A shortish drive and an even shorter direct flight away, New Orleans is a popular spot for Houstonians to spend a wild weekend. Filled with bars that never close and booze sold in practically every corner store, it’s a city that brings out college-style benders in even the most mature visitors.
But there’s a lot more to New Orleans than plastic beads and drinking in the street — not that we don’t love all of that, too. Here are some of our tips for having a grown-up(ish), culturally rich time in New Orleans.
Drink fancy — not frozen — drinks
A French Quarter cocktail crawl
Spending some time in the famous French Quarter is still a must-do, especially for NOLA novices, for its quirkiness, people watching and quintessential pastel houses overflowing with greenery. Plus, tucked away between all those neon bars lined with spinning frozen drink machines is where you will find the city's best craft cocktails. For a “proper” daiquiri, hit up Latitude 29 (321 N. Peters St.), a rum bar making some of the most inventive tiki drinks in the country right now, served over impressively crafted ice vessels. Next, take a seat at the whimsical Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.), the city’s only revolving bar, where you circle around on a 25-seat merry-go-round. Yes, it really does spin — it’s not that Sazerac going straight to your head.
Cain & Table (1113 Decatur St.) is perfect for grabbing a bite. Grab a spot on the fern-covered patio and chow down on goat dirty rice or fried octopus salad paired with a well-crafted drink. At Sazerac, inside the Grand Roosevelt Hotel (123 Baronne St.), order a Ramos Gin Fizz from the gorgeous walnut bar and gaze upon the impressive pieces of history behind the bar. And of course, don’t forget to stop at the iconic Arnaud’s French 75 (813 Rue Bienville). We’re not promising you’ll be any more sober than the frat boys stumbling around Bourbon Street after your tour de craft cocktail (come on, you’re in New Orleans after all) but at least you’ll have gotten sloshed with class.
Pro-tip: Pace yourself with a muffaletta from Central Grocery & Deli (923 Decatur St.) or if it's late, head to Verti Marte (1201 Royal St.), an incredible 24-hour bodega with ridiculously good sandwiches.
In the Marigny, a (relatively) quieter neighborhood just outside the French Quarter, Frenchmen Street is full of live music every night — and most of it for free. There are many comprehensive lists of music clubs if you want to plan ahead, but we suggest just heading over and wandering into whatever sounds good. Head to Three Muses (536 Frenchmen St.) if you’re looking for delicious small bites, like a roasted root veggie salad or house-made pickle chips, alongside your jazz. For a (very) full-sized meal, start at Adolfo’s (611 Frenchmen St.), a romantic little no-frills Italian joint above the Apple Barrel.
Devote an afternoon to wandering around this hip neighborhood full of art collectives and dive bars. If you’re staying near the French Quarter, the Bywater is a 30- to 45-minute walk away. Start by grabbing one of the best Bloody Marys in town at the Golden Lantern (1239 Royal St.) and take your time heading towards the Bywater — the colorful houses and street art along the way are the stuff of an Instagramer’s dreams. Grab brunch (and don't forget the praline bacon!) at Elizabeth’s (601 Gallier St.) and then end your trek at Bacchanal (600 Poland Ave.) where you can grab a great, affordable bottle of wine and enjoy it outside under lush trees and string lights. Locals call it “the end of the world” because it’s nestled right in a nook between two sides of the Mississippi River — and there’s maybe no place that captures the relaxed, communal spirit of this town better than the vibes radiating from Bacchanal on a warm afternoon. Sit here long enough and it’s easy to imagine never leaving.
The Garden District
Lined with stunning old trees and Victorian architecture, the Garden District is a lovely escape from the bustle of the French Quarter and downtown. Take a streetcar down St. Charles Avenue and hop off for a drink at The Columns Hotel (3811 St. Charles Ave.) patio before heading a few blocks over to Magazine Street for some serious shopping at any number of boutiques and galleries. For dinner, it’s hard to go wrong with any of Chef Donald Link’s concepts, and there are a couple to chose from nearby. (Go here for a full list.) We recommend the house-made spaghetti (it comes with a fried-poached egg) and butter-poached Gulf tuna at Herbsaint (701 Saint Charles Ave). From there, head out to The Howlin’ Wolf — one of the best music venues in town.
Take a Tour
Is there anything that screams adult vacation more than waking up in time for breakfast, strapping your camera and sneakers on, and heading out on a guided tour? Probably not. Skip the double-decker buses and opt for an off-the-beaten path tour that will give you intimate, informative look at the city.
Bike tour through the Lower Ninth Ward
Though this neighborhood is famous for the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth has roots and culture that go far beyond the flooding. Nearly a decade after the storm, this community and culture is still working on a long road to rebirth. The four-hour tour goes at a leisurely pace, and along the way tells the history of this community and why its efforts to rebuild have been so fraught, inspiring and important. You will pass the famous Fats Domino house, stop for some of the best po' boys in town, and visit the House of Dance and Feathers (1317 Tupelo St.), a museum behind the incredible Ronald Lewis' house. Lewis' house is a can't-miss, filled with his personal collection of Mardi Gras Indian suits, beadwork, photographs and more. If you’re interested in visiting the museum without the bike tour, you can call Mr. Lewis ahead of time at 504-957-2678 to make an appointment. (Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours, $60 per person.)
About 45 minutes outside of town is the Honey Island Cypress Swamp, where gators, snakes and wild boars hang around the cypress trees and muddy waters. There’s an eerie sense of Louisiana lore slinking around these waters (think True Detective), and even if you don’t spot a gator — they tend to be most active in summer months — it’s worth it to spend some time out of town and surrounded by nature. Honey Island Swamp Tours has been around forever, and they know every nook of the swamp. The company offers a boat tour with hotel pickup and drop-off for $48. Call 504-242-5877 for reservations.
If you’re looking for some time on the water, but would rather stay in town, try a kayak tour through one of New Orleans' various water sources. Kayak-Iti-Yat tours has several options, including a two-hour tour through the Bayou focused on seeing some of New Orleans’ most stunning architecture and a tour that’s about double the distance for all y’all athletic types. Prices vary based on tour, so go here to make reservations.