Travel

New Orleans: through the eyes of travel writers

With its jazz credentials and love of a great party, NOLA is a city that embraces the night — but our writers love it during the daylight hours, too Friday, 3 May

By Ella Buchan & Emma Thomson

When did New Orleans first really make sense to you?

Ella Buchan: The day after Mardi Gras ended and the city returned to its normal, wonderful self. It was perhaps a mistake to time my first visit with the huge festival, which takes over pretty much every street. As the last strands of beads and tufts of feathers were swept away, I remember feeling that the city was revealing itself to me. Festivals are an integral part of the culture but, to me, the city is more beguiling when it isn’t putting on a show. 

Emma Thomson: I was holed up in a jazz joint, bourbon in hand, and the trumpet player was riffing. As he played, eyes closed, it seemed as though he was no longer conscious of the crowd. He was tuning into the vibrations of the notes through the brass and with that I also let go, allowing the music — and the soul of the Big Easy — to flow through me.

What are your nightlife tips for first-time visitors to the city?

Ella Buchan: Walk down Bourbon Street at night and pop into a couple of bars (follow your ears to find the jazz) but don’t stay for too long. Frenchmen Street, just outside the French Quarter, has a far more chilled-out nightlife.

Emma Thomson: The city’s bars are responsible for inventing more than a dozen classic cocktails. The queen among them — and the official cocktail of New Orleans — is the bayou-brewed sazerac, made with whisky and absinthe. Be sure to try it.

What’s your favourite neighbourhood?

Emma Thomson: Bordering the French Quarter is artsy Faubourg Marigny, home to jazz joints such as The Spotted Cat Music Club and bars like The Hi Ho Lounge. Further west, Freret is undergoing a renaissance and has a youthful hum, thanks to the nearby universities.

Ella Buchan: As well as Faubourg Marigny, I’d have to say the Garden District, which has a modern elegance and great shopping opportunities.

Is there a side of the city we might not know about?

Ella Buchan: A little outside the centre, you can kayak on Bayou St. John and paddle past Creole cottages and wetlands teeming with birdlife.

Describe an ideal day in New Orleans.

Emma Thomson: Start the day with shrimp and grits at retro-chic Willa Jean, then visit the voodoo trinket shops clustered around Royal Street. After a siesta, head out for some late-night jazz at the legendary Preservation Hall.

Do it after dark

For jazz: Preservation Hall
A reverent hush falls in Preservation Hall when the house band begins to play. Something about the skill of these jazz masters, and the soft flicker of lights against the bare stone walls, commands respect and unwavering attention.

For cocktails: The Carousel Bar & Lounge
Decked out like a merry-go-round, this bar within Hotel Monteleone slowly rotates as bartenders keep up with drink orders. You may have to wait a while to grab a seat, but it’s well worth it, both for the drinks (the potent vieux carré cocktail was invented here) and the invariably convivial company. hotelmonteleone.com

For wine: Bacchanal Wine
This shop/bar in Faubourg Marigny has a twinkly back patio and live music, as well as hundreds of bottles from small-scale producers. 

For midnight snacks: Café Du Monde
Dating back to 1862, this coffee shop in the French Market is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It tends to be heaving during the day, so head here for a moonlit treat. Try beignets (fluffy doughnuts buried in a heap of icing sugar) washed down with café au lait.

Buy it

Parallel to chaotic Bourbon Street, Royal Street is a more elegant affair, with galleries and antique shops selling vintage street tiles, glassware, chandeliers and porcelain Limoges boxes

Plan a road trip of America’s music cities — Nashville, Memphis and New Orleans — with suggested routes, venues and timelines to follow, via americanamusictriangle.com

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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