Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

Keeping It Classy in Crescent City: 36 Hours in New Orleans, Louisiana

“Welcome to the wild, wild west. There are no rules,” Lauren shrugs dismissively.
It’s an interesting city for sure. Bourbon Street seems to invite you to leave your morals behind, encouraging recklessness with sweet, watermelon flavored hand grenades drinks to loosen your sense of restraint. You wander down the street, nudged by nerdy guys in suits who raise their eyebrows, look you into the eyes, “Titties! A room fulllll of tit-tit-titties!”. If you respond better to commands than personal invitations, a big guy from a competing bar across the street blows into screeching police whistle with bulging eyes and a red face, “Naked ladies! Right here! Right NOW!”. His urgent shouting made it sound like your life depended on taking advantage of this opportunity, as if after tonight, bare breasts would be extinct forever. If titties aren’t your thing, a young black guy silently shoots you a sweet, dreamy smile from a few doors down. You can see sophistication in his face and an intelligent gleam in his eye and you wonder what he’s doing here… until he does a suggestive shimmy and points your eyes down to his bare chest, a cartoon elephant trunk over his junk. He feigns disappointment as you nod “no” but it doesn’t last long as he’s mobbed by a crowd of fifty-year old cougars in red boas and shirts that say, “Aged to perfection”.
Another crowd of people dressed in black clustered near a cardboard cross in the middle of street, passing out Bibles and trying to pray over the infidels who evaded their outstretched arms. They duck as people on the balconies try to get them in a celebratory mood by flinging Mardi Gras beads at their heads. We passed a dirt-encrusted, guy in his upper 20’s who wobbled by us, promising to friend us on facebook if we obeyed his cardboard sign command, “Keep me drunk and high”. Behind him, a break in the line of bars reveals a cathedral, adorned with a crucifix-like shadow projected from a spotlight illuminating a watchful Jesus statue. Just like the street cleaners that power wash away the previous night’s debaucheries, most of these people will probably cleanse their souls by walking across soapy streets to piously pray for forgiveness at church the next day.

“If I could put my finger on it, I’d bottle it and sell it. I came down here originally in 1972 with some drunken fraternity guys and had never seen anything like it — the climate, the smells. It’s the cradle of music; it just flipped me. Someone suggested that there’s an incomplete part of our chromosomes that gets repaired or found when we hit New Orleans. Some of us just belong here.” – John Goodman

It’s easy to drink away your time in New Orleans but make sure to explore the city’s distinct cultural heritage sober too. Here are some suggestions for a more classy, semi-touristy 36-hour itinerary in Saint City.

Beignets and Cafe Au Lait at Cafe Du Monde.  Photo courtesy of Viewminder.

Beignets and Cafe Au Lait at Cafe Du Monde. Photo courtesy of Viewminder.

We started our day as most tourists do, with café au lait and beignets at the famous Café Du Monde (800 Decatur St). Is it worth all the hype? Fried dough covered with a mountain of sneeze-inducing powered-sugar is bound to be good, no matter who makes it. A local recommended New Orleans Coffee and Beignet in midtown as a less touristy and tastier alternative, if you’re ok with skipping the famous one (4141 St. Charles Ave, ~$5 for a coffee and 3 beignets). After we were all sugared up, we wandered by the riverfront to watch huge platforms of boats moosy on down the Mississippi. From there, we headed to the National Park Service Jazz Historic Park (916 N. Peters Street) who has a bunch of interesting free programming happening. We just missed the free jazz yoga at 10 AM but we were able to catch the free walking tour of history of jazz at Armstrong Park (710 Rampart St).

Louis Armstrong statue at Armstrong Park.  Photo courtesy of Jimmy Foote.

Louis Armstrong statue at Armstrong Park. Photo courtesy of Jimmy Foote.

We learned about the “gumbo” of cultural groups that made up New Orleans: the indigenous native Americans, the French who came down from Canada, the European prostitutes, ex-convicts and misfits that were sent over to populate the swampy, buggy land, Germans hired to build things and Africans brought over to execute everything. We learned the roots of jazz began with gospel, drum circles at Congo Park, brass bands which led to the traditional of jazz funerals. Jazz funerals involved a slow, drudge-like march to the graveyard then a brass band beat after the burial that exponentially attracts the neighbors that culminates in a life-celebrating dance party. Louis Armstrong, born in New Orleans, gave birth to jazz when he began stealing the spotlight with extended trumpet solos. Apparently, Louis Armstrong moved on to Chicago and New York City but he dramatically left his mark on the Creole music scene.
After our tour, we stopped by the Voodoo Museum, (243 Dumaine Street, $5 for students) which is a dusty, small collection of Voodoo artifacts and altars where people still make offerings, even today. Voodoo originated in West Africa and has a series of saint-like deities that helped the slaves better understand and embrace Christianity. Even today, most people who practice Voodoo are simultaneously Christians, including the woman manning the booth at the museum. We talked to her for awhile about her religious beliefs and she discounted the media’s common portrayal of Voodoo as people poking dolls with pins as atypical. She claimed typical practitioners who prefer to use it to enhance their own lives (with love, money, luck, etc.) instead of curse other people. In the backrooms, we found altars filled with skulls and alligator heads where people continue to leave offerings of coins and notes to usher in some of this luck.  If you’re trying to save money, you can probably skip the museum and visit a few Voodoo gift shops to get an idea of this culture.

Muffuletta at Central Grocery.  Photo courtesy of Emily C.

Muffuletta at Central Grocery. Photo courtesy of Emily C.

After getting our fill of voodoo culture, we followed a recommendation to try the original muffaleta at Central Grocery (923 Decatur St). We snaked around shelves stock with Italian meats and cheeses, to order a beach-ball size round sandwich filled with cheese, olive tapenade, salami and ham ($15.95 for the giant sandwich). Jimmy tried his mightiest to finish it but could not fit more than half of it into his belly.
From there, we proceeded to City Park (the third largest urban park in the US!) and drove by a dinky amusement park, people kayaking in a lake and a botanic garden to the New Orleans Art Museum which has an extensive sculpture garden (One Collins C. Diboll Circle, City Park), densely populated with an eccentric collection of statues. It’s a fun place to take photos are you can even take a free audio tour from your cell phone. We shared a bench with life-sized sculptures, as we watched a mobile lazily spinning in the breeze, walked briskly by a giant wire spider, then peered up at a ladder propped up to a window going nowhere.

Bourbon Street.  Photo courtesy of David Veksler.

Bourbon Street. Photo courtesy of David Veksler.

Two Evening Itineraries:
1) Keeping it Classy On Bourbon Street With Jumbo and Jazz
To begin your night, fortify yourself with New Orleans classics at Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville St). Famous for its hand-shucked local oysters, which can be served on ice, grilled or fried (of course, because we’re in the South and everything’s fried), Acme also serves the classic gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice. From there, walk a couple blocks to Royal Street, which is filled with nice hotels and antique shops. Grab a drink at the Carousel Bar and Lounge at Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal Street), which is New Orlean’s only rotating bar, built out of a renovated merry-go-round. From there, back-track a block to Bourbon Street and you’ll be in the midst of the insanity mentioned above. If you want to get crazy, try the original New Orleans’s deceptively-strong cocktail, the Hand Grenade at Tropical Isle (600 Bourbon St). If not, the street calms down as you walk away from the business district toward the river. Find authentic jazz, bowties and charismatic performers at Fritzel’s European Jazz bar (733 Bourbon St, no cover with the purchase of a drink ~$8). End your night at the end of Bourbon Street at the building rumored to be the first structure to be used as a bar in the United States. The dark and cozy Lafitte’s Blackman Shop Bar (941 Bourbon St) will transport you back to the 1700s, when it was built. Enjoy good conversations and good beer in the bar’s minimalistic, gas-lamp, low-key ambiance.

European Jazz at Fritzels, New Orleans, Louisiana.

European Jazz at Fritzels, New Orleans, Louisiana.

2) NOLA like a local: Frenchmen’s Street
If you want to spend your time in New Orleans as the locals do, spend your time on St. Charles and Frenchmen’s Street. Start with a hearty dinner of garlic fries and crawfish po-boys at New Orleans Hamburger and Seafood (4141 St. Charles Ave). Then proceed to Delachaise Wine Bar (3442 Saint Charles New Orleans) to take advantage of the $5 daily wine special, just a couple blocks down. Chose from their extensive wine and cocktail list, then sip your beverage out on the patio, surrounded by a cloud of Christmas lights. Watch army-green trolleys rumble down the oak-lined streets lined with 19th century mansions. If you’d rather drink a classic cocktail in a Victorian lounge, cross the street to The Columns Hotel (3811 St. Charles) which is one of the Garden District’s most beautiful patios to drink or dine.

Street band on Frenchmen.  Photo courtesy of Alyson Hurt.

Street band on Frenchmen. Photo courtesy of Alyson Hurt.

After you’ve filled your belly with food, head to Frenchmen Street, “the locals’ version of Bourbon Street” with all the good music and without the endless line of strip clubs. Typically, bars have no entrance fee and reasonable drinks ($5 for a beer). Start at The Spotted Cat (623 Frenchman Street), which regularly hosts shows in the early evening. Squeeze in for authentic jazz around a tiny 6×6’ stage, which attracts world famous jazz musicians who perform for no cover, just because they feel like playing. Spend some time wandering the street, listening to the big brass bands that typically station themselves at the intersection of Charters and Frenchmen. Explore the city’s visual arts at the street’s Art Market (619 Frenchmen) where local artists display their wares under Christmas lights. You’ll find lots of Day-Of-The-Dead-esque painted skulls, psychedelic oil paintings, resourceful sculptures out of recycled household items and some strange looking artists. End in Blue Nile (532 French St.), which was the street’s first music venue known as Dream Palace. Although its murals pay tribute to Bob Marley, the club hosts more than just reggae bands, ranging from standard local acts to international entertainers. Its large dance floor makes it a great place to people watch, if you can resist joining in.

Song of the Moment: Louis Armstrong- St. James Infirmary

If YOU want to go to New Orleans: Go!  Take a bus!  Take a plane!  Take a road trip!  I’d recommend visiting during one of the city’s almost-ever present festivals so there’s even more food, music and merriment than usual!

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