You know those places that aren't on your radar to visit, but then you hastily book an impromptu trip with your sister to surprise her best friend and you end up loving the city? (I know, you probably have a slew of those.) That was New Orleans.
I think I'd be shocked if my sister, Sarah, and I ever planned a trip together more than two weeks in advance. She invited me to NOLA 11 days before the planned weekend. I pretended to think about it until she offered to help me with my ticket in lieu of a birthday present.
The French Quarter
We rented an Airbnb just off Canal Street, which turned out to be a nice walking distance from the French Quarter and from Sarah's friends at the W hotel. Once we got settled in, we met her friends (and surprised her best friend) and went out for a night on Bourbon Street.
After experiencing the madness of Bourbon Street on a regular weekend, I can honestly say I no longer care visit NOLA during Mardi Gras. We drunk Hand Grenades, got beads thrown at us, visited my first strip club, and dealt with the guys almost getting into a fight. The night was as close to Mardi Gras as I ever care to get again.
Sarah and I became more intimate with the charm of the French Quarter the next morning, when we aimlessly walked down its streets perusing everything from Voodoo shops to art galleries and fawning over the city's unique architecture.
Food and Drink
When I asked for NOLA recommendations, everything I got was food and drink related. Understandably so, as we were only disappointed by our meal once. Rather than give a long-winded breakdown of every restaurant and bar we tried and what I thought of it, here's a handy map of every restaurant and bar we tried and what I thought of it.
Historically Geeking Out
The one restaurant go into (probably excessive) detail about is Antoine's. I had never heard of the place before John Maxwell, a family friend, reached out and told me I needed to go there. He used to work there and got me in contact with Matthew, the food and beverage director at Antoine's. We told Matthew our reservation time and he said he'd be there to meet us. There was some kind of miscommunication because Matthew had a table waiting for us in the back to give us the "John Maxwell" treatment, but we didn't find that out until we were on our after-dinner coffee. Matthew was so apologetic, I felt bad for not asking for him as soon as we arrived at the restaurant.
The tour Matthew gave us after dinner was by far one of the most interesting things we did in NOLA. The place was so rich in history, it was more like a museum than a restaurant. He walked us through all 14 dining rooms; the Japanese Room, in which only the Cherry Blossoms in the ceiling lights survived a renovation during WWII and a fire sometime after; the Rex Room, in all its glory of Mardi Gras colors, costumes, and jewelry; and the 165-foot wine cellar that can hold some 25,000 bottles of wine, which had one nook covered with signatures that Matthew gave us the honor of signing.
My favorite room was the Mystery Room. Its name came from the Prohibition era, when Antoine's regulars would enter the room through a secret doorway, get alcohol, and bring it to the dining room in coffee cups. Tourists would notice people getting drunk and ask the waiters where they got the alcohol. The waiters would reply, "I don't know. It's a mystery."
The Mystery Room had an eclectic vibe to it, with various old newspaper clippings and photographs that crookedly cluttered the walls. Matthew pointed out one image in particular on the walls of the Mystery Room. It was original print titled "All is Vanity" and featured a double image of a skull and a woman looking into a mirror.
Sarah and I historically geeked out again the next day, when we went to visit Oak Alley Plantation. About an hour outside NOLA, the mansion sits on 25 acres of land that includes an alley of 300-year-old live oaks with mysterious origins. I would have much rather gone on our own time, rather than with a tour company. There were a lot of people there when the tour buses arrived and we felt a little limited in how much time we had to explore the plantation.
We also took the street car to the Garden District one morning to walk around the Lafayette Cemetery and gape at the legendary ornate pastel mansions surrounding the area. We unfortunately didn't see Sandra Bullock's house, but it was worth seeing what kind of history and architecture lies in the quieter parts of the city.
Jazz and All That Jazz
We decided (I decided and dragged Sarah out) to spend our last night in NOLA on Frenchman Street, where all the live Jazz clubs are. I enjoyed this area a lot more than Bourbon Street. It was much more laid back and more of what I expected NOLA nightlife to be life, with jazzy sounds calling us in from the vibrant neon street.