New Orleans: Five Must-Do's in the Big Easy

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. 

Seeing the sights of Jackson Square, in between coffee at  Spitfire  and beignets at  Cafe du Monde .

Seeing the sights of Jackson Square, in between coffee at Spitfire and beignets at Cafe du Monde.

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. 

Sittin' at the dock of the bay.

Sittin' at the dock of the bay.

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.

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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. 

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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.

We had a great time exploring Magazine Street, where we found a mix of houseware and clothing shops with decently priced wares. Some of my favorite boutiques were ah-ha, Hemline and perch.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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:

The Joint

This Bywater staple knows barbecue -- and great cocktails. We had a fantastic lunch here and would highly recommend the pulled pork. 

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Coquette

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.

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Kebab

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.

Cochon Butcher

It's very well known, but for good reason. We had to cancel our reservations at Cochon due to a late-evening sailing adventure, so the next day we hit up Cochon Butcher -- and it was great. We sat outside and savored sandwiches and cocktails on our last afternoon in town.

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Most Romantic Places to Propose

Spring is in the air, and with the cheery weather comes a hopeful sense of romanticism. Chris and I got married in the spring, nearly two years ago already, so this season always puts me in a rosy mood.

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While we got married in the spring, we got engaged in the fall. I'll always remember it like yesterday -- a romantic stroll behind the Shedd Aquarium, with the Chicago skyline forming a dramatic and beautiful backdrop in the distance. I couldn't have asked for a better memory to look back on as the moment we decided to spend forever together.

Cheesiness aside, as the season turns warmer now and I'm feeling especially affectionate, here are a few out-of-town places I think would make for (almost) perfect proposal spots.

Next to the Seine, Paris

It's no secret I have a love affair with Paris. On one of my favorite afternoons in the city, Chris and I grabbed baguettes and a bottle of wine as we sauntered down to the Seine. We claimed a private little bench and spent a lazy couple hours enjoying our picnic and each others' company. Had we not already been married, this sweet little bench would've certainly served as a perfect proposal place.

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At the Biltmore, Asheville

Call me silly, but there's something about being in front of America's biggest mansion that makes you want to couple up and chase down your own little empire. I'm a huge fan of Asheville -- and while the few times I've been have only been in passing, the city impresses a spirit of upscale accessibility.

It would make the perfect proposal destination for a couple who loves a bit of flair mixed with down-home comfort. Plus, for beer lovers it's a budding craft brewing destination.

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On a Kayak, Charlevoix

Last summer, we spent Fourth of July weekend with two of our best friends in northern Michigan. Everything about northern Michigan in July embodies that quintessential American summer. Charlevoix itself is an adorable lake town, but the peaceful serenity you can escape to on the water is even better. 

We rented kayaks, and while a little under-matched next to the yachts and speedboats flying by, navigating the waters on a sunny summer day was so worth it. So long as you pull over to pop the question (don't dare drop the ring in the lake!), this is the perfect setting for a beautiful proposal. 

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NOLA, Here We Come!

In just a few weeks, Chris and I will be a Sazerac deep into our first visit to New Orleans. The southern city has been on my bucket list for quite some time -- and due to rave reviews from our jazz-loving friends, I'm more excited to see it than ever. 

Source:  Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Our plan is to eat and drink our way through NOLA's celebrated restaurant culture, and then spend our evenings hunting down the best live music the city has to offer.

Excited to check out the newly renovated  Brennan's , where " breakfast revelry is taken as seriously as a decadent dinner."  Source:  Facebook

Excited to check out the newly renovated Brennan's, where "breakfast revelry is taken as seriously as a decadent dinner." Source: Facebook

We have some ideas on what to do, but (against my nature) I'm planning to let things come as they may in the Big Easy -- sourcing out tips from locals we meet, along with letting one of Chris's childhood friends turned New Orleans restaurateur play concierge. 

That said, we all know I'll break down and pull together some plans between now and the trip -- so do you have any insider tips to share? Must-see neighborhoods, unique boutiques, archetypal streets to explore? I'd love to spend a day following your off-the-beaten-path recommendations so I can report back once we return.