Having reached the furthest southwestern corner of Florida, we were now Louisiana-bound. We crossed four state lines and a time zone to get there, arriving at our destination, New Orleans, by late afternoon.
After a day of driving, we softened our entry by logging onto Harvest Hosts and booking a stay at Faubourg Brewing Co., a brewery with a lot of history that’s just on the outskirts of downtown. We had an awesome stay; It was quiet at night and super spacious, with a few other vans and RVs. Their beer, food, and live band were pretty fab, too!
We moved downtown the next day and found parking in a nice, big lot located next to St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and the visitors welcome center. We were a stone’s throw from the French Quarter and had a safe and surprisingly quiet place for home base for the week, all for the bargain price of $10 per day ($20 on weekends, still a bargain). We found it super easy to get around New Orleans, and we pretty much walked everywhere from there. On some days, we bought the $3 daily transit pass that’s good for buses and streetcars, and lasts a full 24 hours from the time you activate it. But for our first night, we headed out on foot into the Quarter to see some sights. I’d been to visit before but this was Shane’s first time, so of course I had to initiate him in between sightseeing with the obligatory Grenade cocktail and a trip to the Carousel Bar.
Getting to know NOLA while doing vanlife gave us a much more intimate experience of the city. Sometimes we’d go to a random neighborhood to hit up Planet Fitness and would make discoveries along the way. Or other times, needing to dump the toilet led us to places like City Park, somewhere I’d never found the motivation to make the trek to in prior visits but which is well worth the time! We discovered a beautiful, free sculpture garden by the museum that we got lost in. And Cafe du Monde in the park is waaaaaay less crowded and more peaceful than the one near Jackson Square. We found out that NOLA has swan boats, just like Boston; these ones even have LED lights for nighttime. We were given a tip by one of the employees there to come back just before 9 pm, so that you can get a paddle in before they stop letting people on the lake, just as the air cools down enough to make it really pleasant.
Since we had wheels, we made a pitstop on our way back in Mid-City to hit up Vessel NOLA, this really cool bar located in a repurposed historic church. It’s such a cool spot, and the cocktails were incredible.
We parked the truck after that and decided to take a stroll through Louis Armstrong Park, seeing that it was right next door to us.
And then we skulked around the French Quarter again. I swear, you see something new and wonderful during each and every tour of that place.
We stumbled across the film set for Daisy Jones and the Six.
We kept on going and crossed into the Warehouse District, followed by a nighttime stroll along the downtown waterfront.
And, of course, all roads eventually lead back to the Quarter.
And if you continue along, you’ll eventually hit Frenchmen Street. I’ve always loved Frenchmen Street and have had some of my best times there. While the Quarter can consistently be counted on for a good time and as much debauchery as you can handle, Frenchmen Street is truly where it’s at if you love live music and local vibes. I forgot to mention that we were here during Jazz Fest (more on that later), and while that’s going on, the party migrates from the Quarter over here due to Frenchmen’s close proximity to the festival grounds. So the carnival carried over…
The next day, as with every day, it’s kind of a lather, rinse repeat cycle in that you start off with a trek through the Quarter to see what you can see:
To be followed by another hop on over to Frenchmen Street:
That day, we decided to stray further off the beaten path and into the historic Marigny and Bywater districts. They’re both very colorful boho areas that stretch east from Frenchmen Street, and are great places to go if you want to press pause on the crazy of the Quarter and soak up some more authentic, local vibes. There’s plenty of art, bars and restaurants, plus a trove of local treasures that often get missed because of Bourbon Street. Luckily for us, Bourbon Street wasn’t all that bustling because of Jazz Fest. Now if you’re thinking along the same lines that we initially were, that Jazz Fest is one of those New Orleans parties on par with Mardi Gras or New Year’s that bring the city to life, you might be scratching your head at that last bit. But we were noticing the first couple of nights that the Quarter seemed more…sedate than normal. I hadn’t been back for a few years, so I wondered if maybe covid was the culprit. But the more we talked to our friendly neighborhood bartenders and other locals, the more we discovered that this wasn’t quite the case. We were told, to our surprise, that Jazz Fest actually has more of a quieting effect on the Quarter because:
a) everybody pops over to Frenchmen Street afterwards
b) they kind of hinted that a portion of the Jazz Fest crowd might be more of scholarly set that’s more focused on jazz appreciation than they are the run-of-the-mill raucous bunch. Whether that’s completely true or not, we did notice that things quieted down earlier (well, by NOLA standards anyway) and that the local street performers had more of a hard-edged hustle than usual
and c) people may have still been recovering from the French Quarter Festival that takes place each year a week or two before Jazz Fest, which sounds like a really good time and is completely free to enjoy, minus the cost of making sure that your to-go cup runneth over. (We’ll opt for this one if we ever come back at this time of year.)
Point being that the Quarter during Jazz Fest fell a little short at times. Again, this is only in comparison to other visits and it’s not meant as a complaint or criticism, simply an observation. If anything, we took it as an opportunity to explore the hidden gems of New Orleans that otherwise could get missed if you confine yourself to the party zone of Bourbon Street to Frenchmen.
So to the Marigny and Bywater we went!
Something really cool to experience in this neck of the woods is Jamnola. It stands for “Joy, Art & Music – New Orleans”. Artists created interactive installations in about 12 different rooms that celebrate the spirit and history of the city. It was so well-done and so much fun, not to mention nonstop eye candy fit for filling up your Instagram. We were also lucky enough to find an online coupon that gave us a 2 for 1 discount, cherry on top for what was already a trip highlight.
Other highlights of the area are the restaurants, for one. We had dinner in the Marigny at Breakaway’s, a friendly neighborhood creole cookhouse owned by a really sweet couple. I had one of the best shrimp po-boys of my life there. They also offer veggie/vegan versions of creole favorites, plus boozy snow cones!
Another gem is Bywater’s Bacchanal, where there’s music daily in the backyard and you can buy a bottle of vino in their store and drink it at your table. They also do build-your-own cheese plates. We listened to a really great band and treated ourselves to two bottles and a small cheese plate. That’s the way to do it, imho. Oh, and we even had a possum sighting – a baby possum was scurrying about under the tables and got every lady’s attention. One person would scream, “Possum!” and the women (myself included) would coo, “Ooooh possum, where?!”, and that’s how we were all following baby possums all night.
The buildings and murals are pretty amazing as well, we walked for hours to take in all the cool, weird stuff there is to see around there.
We fell in love with these star jasmine vines that seem to be everywhere throughout the city. They bloom between April and June, and they make everything smell so incredible.
Pool party, anyone? A Bywater hidden gem, and probably one of our favorite experiences, is The Country Club. This is not your momma’s country club, however. It’s a restaurant resort that’s known for its drag brunch. They also offer membership to a backyard private club that features a saltwater pool, bar and hot tub. You can buy a day pass for $20 per person, which was so worth it. Spending a day by the pool and away from the relentless heat was a dream. Plus, we met some of the city’s friendliest and most interesting locals there. We had a total blast.
One more Bywater treasure is Dr. Bob’s studio. Dr. Bob, New Orlean’s legendary son, is a self-taught folk artist who is best known for his “be nice or leave” signs. You can spot his quirky, colorful art all over the city, and his studio is its own roadside attraction. Walking onto his sprawling property is like entering the world of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure crossed with a disco junkyard. We popped in one afternoon and spoke to the woman manning the shop, Lisa, and she filled us in about local life and politics. She told us about how Katrina pushed people out of their homes that they still own but that are now unlivable. Insurance doesn’t cover them and the deductibles are through the roof. She also gave us some more scoop on Jazzfest, telling us how it used to be the highest paying gig for a local musician, but that’s just not the case anymore now that it’s gone corporate.
When Lisa heard that we’re doing vanlife, she got excited and offered to show us Dr. Bob’s Airstream. He painted a mural on it and named it “Desire”. She told us that it was for sale for just four thousand dollars and offered it to us. If only we had the plot of land and the means to tow it, we would have snatched that up in a heartbeat and made it our backyard bar for Shady Pines.
We picked up a small piece of art, thanked Lisa, and left. We ended up wandering over this cool, industrial-looking bridge that took us all along the river and the train tracks. It was a nice walk that led us straight back into the French Quarter, and we even stumbled on the walk across an underground roller skate spot.
And don’t know what we were doing here, but I’ll just say that it sums up a well-rounded day:
On another day, we took the streetcar over to the Garden District. We rode the car to the end of the line so we could gape at the mansions along the way. We also spotted a whole lotta beads that were still strewn in the trees from Mardi Gras, which we got a kick out of.
We took a quick detour to get glimpses of New Orleans landmark restaurant Commander’s Palace, where they hold a mean jazz brunch and still offer 25 cent martinis. Across from there is the famous Lafayette Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest and prettiest cemeteries. Unfortunately, the cemetery was closed while assessments were being done but we were able to catch some glimpses from the gates. One man seemed pretty psyched that they filmed the show The Originals here, lol.
Our next stop was the Pontchartrain, the city’s high-end historic hotel that’s hosted everyone from Sinatra to The Doors. We wanted to have a drink in the rooftop bar, called Hot Tin (named in honor of Tennessee Williams, who wrote part of Streetcar Named Desire there). The bar has a stunning 270-degree view of the city, which is well worth a round of cocktails (they do have some pretty good happy hour deals). We ran into some fun folks who clearly were regulars. They pointed out to us the copulating couples that are on the curtain print, which you can see when you take a closer look.
We wandered on from there through the Lower Garden District, which is filled with funky houses and ever more beads.
We wound our way uptown because there was a restaurant we wanted to try called Mister Mao. We’d heard that the food was out of this world, and also who wouldn’t want to go eat in a self-described “tropical roadhouse”? A husband-wife team own the joint and offer up an eclectic menu that combines Southeast Asian, Latin American, and Indian flavors, all locally sourced. The drinks and shareable plates were absolute perfection. We tried the popular Pani Puri dish, which consisted of little pastry balls filled with chickpea, potato masala and pickled blueberries. It’s served with fire mint water that you pour onto the balls, which creates an exploding taste sensation in your mouth. For our main, we shared the Kashmiri Fried Chicken that’s served with Szechuan pepper dry seasoning and pink pineapple. Both were absolutely divine. Mister Mao truly has to be one of the most unique restaurants both in this city and anywhere else we’ve been to. It was well worth the splurge, and not to be missed if you happen to find yourself in NOLA. I still think about that meal.
Shane’s still in the afterglow of a damn fine meal.
By this point, our time in New Orleans was just about up. We ran around the Quarter like a couple of feral cats for one last hurrah, and we were feeling the pain pretty acutely the next morning. We went looking for a bar to duck into for a nice, cold beer to help beat the heat and take the edge off, which led us to Betty’s. We’d passed this place a dozen times in all our wanderings, and this was our first time stopping in. We sat at the bar and ordered a round of local craft, which already was hitting the spot. And then we got talking to the two bartenders, who entertained us with stories for about an hour. Some were pretty moving, like their recalling how eerie it was during covid to have a city like New Orleans shut completely down, and to not even hear music in the streets. One of the guys seemed on the verge of tears as he told us. But other tales were so ridiculous and hysterically funny. We asked them what was the wildest thing they’ve experienced on the job as bartenders, and one of them told us a story about a character by the name of Baby John.
Baby John was a grown-ass man who liked to run around the Quarter wearing a diaper and sucking on a pacifier. His to-go cup was a baby bottle that he carried with him into every watering hole. He’d thrust it at the bartenders as he demanded that they fill it up, which they of course would, while literally screaming that baby wants his bottle. One day one of the bartenders, who was working then at Lafitte’s, had to cut off a belligerent customer, who then started to get borderline violent. Well, Baby John had been standing by watching the whole exchange. This old man in a diaper turned around and jumped the guy, punching him in the face and knocking him out cold. The bartender quickly told Baby John to run out the back door because the cops were on the way, which he did. Must have been a vision. And if that isn’t New Orleans in a nutshell, I don’t know what is.
And on that note, as we realized that we were teeter-tottering towards too much of a good thing doing us in, we said our good-byes and decided to leave a day early to head north towards Mississippi. But I will say how I love how each visit to New Orleans unlocks a new mystery and offers up a unique experience that’s completely different than the last visit. And I’m so glad that I got to finally share one of my favorite places on the planet with Shane, who now loves it like I do. (Which makes sense, Shane’s a Scorpio and this is a Scorpio city.) Although we were a little rough around the edges by the end of the week, we nonetheless left NOLA feeling so nourished by the great food, music and interactions.
Thank you NOLA for everything, we love and adore you, and already can’t wait for the next time!