There is SO MUCH to do in the city of New Orleans and it can be intimidating to know where to start, where to go, what to do, and where to eat…especially if you have a limited amount of time to try to cram everything in. That’s why I asked a New Orleans local to share insider tips to help you make the most out of your next visit to The Big Easy.
I met Ryan Cochran at Family TMS (Travel Media Showcase) in Clearwater, Florida. He was a guest speaker for one of our sessions and as fate would have it, he also happened to be on my same flight to New Orleans that afternoon. I only had one night to explore the city and he was generous enough to volunteer to be my local tour guide for the evening.
I learned a lot about New Orleans as we walked around the city and I invited Ryan to share more about his insider tips along with his favorite places that you will definitely want to add to your list!
1. How long have you lived in New Orleans?
A combined total of 19 years. My parents grew up in Alabama, decided to move for a job opportunity and bought a house in Chalmette, La. (Shall-met) – which is basically the Louisiana equivalent of the reality show, Jersey Shore. I was in an accident in 1982 and lived there for about 12 years before we moved back. I moved back to New Orleans in 2010 – excited to explore the city as an adult. And I honestly cannot believe almost 8 years have gone by since I made that decision. This place captures you.
2. What are some hidden gems in New Orleans that tourists can often overlook?
Oh geez, so many things. You cannot see the real New Orleans in one or even two trips. This place is a never-ending treasure trove of experiences. I usually advise people who’ve never been to just go ahead and get the infamous Bourbon St. debauchery done in a night and get it out of their systems 😉
Any local will tell you some form of that. There are just too many other things to explore; we do not want to be defined just by that Bourbon St stereotype that we’re often reduced down to nationally; and it’s an injustice to you, if you spend all of your trip on Bourbon St. Also, part of the allure is the invitation for you to go find these gems and discover them on your own. The fact that they’re hidden is part of the allure. Other mini worlds and paradises exist in some of the nicer parts of the French Quarter, yet you would never think that based on the exteriors of the residences.
- The other areas of New Orleans.
- We’re sort of like a very mini New York with its different Burroughs. The Lower Garden District, Uptown, Audubon Park, Crescent Park, The Marigny (Mare-in-e) and the Bywater are often overlooked, unique gems that I will tell anyone to go explore. They’re all so different and combined have a very eclectic group of people.
- Royal Street- One street over from Bourbon is a hidden gem for me. And it’s actually where I live, Royal Street, towards the back of the Quarter. Royal St. itself is another world…and it’s just one parallel street away from the Bourbon St shenanigans.Royal is quieter and full of shops, artists, and street musicians so good you’ll find yourself in awe that they aren’t on American Idol, just playing on a street in The French Quarter, living the laid back NOLA life and being an integral part of what makes the Quarter so unique. It’s very romantic in my opinion. Any guy I take on a date I start with walking them down Royal Street if they’ve never been. When you want a break from crowds and craziness, just walk over one street and you’ll be in my Zen.
- And I don’t want to under-emphasize this, so I’ll say it again – your jaw will drop or you’ll cry your eyes out at the beauty and sound coming from these people who are so talented. And that’s if you happen to catch them when they’re around. You never really know when they’ll be back, but I think they must take pride in what they’re doing and are happy with their talents staying in New Orleans. If you’re lucky enough to catch Tanya & Dorise (link attached), stay and listen for a while. You’ll thank me later. 🙂
- Magazine Street
- Crawfish Boils – it’s a local tradition. Make a friend here. You have to experience this to truly earn your NOLA badge.
3. Where are your 3 favorite places to get a beignet?
- Cafe Du Monde (Cafe Do Maughn) It’s both a tourist attraction and something locals still do as well)
- Morning Call
- Lagniappe (Extra) – Beignet Festival 🙂
4. What are some of your favorite restaurants for a special night out and what do you recommend ordering there?
- Sylvain – one of the best burgers in the city. Sweetbreads. Champagne and fries.
- I’m into Seaworthy lately – Oysters…after all, they are supposed to be an aphrodisiac
- Shaya – order anything. It’s all crazy good. I’m being completely honest. Everything was an explosion of taste that helped me gain about 5 lbs in one night.
- These restaurants – Brennan’s, Gallatoire’s, Commander’s Palace, Shaya, Peche, Sylvain (my personal favorite, Adventure Mom can vouch for herself), Antoine’s, Dat Dog, Le’s Baguette Banh Mi Cafe, Rock ‘n’ Sake, Acme Oyster House (yes, you need to at least try one raw oyster. The raw ones are a staple in every local’s diet. I couldn’t convince “Adventure” Mom to try one though. Eat New Orleans, Cafe Amelie, Central Grocery, Arnaud’s….
I honestly could keep going but I think that’s enough for now. I would highly advise consulting with EaterNola and GoNOLA for the best of the best in every food or drink category at any given moment. Which is necessary because at any given moment another restaurant may go out of business and another pops up.
The food scene is so intense and amazing, mediocre just doesn’t cut it in NOLA. I’ve walked away from many a line of people waiting for a table somewhere because there are so many other places to go. Sounds pretentious but it’s not. It’s actually an indication that the restaurant needs to get its s**t together soon. We don’t wait in lines…hmm maybe that does sound a little pretentious after all, but no apologies, I’m sticking bc I’m a damn good ambassador to home city. 🙂 It’s the truth and it’ll serve you well for your visit too. If you ever find yourself in a huge line for whatever it is…just know you don’t have to wait if it’s going to take a while. Come back to it later; this place is a dream for anyone with the itch to explore – and ADHD.
As far as what order, I’m honestly not trying to be lazy, but 1) you’re asking someone who eats anything and everything 2) You are very hard-pressed to find a bad meal anywhere. Just figure out what you’re in the mood for or whatever your favorite type of cuisine is for the night, and use the two resources, which are two of the best in the city and accommodate whatever you’re looking for.. I’m never worried about the food anywhere; it’s the service that makes or breaks it for me. God, I am definitely too pretentious about this.
5. What local food/menu item is a MUST during a visit?
If you’ve never been to New Orleans, here is a list of your musts. Consider this your rite of passage.
- Oysters (Raw, Char-grilled, Bienville, Rockefeller)
- Crawfish Etouffee
- Bananas Foster
- Muffaletta (Moof-uh-lotta)
- Po-boys (Go to Parkway Tavern)
- Red Beans and Rice
- Crawfish if you’re here during the season for them.
- Tony Chachere’s – It’s basically spicy salt and seasoning that every local will have in their kitchen. And they eat it with everything. Buy some and take them home with you!
- **If you come during Mardi Gras, it’s essential to try as many King Cakes as you can.
6. What are some of your favorite budget-friendly restaurants and what do you recommend there?
- Dat Dog
- Po-Boys from anywhere (literally comes from “Poor Boys” This was what they ate back in the day if money was short.
- St. Roch Market
- FOOD TRUCKS!!
- Also – EaterNOLA has great info too.
7. What activities/restaurants do you recommend for families?
8. Where are your favorite places to listen to music?
- The sidewalk of Royal Street
- Frenchmen Street
- The Civic Theater (for concerts)
- The Spotted Cat
- Lounge Bar at Hotel Monteleone
9. What are some of your favorite photogenic spots
Ooof – Adventure Mom there is no way I can pick a few, everything is photogenic lol.
10. Where are the best streets to find street art murals?
Haha, I should have known this was coming. This is honestly not my specialty but I know you love this so here are the best resources for it. And I’m not sure if you meant it to just be graffiti murals on a building OR if that includes art installations (which I have a better grasp on). In any case, these have more knowledge on it than I do.
- For graffiti lovers only: 36 examples of New Orleans street art
- Mapping New Orleans Public Art Installations
11. Where are the best places to purchase local art?
We have galleries galore here.
- Julia Street in the Warehouse District. I highly recommend Arthur Roger Gallery in particular.
- Royal Street
- Frenchmen Street
12. What drinks are a MUST when you visit and where should you get them?
I was a pro bartender here for a good 4 years, so I’m not holding back and breaking it down by each alcohol. If you’re wanting the true local drinks, you might need to step outside of your normal alcoholic box. Ha! These are the traditional New Orleans cocktails that any upstanding establishment and decent bartender has to be able to know.
- Sazerac – the official cocktail of the city of New Orleans – Carousel Bar
- French 75 – Carousel Bar
- Hurricane (from Lafitte’s, not Pat O’Brien’s) This is one of the best-kept secrets I don’t tell many folks.
- Pimm’s Cup – Bombay Club
- Ramos Gin Fizz – Carousel Bar
- Brandy Milk Punch – Carousel Bar
- Creole Bloody Mary – the best ones come from establishments that use Zing Zang bloody mary mix. I don’t drink them too often; I just ask if they use Zing Zang and that’s all you need to know.
- Cafe Brulot – You get this at Arnaud’s Restaurant
- Absinthe – Pirate’s Alley Cafe
- Anything your bartender makes for you 🙂
13. Where are the best places to go for a run?
- Audubon Park
- Mid-City Park
- Along the Levi near the Paddle Wheeler boats
- St. Charles Street – just don’t get hit by a streetcar 🙂
14. What areas should visitors avoid?
It’s sad to give a place to avoid but unfortunately, we do have the highest crime rate per capita. Just keep an eye on your surroundings and if there are other people around. Walk with a purpose and not like you’re lost or obviously a tourist. With that said, areas that are in need of attention
- Central City
- Ninth Ward
- The first 4 blocks of Bourbon Street between 4am and 6am. This is just my own observations. The first half of the quarter typically has the most crime.
15. What parts of town do you recommend staying in if you want to be within walking distance from restaurants/activities? If you are on a budget?
This honestly depends on when you come. Summer will be cheaper bc it’s crazy hot and locals leave. Walking distance means you’ll need to be in the CBD, Warehouse District, French Quarter, or Marigny. BTW – Airbnb is officially allowed to be in NOLA, just not in the French Quarter.
16. What are the best transportation options to get around the city?
- RTA (but i’ve never used it)
- Definitely, try the streetcar.
- You can hail a pedicab pretty easily anywhere.
- Rent bikes!
- Avoid using the regular cabbie system. Uber and Lyft it. 🙂
17. What are some of your favorite places to visit that are not downtown?
- Audubon Park
- The Fly
- Oak Street
- Magazine Street
- Lower Garden District
- Crescent Park
18.What are your recommendations for someone who loves recreation and the outdoors?
- Airboat swamp tours
- We have a good number of races, for the runners out there
- Audubon Park
- I grew up fishing in New Orleans, plenty of places to do that.
- There are sports leagues but I’ve not joined yet.
- We have some great Crossfit teams
- New Orleans Boulder Lounge
- The End of Magazine Street has a lot of yoga studios, cycling classes, and even some type of weird surfboard workout thing.
19. What museums/attractions are a MUST?
- WWII museum
- Mardi Gras World
- Cemetery tour
- A ride on the Natchez
- Inside the St. Louis Cathedral
- Oak Street
- Christmas bonfires in Lutcher, La
- Festivals, Festivals, Festivals – there are seriously around 200 or more festivals each year. Pick a date, there’s probably some type of festival happening. Keep an eye out for when the city publishes the 2018 festival dates HERE
- Ogden Theater
- New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA)
20. What do you love about the City?
What’s NOT to love about New Orleans?
Other than it being a foodie paradise,
Other than it being a care-free spirit where you’re allowed to buy “to-go” drinks and walk around any part of the city with them.
Other than being constantly enamored with its charm & unique, romantic architecture and style.
Other than meeting some of the best people you’ll ever come across.
And other than the delight I usually have when I see a new acquaintance smile when I reveal where I’m from…
What I love most, I’m going to attempt to define in the words….GOOD VIBES
It’s a totally different vibe here. One phrase you might hear if you visit is – NOLA is an Oasis in the south. Another one that’s said with even more pride is – New Orleans is its own country.
It is a part of the United States, yet when you’re here, you feel like you’re in a different world altogether – not to mention a part of something very special. It’s kind of a black sheep when considering it’s connected to the Southern US and the unfortunate attitudes or beliefs that still sometimes prevail in other areas.
It’s the loner child who wasn’t like the rest of others. It is the black sheep that went out, did it’s own thing and came back with proof and confidence of what it can bring to the table;. I don’t recall the numbers, but I believe New Orleans is the largest contributor to the state of Louisiana’s economic welfare (other than oil).
And what’s even better – most every local realizes this. Tourism, food, fun, history, romanticism, hospitality – it’s what we’re all about and it’s a state of mind. The souls of locals run on the unique culture it’s established for itself and thrives off of the mutual feeling of love we all have for this city. And even though it, unfortunately, didn’t escape the stereotypical, slower way of getting things done, compared to New York or LA – there is a very real sense of great potential that – that it actually can move forward and be a larger voice in the US.
A great example is this video that I had the pleasure of working on recently. Check out The Reverse Parade. The fear of losing the recent accomplishments on LGBTQ social progress was something felt all over the country. (I’m gay btw, so I’m speaking on behalf this community). We wanted to make a subtle and respectable, non-threatening statement – which was still something risky to do – both in the south and as a government entity. But we did it anyway. It quickly became the city’s best-performing marketing effort in its history and serves as such a great example to the rest of the US on how to keep social progress moving in the right direction without being harsh, blunt, or too biased. This video made history.
Other cities have had LGBTQ marketing efforts in place long before us, but those cities don’t usually hold the weight and impact New Orleans does for Louisiana. I was so impressed and proud of how fervent the city’s big players in our economy continued to fight for those rights. Aside from it being the right thing to do anyway, most everyone knew that enforcing LGBTQ discrimination would be detrimental to Nola’s economy.
We DO NOT care about your background, where you’re from, or what you believe.
New Orleans welcomes ALL with open arms.
New Orleans is a place of great pride and integrity, that also still shows the rest of the world how we throw down. My first intention was actually just to stay for 2 or 3 months while I was looking for jobs elsewhere. After a few weeks, I noticed how I was changing. I was happier. I suddenly had a sense of community that I hadn’t felt in a long time. The locals here take deep pride in who they are and where they’re from. Everyone falls in love with it, and so did I, for the 2nd time.
When I had a moment of clarity (which doesn’t happen often) I remember thinking to myself “Huh…well this place isn’t so bad. It’s actually really great, thriving, and exciting.” I think I’ll just stay here and see what happens. Eight years later….here I am. There’s always something going on. It is NOT possible to be bored in NOLA.
Thanks again to Ryan for sharing sooooo many great tips and why you love NOLA so much! I can’t wait to go back to New Orleans to cross more of his suggestions off the list!
*All images in this post are by Nedra McDaniel