Welcome to Where Chicago Goes, a series offering itineraries for cities frequently visited by Chicagoans. These are not far away destinations. These are places many of us used to call home, cities where our parents have retired, and where we fly often for work and play. For our third installation, we drive down to NOLA for drank, jazz, and just the right amount of history.
It is the Farthest You Can Travel Without Leaving Home
The drive tests my patience. 14 hours of sticks and cattle lead the way down I-55 from Chicago to New Orleans. Without reliable Wi-Fi, I find it surprisingly difficult to keep myself entertained. My husband and I tease each other, read a little, sleep a lot, shuffle through playlists, and grab some grub from Central BBQ in Memphis. Before you know it, we’ve hit The Causeway. When we finally reach the French Quarter, I’m convinced that we did indeed travel the full width of eternity, perhaps into outer space. That’s because New Orleans is not part of this world. It exists in its own galaxy. It is the farthest you can travel without leaving home.
I collaborated with the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau (thanks, Sarah!) and a small group of well-informed locals to create this guide full of both legendary enticements and local haunts. If you’ve lived in the city all your life or just visit occasionally, this is for you — yes, YOU!
The Ultimate Guide to New Orleans
You didn’t travel all this way to stay in some blah hotel safely tucked away from the action. Find a place in the French Quarter, toss your keys to the valet, and forget about your car until it’s time to head home.
I recommend Hotel Le Marais, a boutique hotel with cloud-soft beds located within walking distance from anywhere you’re going – including the American Sector and Frenchmen Street.
You know how hotels in high traffic areas can become jaded and disdainful toward guests? This place isn’t like that. The staff welcomes you like you’re an old friend returning home. The woman checking us in even drew up a map of things to do nearby for no other reason than because she cared to do so. Rooms are clean, smartly decorated. The outdoor pool is heated, so feel free to take a dip year-round.
As far as bar programs go, the lobby’s Vive! Bar is pretty great. It certainly takes booze more seriously than a lot of the too sweet pre-made cocktail spots surrounding the block. Even if you’re not staying in the hotel I recommend giving Vive! a try.
The only caveat? Prepare yourself for the noise off of Bourbon Street if you choose a room with a balcony (and you should most definitely choose a room with a balcony). The commotion is unavoidable no matter where you stay in the area. Get some ear plugs and deal. Seriously, it’s tolerable and worth being in proximity to so many places of interest.
For the best rates, plus parking discounts, book directly through the hotel.
Hotel Le Marais, 717 Conti St, New Orleans, LA 70130 (French Quarter)
Find your bearings straight away with a bike tour. Free Wheelin Bike Tours has a great selection of themed rides. I recommend “The Queen of the South”. Our tour guide, Ben, was a born and bred Nawlins boy. In three hours, he showed us everything travel books boasts about the city; the National WWII Museum, Lafayette Cemetery, the dilapidated building on Rampart & Perdido that birthed jazz music, the city’s only original Banksy, and the mansions a few celebrities are fortunate enough to call home.
True Story: We were pausing in front of Sandra Bullock‘s house when a woman standing nearby says, “Hey. How’s it going?… Enjoy your tour [of New Orleans].” But because we were in New Orleans, standing in front of Sandra Bullock’s house, no one thought for a moment that the woman greeting our group was Sandra Bullock, which, of course, it was. So that’s interesting.
Free Wheeling Bike Tours 325 Burgundy St, New Orleans, LA 70112 (French Quarter, a 4-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Q: Why is the National WWII Museum located in New Orleans?
A: “Higgins boats” were crucial to American efforts during the war. The landing craft’s creator, Andrew Jackson Higgins, based his company in New Orleans. So, there you go.
If all you know about war comes from Steven Spielberg, you’ll still love this digestible breakdown of events and artifacts from WWII. With your ticket, you’ll receive a card with the name and background of a soldier. Throughout the museum, interactive stations provide additional details on what that particular soldier went through during the second global war. The entire experience is enlightening to say the least.
Beyond All Boundaries is the very somber cherry atop this didactic sundae. It is a 4D journey, narrated by Tom Hanks, into the homes and trenches colored by the war. I can’t say enough about this presentation so I’ll stick with cliché: You won’t be disappointed.
Try to reserve a minimum of 5 hours to properly take in all the museum has to offer.
National WWII Museum, 945 Magazine St, New Orleans, LA 70130 (American Sector, a 20-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Visiting NOLA and partying on Bourbon Street is like visiting Chicago to hang out at Navy Pier. Great location for accommodations. Terrible way to get a feel for what the city is really like.
Want to hear authentic local bands, walk down the street with a drink in your hand, join a parade, and shop until the wee hours of the morning? Head on over to Frenchmen Street, the “local’s Bourbon Street”. The worst kept secret in the city (residents are starting to complain about the crowds) is three blocks of live jazz, impromptu carnivals, cocktails, and the Frenchmen Art Market — open until 1 a.m. Thursday thru Monday.
Frenchmen Street. Suggestion: Begin at Chartres and Frenchmen. (17-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Listen. When you come to Preservation Hall you’re going to sit on the floor and pay $5 per song. (To be clear, admission is $15 but the band only plays 3 songs.) No, they don’t have drinks but you’re welcome to bring your own. Don’t even ask for food, silly. Just be grateful and shut up.
JAZZ LOVING HIPSTER SITTING NEXT TO ME: “Can I sing along?”
PRESERVATION HALL BAND LEADER: “You can’t even clap on beat. Please don’t sing along.”
Preservation Hall, 726 St. Peters St., New Orleans, LA 70116 (French Quarter, 5-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Whoahoho! You’ve arrived at the final act. When it comes to cuisine, I find NOLA is the only city stateside that can excite a Chicagoan. Top chefs sharpen their knives in humble kitchens, and simple concepts are transformed into one-of-a-kind palate pleasers here in The Big Easy. (Hi, Bananas Foster!) I could go on and on about the Brennan family, the history of gumbo, the importance of po’boys. Instead, I’ll just tell you which places I recommend and why. For more detailed foodie fodder, check out the list of influencers below.
Cane and Table. Don’t walk too fast or you’ll pass up this “proto-tiki” eatery. Hidden behind its façade of cracked paint and minimal signage is an expansive patio lead by an intimate dining room decorated with vignettes, lit by romantic chandeliers. Oh, and the food is delicious too.
Eat: Yardbird with a side of Brussel sprouts. Drink: Anything in a tiki head.
Cane and Table, 1113 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116 (French Quarter, 13-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Brennan’s. Everyone will push Brennan’s on you. I am with everyone on this.
The recipes are amazing. The family restaurant first opened in the ‘40s. They invented Bananas Foster. Yadayadayada… Bottom line: If you don’t eat here, you were never truly in New Orleans.
Eat: Save some dough and choose from their selection of prix fixe menus. I recommend the “New Orleans Breakfast” which starts with seafood gumbo and ends with braised pork over cheddar grits. Drink: Caribbean Milk Punch. It’s delicious and tourists love it.
Brennan’s, 417 Royal St, New Orleans, LA 70130 (French Quarter, 1-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Kingfish. An upscale casual seafood restaurant offering amazing cocktails and plates. They never learned how to do things the simple way. Expect each dish to be layered in unexpected flavors.
Eat: Take the best nachos ever. Replace chips with cracklin’ (pork skins). You now have the Pulled Pork Nachos at Kingfish. Once you’ve finished the plate and thoroughly hate yourself, enjoy the Braised Rabbit Cavatelli made with chorizo, braised white beans, and San Marzano tomatoes. It’s so good you’ll want to slap the chef’s momma. Don’t though because this is NOLA and they don’t play when it comes to their mothers. Drink: Mint Juleps.
Kingfish, 337 Chartres St. New Orleans, LA 70125 (French Quarter, 2-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Speaking of mothers…
Mother’s. Don’t eat here just because Beyoncé does. That was a joke. What isn’t a joke? This resilient diner’s home-style cooking and culture.
Eat: The Famous Ferdi Special. It’s the best thing on the menu and the best po’boy sandwich in all of New Orleans.
Mother’s, 401 Poydras St, New Orleans, LA 70130 (Business District, 12-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
Port of Call. It’s the dive bar you can (and should!) take you mom to.
Eat: A ginormous burger and a loaded baked potato. Drink: Their monstrous hurricanes.
Port of Call, 838 Esplanade Ave, New Orleans, LA 70116 (French Quarter, 15-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
There are so many wonderful independently owned coffeehouses in the area (Hi, Spitfire), I honestly don’t see the point of balancing on uncomfortable chairs at Café du Monde and bathing yourself in powdered sugar. If you must have some café au lait and a beignet, I suggest visiting this 24-hour spot late at night. Fewer crowds, no waiting.
Café du Monde, original location at 800 Decatur St, New Orleans, LA 70116 (10-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
SpitFire, 627 St Peter St, New Orleans, LA 70116 (French Quarter, 5-minute walk from Hotel Le Marais)
In addition to this guide, use the list of influencers below in order to squeeze the most out of NOLA:
All photos were taken by Kari of Chicagoings.com unless otherwise noted. Be sure to contact each company before your visit for current information and prices. A big thanks to the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and Sarah Forman. A huge thank you also goes to Marc Becker of the New Orleans Hotel Collection for his expertise on all things NOLA and for arranging our stay at Hotel Le Marais. I contacted him because I love the hotel. He made it happen. All opinions expressed here are those of Kari Herrera and are not indicative of those held by the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau or any other entity.