“America only has 3 cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.” – Tennessee Williams
Our NOLA Art Tour guide enlightened me to the existence of this quote as I visually inhaled the vibrant murals on the streets of New Orleans. Of course, as a diehard New Yorker, I wholeheartedly embraced it, especially since I can’t remember when I’ve ever been so dazzled by a city that wasn’t my own.
Thanksgiving of 2021, I decided to do something completely different. Rather than celebrate the day with my fam or significant others’, engaging in turkey-eating while avoiding any sort of real contribution to the actual food preparation (Millennials, do ya’ll hear me?), I accepted a gracious offer from my Argentinian friend traveling in the states to meet up in New Orleans for a leg of her months-long trip.
Let me just say, I couldn’t have picked a better traveling companion. Both in our mid-thirties, we were not there to get Bourbon Street wasted or Mardi Gras hammered every night. We took the obligatory stroll down the strip the first night and found some poor soul’s corporate credit card on the ground outside, which I finally decided to just shred after we failed to hunt down a cop to turn it in to (surprising, I know, but we only encountered EMS). Better it was us pure souls with no nefarious intentions that found it than a shady drunkard.
Now, once you get that initial Bourbon Street walk out the way, you’ll wonder why all you ever hear about New Orleans is a party place to get sloshed because this place is chock FULL of culture! The Sydney and Walda Bestoff Sculpture Garden (right next to the New Orleans Museum of Art) is a MUST SEE, and it’s gorgeous, enchanting, and FREE. JAMNOLA is one of those super fun art experiences that is actually worth the price (though we did score Groupons, so BONUS). Honey Island Swamp Tours will pick you up FROM your hotel (for the smallest additional fee) and take you about an hour outside of the city to their swamp. While we didn’t get to see any gators (fun fact, if the weather gets too cool, they hibernate), we got one of those weird swamp rat sightings and local birds, including a bald eagle (!). Our guide was super knowledgeable and taught us a lot about crocs vs gators and the “camps”, those uninsured, low turnover abodes that line the swamp and look like “roughin it” shacks to an urbanite, but apparently have running water and electricity. We even hit up a local nerdy burlesque show, another first for me as I got the opportunity to throw singles at body-positive performance artists with tasseled nipple pasties. Oh, and a man in a banana hammock thong. The aquarium here is aight; the only attraction I found underwhelming and top-10-in-America list questionable.
When we weren’t hitting up one of the numerous non-drinking activities, we were hoofing it EVERYWHERE, my companion being from a big city as well, and New Orleans is incredibly walkable. A 20-30 minute walk to reach a destination for us is nothing. A light stroll. A chance to sightsee or stumble across a secret. Or just to feast our eyes on the splendor of the beautiful, artistic architecture there. Is urban exploration considered a hobby? Our hotel was in the Garden District, so our main stomping grounds for the week consisted of that area along with the French Quarter and the Bywater district. Walking the colorful quarter in the daytime, you’d find random bubble machines on the 2nd floor balconies, as if they simply wanted to add to a fun and festive atmosphere. And probably due to the climate, there’s greenery everywhere. Tree-lined streets with spanish moss, glorious parks, yards with gardens and fountains.
Now, FOOD. I am Black, with southern roots. And NOLA is known for their SEAFOOD. Maybe not the culinary wonderland for my vegetarian travelling companion (we had to check the menus in the windows each time beforehand to make sure she had options), but every place was fair game to me. And I am a PICKY eater with a non-spicy palate. I tried po’boys, gumbo shrimp, biscuits and gravy, catfish, and BEIGNETS, the pastry I never knew I needed in my life. Warm, fresh (ALWAYS fresh), fried squares of delicious dough with powdered sugar on top. Glorified funnel-cake minis, but so much more classier. If these are available in NYC, I am completely unaware. We sought out local spots only, avoiding chains like Starbucks, McDonalds (which I don’t eat anyway) and even Popeyes. Deciding where to eat next made me giddy; I wouldn’t label myself a foodie, but eating out and exploring new restaurants gives me joy.
On my last night there, we even got a chance to sit AT the famed Carousel Bar, which I thought would be horribly touristy and overrated, but I’m super happy we ended up taking the chance. Is it expensive af in a fancy hotel you’ll probably feel out of place walking into? YUP. Now walk in like you own the joint. We were hoping to just score seating at the little couple’s tables by the festively decorated windows, but after about 10 minutes of waiting seats opened up right at the rotating bar. Pretty sure my drink was about $15-17 (Pimm’s Cup), but it was DELICIOUS, this was a rare experience, and reminiscent of the NYC prices I don’t even pay for at home. Along with my drink I got mussels and truffle fries and a beignet order for dessert. ALL scrumptious. The bar seating slowly REVOLVES around the bar just like a carousel. Gimmicky, YES, but squeal-worthy and done right.
Sidebar: Travelling with another boss-ass urbanite woman who is financially secure and knows how to take care of herself is the move. Because splurging/deal-seeking is a tightrope we toe well. Walking everywhere, finding online deals through Groupon and Priceline, and scanning places that offer a similar activity for the best price is second-nature to us, but we know the inherent value of unique experiences and when it’s worth it. Our trip was a mix of whatever-priced YOLOs (dammit that stupid term has grown on me) and free/low cost experiences. We didn’t give a second thought about shelling out $30 each for a walking art tour, or back down from a restaurant we wanted to try because of price. Nor did we give a third thought to discounted activities, park explorations and general city-adventuring that cost nothing. We left the hotel around 10 or 11am each morning and didn’t return until nightfall. We even took turns paying the whole bill for whatever the activity was, and simply used the Splitwise app to keep track of who owed who in the end.
I completely stumbled upon the street art tour by accident. I hadn’t researched NOLA’s graffiti scene at all beforehand, so imagine my surprise when the tour I settled on mentioned it would end with an authentic BANKSY piece viewing (currently my favorite artist, and yes, I consider street artists, ARTISTS). I was unaware that there were even two authentic Banksy pieces in this city. “Girl With Umbrella,” is protected and maintained by the tour guides themselves (shout out to @nolaartwalk). Our guide also told us where to find the 2nd one in the city. “Looters” is housed in the lobby of the ritzy International House Hotel where they practically have a Banksy shrine room adjacent to it that you can just waltz right in to.
I found out lots of interesting tidbits from our various tour guides. Like New Yorkers, they’re not wild about tourists, but they know it’s necessary for business. Apparently the crime rate has been increasing so much that many locals are leaving the city because of it. One woman basically told us if you hear a ruckus, just duck and wait for gunshots. She was shocked that we’d been walking around at night exploring by ourselves, though we felt perfectly safe. She also told us that by living here, you accept the fact that you will probably end up restarting your life over twice, due to your home getting destroyed by a hurricane. While this is a crazy sobering thought, it’s also a testament to truly loving and choosing your city, something New Yorkers can relate to.
I noticed the homeless population is quite large here. As urbanites, this didn’t put us off or anything. The majority we encountered were quite pleasant and usually bid us a good night as we passed them, unlike the kind in NYC that you warily watch on the subway as they chant to themselves, hoping they don’t suddenly come at you with a knife. Another thing we noticed is that despite NOLA being extremely walkable, NO ONE ELSE WALKS HERE. Outside of the French Quarter and touristy/bar/entertainment sections, it was rare to encounter another pedestrian on the sidewalk. Probably because the sidewalks CAN get pretty janky here in a lot of neighborhoods. I’m talking, watch where you step because the concrete will slant at laughably exaggerated angles, or a slab will suddenly poke out as if it’s trying to grab your ankle and bring you down to kiss the cement. But in residential areas, there was barely any street traffic either. And even weirder, as we passed and admired all the lovely homes (seriously, we must have been drawn to all the nicer neighborhoods by luck because the houses were HUGE and spectacular; you could easily spend a day just sightseeing the homes), no one was really in them. And yes, we looked (don’t you?). We never observed families cooking dinner, watching TV, kids playing in the backyards or anything of the sort. It was often like walking through wealthy ghost towns.
I guess I’ll have to put San Francisco on my travel bucket list, just to see how it stacks up against New York and New Orleans. But NOLA delighted me and touched my soul. It’s a friendly city with character, beauty, and HELLA culture, and I recommend you go and explore all it has to offer outside of Bourbon Street. Walk the parks, eat ALL the things, ride a STREETCAR. Visit the Tree of Life at Adubon Park (and be sure to check out that amazing artsy pink/purple Barbie-dreamhouse-looking mansion with a pool and German Shephard guarding the yard) and then go to New York to SUNY Purchase and compare it to the awesome Elephant Tree behind the administration house. It’s a city I would love to return to in the future. And if a New Yorker can be impressed by it, then that’s saying something.