Big Easy Living: A Local’s Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Indulge in Beignets and Café au Lait at Café du Monde
No trip to the Big Easy is complete without a stop at the iconic Café du Monde to indulge in the quintessential New Orleans breakfast: beignets and café au lait. This historic French Market coffee stand has been serving up its famous fare since 1862, attracting both locals and tourists craving the hot, sugary beignets and chicory-laced coffee.
The moment you step onto the Café du Monde patio, you’ll be transported back in time. The green and white striped awning, stained glass windows, and endless rows of tables and chairs haven’t changed much since the 19th century. Neither has the menu - just beignets, café au lait, and chickory coffee. Don’t expect any healthy options here - this experience is all about embracing the indulgence.
Take a seat and before you can even place your order, a waiter will promptly deliver a plate of hot beignets, buried under a heap of powdered sugar. These irresistible pastries are essentially just fried dough, but that dough is piped into perfect pillowy squares before getting doused in sugar right as they emerge from the fryer.
The first warm, sweet bite melts in your mouth, sending a poof of powdered sugar into the air. The minimal ingredients allow the flavors to shine - soft, yeasty interior contrasting with the crunchy fried exterior and perfectly sweet coating of sugar. It’s a childlike delight.
Wash it all down with a cup of café au lait, the local take on a cappuccino. The coffee itself is strong and earthy, bolstered by roasted chicory root. The steamed milk mellows out the chicory’s bitterness, while lending a velvety texture. This creamy, slightly sweet coffee proves the perfect partner to the beignets.
Nibbling hot beignets as the morning fog lifts off the Mississippi River is a quintessential New Orleans experience. Watching powdered sugar dusted locals chat over their newspapers while jazz murmurs in the background makes Café du Monde feel like the beating heart of the city.
What else is in this post?
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Indulge in Beignets and Café au Lait at Café du Monde
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Listen to Jazz on Frenchmen Street
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Explore the Voodoo Magic of Marie Laveau
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Wander Through the Historic French Quarter
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Take a Streetcar Named Desire to Garden District Mansions
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Eat Fresh Gulf Seafood at Casual Neighborhood Joints
- Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Join the Party During Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Listen to Jazz on Frenchmen Street
Few streets capture the spirit of New Orleans like Frenchmen Street. Just downriver from the raucous revelry of Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street is where locals and musicians themselves gather for an authentic jazz experience. The music spills from dimly lit clubs and cafés into the street itself, jazz notes dancing on the breeze. Wandering from one venue to the next, with trumpets blaring and bass thrumming nearby wherever you go, you’ll feel immersed in the very birthplace of this quintessentially American art form.
Start your jazzy bar crawl at d.b.a., where seasoned musicians hold down the stage every night of the week. Their passion bleeds through soulful notes that evoke the genre's origins and evolution. That raw improvisational energy electrifies the crowd, dancing and mouthing the words to standards made famous by jazz greats. As the city’s top brass bands bring their A-game, you may find your feet unexpectedly moving to the funky rhythms.
Further down Frenchmen Street, the legendary Spotted Cat Music Club packs 'em in shoulder to shoulder. Their lineup runs the gamut from traditional Dixieland jazz to sultry vocals and even burlesque cabaret. The lively atmosphere and cheap drinks encourage sticking around for hours to let the diverse music wash over you. When a swaggering brass band takes the stage, blasting out “When the Saints Go Marching In,” you’ll be ready to join the second line parade forming through the club.
Save room towards the end of your night at the Maison, a quintessential New Orleans jazz dive blinking with neon signs. Local trumpeters, saxophonists, and vocalists form impromptu ensembles, exchanging licks through the wee hours. Stake out a spot near the stage to admire these talents trading solos and verses. With its gritty ambiance and fluid jam sessions, the Maison feels like a musicians-only secret, welcoming you into their underground world.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Explore the Voodoo Magic of Marie Laveau
Step into the mystical world of voodoo queen Marie Laveau on a candlelit tour through Congo Square. Laveau was a legendary free woman of color who dominated New Orleans’ voodoo culture during the 19th century. She cultivated a powerful following among every class and race while keeping a shroud of secrecy around her rites and spells. Her influence persists today in the spiritualism still woven through the city.
Venture into the shadows with your costumed guide to discover the sites and stories associated with Marie Laveau. Stop first in Louis Armstrong Park, once known as Congo Square. The guide will orient you to this historic gathering place for slaves, who drummed and danced here on Sundays. Laveau herself likely witnessed these celebrations, gaining inspiration for her own voodoo ceremonies.
Continue to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, resting place of the city’s earliest inhabitants since the late 1700s. Wind slowly through the labyrinth of elaborate above-ground tombs until arriving at the supposed grave of Marie Laveau. There you may leave three X marks in hopes that her spirit grants your wish. Peer at the votive candles, Mardi Gras beads, and playing cards left by others seeking Laveau’s blessing.
Your final stop is the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, where Laveau would secretly meet her followers. Step inside this 18th century landmark to admire the stained glass and Rococo designs, said to be the backdrop for Laveau’s clandestine gatherings. Your guide will share spine-tingling tales of the rituals and black magic that once filled these very halls after dark.
Pass through the French Quarter as your guide recounts Laveau’s enigmatic life story. Explore how her militant spirituality and shrewd understanding of human nature allowed her to wield power unusual for both a woman and a person of mixed race in the antebellum Deep South. Learn also of the special brand of Caribbean-infused folk magic she pioneered, leaving a legacy that continues to influence practitioners today.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Wander Through the Historic French Quarter
With its vibrant architecture, winding alleys, and raucous nightlife, the historic French Quarter is the soul of New Orleans. Wandering aimlessly through this neighborhood, the oldest and most famous part of the city, immerses you in 300 years of culture and legend. Turn down a side street and you may stumble upon street musicians jamming out Dixieland jazz or artists painting colorful caricatures. Let the sights, sounds, and smells transport you back centuries to when pirates, vagabonds, and aristocrats all collided here.
The best way to experience the French Quarter is simply to walk its streets, admiring the diverse architecture that gives this neighborhood its character. Elaborate cast-iron balconies, many dripping with ferns and flowers, distinguish the Spanish colonial style buildings concentrated on the Quarter’s southern end. Head north and the architecture graduates to distinguished brick townhouses with large shuttered windows. Interspersed throughout are Creole cottages, shotgun houses, and corner stores with cozy second-story residences above.
Wandering aimlessly, half the joy comes from peeking through doorways and passages to hidden courtyards bursting with fountains and foliage. Keep an eye out for street numbers denoting historically significant buildings now housing quirky museums and galleries. Ducking in you may find exhibitions covering everything from voodoo to Mardi Gras krewes to absinthe. Popping into alcoves and historic institutions like the haunting LaLaurie Mansion allows you to peel back the layers of legend that permeate the French Quarter.
At night, when Bourbon Street’s neon lights beckon, stay east and explore the Quarter’s quieter corners. Duck into cozy pubs where you can eavesdrop on local conversation over Abita craft beer. Or stop into one of the city’s oldest restaurants, like Antoine’s or Tujague’s, where you’re treated to true Creole hospitality and can feel the glow of their gas lanterns first lit in the mid-1800s. Cap off your evening with a stroll down to the riverfront to admire the Quarter’s oldest and most important site - the mighty Mississippi River.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Take a Streetcar Named Desire to Garden District Mansions
After exploring the French Quarter’s cramped cobblestoned blocks, you’ll be ready for an escape to the wide open avenues of the Garden District. This posh neighborhood first sprouted up in the early 1800s, developed by wealthy Americans who refused to live under the new French Creole order after the Louisiana Purchase. They built lavish Greek Revival and Italianate mansions surrounded by meticulously manicured gardens.
The best way to admire this architecture eye candy is aboard the St. Charles streetcar line. This moving historic landmark has been continuously running along St. Charles Avenue since 1835, making it the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world. As it slowly clatters along the neutral ground (what New Orleanians call the street median), you’ll get an intimate view of the neighborhood’s grandest homes.
Magnificent antebellum mansions come into view one after the next, each more ostentatious than the last. You’ll gawk at stately columns, grand porticos, and sprawling front porches prime for sipping cool mint juleps on hot summer days. Peek through the iron gates and you may spot the private gardens that first inspired the neighborhood’s name. Lush greenery seems to envelop the homes, verdant even during the sweltering Gulf Coast summers.
The streetcar will roll right past several celebrity homes, including Sandra Bullock’s 1870s Creole cottage and John Goodman’s larger Garden District abode. Keep your eyes peeled for architectural influences from the occupants’ hometowns – plantation styling for Southern families, Greek Revival reminiscent of the Northeast.
As you travel further uptown, away from the city center, the homes become even grander. Magnificent estates like the Wedding Cake House and Seven Sisters flaunt over-the-top Victorian embellishments. Their sprawling columns, turrets, and wraparound porches will tempt you to hop off the streetcar for a closer look.
Don’t worry about getting back on – they run every 15 minutes. In fact, many find riding the full St. Charles line there and back an enjoyable afternoon itself. The streetcars are antique classics, like moving museums that transport you back to the early days of New Orleans. The brass handles and wooden benches are original. Just hearing that nostalgic ding as you pass through the Garden District will make you smile.
Keep your eyes peeled and you may spot street musicians who’ve hopped aboard to reach a new audience. Revelers often join, drink in hand, turning commutes into rolling parties. Photographers flock here daily to snap picturesque mansions appearing alongside Mardi Gras beads hanging from oak branches.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Eat Fresh Gulf Seafood at Casual Neighborhood Joints
After wandering stately mansions and exploring raucous nightlife, reset your palate with the fresh catch of the day at a casual neighborhood seafood joint. New Orleans’ location on the Gulf Coast brings boatloads of shrimp, oysters, crab, and finfish right to its back door daily. Small, family-run restaurants proudly showcase these ocean bounties, serving up quintessential Louisiana fare on checkered tablecloths or picnic benches. Patrons craving authenticity steer clear of tourist traps and head to the no-frills spots favored by locals. There, regulars and newcomers alike feast on heaping platters and po’ boys overflowing with lightly fried seafood.
For many, a quintessential New Orleans seafood experience means joining the queue at Parkway Bakery and Tavern. This humble hole-in-the-wall dates back over a century but remains a neighborhood favorite for po’ boys. Their famed roast beef version tops many lists but don’t overlook the fried shrimp po’boy – a behemoth loaded with plump, crispy shrimp that spill out the sides with each bite. Grab some napkins and dig in to this local institution.
Alternatively, meander Mid-City’s tree-lined blocks until you reach Li’l Dizzy’s Café. A community fixture since the 1940s, Li’l Dizzy’s plates up Creole soul food alongside hefty seafood portions. Their buttery trout Baquetta sandwiches and crawfish etouffee over piping hot rice exemplify Louisiana comfort cuisine. Don’t skip their fried catfish - cornmeal coated fillets that flake apart at the touch. Li’l Dizzy’s humble dining room matches the warm hospitality and down-home flavors.
Seafood shacks and po’ boy shops aren’t the only places for top catches. Restaurants like Peche Seafood Grill, an upscale yet laidback warehouse eatery downtown, procure fish directly from local boats. Their Gulf fish arrive so fresh that options change daily based on the catch. Diners can expect delicacies like tilefish cheek crudo or grilled cobia cheeks depending on the day’s haul. Peche blends haute New Orleans cuisine with casual coastal flavors for an elevated seafood experience.
Further uptown, Superior Seafood lives up to its name supplying top shellfish to the neighborhood since 1937. Their no-frills counter still shucks St. Bernard Parish oysters to order and ladles out bowls of garlicky gumbo brimming with crab and shrimp. Come hungry - their iron skillet platters heap on fried seafood, from shrimp and catfish to stuffed crabs and breaded oysters. Roll up your sleeves, grab an Abita beer, and indulge in these local favorites on paper plates at picnic tables out front.
Big Easy Living: A Local's Guide to Savoring the Soul of New Orleans - Join the Party During Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest
Of all the endless festivals and celebrations that fill New Orleans’ packed calendar, two stand high above the rest: Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. These epic experiences both encapsulate the city’s parading, music, and revelry traditions into an all-out spectacle. If your trip coincides with either, or if you plan your travels around them, be prepared to join a nonstop party flowing through the streets.
Mardi Gras, held every year in late February or early March, actually spans multiple weeks of parades and balls leading up to Fat Tuesday itself. Locals take vacation to fully experience this Fantasy Fest-meets-Rio Carnival scene. Each neighborhood parade has its own flair, with themed floats tossing beaded necklaces and costumed marching krewes high-stepping to funky brass bands. Uptown, the Krewe of Zulu delights crowds with their hand-decorated coconuts. Across the river in Algiers, the Krewe of NOMTOC parodies the fancier downtown processions with irreverent flair.
Wherever you position yourself to catch the floats, don your own costume and keep your eyes peeled overhead. That’s the only way to catch the prized Zulu coconuts, Rex feathers, or slew of beaded necklaces arcing through the air. Bring a step stool and an empty bag to fill with your catch. Part of the tradition means festooning yourself head to toe in shiny beads, so drape them on and join the throngs dancing behind the parade. Don’t forget to stock up on Moonpies to toss back at the float riders.
When Fat Tuesday finally arrives, the entire city abandons all sense of decorum during Carnival’s climax. Adults on balconies rain down beads by the pound onto revelers below while flamboyantly costumed partiers take over the Quarter. The nonstop drinking and dancing create a tangle of feather boas, stilt walkers, and sequins that clogs the streets. Abandon your schedule and give into the Bacchanalia – you couldn’t stick to an itinerary if you tried!
The city’s steamy festival season continues well into spring with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival spanning two weekends in April/May. This musical extravaganza celebrates the city’s gift to the world over a dozen stages and tents set up at the Fair Grounds Race Course. The diversity astounds, bouncing between gospel choirs, Mardi Gras Indian drummers, zydeco accordionists, and of course the legends of jazz who invented it all. Better yet, the dozens of food booths offer a taste of Louisiana’s many cultures, from crawfish Monica to cochon de lait po’ boys.