New Orleans is definitely a contender for most delicious city in the United States (the world?). If you are planning a visit, you are basically guaranteed to leave very full and very happy — and with a list of things to do as long as the one you arrive with. The only real problem (and it's a very good problem to have) is figuring out what to do now and what to save for your next trip.
As a former resident and frequent visitor, my trips to New Orleans are a balancing act between the new restaurants that has everyone buzzing and the places I can't not visit whenever I'm in town. And I have to confess: My list of things I always do hasn't changed much in the past decade. Here's what makes the cut.
1. Get beignets and cafe au lait at Café du Monde.
Café du Monde has been a staple of the French Quarter since 1862. It's open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week except for Christmas and hurricanes. It is not an exaggeration to say that their beignets — basically French donuts — and coffee, made with a blend of coffee and chicory and served black or au lait (with milk), are world famous.
Is it touristy? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes! You can get them to stay, but I almost always get them to go (there's a takeout window and the line typically snakes around the back) and take them across the street to Jackson Square.
Note: A Café du Monde order of beignets comes with three. If there are two of you, I highly suggest two orders. I promise you will fight over the last powdered-sugar coated donut if you just get one.
2. Eat a sandwich (or two).
New Orleans makes very good sandwiches. The city is probably best known for its po' boys, which often involve fried seafood smothered with mayo and hot sauce, served with shredded lettuce on crusty, pillowy French bread. Hot roast beef is also common and sometimes po' boys are called "loafs" — as in I'll have the oyster loaf. It doesn't matter what you call it or really where you get it from, as everyone has a different favorite spot (mine is Domelise's), but you should definitely eat one.
Take a sandwich home: Vietnamese-Style Shrimp Po' Boy Recipe
Or you could opt for a muffuletta, which is essentially a huge Italian sandwich with meats and cheeses and olives. It's served on an enormous Sicilian sesame roll that's cut into quarters. Each quarter is the size of a regular sandwich.
Central Grocery is the most famous place to eat a muffuletta (and you should get it with a side of Zapp's chips), but I recently discovered (and maybe even prefer) the version at Napoleon House. It's served warm and everything melds together in a really delicious way.
3. Drink a cocktail with history.
New Orleans is a town that is serious about drinking. And I do not just mean that it is never too early or late for a boozy beverage or that to-go cups and drive-thru daiquiris are somehow, inexplicably, a thing — although these things are definitely true.
No, what I mean to say is that this is a town that makes very good drinks; many of them were invented here. Find yourself a serious bar and a serious bartender and ask them to make you a drink that has a story. Here are a few ideas.
- You can order a Sazerac almost anywhere in town, but we're a fan of Abigail Gullo's version at Compère Lapin.
- At Napoleon House, there's really only one question: Will you get an original Pimm's Cup or one with an extra splash of gin?
- A French 75 at Arnaud's French 75 is one of my very favorite cocktails in any city and Chris Hannah is one of the most knowledgeable and talented bartenders.
4. Seek out Vietnamese food.
New Orleans has a significant Vietnamese population and, as a result, very good Vietnamese food. The most authentic spots are on the West Bank, and if you venture out that way, you should try the rotisserie chicken at Tanh Din or go for a family-style meal at Nine Roses.
But you don't have to make a day trip of it; there are traditional and modern Vietnamese restaurants in the Marigny (try Bao & Noodle) or Mid City (MoPho for pho — and fried oysters), and on Magazine Street (Pho Cam Ly and Magasin Cafe).
5. Leave the French Quarter.
The French Quarter is great, and there has never been a trip to New Orleans when I haven't strolled down Chartres Street or tucked into Arnaud's for a French 75 (see above). But there is so much more to this city than the Quarter, and you're missing out if you don't do a little exploring.
Hop on the street car and head to the Garden District or rent a bike and pedal to City Park. Go hear music on Frenchman Street or seek out jazz musician Kermit Ruffins (pictured above) at his bar in the Treme. Most afternoons you can find him grilling out front, drinking a beer and serving barbecue to the neighborhood.
Have you been to New Orleans? What's on your must-do list?