist and a marketing strategist, Ashley's greatest achievement has been her ability to get people who wouldn't normally be into art to fall in love with her work and then actually open their wallets

As an artist myself, I know too well that compliments about talent and artistic merit don't pay the bills, so the fact that her fans have put their money where their mouth is? And without involving galleries (which take 50%, standard?). That's more of an accomplishment than it may seem to those outside of the art world.

I love also that Ashley is on a mission to inspire other creatives to do the same. To keep being themselves. To make their art, no matter what anyone else says - because she had more than her fair share of nay-sayers, and look at her now. This is a message everyone needs to hear, not just creatives and artists.

"The painter's greatest achievement has been to inspire other people to be brave enough to be creative and put themselves out there." - Ashley Longshore

If you want to learn more about Ashley before heading to the Big Easy, I recommend checking out "Global F*cking Domination", her podcast interview with John Dalton on "Gently Does It," a podcast I love for its candid interviews with artists. 

Note: Ashley's gallery is within close walking distance of Shaya, so it's worth trying to hit up both in the same trip. The gallery is closed on Sundays and Mondays, so that means you should try to get reservations at Shaya for Thursday, Friday or Saturday if you're there over a long weekend. If you can't make that work, no sweat - it's still worth visiting each separately.


Where to Listen to Music

Frenchman Street. New Orleans is overflowing with bars and music venues, but there's one part of town I keep returning to for music, again and again: Frenchman Street. Jazz clubs line the blocked-off road, which is just outside the French Quarter, and tourists and locals alike rub shoulders (often literally) in crowded venues and around the food trucks outside. If you want to get off your face drunk and make questionable decisions, head to Bourbon Street. If you want to be around locals and experience the New Orleans jazz scene, come to Frenchman Street. 

My favorite spot on Frenchman Street is the Spotted Cat. The bands are entertaining and talented, the crowd fun and enthusiastic, and the drinks reasonable.

How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans

Tip: bring cash. Most places charge a cover, as they should, and to my recollection that (and the bar) are usually cash-only. 

Preservation Hall. You'll feel like you stepped back in time when you take your spot in the small room and hear the first brass notes burst into the air. This venue was established in 1961 to celebrate and preserve Traditional New Orleans Jazz as an art form, and in my opinion, it's an essential New Orleans experience. Shows are nightly at 5, 6, 8, 9 and 10pm. Arrive 30 minutes early to get in line ($20 cash at the door), or spend a little more to reserve online. No food or beverages are served here, but you can bring your own drink if it's in a plastic cup. Pro tip: grab a to-go drink at a nearby bar before you get in line. 

New Orleans is a unique and historic city that everyone should visit at least once. And whatever kind of experience you're looking for, New Orleans will deliver. Classy, elegant bars and dining, with a dash of historic charm? She's got that. Wild debauchery? Check. Artistic inspiration and culinary creativity? Open wide.

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How to spend a long weekend in New Orleans - travel. paint. repeat.