A native of New Orleans, Laura Martone has been an avid traveler since childhood, but New Orleans still remains her favorite destination. As a child, the Moon New Orleans author explored much of the city, from the French Quarter to Lake Pontchartrain. She's dined at countless seafood restaurants, attended numerous jazz concerts and Mardi Gras parades, and relished every major attraction, from Jackson Square to the Audubon Zoo.
Exploring New Orleans with Laura Martone
1. When is the best time to visit New Orleans?
From October to May, New Orleans can be a wonderful place to explore. Although the extreme heat and potential for hurricanes keep many people, including me, away in the summer months, the weather is fairly mild and inviting during the rest of the year. Still, my favorite times to visit are late October (specifically around Halloween), December (during the Christmas season when many restaurants have special réveillon menus), February or March (whenever Mardi Gras occurs), and mid-April (during the French Quarter Festival).
2. What's the best way to get around the city?
New Orleans and its environs comprise a fairly compact area, which you can easily access via plane, train, car, or cruise ship. If you plan to spend most of your time in the French Quarter, Garden District, and Uptown area, then public transportation, including buses and the historic streetcars, will be more than adequate. However, you will need to rent a car if you plan to explore the Greater New Orleans area, so be sure to make such arrangements in advance.
3. How would you recommend spending a night out on the town?
While the Uptown area offers several legendary live music venues, such as Tipitina's and the Maple Leaf Bar, I'd definitely spend at least one night in the French Quarter—especially if you're a first-time visitor to the Big Easy. Here, you can catch some live jazz at the historic Preservation Hall, enjoy a potent cocktail in Pat O'Brien's courtyard or the atmospheric Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar, then catch a burlesque show or live concert at the Bordello-style One Eyed Jacks. If you're still wide awake, you can always head to Bourbon Pub & Parade, a 24-hour gay nightclub that features variety shows, drag queen competitions, comedy showcases, and late-night dancing.
4. Which sight is an absolute can't miss?
No visitor should leave without experiencing Jackson Square, which lies at the heart of the French Quarter. Besides strolling through the picturesque park and mingling with the artists, musicians, tarot card readers, and street performers along the pedestrian mall, you should also take some time to explore the historic structures that surround the shady square. In addition to the majestic St. Louis Cathedral, you can peruse curious historical exhibits inside The Cabildo and The Presbytère and glimpse period Creole furnishings inside the 1850 House, part of the oft-photographed Pontalba Apartments.
Of course, if you have more time, I'd suggest taking a Mississippi River excursion on the nostalgic Steamboat Natchez, hopping aboard the historic St. Charles Avenue streetcar, and paying a visit to The National WWII Museum, which lies in the Central Business District (CBD) and features a variety of engrossing exhibits, a Tom Hanks-narrated documentary, and an old-fashioned dinner theater experience in the Stage Door Canteen.
5. Which neighborhood is your favorite to explore?
Though it might seem cliché, I absolutely love living in and exploring the French Quarter. The atmospheric Quarter, the undisputed heart of New Orleans, lures tourists with its wealth of seafood restaurants, historic museums, and curious street performers. Here, visitors can stroll beside the Mississippi River, browse the art galleries and antique shops along Royal Street, enjoy live music on Bourbon Street, or take a carriage ride through the fabled avenues. With iconic images like the St. Louis Cathedral, flickering gas lamps, and wrought-iron balconies veiled by cascading foliage, the lively Vieux Carré is, not surprisingly, the city's most photographed neighborhood.
6. World-renowned for its music scene, what's your favorite place to catch some live music?
Along a three-block stretch of Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny, you'll find several hopping places playing everything from reggae and rock to jazz and blues. My favorite joint here is The Spotted Cat Music Club, a smoky, somewhat cramped jazz bar made a bit more famous by HBO's Treme. Meanwhile, my favorite place in the French Quarter is The Kerry Irish Pub, a neighborhood bar that, depending on the night, features live folk, rock, Irish, or country music.
7. Which Mardi Gras parade should visitors make sure to see?
Although my favorite annual event is actually the French Quarter Festival, which usually takes place in mid-April and features a weekend of regional cuisine and free Louisiana-style music, from jazz to zydeco, most out-of-towners visit New Orleans during major events like Mardi Gras and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
If you're fortunate enough to be in New Orleans during Mardi Gras weekend, you should plan to see all the major krewes, which includes Endymion on Saturday, Bacchus on Sunday, Orpheus on Monday (Lundi Gras), and, on Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) itself, both Zulu and Rex. If, however, you only have time for one parade, I'd suggest attending Zulu. Officially begun as a humble, African American procession in 1909, Zulu has since become one of the most anticipated parades of the Carnival season. Typically, this one-of-a-kind, historically controversial parade kicks off at 8 a.m., starting at the corner of Jackson and South Claiborne Avenues in Uptown and eventually ending at Orleans Avenue and North Galvez Street in the Faubourg Tremé. Besides typical throws (such as colorful bead necklaces), spectators are sometimes lucky enough to take home one of the much-coveted painted coconuts, which Zulu krewe members now hand out to onlookers in lieu of hurling them into the crowd as they once did.
8. What dish is a must-have while in New Orleans?
Given that I've been savoring New Orleans cuisine since I was a kid, I'd find it hard to pick just one dish—much less one restaurant. Admittedly, I'm fond of the Italian-style muffuletta sandwiches at Café Maspero, which also offers enormous portions of fried seafood for some of the cheapest prices in the Quarter. I'm also a big fan of the seafood gumbo and raw oysters served at the Oceana Grill, the overstuffed shrimp po-boys at Felix's Restaurant & Oyster Bar, and, of course, the messy beignets at the Café Du Monde in the historic French Market. For a fancy French-Creole meal, I'd opt for Antoine's Restaurant, the Quarter's oldest restaurant and the birthplace of such culinary classics as oysters Rockefeller and eggs Sardou. Another favorite of mine is Jaques-Imo's Cafe, a funky Uptown eatery celebrated for its creative contemporary dishes as well as traditional New Orleans standbys.
9. What are the top family-friendly spots?
Despite its reputation as a debaucherous party town, New Orleans can be quite welcoming toward families. In fact, there are several attractions popular among young travelers—particularly, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where kids can touch sting rays, feed colorful parakeets, and observe an albino alligator; the Audubon Insectarium, where little ones can learn about a wide array of creepy-crawlies, from speedy cockroaches to kaleidoscopic butterflies; and the Audubon Zoo, which features an engrossing Louisiana Swamp exhibit. Another ideal spot is Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, which offers a fascinating, behind-the-scenes look at the art of designing and constructing vibrant floats and sculptures for the Carnival season. Even City Park is a great place for families, where, in addition to riding rented bikes, horses, and paddleboats, kids relish the chance to explore a fairytale-themed playground, take a spin on a vintage carousel, and board a miniature train that tours much of the park.
10. What's the city's best-kept secret?
In a tourist-friendly city like New Orleans, it's hard to keep too many places a secret, and yet visitors are often surprised by the Rock 'N' Bowl. Founded in 1941 and recently relocated from Mid-City to the northern edge of the Uptown area, the Rock 'N' Bowl is not an ordinary bowling alley. Almost nightly, patrons can listen to live music here, from swing to zydeco to rockabilly. Such concerts, which are typically affordable (or free if you're already bowling by start time), often feature major performers like Kermit Ruffins, Amanda Shaw, Tab Benoit, and Buckwheat Zydeco.
For more information, pick up a copy of Moon New Orleans.