There are certainties when it comes to visiting New Orleans. Go to the French Quarter, walk Bourbon Street and hit the highlights of shops, sights and dining options. And, yeah, I’ve done that. But I’ve also learned that those “highlights” come up short versus what I think is the best way to enjoy the Quarter and get a feel for the city (and, yes, you should also go beyond the French Quarter to get a true feel for New Orleans, but that’s a different post).
Jackson Square v Louis Armstrong Park
Looking to hang out with artists, buskers and fortune tellers? Then, by all means, go to Jackson Square. It is the perfect location to be surrounded by such. We saw Darth Vader lip syncing to Meatloaf and one guy posing as a “statue” by lying down on the sidewalk, apparently playing the part of “passed out drunk” spectacularly accurately. The north side of the park was packed end to end with fortune tellers and psychics. I don’t even know how to choose which one I’d visit; do I go where I can feel my aura strongest?
Or you can take refuge a few blocks north of Jackson Square in Louis Armstrong Park. It is quiet, relaxed and peaceful. There are statues scattered along the walkways if you want the art and culture. Or just sit on one of the many benches or under a tree and relax with other families who use the park for recreation rather than business. Construction of a new Street Car line creates a few challenges in terms of access but crossing the street isn’t all that hard and the pay-off is worth it. As an added bonus, you’re forced to navigate the quieter part of the Quarter to get there, seeing some of the more beautiful homes and classic architecture rather than strip clubs and bars. Shops along the way offer up antiques and art more than t-shirts and shot glasses.
Acme Oyster House v Felix’s
There is something of an ongoing battle between these two longstanding shops sitting across from each other in Iberville Street, just south of Bourbon. Acme consistently has longer lines and receives more praise; I have no idea why. Maybe because it is a little cleaner or a bit more formal inside, but that’s not what I’m looking for when it comes to freshly shucked oysters. I want to see the same guys working the counter year after year and to sit at that counter, chatting with them (even though I know they don’t remember me) about how the city has changed and know that they’ve seen it all, not just that they’re telling others’ stories. There can still be a line at Felix’s but it seems to always be half that of Acme. Plus if you’re willing to sit at the bar you can often skip the wait and slide right in.
Order a dozen raw at the bar. Watch as the guys just slide them across – no need for the formality of a plate of ice – and enjoy as you slurp them down. Pretty good chance you’ll end up with a few extra even, assuming you’re at all able to carry on a conversation. The gumbo is solid, too.
Café du Monde v Beignet Café
Café du Monde is THE place to go for beignets in New Orleans. You can tell by the lines which stretch down the sidewalk and can easily be over an hour long at peak times. Even the take-out line was 20ish minutes last Saturday afternoon. And, yes, there is plenty of history in the shop, but they are not the best beignets in town. They are dense rather than fluffy, flat rather than round. We walked in to Beignet Café and were able to get in more quickly and get better beignets as an added bonus. It has been suggested to me that the crab beignets at Bar Revolution are a good choice for a savory option. I didn’t get to try them this trip but I hopefully will next time I’m in town.
Bourbon Street v Pretty Much Anything Else
Bourbon street is a disgusting mess. Littered with strip clubs and bars which rarely seem to wash the floor off between the nightly rounds of idiocy, there is almost nothing redeeming about it. Though I suppose it does help concentrate all the people I do not want to deal with on any given trip in one place, so that’s something positive about it. Dauphine and Royale get hurt by spillover traffic falling off of Bourbon but they’re better. Just another block away and things are actually decent. Like real history and architecture and shopping that doesn’t involve t-shirts, shot glasses or sex toys.
In talking about this with some of the guys from Dots, Lines and Destinations I posited that maybe I’m the outlier and that these “classic” parts of the city really are great. Either they’re just being nice to me or they agree for real. Either way, I’m standing by my assertion: the French Quarter can be a lot of fun, so long as you actually visit it rather than get caught up in the mob scene.
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