How To Take The Ultimate Vacation In New Orleans

A NOLA native shares her favorite restaurants, shops, scenic spots and places to relax in the Big Easy.
Illustration: HuffPost; Photos: Getty

Take A Break is your ultimate guide to the perfect trips to recharge, rediscover yourself and your relationships, and reengage with the world. We’ll cover shopping stops, great bars, restaurants worth your money, photo opportunities, memorable drives and experiences, and other important details you need before you book.

Below, we chat with Caroline Bologna, senior travel and culture reporter at HuffPost, about why you’ll want to put New Orleans on your bucket list.

What drew you to New Orleans as a place to visit or explore?

I was born and raised in New Orleans and lived there until I went away for college, so the city is in my DNA. However, I don’t think I had a full appreciation for what a special place it is until I left.

As an adult, I often return for the typical family holidays, weddings and school reunions, of course, but I find myself thirsting for more NOLA time (and more NOLA food!) ― especially around the many festivals and other amazing cultural events. It feels like there’s always something exciting going on in New Orleans, and people are always down to have a good time. “Laissez les bons temps rouler” is our unofficial motto, after all.

What are the best times of year to visit?

I don’t recommend visiting during the summer, as it’s hurricane season and also tends to be unbearably hot and humid. My favorite time to visit is spring — especially around Jazz Fest. Fall is another pleasant time weather-wise, with plenty of Halloween festivities as well. And the holiday season is lovely, with mild temperatures and festive decorations (shout-out to the lights at The Roosevelt and Celebration in the Oaks).

What’s your best tip for getting there? How can you make the travel as stress-free as possible?

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is reachable via nonstop flights from most major hubs and other destinations. The airport itself is also quite new and nice, with amazing local food like MoPho, Emeril’s and Café du Monde.

New Orleans is also an excellent road trip stop if you’re exploring the Southeast. You can drive through Cajun Country and quickly get over to Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle as well.

From left to right: City Park, St. Louis Cathedral and Hotel St. Vincent.
Caroline Bologna/HuffPost
From left to right: City Park, St. Louis Cathedral and Hotel St. Vincent.

Where do you recommend staying when you go?

I urge visitors to stay in hotels when possible, as the negative impact of short-term rentals on the New Orleans housing market has been particularly tough.

Fortunately, there are lots of wonderful hotel options. Beyond the classic chains, The Chloe and The Eliza Jane are great for charming boutique hotel vibes. I’m also a fan of Hotel St. Vincent and Hotel Peter and Paul, which are in cool old renovated buildings (and great for grabbing a bite or drink too, even if you aren’t staying there).

What are your go-to restaurants or foods to eat while you’re there?

Where to begin? New Orleans is famous for its food, so it’s hard to have a bad meal. The last new restaurant I tried was Mister Mao, an eclectic “tropical roadhouse” that did not disappoint.

Some of my favorites include Turkey and the Wolf (the collard green melt is my favorite sandwich of all time), Toups’ Meatery (that dirty rice is pure smoky deliciousness), Peche (be sure to order the whole fish), Willa Jean (don’t forget to try one of their famous cookies), Atchafalaya (brunch with live music and a Bloody Mary bar is hard to beat), Mother’s (great for classics like jambalaya and gumbo) and Camellia Grill (an old diner with a famously gregarious staff).

For a fancier meal, I recommend Galatoire’s (Friday lunch is a truly special experience), Antoine’s, Brennan’s, Commander’s Palace, Restaurant R’evolution or the restaurant in the new Four Seasons New Orleans, Chemin à la Mer.

In the morning, grab a coffee at PJ’s or French Truck Coffee and maybe some beignets from Café du Monde or other pastries from Levee Baking Co. Honorable mention to Ruby Slipper Cafe for breakfast as well. And for dessert, I recommend ice cream from Creole Creamery, any of the sweets from Sucré or a sno-ball (not to be confused with other shaved ice desserts) from Plum St. Snoballs, Sal’s Sno-Balls or Imperial Woodpecker Sno-Balls.

From left to right: "The Peacemaker" at Ruby Slipper Cafe, fish special at Peche and soufflé potatoes at Galatoire's.
Caroline Bologna/HuffPost
From left to right: "The Peacemaker" at Ruby Slipper Cafe, fish special at Peche and soufflé potatoes at Galatoire's.

What bars or entertainment spots do you make sure to hit? What’s good to drink there or what else should people know?

If you’re looking for a nice hotel bar, definitely check out the famous Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone ― it actually moves like a carousel!

For more great hotel bars, go to The Columns, The Chloe, Hotel St. Vincent’s Paradise Lounge, the Chandelier Bar at the Four Seasons, Jack Rose in the Pontchartrain Hotel and The Elysian Bar at Hotel Peter and Paul.

I also enjoy Bar Marilou, Cure, Bar Tonique and Vessel (located in a former church) for a good cocktail. The Country Club is a popular spot in the Marigny with good drinks, food and drag brunches.

If you’re looking for a more casual outdoors vibe, grab frozen daiquiris and wings at Bourrée, hit up the patio at Tchoup Yard or hang out at Wrong Iron on the Greenway. Bacchanal is a beloved wine bar, and Lafitte’s and Pat O’Brien’s are classic French Quarter spots if you want to get the true visitor experience. (And of course, there’s Bourbon Street, but I’ll talk about that shortly...)

What are your favorite shops and what do you look for when you’re there?

Magazine Street is a great shopping area with tons of local spots ― such as Home Malone, Hazelnut and Sunday Shop for home goods and Monomin, Peony, Hemline, Dirty Coast, Fleurty Girl, Jean Therapy and Trashy Diva for clothes.

As for accessories, I like to buy jewelry from local designer Mignon Faget, who has a shop on Magazine St. as well. And I highly recommend picking out a nice pair of sunglasses from Krewe and looking through all the unique pieces at Saint Claude Social Club.

What’s your single favorite spot to go for photos and why?

Obviously, the French Quarter is a very “Instagrammable” neighb, but don’t sleep on the Garden District for beautiful homes and gardens that make for great photo backdrops ― with a nice side of architectural history.

Drive down St. Charles Avenue for some more lovely oak tree-filled views and pass by perhaps my favorite photo spot for both sentimental and aesthetic reasons ― the school I attended for 14 years, the Academy of the Sacred Heart. It frequently appears on lists of the most beautiful schools in the South or the country as a whole.

From left to right: Paradise Lounge at Hotel St. Vincent, Music Box Village and Mister Mao.
Caroline Bologna/HuffPost
From left to right: Paradise Lounge at Hotel St. Vincent, Music Box Village and Mister Mao.

What tourist attraction should people skip and what should they do instead?

Bourbon Street is obviously famous, so I see the appeal of checking it out at least once. But for a fun night out, I tell people to leave the chaos of Bourbon Street and head over to Frenchmen Street for incredible live music and bar-hopping around the Marigny neighborhood instead.

Where do you feel the most relaxed, calm or happy?

“The Fly” is a lovely waterfront area of Audubon Park where my friends and I used to hang out when we were younger. Sitting there and staring out at the Mississippi River still brings me a strong sense of calm and nostalgia. Walking along the levees around the Mississippi River can also be a very relaxing experience.

What scenic spots do you recommend checking out?

Nature lovers will also enjoy City Park, which boasts 1,300 acres of green space to explore, as well as the lovely New Orleans Museum of Art and Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. There’s really something for everyone at City Park, from golf to fishing to an amusement park! (Hit up Ralph’s on the Park for scenic dining views as well.)

I also tell history nerds to add The National WWII Museum to their itineraries ― it’s a top-notch museum in a very cool space. Music Box Village is a unique place for performances and exploration, so definitely check it out if the idea of “musical architecture” appeals to you.

I’ve heard great things about the Backstreet Cultural Museum. And Mardi Gras World is an amazing explosion of colorful floats to give you a taste of Fat Tuesday year round.

From left to right: A sno-ball from Sal's, pastries from Levee Baking Co. and ice cream from Creole Creamery.
Caroline Bologna/HuffPost
From left to right: A sno-ball from Sal's, pastries from Levee Baking Co. and ice cream from Creole Creamery.

What’s one thing you make sure to pack if you’re going and why?

I recommend packing a solid, easily portable umbrella and/or rain jacket because it rains rather frequently in New Orleans, and often in unpredictable ways. If you’re going to a festival like Jazz Fest, don’t bring all your good shoes.

What are some specific planning tips to know before you go so you’re not stressed?

For stress-free travel, I again advise not visiting during hurricane season (especially August and September) because you run the risk of a storm derailing your plans.

And although the iconic streetcar makes for a scenic ride, it’s not going to be practical for all locations, so map out where you’ll need to take an Uber, or consider renting a car.

What surprised you about New Orleans when you went the first time?

I grew up in New Orleans, so I had a funny perception of what was normal at times. In a reverse way, what probably surprised me the most was moving away from the city and learning that open container laws are a thing.

Anything else visitors should know?

Make sure you talk to locals while you’re in town. The people and infectious energy are what make New Orleans so special. And it’s pronounced New Or-linz, not Nawlins and certainly not New Orleenz.

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