Inge Johnsson / Alamy Stock Photo
En español | The late, great singer-songwriter Dr. John once wrote, “If you wanna do some livin’ before you die, do it down in New Orleans.” And, he might have added, try to do it in the springtime.
After the Mardi Gras parties are over, the Big Easy only slows down a bit in March, April and May — offering visitors a little more elbow room for diving into the city's vibrant, multicultural gumbo of French and Spanish architecture; jazz, blues and Afro-Caribbean music; and, among others, Cajun and Creole cuisines.
Spring also brings trees blooming with candy-scented flowers, and music festivals featuring outdoor stages, impressive street food and crafts from around the world — all before the sticky heat of summer descends.
If arriving by plane, the city's new $1 billion terminal complex at the Louis Armstrong International Airport is a beautiful hors d'oeuvre for what's to come, with restaurants that include outposts from local chefs such as Susan Spicer and Emeril Lagasse, as well as live music. The airport has direct flights from many U.S. destinations, including New York, Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles.
If you're driving, forget about parking in the French Quarter unless you want to pay top dollar. But in other parts of the city, street parking is easy and free. If you're a train buff, hop on board Amtrak's City of New Orleans in Chicago and arrive in New Orleans 20 hours later (starting at $138 one way).
Erika Goldring/Getty Images
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Choose among more than a dozen music stages spread across the Fair Grounds Race Course, where nearly half a million people arrive for Jazz Fest every year to appreciate not just jazz, but Zydeco, blues, bebop, gospel, folk, rock and more. In addition to talented acts you've never heard of, past performers have included Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Don't skip the festival food, which, despite the paper plates, can taste as good as some of the city's finest dining. Highlights include the deep-fried soft shell crab po-boy, a snowball in your favorite flavor topped with a splash of condensed milk and a refreshing Rosemint herbal iced tea to wash it down. Thursdays and Fridays are less mobbed. It's $85 each day at the gate with packages available (April 23 to May 3, 2020).
French Quarter Festival. This free fest is the largest showcase of Louisiana music in the world and beloved by locals (April 16 to 19, 2020).
Bayou Boogaloo. Enjoy local acts, take dance lessons and, if you'd like, watch a rubber duck race on the banks of beautiful Bayou St. John. Admission is $10 for one day or $20 for three days (May 15 to 17, 2020).
For a great primer on the Big Easy, take the three-hour guided New Orleans Segway Tour starting in the French Quarter ($65 and up). The Segways are easy to operate, you'll cover a lot of ground without getting blisters from walking and you'll learn fun facts, including how to distinguish French from Spanish architecture. Among the highlights are Louis Armstrong Park, Congo Square and The Old U.S. Mint, as well as the Tremé neighborhood.
If you need some quiet, New Orleans’ green spaces offer a respite from the city's wilder side. In Mid-City, visit the New Orleans Botanical Garden ($8). It's in the 1,300-acre City Park, along with the New Orleans Museum of Art ($15 adults; $10 adults 65 and older), where on weekends you can take a tai chi class inside the permanent collection or a yoga class outside in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden.
Uptown, Audubon Park is home to the Audubon Zoo (online tickets are $27.95 for adults; $22.95 for adults 65 and older; $2 more if you buy at the gate). Don't miss the award-winning swamp exhibit, where you can learn about Cajun culture and see little camouflaged alligators floating in surreal Day-Glo green moss.
For a view of the Mississippi that you might have all to yourself, head over to Crescent Park, a 1.4 mile, 20-acre linear park that runs along the river from the edge of the French Quarter to the Bywater neighborhood. It's laden with carefully planned native landscaping and offers a beautiful view of the city that you can enjoy from a large swing on the boardwalk.
Eating and drinking
The most challenging part about visiting New Orleans is deciding where to bring your taste buds with limited time.
Willa Jean in the Central Business District (611 O'Keefe Ave.) is a bakery and restaurant featuring Southern comfort food with delicious brunch options, including the Hangover Bowl: a braised short rib with caramelized pearl onions, crispy garlic and a poached egg over grits. Whatever you order, get a biscuit with butter and jam along with it.
If you can bear waiting in a long line (it moves quickly) for the best sandwich of your life, head over to the casual Turkey and the Wolf in the Irish Channel neighborhood (739 Jackson Ave.), dubbed the best new restaurant in America by Bon Appétit in 2017. The chefs, expats from some of the best restaurants in the city, left their pressure-cooker kitchens to create outside-the-box dishes and have a little fun. Try the famous collard green melt, served on rye with pickled cherry pepper dressing and slow-cooked collard greens, swiss cheese and coleslaw.
Ready for something lighter at dinner? Yes, you are. A favorite among health conscious locals, visit Carmo (527 Julia St.) for tropical sustainable seafood and plant-based options. With its Afro-Caribbean influences, Carmo offers a different kind of NOLA fare that includes a Peruvian version of sashimi and rum-cured, cold-smoked yellowfin tuna. Don't miss the crunchy Broken Noodle Salad made from rice noodles, bean sprouts, cabbage, tofu, cucumber, peas, carrots, mushrooms, scallions, cilantro and peanuts with a citrus-ginger-chili vinaigrette.
At cocktail time, don't be like the other tourists and wander down smelly Bourbon Street with a bright red frozen drink. Instead, visit the city's more unique places to imbibe. These include the Carousel Bar inside Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St.), where the barstools are part of an antique carousel that makes one rotation every 15 minutes while you sip; the Hot Tin-Rooftop Bar at the Pontchartrain Hotel (2031 St. Charles Ave.), fashioned after a 1940s artist loft with 270 degree views of the city; and Bacchanal Wine (600 Poland Ave.), a wine-and-cheese shop that opens into a romantic backyard music venue with live jazz seven days a week.
If you're coming for Jazz Fest, big-box hotel rooms are upwards of $300 a night, if you can even find one. Try the boutique Catahoula Hotel (914 Union St.) in the Central Business District, which recently had rooms for $200. Formerly a private home, this property was converted to a 35-room hotel in 2016 with small-but-comfortable rooms, an industrial-chic vibe and a rooftop bar and restaurant.
If you can't find anything at that time in the city, consider staying less than 8 miles away in Metairie or Harahan and take a car service to the fairgrounds for the day. In Harahan, the Hampton Inn & Suites New Orleans-Elmwood/Clearview Parkway Area (5150 Mounes St.) has an outdoor pool, spacious rooms and free breakfast starting at $122 during Jazz Fest.
Midweek, or on a weekend without a festival, check out the Canal Street Inn in Mid-City (3620 Canal St.), with rooms starting at $150 a night. Known for its lavish three-course breakfasts, which are included in the rate, this Greek Revival mansion is surrounded by towering live oaks and blooming azaleas and there's a streetcar stop out front.
If you're a WWII buff, the Higgins Hotel & Conference Center (1000 Magazine St.) in the Arts & Warehouse District is the brand-new official hotel of the National WWII Museum, located across the street. Filled with artifacts, this newly opened property has two bars and a French-inspired restaurant. Built in an art deco style with 1940s-inspired guest rooms (starting at $200), the hotel offers guest packages that include guided tours of the museum's private collections.
Renée Bacher is a Louisiana-based freelance writer who covers travel, pets and medicine; check out her blog about fostering shelter dogs.