New Orleans native and author of Moon New Orleans Laura Martone has dined at countless seafood restaurants, attended numerous jazz concerts and Mardi Gras parades, and relished every major attraction in Louisiana’s biggest city. From soaking up voodoo culture to where to take the best photograph, she highlights the best of New Orleans by offering tips to help travelers plan an unforgettable trip to this unique city.
Discovering Authentic New Orleans with Laura Martone
1. What's the biggest mistake that visitors to New Orleans commonly make?
Sticking to Bourbon Street. While it's understandable that first-time visitors would want to experience the festive madness of the city's most famous thoroughfare, New Orleans has a lot more to offer than just the strip clubs, loud tourist traps, and overpriced restaurants along much of this stretch. In fact, some of the city's best nightlife options lie beyond the French Quarter, such as the live music venues along Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny.
2. What's the best photo op location and the best time of day to take the photo?
New Orleans is a well-photographed town—and with good reason. Historic streetcars, centuries-old oak trees, nostalgic riverboats, wrought-iron balconies, lush courtyards, and vibrant cuisine are just some of the photogenic subjects you'll encounter in the Crescent City. Not surprisingly, the majestic St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square is the most-photographed sight in town. Its likeness has appeared in countless books, movies, and TV shows, but as cliché as it might sound, I still consider it one of the best photo op locations, particularly near sunrise or sunset—though it can also look amazing on a stormy day. Another popular shot is that of the cathedral's rear wall at night, where you'll spy the giant, somewhat haunting shadow of the open-armed Jesus statue that sits in the fenced garden. Also, the rooftop pool area of the Hotel Monteleone offers a terrific aerial view of the French Quarter.
3. What's the best budget tip for travelers to New Orleans?
Visiting New Orleans during the summer months can save you a lot of money. True, it's often too hot for many locals (like me) to stick around, but the good news is that you can usually find some awesome hotel deals as well as many restaurant specials. No matter the season, though, you'll find plenty of budget-friendly options. Café Maspero, for instance, offers enormous portions of seafood for some of the cheapest prices in the French Quarter. For shopping bargains, head to Magazine Street, where you'll find popular vintage shops like Funky Monkey. Also, the French Quarter's French Market offers a daily selection of affordable fresh produce, plus a myriad of jewelry, apparel, luggage, books, souvenirs, and other items with flexible price tags.
4. Where's the best place to nurse a hangover?
New Orleans might relish its image as a party town, but if you plan to imbibe all night, then a hangover is an unfortunate probability. While the preferred location for a hangover cure may depend on the neighborhood in which you find yourself, my favorite spot in the Quarter is Café Du Monde, perhaps the most famous place to sample beignets and café au lait. Because it's open 24 hours daily, I'd actually recommend stopping there before going to sleep—depending on how many drinks you've had, it might just help to stave off a hangover. Of course, if that doesn't work, consider some of my favorite post-hangover breakfast joints, such as the Old Coffeepot Restaurant for seafood omelets, Yo Mama's Bar and Grill for enormous burgers, and, if you're Uptown, The Camellia Grill for diner-style vittles.
5. Where's the best place to soak up true New Orleans culture?
Although the French Quarter oozes history, I often find it too overrun with tourists to feel a true sense of New Orleans's culture. Of course, that's not completely true—it's possible, after all, to get a taste of the city's storied past at places like Antoine's Restaurant, the Hermann-Grima House, the Mississippi riverfront, and the numerous courtyards that are hidden from public view. Still, some of the best spots to get a sense of the real New Orleans are found beyond the Quarter, such as the jazz and blues clubs along Frenchmen Street. I'm also fond of neighborhood eateries like Mandina's Restaurant, a good place to spot local politicians, and Franky & Johnny's, popular among resident seafood lovers.
6. What's the best park in New Orleans?
Beyond the city's three major parks—Woldenberg Riverfront Park alongside the French Quarter, City Park in Mid-City, and Audubon Park in the Uptown neighborhood—there are plenty of smaller parks and plazas worth experiencing. My favorite is actually the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, a five-acre space that sits beside the New Orleans Museum of Art in the southern part of City Park. Delightfully, it's free to visit, and when I have the time, I love to stroll amid the ancient live oak trees, verdant foliage, peaceful lagoons, pedestrian bridges, and more than 60 impressive statues from sculptors like Henry Moore, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Claes Oldenburg.
7. Where are the best spots for art lovers?
Besides the sculpture garden in City Park, art lovers will find plenty of ideal places to spend their time, particularly the art galleries along Royal Street and Magazine Street, not to mention the CBD's Arts District, which boasts such gems as the New Orleans School of GlassWorks & Printmaking Studio, the Contemporary Arts Center, and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. In addition, you'll spy a wide assortment of artwork (sometimes for sale) throughout area restaurants and coffeehouses, including three of my favorite French Quarter hangouts: the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, Angeli on Decatur, and Mona Lisa Restaurant.
8. Where can visitors explore New Orleans's voodoo culture?
There's no shortage of voodoo shops in the Big Easy. Places like Voodoo Authentica and Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo offer a wide array of curious paraphernalia, from voodoo dolls to gris-gris bags to informative books. Still, one of the best places to explore this often misunderstood religion and culture is the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, which, in addition to featuring several artifact-filled exhibits, also offers an excellent guided voodoo tour that often includes a visit to Congo Square and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a stroll through St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (site of Marie Laveau's tomb), and an encounter with a contemporary voodoo priestess at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple.
9. How can visitors walk in the footsteps of New Orleans's literati?
While many visitors venture to New Orleans to experience its unique cuisine, music, and architecture, it might not surprise you to learn that this historic port town has also lured its share of visual artists and writers over the years. In fact, the city's rich literary past includes such luminaries as Kate Chopin, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Francis Parkinson Keyes, John Kennedy Toole, and Anne Rice. For an in-depth look at the influence of such literati, consider taking a reservation-only literary tour through Historic New Orleans Tours. If, however, you'd rather create your own itinerary, be sure to stop by Faulkner House Books, where Faulkner himself once lived and wrote; visit the Brevard-Clapp House, Anne Rice's former Uptown home, or John Kennedy Toole's gravesite in the Greenwood Cemetery; and stay at the classic Hotel Monteleone, which has hosted the likes of Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, Truman Capote, and many other literati.
10. Where are the best places to pick up some local foods?
Shoppers might be eager to bring home locally-made art and jewelry, regional music, and other only-in-New-Orleans souvenirs, but your most distinctive purchases will probably be items that you can consume. Regional products, such as Abita beer, French Market coffee, Tabasco sauce, pralines, and Zapp's Potato Chips, can be found at local groceries and other emporiums, such as the historic French Market, which houses Southern Candymakers and several food stalls. Not far away, alongside Jackson Square, you'll find a plethora of delectables at Creole Delicacies and the Tabasco Country Store, and there's no shortage of praline shops throughout the French Quarter.
11. Where should a first-time visitor stay?
New Orleans offers a wide array of lodging options, including intimate bed-and-breakfasts in the Garden District and Faubourg Marigny; fancy, historic hotels in the French Quarter; and large, business-friendly chain hotels in the CBD. So, where you stay will largely depend on why you've come to town—and whether or not you have access to a car. Luckily, New Orleans is a small city, so staying in the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny, or CBD, along St. Charles Avenue in Uptown, and even in parts of Mid-City will guarantee easy access to major attractions, stellar restaurants, and seasonal events.
12. What's the best place for a weekend getaway?
Although visitors to New Orleans can make day trips to Baton Rouge, Cajun Country, and communities north of Lake Pontchartrain, my favorite excursion has always been the Great River Road, where you can explore several incredible plantations, such as Oak Alley and Nottoway, plus the quaint town of St. Francisville. Not surprisingly, my favorite locale along this route is Laura: A Creole Plantation, though not for the reason you might think. True, we have a name in common, but more importantly, the Laura Plantation has a fascinating history; its slave cabins, after all, were the place where the Br'er Rabbit folktales were recorded in the 1870s.