Even if you've never been to New Orleans, you probably have a picture of it in your mind: brass bands marching through narrow streets, brightly colored Creole cottages, Mardi Gras beads raining down from the sky, and of course the food: roast beef po' boys, gleaming platters of oysters, bowls of steaming gumbo, and fat muffuletta sandwiches.
That was the picture in my mind anyway when I moved to New Orleans in 2014, having never visited before. I found that New Orleans, to be sure — it's the one most visitors come here to see — but as a local I also came to know a less raucous (but no less delicious) side of the city, full of neighborly warmth and relaxed charm.
In our Bite-Sized Guide to New Orleans, we'll offer a glimpse of the city everyone knows and loves — but it's in this other, less traveled New Orleans that we will be spending most of our time, strolling slowly under the oak trees, sipping strong iced coffee, and chatting with some New Orleanians about what they love about this place. It's going to be fun, y'all.
What Is a Bite-Sized Guide?
When you are planning a trip to a new place, are you overwhelmed by the thought of sifting through dozens of online travel reviews, Instagram recommendations, and city guides to come up with a great itinerary? Is your ideal vacation less a jam-packed schedule of famous sights and more of a relaxed glimpse of what local life is like, with lots of good food? If you answered yes, then hooray! Our Bite-Sized Guides are made for you.
Why Visit New Orleans Now?
In a country that is becoming increasingly homogenized by chain restaurants and Instagram-fueled food trends, New Orleans is a completely unique place, shaped by its particular geography, political history, early settlers, and — more recently — Hurricane Katrina. There is nowhere else like it in the world, which makes being here feel a little magical.
It helps that the neighborhoods are filled with charming wood-shuttered houses painted every color of the Caribbean rainbow, the gardens are bursting with tropical plants, and the people will look you in the eye and warmly ask, "How y'all doin'?" when they pass by. A meandering walk around New Orleans is a balm for the ragged city-dweller's soul.
New Orleans is the ideal destination to explore in a Bite-Sized Guide, as it is a famous tourist hot spot with plenty to experience if you stick to the usual itinerary, but a visit here is so much more rewarding if you slow down, step off the beaten track, and experience the city like a local.
In this guide, you will find a love letter to New Orleans from Ti Adelaide Martin, a native New Orleanian and member of the Brennan family, the dynasty behind some of the best-known and most respected restaurants in the city.
You will also find a guided, step-by-step neighborhood walk in the Garden District, with chef Kristin Essig leading the way, as well as my very favorite things to buy to bring New Orleans home with you.
Where to go, in one afternoon-friendly package, where to eat, and what to bring home — it's New Orleans, bite-sized.
The Food of New Orleans
And the food may well be a cure for an excess of "clean eating." Mark Twain once said, "New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin," and he had never even heard of the Whole30 diet.
Unless you adhere to a diet for ethical, religious, or food intolerance reasons, I suggest giving yourself a pass to go all in on whatever fried, buttery, salty, or sweet foods catch your eye during your visit. I mean, you could drink a green smoothie here, but you won't remember it the way you do the shrimp po' boy at Domilise's, with its tumble of perfectly fried shrimp efficiently tucked into a loaf of Leidenheimer French bread by a white-haired woman who has clearly been making flawless fried shrimp po' boys for decades.
"New Orleans food is as delicious as the less criminal forms of sin." - Mark Twain
Of course, one cannot live on fried batter alone — although many who visit New Orleans have tried — and happily, chefs across the city are increasingly showcasing the vegetables and fruit grown in urban farms in the city and in rural parishes nearby, and incorporating influences from around the world.
One of the city's most celebrated new restaurants, Shaya, serves vegetable-heavy Israeli food from a kitchen anchored by a wood-fired oven, not a deep-fat fryer. N7, named one of Bon Appetit's Best New Restaurants this year, is a hidden, romantic wine bar with a short menu of high-end canned seafood and French food with the occasional Japanese flourish.
The pop-up restaurant and food truck trends and the popularity of food halls like the beautifully restored St. Roch Market have helped showcase chefs around the city who make great food, but may lack the funding to open their own places. Some of them have gone on to open brick-and-mortar restaurants, like 1000 Figs, serving killer falafel sandwiches in a cute Mid-City spot, and Pizza Delicious, a Bywater staple that is everything its name promises. Cherry Espresso Bar, one of the city's best coffee bars, started as a pop-up tucked into a corner of Stein's Market & Deli, a Jewish-Italian deli serving unbelievably good sandwiches with nary a smile. (In friendly New Orleans, this grouchiness is so unusual, it's kind of charming.)
Po' boys, oysters, beignets, café au lait with chicory coffee — all the foods you might think of when you think of eating in New Orleans — they are here and they are delicious. But they aren't the end of the food story here. The city's food scene is growing and changing, grounded by the can-do spirit of the people who call this historic, spirited, and one-of-a-kind city home.
And should you need to conjure up a taste of the Big Easy when you're back home in your own kitchen, we've got recipes (including, yes, a cocktail). Cheers to that!
How To Get to New Orleans
- Flights: Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) is located about 11 miles from downtown New Orleans and has direct flights from 59 cities in the U.S. and abroad.
- Taxis: A taxi ride from the airport to the Central Business District (CBD) or the French Quarter costs $36 for up to two people, or $15 per person for three or more people.
- Rental Cars: Renting a car is unnecessary unless you are planning a day trip outside the city for a swamp tour or plantation visit, or if you are traveling with a small child who needs a car seat. Uber and Lyft are well-established in the city, making it convenient and affordable to travel to even the less touristy areas of New Orleans without a rental.
- Streetcars: And if your itinerary includes a spot near one of city's streetcar lines, it is worth the extra time and $1.25 fare to settle back into one of the beautifully restored vintage streetcars and enjoy a scenic ride at least once during your visit.
Where to Stay in New Orleans
- The boutique hotel scene in the city is booming, with a number of smaller, more thoughtfully designed hotels popping up in neighborhoods like the Garden District and the CBD, which gives you the option of avoiding the tourist crowds in the French Quarter.
- There are also short-term rentals available throughout the city through sites like Airbnb and VRBO, but if you decide to go that route, you should be aware that such properties have been the subject of much debate in the city recently. Some residents worry that the proliferation of short-term rentals is affecting the availability of affordable housing for residents, and impacting the special, close-knit character of New Orleans neighborhoods. The city recently worked with Airbnb to roll out regulations on short-term rentals that will hopefully address these issues, but I think it is important to be aware of the ongoing discussion if you are choosing to stay in a residential neighborhood during your visit. And of course, it's always a good idea to remember that when you rent an Airbnb, you are a guest of the neighborhood as well as the property's host — enjoy your visit, but be mindful of the regular folks living and working around you.