24 hours in: New Orleans
Madri Gras masks
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New Orleans is a city that knows how to party. With revellers gearing up for the start of Mardi Gras parades this week, Marie Peyre lets her hair down for 24 hours in the Big Easy.
Café du Monde (800 Decatur Street) has been a New Orleans institution since 1862 and is famed for its beignets, French-style doughnuts. Sit back at one of the rickety outside tables to watch life go by a while before checking out the French Market just round the corner – a great place to take the pulse of the city as it wakes. Or book a table at Brennan’s (417 Royal Street) and start the day with a memorable three-course breakfast accompanied by wine or cocktails – a decadent introduction to life in the Big Easy.
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Start your day with a walk (or a jog) in City Park before heading to NOMA (1 Collins C Diboll Circle), New Orleans’s largest art museum featuring 40,000 artefacts displayed in 46 galleries. The sheer size of the museum warrants repeat visits, but check out the extensive Louisiana art collection, which covers a broad range of artists from the 19th century to today. The Besthoff Sculpture Garden, just outside the main building, showcases over 60 sculptures, including a few quirky examples.
Time to explore the French Quarter. Take in Jackson Square, St Louis Cathedral, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the USA, and the Cabildo, the original City Hall, dating back to 1795. Then head to Royal Street with its many antiques shops and art galleries. Rodrigue Studio and its blue dog at number 730 is one of the most famous, but there are many others worth checking out. Bookworms should stop by Faulkner House Books Bookshop (624 Pirate's Alley) for a wide selection of titles by southern authors. More esoteric types meanwhile might prefer to pop into Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo (739 Bourbon Street) to stock up on voodoo dolls and other trinklets. It is, however, the French Quarter’s backstreets and its creole townhouses with their elaborate wrought iron balconies that make the charm of this area, so ditch your map and wander the street like a real flâneur.
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Eaten in a few of New Orleans best known restaurants? What about learning to cook some of the region’s most famous dishes? Make your way down Canal Street back to the French Quarter and head to the New Orleans School of Cooking (524 St Louis Street) for a three-hour master class where you will learn how to prepare Louisiana classics such as gumbo, jambalaya and pralines (Classes are daily, 10am-noon). Sessions are as entertaining and informative; expect to learn about culinary traditions and local history interspersed with anecdotes.
Hop on the St Charles Avenue tram and make your way Uptown to see the beautiful manors that line this famous thoroughfare. Most of these were built by 19th century bourgeoisie on reclaimed plantation land. Hop off at Audubon Park and make your way through the oak-lined alley down to Audubon Zoo. Billed as one of the best in the US, it is home to many endangered species. Check out also the Louisiana Swamp exhibit for an introduction to the local wildlife and culture.
Spend the rest of the afternoon exploring the Garden District and Magazine Street. Shop for unique fashion at A Girl is a Gun (6010 Magazine Street) or Free People (2001 Magazine Street). Go for an old fashioned shave at Aidan Gill (2026 Magazine Street) or for a funky new haircut at trendy Stardust (1904 Magazine Street), before stopping for a pint (and a chat with friendly locals) at Traceys (2604 Magazine Street), a popular Irish pub, or a glass of wine or cocktail at slightly more upmarket Coquette (2800 Magazine Street).
Two popular half-day excursions from New Orleans are trips to Houmas House Plantation (40136 Highway 942), the largest sugar plantation along this stretch of the Mississippi, and swamp tours to Honey Island on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Both are about an hour’s drive from the centre, and well worth a visit for anyone wishing to get a broader perspective on the region. Several operators organise tours, including Cajun Encounters and Pearl River Eco Tours.
Head back to the French Quarter and kick start your evening with a tour in a calèche (horse drawn carriage) or a guided tour, many of which are much more atmospheric after nightfall. Choose from ghost tours, history tours, cemetery tours or even a guided cocktail tour. Or go it solo – the Carousel Bar (a popular haunt among local literary types, rotates around its own axis every15 minutes) inside the Monteleone Hotel is well worth checking out, or try Pat O’Brien’s – the Hurricane was invented here in the 1940s.
For some of the best seafood in town book a table at GWFins (808 Bienville Street) or for a traditional New Orleans dinner, try Antoine’s (513 St Louis Street). Or board the Natchez, the last authentic steamboat on the Mississippi River, for a jazz dinner cruise (sailings every evening at 7pm from the pier by Woldenberg Park). End the evening in a jazz club on Bourbon Street. There are plenty of venues to choose from but Fritzel’s (733 Bourbon Street), New Orleans’s oldest operating jazz club, is always a safe bet, with great music in an intimate setting.
For a modern twist on Cajun cuisine, head for dinner at Cochon, the latest venue by local celebrity chef Donald Link (930 Tchoupitoulas Street) in the up-and-coming Warehouse District. For a more upmarket option, try Emeril’s (800 Tchoupitoulas Street) before heading off to check the alternative music scene in the Faubourg Marigny district. Just take a stroll down Frenchmen Street and take your pick. DBA (618 Frenchmen Street) and Blue Nile (532 Frenchmen Street) are favourites, but plenty of other venues offer exciting jazz and blues most nights.