Both Mardi Gras and the Superbowl are around the corner. And you know what that means…the city of New Orleans will be swarmed with both visitors and local residents. Heck, you might even be one of those people out there celebrating for whatever reason. But say you’re from out-of-town…don’t worry, we don’t bite (the reputation is right and we are a friendly bunch)…and you don’t know where to go or want tips on what to do. Maybe you even live here and want to play tourist in the city. That’s why I’ll do my best to give you an inside guide on the city. Keep in mind this will by no means perfect and comprehensive; every NOLA resident has their own favorite haunts or idea about what the “true” part of the city is, and I’m sure I’ll hear about that.
Anyway, let’s say you’re into music. You want a venue to catch some shows at if you’re in town, right? I wouldn’t head for the House of Blues, however misleading that may be. No, I would instead advise you check out Siberia, on 2227 St. Claude Ave. Don’t park in the lot next door because you will be towed, as people before have unfortunately figured out. There’s a lot across the street you can park in. For my money this is my favorite local venue and it’s away from all the noise and crowds you get in the French Quarter…I’m sorry but Bourbon Street is aggravating to me by now. Give it a visit if you’ve never been here before, get drunk and see boobs or whatever, then enjoy the actual New Orleans. Anyway, rants aside, Siberia is a cozy hole-in-the-wall place with some of the best metal, punk, and indie shows you’ll ever catch. Drinks are cheap and try not to be too spooked out by the deer head above the bar. One Eyed Jack’s on Toulouse also has a good bit of shows going on, with a lot of notable underground names including Earth and YOB passing through. There’s also an 80s night usually every week, for the John Hughes fans out there.
As for food, that’s what New Orleans is famed for. I’m going to recommend something a bit cheap and casual but with very good food, in my opinion. In New Orleans we’re not always about being fancy but about nourishing the soul. Check out Cafe Maspero, on Decatur St. It’s a bit near where people will likely be staying for the football and the bead-throwing. After you check out all the cool knick-knacks at the French Quarter…and probably the street performers as well…be sure to stop in here. While red beans and rice by someone’s house is hard to beat, this place offers a worthy substitute. There’s muffalettas, po-boys, and jambalaya, all good local staples. There’s also Juan’s Flying Burrito on Magazine. They’ve got a funky set-up and a laid-back ambiance. They also serve some of the best Mexican food I have ever had in the city. Give the “gutter punk” a try. Don’t worry, it smells better than the actual thing.
If you want something a bit more organic and healthy (keep in mind while New Orleans loves its food our waistline is expanding a bit), you can check out the Hollygroove Market, but be advised their hours are a bit wonky. There’s also always the local co-op in the Marigny. At the healing center there’s also all sorts of fun stuff going on like yoga and whatnot.
So after you’ve heard some music (and keep in mind you’ll probably also hear music just walking down the street…throw the buskers some change, they need it!) and have some food in your belly, you want to drink, right? Be honest, that’s what you came here for. And even though I am now straight-edge (which means I’m better than you…only a handful of people will get that reference), I have been in enough bars to tell you where you’ll want to go. Hit up Hustler’s and other nefarious dens of iniquity if you most on Bourbon, but there’s plenty of nondescript places that are pretty cool. The Gold Mine Saloon on Dauphine is a pretty cool place. It’s a bit small and shabby but has a good crowd. On Thursdays there’s open mic poetry as well, if you want to live out your inner pretentious artist. Also, go to Frenchmen St. It’s where all the locals go. Just pick a place on there. Anywhere. Hell, you can wonder up and down the street and just hear live music emanating from any of the clubs late at night. Also be prepared for random conversations for people you meet there. It happens. If you still want to stick to the Quarter…and I don’t blame you if you’re from out of town…the Boondock Saint is another favorite haunt. I’ll warn you that it’s a bit cramped, with most people occupying the actual bar itself, but it’s vibrant and has a good juxebox selection. If you care enough to venture back to St. Claude’s and aren’t in the mood for a concert, check out Kajun’s Korner. And lastly there’s also Carrolton Station, on the corner of Willow and…er, Carrolton. It’s a reliable neighborhood bar with ample room, comfy tables and chairs, and even a back patio if you need to break for a smoke. Every Thursday is trivia night which is a decent bit of fun. And for only a donation of a few dollars you can indulge in whatever the community meal they happen to be serving that night.
But maybe you’re not the partying type. Maybe you want something a little quieter, a little more intimate. New Orleans is underrated when it comes to the cafe scene it boasts. If you want to step in for a cup of coffee, my #1 recommendation, and quite frankly one of my favorite places in the city, is Zotz, on Oak St. Keep in mind it’s cash only but the goods, coffee, and tea are all affordable, as well as organic. You can relax in the main room or if you want a bit more space there’s a back patio outside. The decor is great with all sorts of random artwork on the walls and the bulletin board always has events that are going on in the city. I’ve always had random conversations with complete strangers when I go there, about anything from philosophy to tv shows to random stuff. You can also check out Cafe Flora on, which also boasts a similar vibe. If you want something a bit less artiser but still crave a sit-down at a coffeehouse, you can check out PJs, located all over the sea. Though they’re a local chain they still keep things within the city and offer tasty sweets. I’m also going to give the rare nod to a touristy place and give the green light to Cafe du Monde. Their beignets and hot chocolate really are out of this world. Don’t freak out if your clothes get stained with white powder. That’s supposed to happen.
As for free stuff to do, there’s sights to see if you’re on a budget or a bit broke. You can always check out City Park. It’s spacious enough to roam around in and you can bring bread to feed the ducks nearby. There’s also a playground if you have kids in tow. Right nearby is an amazing sculpture garden, full of challenging modernist pieces. That costs nothing as well! The New Orleans Museum of Art, also within the vicinity, does cost but only a few dollars. Brush up on your culture. They really have some fantastic paintings and period pieces. And of course you can always walk up and down the streets and just bask in the vibe. You don’t have to wait for Mardi Gras or Halloween to see the characters come out. Sometimes part of the fun in New Orleans is just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere. Don’t forget to try our snowballs. And have a crepe too at Crepe a La Carte.. They make some fantastic food over there.
But no matter what you do, if it’s going out for a drink or simply window shopping, please be careful. We may look like fun from the outside but the inverse cliche also holds some merit: we can be a dangerous city. There is a lot of crime here. And we can also spot a tourist. You can just tell by someone’s walk and demeanor if they’re from here or from elsewhere. Always travel in groups. Keep to brightly-lit main streets full of people. Watch your wallet, especially in big crowds…keep your hand on it and move it to your front pocket if you have to. While we can be friendly, be wary of any stranger that tries to lure you back someplace. If someone tries to start crap with you, let it go, because to be quite frank they might have a gun on them. Always, always lock your car in the city, and also if you do sit in a parked car, be on the lookout for anyone approaching it. Above all, have fun, but also watch your back. The tourist agencies around here won’t tell you to be alert. That’s the truth of the city, though, so I will. I’m not saying that to scare or discourage anyone. As someone who’s lived here for 24 years, I’m passing those on you as survival tips.
In the meantime, though, let the good times roll. Jesus Christ, did I really just type out that worn-out slogan? The people behind Treme will kill me for that.