I’ve said before that the greatest part of solo travel is the freedom of doing whatever I want, when I want to. But traveling with Maleah is even better, because we are pretty much always on the same page about what we do – and we can share allllll the food. We’ve figured out a perfect balance of running around sightseeing, exploring the less touristy parts of town, and kicking back in our Airbnb wherever we go. When I had a Southwest voucher expiring in March, a random weekend trip to New Orleans (long-time foodie bucket list destination) with my college bestie was a no-brainer.
Not gonna lie, green and purple have never been a winning color combination in my eyes. But after experiencing a taste of Mardi Gras culture in the Big Easy, I can appreciate the spirit and enthusiasm that locals have for the holiday! We were there a couple weeks ahead of Mardi Gras, but the beautiful homes in the Garden District were already flying green and purple flags and strung all around with beads. We discovered King Cake – a confection only served around Mardi Gras – and felt the usual energy of Bourbon Street without overwhelming craziness that I imagine it would be like leading right up to Fat Tuesday.
We also happened to stumble into a “Boycott Bowl” parade downtown… People were singing and chanting in the streets wearing Saints regalia, waving homemade signs with snarky slogans. I can only imagine what it would have been like if the Saints had actually been playing!
We went into this trip with very little planning other than a few reservations I had made right when we booked the trip. The general consensus was that you eat and drink, walk around until you’re a little less full, and then eat and drink some more. And eat beignets no less than once a day, every day. So this is how, two months ahead of my Turks & Caicos trip, any and all progress towards the beach bod went out the window 🙂
- The Vintage: Hands down my top recommendation from the weekend, this bright and inviting space on Magazine Street serves “bubbly, beignets, and bites”. I’ll come right out and say that their beignets were the best I had, including Cafe du Monde!
There’s outdoor seating and a lounge-y feel indoors, conducive to both working or reading, and hanging out with friends. There’s also a beautiful bar area toward the back.
We ordered the “Fancy Beignet Flight” and swapped one of the “fancy” ones for a Simple – as a control against Cafe Du Monde and Cafe Beignet. And boy am I glad we did! Biting into that fluffy pillow of fried dough was pure bliss. The s’mores was fun as well, but I wouldn’t recommend the matcha – I guess I have pretty high standards for matcha, but you’re just better off going with three Simple beignets from The Vintage.
- Willa Jean – Another must-eat, Willa Jean’s Southern brunch came highly recommended by multiple bloggers I follow. The airy, brick-lined space is a bit off the tourist path, in the Warehouse district. But the bakery/restaurant is well worth the extra steps (to work off the carbs you’ll inevitably indulge in…)
I overestimated the weather in New Orleans when I was packing. I saw highs in the 70s and got too excited about escaping DC winter… and didn’t pack enough sweaters, forgetting that a high in the low 70s means it’s actually in the low 60s most of the day. That didn’t stop me from trying Willa Jean’s famed frosé though 🙂
We loved the space and regretted being too full for dessert, so the next day we went back to try the King Cake from their pastry case. I had never heard of this before, but apparently the tradition is that there is a little plastic baby hidden in the middle of the cake (which is like a giant cinnamon roll); whoever finds the baby in their piece of cake is responsible for hosting the next Mardi party! Sitting at the bar watching the bartender mix cocktails, while sipping on my Intelligentsia coffee on a quiet afternoon was one of my favorite things we did.
- The Tasting Room: The night we landed, we set off from our Airbnb to Magazine Street in search of non-bar food late on a Thursday. The Tasting Room came up on Yelp – and how could I resist a cute and cozy wine bar? At first I was worried about how limited their food menu was (as much as I love a good glass of pinot, I was starving). In perusing the menu, we asked the waiter “how big is the Big Ass Meatball exactly?” and she goes, “it’s a big. ass. meatball.” and gestured with her hands. It is most certainly aptly named, and hit the spot along with amazing crispy truffle fries. The Tasting Room would be a great intimate date spot if your’e in Nola with bae!
- Cafe du Monde (cash only): The famed OG beignet stand, originally located in the French Market, has a rich history of serving beignets and cafe au laits 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in New Orleans. The description on the napkin holder explained that “it closes only on Christmas Day and on the day an occasional Hurricane passes too close to New Orleans.” Of course it’s at the top of every tourists’ list, so I recommend saving it for a weekday if you can. Around 11am on a Monday morning, we waited less than ten minutes for a table outside to free up and seat ourselves.
The only downside of the outdoor seating (which I obviously prefer to the more dimly lit interior) was the annoying pigeons that were underfoot. They are NOT shy around people whatsoever, and will dart around and under tables in a flurry of germy feathers. The wait for our server to clear our table and take the order after we swooped in on the table was made that much longer by my acute awareness of the pigeons…
I had to avoid eye contact and ignore my peripheral vision to stave off the fear of a beady eyed pigeon swooping in and plucking my beignet out of my hand…
Many people pit the original Cafe du Monde against its competitor Cafe Beignet, but in my opinion The Vintage beats them both. Cafe Beignet’s inside was slightly undercooked and doughy tasting to me, but Cafe Du Monde wasn’t as crispy on the outside as The Vintage. The chicory flavor of the signature Cafe du Monde coffee is balanced by the steamed milk in the cafe au laits, which are a necessary accompaniment to your beignets.
- Peche – I made a dinner reservation at this hard-to-book restaurant way in advance, but we ended up just sharing some apps because neither of us were very hungry. The restaurant was a little too dark and noisy for my taste, especially compared to Willa Jean. But the most memorable dish was definitely the key lime pie – dessert can always redeem a meal!
- Stumptown Coffee: Stumptown Coffee has a kind of cult following from various coffee shops in DC like Dolcezza. Just having heard of the coffee roasters for so long made me want to stop inside the Ace Hotel for an afternoon pick-me-up.
On the way there, we passed by a cute little place called Drip Affogato Bar and if we weren’t SO FULL from eating all day (are you noticing a pattern here?), I would’ve gone for an affogato in a heartbeat. This would probably be first on my list of places to go to on my next trip!
- Green Goddess: At some point we both just really needed to eat unfried green things, so the search for salad in the land of fried chicken landed us at Green Goddess. It’s a tiny place in a cute alleyway with barely any tables, but we wandered over late enough in the afternoon where we were seated pretty quickly. I got a salad with tofu on it and a side of soup, which is basically the antithesis of what you’re supposed to eat in Nola but my body needed it!
- Pho Bam: One night after a full day of sightseeing, Maleah and I collapsed on the bed in our Airbnb and didn’t really move a muscle until we started thinking about food again. In a classic Maleah/Christina move, we ordered Vietnamese food to be delivered through Postmates instead of going out to find live music on Bourbon, as we originally intended. If you’ve ordered pho as take-out before, you know they separate the noodles and veggies/meat from the broth. Maleah asked our Airbnb host for something to put soup in and he handed her a pot – so that’s how we ended up eating spring rolls, bun, and pho in our PJs in our room using a TV stand and space heater as tables, and the bed as our chairs. Quite a memorable (un-pho-gettable?) first pho experience for Maleah!
- Restaurant August: The complete opposite experience of our pho-n night in, was this prix fixe 3-course lunch for $29 at a bougie white-tablecloth restaurant serving cajun/creole inspired plates. It was definitely more of a business lunch place (because who else eats with multiple sets of silverware for lunch on a Monday) – but each course was phenomenal. I will say this is also the most DC-like restaurant we went to, so if you’re looking to really get a local vibe there are a ton of other options.
- St. Charles Street Car: Easily the most scenic, fun, and cost-effective way to get around town, download the RTA GoMobile App and buy a $3 “Jazzy pass” to ride all day. It connects the Garden District to the French Quarter, which was perfect for us since our Airbnb was only about a 10 minute walk from one of the trolley stops.
- French Quarter: The French Quarter is where all the action is, between Jackson square, the French Market, and the busy streets lined with bars and shops. Most people stay here when they visit, but I’m glad our Airbnb was out near Magazine Street because it was pretty loud and overwhelming.
I didn’t know New Orleans was known for its antiquing, but we walked by dozens of antiques shops that were filled with beautiful old pianos and chandeliers – it definitely does give you a kind of sense of what the plantation homes may have looked like in this area.
- Magazine Street: The street is actually really long and runs across multiple neighborhoods, but it seemed like locals spend more time shopping and dining in the lower Garden District stretch of Magazine Street than near the French Quarter. It was much more my speed – old homes converted into shops, big oak trees sprawling out into the street, families walking their dogs, and quirky cafes.
- Bourbon Street: The premier Mardi Gras and bachelorette destination, Bourbon Street is the OG street that’s closed to cars and open for drunk tourists and people-watchers. “Dirty Sixth” in Austin is often compared to Bourbon Street, but New Orleans has no open-container laws… so naturally, Bourbon Street is on a whole different level. Some would say Maleah and I “did New Orleans wrong,” but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with peering at the debauchery and moving on to Frenchmen Street. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar was recommended to us because it’s supposedly the oldest structure used as a bar in the US (and according to urban legend, once used in Jean Lafitte’s pirate operations). In reality it was a dark, cave-like bar with odd bartenders, a mediocre pianist, and awful drinks.
- Frenchmen St: Many an Uber driver told us to check out the wild Bourbon Street scene for a bit and then head to Frenchmen St, which has more live music at night. We walked around and ducked into Bamboula’s when we heard Wagon Wheel playing – such a fun memory for us of Chapel Hill! I ordered my first French 75 (gin, champagne, lemon juice, and sugar) because I saw it on a print at the Frenchmen’s Art Market. I definitely recommend Frenchmen Street if you’re looking to bar hop!
- Lafayette Cemetery: When people were telling me to check out the cemetery, I was at first like – thanks, but no thanks. Visiting famous dead people’s graves is just not at the top of my list of activities. But then it was explained to me that what makes Lafayette Cemetery unique is that the plots are all above-ground because of the Louisiana swamp. They literally can’t bury people because the graves would flood! So it was a unique site to visit. It’s free, so we walked in right behind a tour group. As we walked around, we picked up tidbits of information from the guide – like the fact that Judge Ferguson from Plessy vs. Ferguson was buried here!
- Carriage Tour: This is possibly the most touristy thing you can do… but I’d never done one before, and it wasn’t too expensive compared to similar rides in Charleston! The weather on our last day was gloomy and overcast so we picked one of the carriages lined up along Jackson Square and listened to our odd-ball driver (who kept mumbling) try to be funny while reciting facts about the history of the city.
The type-A in me wishes I could’ve picked a driver based on reviews from other passengers, because it probably would’ve made a big difference, but it was nice to just sit for awhile and see the city not on foot.
- City Park: At 1300 acres, this park is 50% bigger than NYC’s Central Park! Of course we didn’t know that when we put in “City Park” as the Uber destination, so our driver was like uhhh….where in City Park? There’s a Botanical Garden, art museum, amusement park, festival grounds, and who knows what else all inside the park. We told him to bring us wherever the thought was the nicest to walk around, so we ended up by the art museum where there is a pond and some swing benches to soak up the sunshine. Minus the palm trees, it reminded me of Boston Common with ducks and swans and a colorful pedestrian bridge.
Airbnbs are highly regulated in New Orleans to protect the local real estate market, so you can’t put entire homes on Airbnb. This is sad, because some of the huge Garden District homes would be so fun to have a big group in. We found a room in a really old shotgun (really long and narrow house, named because theoretically if you shot a gun through it would go in one side and out the other).
I loved being walking distance to Magazine Street, the St. Charles Streetcar, and the Garden District neighborhood which was perfect for taking photos. If you’re looking for a tamer New Orleans experience like we were, I’d recommend staying in a historic home where your host can recommend local spots 🙂 If you’ve never used Airbnb before, you can get $40 off your first booking here.
- Drip Affogato Bar
- Willie Mae’s fried chicken
- swamp tours
- sunset at Audubon Park
DC Mardi Party
Back in DC, a black tie Mardi Gras soiree at the Whittemore House was the perfect occasion to debut the mask I purchased in Nola as a souvenir. My friend also sent me a code for a free month’s trial of Rent the Runway unlimited- which may or may not have been the biggest reason I jumped on the chance to dress up on a Tuesday. It was definitely the most fun Fat Tuesday (or any Tuesday) I’ve ever had!
I’ve never been to a masquerade ball before but you best believe I was living out all my Phantom of the Opera/Cinderella Story dreams 🙂
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