Arriving in New Orleans after dark, which you will probably do if you drive the 10 hours from St. Louis, feels like you are late to a party — a party that’s been building for decades, complete with parades, live music, costumed performers and drinking, lots of drinking.
As we walked the streets of the French Quarter the first night, with our 10- and 12-year-old sons, we were a bit worried the debauchery would be too much. It was not. Yes, there was drinking, but the spectacular sights and sounds of the Second Line parades (private parades that seem to just pop up in the streets of the French Quarter), the fortune-tellers and the artwork in gallery windows along Royal Street captured their attention more.
We planned this trip on a bit of a whim, and perhaps that made it even more enjoyable. We were heading south anyway, to Houston and Galveston, so it was only about three hours longer to start at New Orleans and make our way over.
A recent study from Wyndham Vacation Rentals suggests the stress of planning vacations keeps some people from vacationing. Among their findings: More than two of three vacationers say they’ve become stressed due to “information overload” and are paralyzed with too many choices when researching and planning their vacation.
I’ve been there. So for our jaunt to New Orleans we decided to plan only the hotel: the beautiful Pontchartrain Hotel in the famed Garden District. New Orleans is the perfect city to let whimsy take over. My only wish is that I’d planned a few more days there.
The French Quarter
The French Quarter, also called the Vieux Carré, is a lot bigger than I expected, roughly seven blocks wide by 13 blocks long. Take a tour to learn about the area, a National Historical Landmark, its architecture, and its French and Spanish influences. Better yet, take a ghost tour, where you learn a little bit about history (the pirates, the fires that destroyed many buildings) and a little bit about legends (ghosts still walk Pirate’s Alley and one still rattles around, breaking glass in the former home of Civil War Gen. P.T. Beauregard). Our tour, with Gray Line, was filled with interesting tidbits.
“New Orleans is one of the most haunted cities in America,” our guide said. “It’s not the most haunted, but it has the most concentration of ghosts anywhere.” He said all it takes to believe in ghosts is one experience “and it will change your life.” ($26; graylineneworleans.com)
Tours are big in New Orleans; on our ghost tour alone we probably saw a dozen others going on at the same time. But also check out carriage tours, bayou tours, Garden District tours and cemetery tours. There’s also a paddle-wheel boat tour along the Mississippi River.
The focal point of the French Quarter is Jackson Square, a 2.5-acre green space with a towering statue of Andrew Jackson, hero of the battle of New Orleans, at its center. On one corner, find the legendary Café Du Monde, where you can grab the famous doughnut-like beignets or an almost-as-famous cafe au lait to go or to sit with under the tent-covered patio. The line for service can be 100 or more people deep, so consider going at off-hours. It’s open 24 a day.
On another corner you’ll find the Cabildo, once the seat of the Spanish colonial government in New Orleans, now the Louisiana State Museum. Over three floors, find exhibits on the Civil War and the Battle of New Orleans from the War of 1812, and you can even see Napoleon’s death mask, one of four in existence. ($6, louisianastatemuseum.org)
On the other corner is the Presbytère, designed by Gilberto Guillemard, who also built the Cabildo and the St. Louis Cathedral. The cathedral sits between the Cabildo and the Presbytère, which is also a museum and has two permanent exhibits worth your time: “Living With Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” and the fun “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.” ($6, louisianastatemuseum.org)
On the sides of Jackson Square, often in the blistering sun, you’ll find dealers selling paintings, artists offering caricatures, vendors of trinkets and of course fortune-tellers and tarot-card readers. The streets on each side of the square are lined with the block-long Pontalba Buildings with their lacy ironwork galleries.
The park itself seems to have been manicured and groomed for the sole purpose of beautiful photos, with the majestic St. Louis Cathedral in the background. Built in 1789, it is the oldest cathedral in the United States. The church was named after King Louis of France, the IX, the same guy our city honors. There’s a statue of him inside, and all of the stained glass windows depict his life. You can sit in pews, take photos (employees in the back told us it was OK) and admire the gorgeous architecture and sculptures (free to enter, but consider making a donation, stlouiscathedral.org).
Dining in New Orleans
New Orleans is known for its amazing Creole and Cajun food. Our first stop was the Napoleon House, mostly for the history. The original owner, Nicholas Girod, mayor of New Orleans from 1812 to 1815, planned for this to be the place of Napoleon’s exile, and the whole restaurant exudes old-world charm. The gumbo’s smoke flavor enhanced its spices. The muffaletta, stuffed with ham, salami, pastrami and cheeses ($9.50) was filled with even more yumminess by the housemade olive salad. And don’t miss the famous Pimm’s Cup: a gin-based liquor, lemonade, a splash of lemon-lime soda and cucumber garnish ($7). (napoleonhouse.com)
On a late morning, after walking around stinky Bourbon Street, we decided to turn the corner and head down Conti Street. We were hot and tired and the restaurant Kingfish looked appealing. We didn’t realize we were stopping at one of the city’s award-winning restaurants, honored for its contemporary Southern cuisine. And as much as we loved the stuffed doughnut holes and the Cochon Benedict (poached eggs, sweet potato biscuit and barbecue hollandaise over pulled pork for $20), the $12 bottomless mimosas (we even got them to go) were the big hit. (kingfishneworleans.com)
We sought the advice of several people before we left. Nearly everyone we spoke to recommended Commander’s Palace. A landmark since 1893, it’s become the most famous restaurant in New Orleans. I was worried it would seem commercialized or touristy. Not at all. We were led through the old house, up the wood stairs, across one dining room, then another to a seat against a wall of windows with trees around. It felt like we were in a treehouse. Impeccable service brought us the famed Turtle Soup, then Louisiana Shrimp and Sweet Corn Risotto, then decadent Creole Bread Pudding Souffle ($39 for the three-course meal). More impressive were the Bananas Foster ($16) my son ordered. It’s flambéed tableside and is enough for two people. (commanderspalace.com)
Visiting Commander’s Palace gives you an excuse to tour the Garden District, which has some of the most magnificent and charming homes in the South. You can walk right past the Payne-Strachan House, where Jefferson Davis died, or the Joseph Carroll House, where Mark Twain used to hang out, or Anne Rice’s former manse. And don’t miss Lafayette Cemetery across the street from Commander’s Palace.
Because New Orleans is built on a swamp, the dead cannot be buried below ground. Over time, its cemeteries, with elaborate sculptures and other decorative artwork embellishing tombs, have come to resemble small villages. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, near the French Quarter, is the most famous. It houses the grave of Marie Laveau, the legendary “voodoo queen,” and the future one of actor Nicolas Cage. However, you must be accompanied by a tour guide (they charged $20 on our visit), and it’s in direct sun much of the day. Lafayette Cemetery, across from Commander’s Palace, is much more shaded, and we were able to look around for free.
The National World War II museum sits not too far from the Garden District. Founded in 2000, it’s affiliated with the Smithsonian, so everything feels very well done and patriotic, as the focus is on the United States’ contribution to the war. Exhibits tell stories not only of battles but of the men and women who contributed to the war effort. Hand-written letters from soldiers to their moms and sweethearts were especially poignant. But of course, the big guns (literally) are here too, with a hall filled with tanks and airplanes. ($27 adults; WWII veterans are free, nationalww2museum.org)
Where to stay
There is no dearth of historic hotels in New Orleans. We chose to stay in one Travel + Leisure named to this year’s list of best new hotels in the world . But though Ponchartrain Hotel had been remodeled and reopened, it’s not exactly new. Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams both stayed there. And its glamour remains: From vintage keys to chandeliers to guest rooms filled with books, it has all the charm and spirit of New Orleans in one convenient place (it’s on the St. Charles Avenue trolley line).
Our room had a living room on one side and two double beds in a bedroom on the other, separated by a spacious hall and quirky bathroom (there was a false medicine cabinet with items that looked straight out of the nearby Pharmacy Museum). Rooms start at $149 night. Days before we left on the trip, we saw a Travelzoo email deal for $89 a night.
Don’t miss the rooftop bar for one last reference to St. Louis. The Hot Tin rooftop bar offers a 270-degree view of the Mississippi River and downtown New Orleans. The cocktails are fancy, the view is spectacular and the décor, well, it’s straight out of a 1940s movie with nods to Williams, the St. Louis playwright who lived at the hotel while writing “A Streetcar Named Desire.” (Ponchartrainhotel.com)
The drive is about 10 hours from St. Louis, but a number of airlines fly directly into New Orleans. Traffic and parking are difficult in the French Quarter. We got around using Uber; it was safe and easy.
More info • neworleanscvb.com and 1-504-566-5019