NOLA, The Big Easy, The Crescent City – when you visit New Orleans you soon find out why this great city has so many nicknames. What an amazing and culturally diverse part of our country! There’s so much great architecture and cuisine and music that it’s easy to fall in love with this marvelous city. We put out the word to our friends on Facebook and got some awesome suggestions of places to go and things to do. Although we didn’t get to do everything, we had an amazing time and I for one became fascinated with the City of New Orleans.
Before I get into our list of NOLA activities, a few logistics: During our visit we stayed at Bayou Segnette State Park which is just on the south side of the Mississippi river in the suburb of Westwego. This turned out to be a pretty good home base for our stay. From the park it was only about a 20 minute drive into the city. So it was easy to get back and forth and we had the backdrop of this great little state park that was situated right next to Bayou Segnette. The park was great for its location alone, but throw in the fact that it was only twenty bucks a night for a site with water and electric and we were WINNING!
So, here we go. Here are our ten highlights from New Orleans:
10. Audubon Aquarium – We were trying to decide between the aquarium and the zoo. Since we had just recently been to the amazing Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, NE, we opted for the aquarium. It was a fine aquarium and we saw some cool jellyfish and seahorses, but having been to the incredible Dallas World Aquarium, I felt Dallas was much better by comparison. Kinda surprising given that this is an Audubon backed Aquarium. If you go, you have to check out the 50 lb sea otter that they adopted because it kept approaching fishermen to try to play with their dogs! Because of this they felt she was safer in captivity.
9. French Quarter – I know the French Quarter takes on a very different feel during Mardi Gras, but it’s a great place to just walk around and absorb the atmosphere any time of the year. It’s got all the feel of a bustling city, but with so much more character. The old shops, the balconies, and the curiosities [like voodoo shops and the Pharmacy Museum (see number 6)] are all really interesting to see. But even more interesting are the people. It’s such a diverse group with an ancestry that’s even more diverse. You can’t help but appreciate the history and the variety of inhabitants while happily strolling through the streets and taking in the spectacle of it all. If you go, be sure to leave a bar with a “go cup” (you can take your drink with you in NOLA!) to walk around Jackson Square and check out all the artwork for sale by the local vendors. And bring some cash to tip the amazing jazz bands playing in the streets!
8. Shrimps – Truth? This one is more about Westwego where we stayed than it is about New Orleans. Of course there’s tons of great sea food of all kinds in the Big Easy – it’s right on the Gulf after all. But an added bonus of staying at Bayou Segnette State Park is that it’s right next to the Louisiana Newpack Shrimp Co. That’s a seafood processing company and it’s where all the local fishermen come in to sell their catches. Our swamp tour guide (see number 3) told us about it. Likewise, there are several markets that sell all that fresh crab, fish, and shrimps right out front on Westbank Expressway. One night of our stay we stopped by the markets and bought a bunch of fresh shrimps for a ridiculously low price and grilled them up for one of the best meals we had in New Orleans. Score!!!
7. City Park/Museum Of Art – I’m combining these two since they were in the same location, but each one could stand alone. We didn’t get to spend near enough time to explore the 1300 acres (Wow!) of City Park. It’s one of the oldest urban parks in the country and there’s so much to do. There’s a botanical garden, a sculpture garden, an amusement park, a golf course, and 26 tennis courts as well as tons of open spaces. You can get around on the biking, jogging, and walking paths and admire the many majestic oaks that are as much as 800 years old. It’s hard to believe that after Hurricane Katrina 95% of the park was under water for weeks! While at the park we visited the Museum of Art. We really enjoyed the George Dunbar exhibit as well as some of the 40,000 permanent works featuring everything from French to African to Mayan art.
6. Pharmacy Museum – The pharmacy museum is exactly what it sounds like – a museum featuring the history of drugs and medicines. It’s really interesting stuff and it’s right there in the French Quarter. We needed a break from the action on the streets so we popped in and for five bucks we spent our afternoon learning about “Bloodletting, surgical instruments and questionable medical practices,… Hand-blown apothecary bottles filled with crude drugs, medicinal herbs, “gris-gris” potions used by Voodoo practitioners and rare patent medicines”. If you go, check out the early, crude hypodermic needles. They were huge! Ouch!!!
5. Garden District – The Garden District is a neighborhood in NO that was originally developed in the 1800s and contains streets lined with historic mansions. The huge mansions were built during an era of prosperity for the city. We spent a few hours strolling the streets and checking out all the different architectural styles. Turns out that some celebrities fall in love with and buy some of these old mansions. We saw houses belonging to Sandra Bullock and John Goodman! If you go, take a self guided tour on-line and learn the history on some of these beautiful dwellings.
4. Frenchmen Street – Frenchmen St is like the newer, hot section of New Orleans. It’s about a three block area that is home to some of the most popular live music venues in the city. We popped into The Spotted Cat on a Saturday afternoon to have a delicious Parish Canebrake beer and were blown away by the musical stylings of The Russell Welch Hot Quartet. The quartet features a violin player that is truly talented and unique. At one point he set down his fiddle and picked up a saw (yeah, an actual wood saw) and starts playing it with his bow. Sweet!!! We liked Frenchmen street so much we went back later that evening for more music and carousing!
3. Swamp tour – One of the true highlights of our time in New Orleans was our swamp tour – or more accurately the guide on our swamp tour. Gary is a true Cajun. He said he’d not only grown up on the bayou (literally right on the banks of the bayou!) but that he’d never been in the city. The guy grew up twenty minutes from New Orleans and has never even seen Bourbon Street! Gary had that unique Cajun accent so thick that you had to listen close to understand him sometimes. He could spot a gator from quite a distance. He spotted five of them on the tour even though it was winter time and they were scarce. Gary even produced a baby alligator that people on the tour could take turns holding!
2. Beignets – These amazing little fried golden brown bits of heaven are heavily dusted with powdered sugar and are not to be missed. I preferred the beignets at Café Beignet while Pam was partial to Café Du Monde. Either way they’re the perfect way to stretch your wasteband.
1. WWII museum – It was a tough call for number one on this list (man, those beignets were good), but the highlight of the trip to New Orleans for me was the World War II museum. We plan to visit several museums on our trip around the US but this one is going to be hard to beat. We spent seven hours in the museum and felt like we rushed through it. We easily could have spent two days there. They even have that option – you can get an optional 2nd day for six bucks. It was once the D-Day Museum, but has grown to its current form and the improvements are amazing. The entire thing is very interactive. When you go in they first give you a “dog tag” card which you use at different points throughout the museum to check in on the story of a specific soldier. In addition there are two separate sections that take you through the different parts of the war, the Pacific theater and the European.
There are placards every few feet with information on what was happening at that specific stage of the war. In addition, around every corner was a video with footage and even more great info about the different battles and strategies. You can also check out several war planes and tanks and weapons that are on display throughout the several buildings. Even if you’re not a “museum person”, check this one out. It’s awesome and it might just bring you around on museums. If you go, check out the 4D film Beyond All Boundaries produced by Tom Hanks. It’s really good.
So, there you go. Those are our 10 highlights from our 10 days in New Orleans. Rate, debate, and tell us about your favorites. And thanks again to all our friends for all your suggestions.