Like Blanche DuBois in A Street Car Named Desire, the city in which the play is set has always depended on the kindness of strangers; only these days they’re moving in. Ten years after Hurricane Katrina nearly drowned New Orleans, the South’s cultural capital, with its lavish 19th-century architecture, subtropical humidity and lush, louche landscape, fizzes with change. Old haunts, like the French Quarter and its grand St Louis Cathedral, remain as unchanged as its doughnut-like beignets, dished out next door at Café du Monde. Thanks to tax breaks, film companies have turned the city into Hollywood on the Bayou. It’s not uncommon to ogle stars such as Beyoncé and Brad Pitt out sampling New Orleans’ thriving restaurant scene.
Meanwhile, hipsters have transformed historic neighbourhoods like Faubourg Marigny, Bywater and Lower Garden District into bohemian hangouts. Here you’ll find slow-drip java in coffee houses such as Satsuma and HiVolt Coffee and authentic voodoo mambos (priestesses) such as Sallie Ann Glassman, a nice Jewish girl from Maine, who’s opened the New Orleans Healing Center, dedicated to alternative and holistic health. Other new institutions underscore the city’s obsession with food. On Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard is the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It tells the history of a region’s passion for flavour and booze. Across the street, Café Reconcile instructs the city’s at-risk youth in the art of cooking and hospitality management.
In the subtropical torpor, an afternoon siesta is essential. Luckily, New Orleans sports accommodation of all kinds. In the French Quarter is boutique hotel Audubon Cottages, named after naturalist and artist John James, who stayed here in the 1820s, in Cottages 1 and 7. (Liz Taylor preferred Cottage 3.) More modern lodgings include a new Le Méridien and high-rise International House in the CBD (Central Business District). Elsewhere, small neighbourhood inns, like Bywater’s Maison de Macarty and Uptown’s Terrell House Bed and Breakfast, offer a more intimate view of how locals live in their ‘Sliver by the River’.
Where to eat
Encounter the city’s trademark po’ boy — a French-bread sandwich stuffed with fried oysters, shrimp or roast beef — at Parasol’s, in the Irish Channel neighbourhood. An enormous muffuleta — a round, Sicilian-style sandwich containing meat, cheese and marinated olive spread — can be taken away cold at Central Grocery or eaten hot at Napoleon House, a Quarter house built to welcome the French dictator. He never arrived, but a series of celebrated new restaurants have. At buzzy Johnny Sánchez, in the CBD, chefs John Besh and Aaron Sánchez serve Mexican grub amid kaleidoscopic decor. Besh’s Pizza Domenica, in Uptown, serves pizza and sides of garlic knots (doughy deliciousness dipped in a whipped, aged provolone fonduta). Locals flock to the 2-5pm happy hour, with most pies and drinks half-price.
After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese turned up in Louisiana, drawn to the French-inspired colonial culture and familiar weather. Lilly’s Café and Ba Chi Canteen are great places to taste the resultant Mississippi–Mekong merger. Finally, for those curious about sampling the Gulf Coast’s marine bounty, head to Pêche Seafood Grill.
Arts & antiques
Antique stores occupy the shaded, antebellum buildings lining the eastern reaches of Magazine Street. Appartique sells furnishings that wouldn’t look out of place in a grandiose plantation house, while Aidan Gill For Men is the go-to for haberdashery and grooming supplies. Gogo Jewelry is a local favourite, as is the jewellery inspired by the city’s natural and man-made landmarks at Mignon Faget — the Tiffany & Co of New Orleans. As for fashion, Trashy Diva promotes the New Orleans ‘look’ for ladies (one part Scarlett O’Hara, one part Anne Rice), while Rubensteins and Fraques cater to dapper Southern gents and male prepsters, respectively.
Should you need a break while maxing out your plastic, stop off at The Columns, a stately hotel with a veranda filled with locals and out-of-towners slowly braising in vodka and bonhomie. Should you overindulge, and later forget where you are, look down; street names are spelt out in blue-and-white tiles cemented into sidewalks. These iconic ceramics are on sale at Derby Pottery & Tile.
Further up the avenue is the Delachaise, where Uptown debs fortify themselves with the wine bar’s trademark goose fat-cooked French fries, washed down with a good Cabernet.
Velvet-roped nightlife is not in the city’s DNA. Instead, the nocturnal clubs are flavoured with cigarette smoke and encoded with the glories of its music — both past and present. Bourbon Street and the Quarter, with the exception of world-famous Preservation Hall, is best left to the strippers and the touts. Most of the music has moved to Frenchmen Street. Located in neighbouring Faubourg Marigny, notable live clubs here are the Spotted Cat Music Club, Three Muses and Blue Nile. You’ll find other musical beachheads in Uptown, including Tipitina’s and Maple Leaf Bar. There’s an edgier vibe to the art galleries and bars on St Claude Avenue, such as Siberia offering late-night pop-up performances, including fire-eaters, stand-ups, alternative rockers and burlesque artists.
Top 10 local tips
02 Marigny Opera House hosts innovative theatre and music performances.
03 French-Creole fine dining establishment Antoine’s Restaurant, which celebrates its 175th anniversary this year, is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the US.
04 Watch for pickpockets and take a taxi at night if straying from busy areas.
05 Best bargain in town: $1.25 (80p) to ride the old-school St Charles Streetcar, past enormous oaks and aristocratic mansions.
06 Second best: cross the Mississippi on the Algiers Ferry, a $2 (£1.30) journey between historic Algiers Point and Canal Street.
07 Third best: the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture garden, located in its City Park grounds. Admission is free.
08 Degas House, on Esplanade Avenue: where the French Impressionist stayed during a five-month city stay.
10 The Louisiana State Museum’s exhibit Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.
Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. RRP: £8.99 (Penguin Classics)
Interview with the Vampire, by Anne Rice. RRP: £8.99 (Sphere)
A Streetcar Named Desire, by Tennessee Williams. RRP: £9.99 (Penguin Classics)
Geographies of New Orleans, by Richard Campanella. RRP: £32 (University of Louisiana)
Friends of the Cabildo.
WWOZ. Community radio station.
Published in the May 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)