Tourist attractions are popular for a reason, right? Just like I would never begrudge someone for coming to Nashville and spending an evening on Broadway, I would never tell a visitor to NOLA to steer clear of Bourbon Street. There are so many adult things to do in New Orleans that you could just stick to the big tourist attractions and easily kill a weekend.
But I always think it’s important to incorporate a mix of activities in your itinerary so you get a well-rounded taste of any destination—and also to, at times, steer clear of crowds. Thus, here are a few iconic New Orleans experiences—and substitutes for when you need something beyond the classics.
You Already Know: Café du Monde. Located right on Jackson Square in the French Quarter, it’s popular for its beignets and coffee, a deadly combination for a sweets’ lover like me, and it’s been going strong since 1862 so you know it’s good. There’s also usually a pretty long line, and sometimes you just don’t have time to wait.
Try These Instead: Consider skipping the wait and heading straight to Morning Call. It’s located right in the middle of the lush City Park and where locals have been going for nearly 150 years. Note: It’s cash only, so plan accordingly. It’s also open 24 hours a day, so you needn’t go without beignets ever.
You Already Know: Cajun Encounters swamp tour. The nearby Honey Island Swamp is rife in local color, and you know you’ve always wanted to encounter an alligator in the wild.
Experience The Bayou Up Close : For those who don’t have a full four hours to get out to the swamp, take the tour and head back into NOLA, there’s something for you, too. Located just outside of City Park where you’re already headed for your morning beignets, Kayak-iti-yat offers a couple different options for touring Bayou St. John while learning about the history and ecosystem of the area. It’s an active way to start your morning and a great tactic to see a residential part of New Orleans that not many tourists get to witness.
You Already Know: Mother’s Restaurant. Conveniently located downtown, this iconic NOLA staple has been keeping the local population well-fed since World War II, just a decade after the po-boy first rose to popularity (the story goes that this inexpensive sandwich of roast beef and gravy was created in the late-1920s when streetcar drivers went on strike and the kitchen would serve these “poor boys” surreptitiously from out back). We went here for my bachelorette, and it was amazingly gluttonous and delicious, but again, the wait—particularly on a weekend—was not short.
Eat Here Instead: Many residents told us that Parkway Bakery and Tavern, which has been around since 1911, serves up the best po-boys in town, and who am I to disagree with a New Orleans native? We had lunch there following our kayak tour and feasted on a hodgepodge of sandwiches—fried oyster, Reubens and, of course, roast beef—with some local beers and banana pudding to wash it all down. I loved seeing a more residential part of New Orleans, too, as Parkway is located in Bayou St. John about three miles northwest of the heart of the city.
You Already Know: Jackson Square. It’s a National Historic Landmark, is brimming with trinket shops and Mardi Gras merch galore, and is always guaranteed people-watching fun. But don’t you want to take something different home to remember your glorious trip to New Orleans?
Explore Here Instead: Magazine Street. Filled with vintage shops and consignment stores, trendy boutiques, bars and restaurants, this six-mile stretch would take you days to explore in its entirety. So, have your Lyft driver drop you off at Magazine and Felicity streets, then start working your way west from there. Some of my favorite shops include Green Serene, a pair of shops full of art made from found objects, and both Zele and The Market, a collective for talented artisans creating some really interesting stuff, from clothing to home décor. And when you’re in need of a snack, lucky for you, District Donuts isn’t far away.
You Already Know: Felix’s Restaurant. With its Gulf location, New Orleans is a bastion for quality oysters. And for more than 70 years, Felix’s—which recently underwent a pretty sizable expansion—is the place to go.
Eat Here Instead: But if you’re all “been there, done that,” then the five-year-old Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar in the Garden District needs to be on your radar. Pro tip: Go for the weekday happy hour where raw oysters run at just 50 cents a pop and drink deals are many: two-for-one frozen mojitos, cheap draft beers and half-price wine bottles.
You Already Know: St. Charles Avenue. Sure, you might still see beads strung precariously from the Southern live oak trees and woven throughout the balconies, but let’s be honest: What fun is it to see the party carnage when you could actually be in the party? While I still fully support taking the streetcar down St. Charles no matter the time of year, there’s an even better way to get a feel for Mardi Gras than bead-hunting.
Visit Here Instead: At Mardi Gras World, “every day is Mardi Gras,” meaning you don’t have to visit in February to reap the benefits of this timeless festival. Try on costumes, take a peek at the floats and learn more about the storied history behind the treasured traditions thanks to Bill Kern, who founded this museum back in 1984.
Live Brass Music
You Already Know: Bourbon Street. And it really needs no introduction, because who doesn’t know Bourbon Street? It’s an absolute legend!
Go Out Here Instead: As is Maple Leaf Bar where you can get that iconic big brass experience every Tuesday night with the Rebirth Brass Band (there’s also live music nightly). Similarly, Frenchmen Street’s lively music culture is a can’t-miss, but warning: It will more than likely keep you out until the sun rises.
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What’s your favorite tourist hack for enjoying another side of NOLA?