If you're looking for the ultimate in anything goes, New Orleans is for you. Last month, we spent three wonderful nights exploring everything from the Bywater to the city's best brass bands.
I'm not sure what I expected out of New Orleans, and after seeing it's eclectic culture, I don't know how it would've really returned on any expectations. It's truly one-of-a-kind --offbeat, aberrant -- a place where you only stand out if you're uncomfortable with kooky.
I'll be honest -- it took a few hours to adjust. But as soon as I did, I had a magnificent, big easy time. Here are my recommendations of the top five must-do's next time you're in NOLA.
1. Have Brunch at Brennan's.
Even though we stayed in the French Quarter, we spent most of our time elsewhere. But we made it to the newly renovated Brennan's for brunch on our first early afternoon in town, and it was completely worth it.
Across the street from the courthouse, Brennan's is an institution -- it's been in business since 1946, and prides itself as the culinary inventor of Bananas Foster. Today, it's still holding its own with a best-in-class brunch, and an atmosphere piqued with Southern charm.
It was a little too chilly to sit outside, but the courtyard would be beautiful on a hot summer day. And worth noting, their Hibiscus Pimms Cup was a more complex version of the typically fruit-forward concoction.
2. Shop on Magazine Street.
If I lived in New Orleans, I most certainly would be in or around the Garden District. The heavily gentrified neighborhood boasts some of the city's most beautiful historic estates, along with a refreshing mix of boutique shopping and neighborhood cafes.
3. Find Live Music, Everywhere.
The best event we stumbled into was a Sunday evening festival in Congo Square. On an adventure to find Bar Tonique (highly recommended), we heard the sounds of a brass band in a nearby park, and ventured over to check it out. We found a lazy group of festival-goers enjoying the sounds of Rebirth Brass Band -- probably the best live music we heard the entire trip.
On this first evening, Abita's in hand, we fell in love with the expressive culture New Orleans embodies. Later that evening, we explored even more live music on Frenchman Street, including an impromptu outdoor street performance (beer vendors included). If you're making a trip to New Orleans, make live music your priority -- although it's nearly impossible to miss, from the street performers to surrounding late-night music joints.
4. Hit up BJ's on a Monday Night.
The Bywater has a spirit all its own, and I totally embraced its vibe. My husband's good friend lives in New Orleans and owns a successful restaurant on St. Claude. He was generous enough to take us to one of the coolest bars I've ever been -- BJ's Lounge -- on its infamous Monday night.
Apparently, King James and the Special Men perform every Monday night, and the bar felt a mixture between a hipster hangout and a forbidden sixties sock-hop (think Dirty Dancing) -- mostly thanks to the lively music, and the the crowd's enthusiastic atmosphere. Such a fantastic experience! If you're in New Orleans on a Monday night, there's no better place to spend your time.
5. Eat Your Way Through Town.
Like most vacations, I returned home a good five pounds more than when I left -- but for very delicious reason. We expected good food in New Orleans, and we most certainly got good food in New Orleans. Not surprisingly for the locale, some of the best meals came in a simple setting. Here are some of the highlights:
This Bywater staple knows barbecue -- and great cocktails. We had a fantastic lunch here and would highly recommend the pulled pork.
This upscale establishment on Magazine Street specializes in small plates, and their wine list was pretty extensive. We had three desserts here, and each were equally good. You really can't go wrong with anything on their menu, as it's created fresh every day based on the meat and produce available via their local suppliers.
Sure, we checked it out since the owner went to high school with my husband, but his doner kebabs would easily make the cut for the most discerning critic -- and in fact, they have, recently featured on every Best Eats list from Eater to Thrillist. Single-best menu item: Their quadruple deep-fried french fries.