New Orleans is unlike any other city I’ve ever visited. The word “fecund” comes to mind. New Orleans was built on a swamp – it’s tropical, hot, humid air and French influence gives it an air of a jubilant island colony wedged into the conservative foreign country that is the South.
The porches of the colorful, off-kilter houses sprout ornamentation like orchids. There’s a thick, undergrowth of subcultures: goth kids, Vietnamese food, voodoo and witchcraft, Black Indians, vast cemeteries with ornate mausoleums, a devotion to alcohol in all forms all the time, bluegrass and bounce music. It’s a place of contradictions: there are huge mansions, yet 50% of the population lives in poverty. It’s tolerant and over the top, inclusive and impressive. You can go to New Orleans and be yourself, whether you’re a southern girl in a sundress, or a queer artist of color looking to experiment. And then there is its dark past to reckon with: slaves flowing through its port from Africa, and the fresh wounds of Hurricane Katrina.
For a thoughtful tourist to New Orleans, it’s less about expressly “eco-friendly” activities, and more about learning about social justice issues, experiencing the music culture, and digging into the burgeoning farm- and boat-to-table food scene.
At a time when everywhere – Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, all of Europe, Japan – is starting to look like Brooklyn, New Orleans still feels like its manic, beautiful, cosmopolitan, pockmarked, colorful, no-fucks-given self.
“New Orleans has a distinctive sense of place that has drawn people to it for generations, for 300 years,” New Orleans native and award-winning developer Sean Cummings told me, as we had a drink in his boutique hotel, International House. (His father also founded the Whitney Plantation, which I’ll tell you about later.)
I also would like to so thank you to others who so generously provided recommendations for my stay in New Orleans: reader Margaret Lovejoy, Madi Holtzman, Stephanie Hepburn of the sustainable online store Good Cloth, Sara Weinreb of IMBY, and a dozen more friends, all ensuring I certainly would not be bored during my trip.
There’s not really an “eco-friendly” hotel in New Orleans. Search for one, and you’ll find demi-green initiatives from corporate hotels. I instead recommend you stay at a locally owned hotel with a strong sense of place. A friend recommended Ace Hotel, which is a cool franchise, but… well, you can find an Ace Hotel in any city, including New York. “A Brooklyn/Portland-ization like the Ace… I get it, but it’s alien to New Orleans,” Cummings told me. “If I had a fixed number of nights, I wouldn’t go to those places. There are few places in America that still have this authentic sense of place. So go to the places that speak of that.”
International House – Central Business District
This cute and modern hotel is where I stayed, and is a great way to make sure your tourist dollars stick around New Orleans and do a little good. It’s run by women – all the managers and seven of the ownership team are women – and is also the first hotel to be part owned by black women. Plus it has a profit sharing program that all the employees participate in. The lobby bar sources ingredients locally, including sorrento lemons from its own citrus grove nearby, and makes its own limoncello. Most of the furniture is made locally by artists and furniture makers, and seven times a year they celebrate local traditions by switching out the lobby artwork. On the sustainable side, the International House has a recycling program for soaps, used nontoxic paint, and just switched in March to an environmentally friendly cleaning system called PathoSans.
Hotel Monteleone – French Quarter
This historic, 130-year-old hotel in the French Quarter, has a variety of green initiatives, including donating leftover food to a local non-profit organization and linens to charities and shelters, eschewing disposable drinking cups for glass cups and pitchers, bike storage for employees and guests, in-room digital thermostats, eco-friendly cleaning supplies, and more, earning it 3 Green Keys.
Soniat House – French Quarter
Created out of adjoining French quarter residences, this luxury hotel incorporates modern amenities like in-suite jacuzzis and a spa into the historic structure. Each of the 31 accommodations is individually decorated and furnished with period antiques. It is one of Fodor’s Choice Top 20 hotels in the world.
Claiborne Mansion – Faubourg-Marigny
Enjoy a healthy gluten-free and vegan breakfast surrounded by 18th century decor in this historic mansion in the Faubourg-Marigny neighborhood, right next to the French Quarter. The three-quarter acre grounds include a 40-foot saltwater pool and landscaped courtyard with a gazebo and citrus grove.
Lower 9th Ward Rebirth Bike Tour – Lower 9th Ward
I wanted to see the Make It Right houses, eco-friendly, storm resilient homes built after Hurricane Katrina almost wiped the Lower 9th Ward off the map. But I wasn’t sure how to do that. I certainly didn’t want to take a bus tour. This bike tour offered a great alternative. Led by a native New Orleanian, we headed out from the Faubourg-Marigny on cruiser bicycles down to see the spot where a barge punched through the levee, pouring water into the neighborhood. From there, we biked up a small hill overlooking the river to survey the city and learn a short history, then down into the neighborhood to visit with the locals who are revitalizing the area like a small urban farm, learn about how canals contribute to the slow dying of the swampland, and see the Make It Right houses. In the winter sun, the quiet and half-empty neighborhood felt like a dreamy, dying seaside town. It was an odd feeling. I would put this unique experience at the top of your list of things to do.
Voodoo Walking Tour – French Quarter
This religion, an amalgamation of tribal African religion and Catholicism, is a crucial part of New Orleans history, and very much required reading if you want to understand the city. At first I was confused by the fact that our tour was led by a white lady, until she explained that she’s close friends with many voodoo practitioners, has attended many voodoo events, and is also a practicing witch. Crucially, she was easily able to answer all of our questions. We learned about voodoo’s history, the most famous high priestess of voodoo, Marie Laveau, about how it’s currently practiced, and visited a voodoo shop at the end, where I picked up some potent and fragrant voodoo oils.
Backstreet Cultural Museum – Tremé
Located in an unassuming shotgun house, this tiny museum features the stunningly ornate Black Indian Mardi Gras costumes. This tradition is unique to New Orleans, so I wouldn’t miss it!
Pharmacy Museum – French Quarter
A quaint, historical pharmacy that recreates the medical experience around the turn of the century. You might be shocked by the history of pharmacy drugs – we were all but poisoned by arsenic, lead, and opioid mixtures back in the day. And then you realize, oh yeah, the opioid epidemic.
Take a ride on a streetcar – Grab a cocktail and hop on the St. Charles trolley line, which rumbles past a long line of beautiful old mansions. I recommend you bring a reusable opaque to-go coffee mug down with you to New Orleans for just this purpose. The bars in New Orleans will give you a plastic go cup, but with downtown New Orlean’s recycling being almost non-existent, you might feel guilty about that. So order a drink regular, and then dump it in your closed cup to go. Another benefit is that you can take it on the trolleys – they won’t let you on with an open plastic cup of alcohol.
A Cemetery – New Orleans cemeteries are famous for their elaborate mausoleums, built above ground because of the wet, swampy ground. You can visit any cemetery, signing up for a tour, or just wander around by yourself.
The Plantations – Outside of New Orleans
Reserve a whole day, and take a Lyft out to the plantation area to visit three different plantations for three very different experiences. First, visit the Whitney Plantation and Museum of Slavery, which has been called “America’s Auschwitz.” Instead of painting a flowery picture of plantation life in a grand mansion, it focuses on the horrors of slavery, with moving memorials to the slaves that passed through New Orleans on their way to being sold. Nearby, visit the Laura Plantation, which can give you an accurate picture of both owner and slavery life, through the eyes of Laura Locoul Gore, who recorded 100 years of plantation life in her journal. And if you want to see a grand mansion, you can visit the Oak Alley plantation.
Take an Art Walk – Central Business District
Stroll the Julia Street galleries, check out the nearby Contemporary Art Center (CAC) the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the National World War II Museum, which contains The American Sector, a restaurant serving locally sourced, Victory Garden food. If you want to do all of these, I would give yourself a whole day. The WWII museum deserves an afternoon so you can really get the full, immersive, powerful experience!
New Orleans Museum of Art – City Park
As I walked down the broad avenue toward this museum, a man came riding on a horse out of the park and toward me, stopping to let me pet his mount and admire the braided reins before apologizing for his horse’s jitters, turning away and cantering off. (It’s these kinds of moments that make New Orleans so special.) The museum itself is worth a visit, with a broad survey of American, international art, historical and contemporary art. But make time to visit the outdoor sculpture garden, which is full of visual surprises and delights.
Bike around Bywater – Rent a bike and take a day bike ride around this charming neighborhood. Start your day at Satsuma Café for a healthy breakfast, drop in The Music Box Village by the artist collective New Orleans Airlift, then go to Country Club a gay restaurant, bar, and pool housed in a mansion. It used to be clothing optional, but since its glamorous interior renovation, that’s no longer the case. (Though the changing room and sauna are still unisex.) We came on a chilly day just as Drag Brunch was wrapping up, and hoards of bachelorettes were spilling out of the front. On a hot summer’s day, the pool area and bar gets packed with 200 people. Then wobble on your bike over to Bacchanal, a cannot-miss wine spot that serves excellent food with a side of live music. Get there before 7 pm on the weekends, because it gets crowded, and order a cheese plate. Head to dinner at the romantic French speakeasy N7 (they grow their own herbs!), then end the night after dinner at Bj’s Bar nearby, to hear King James and the Special Men play.
Take a swamp tour – Outside of New Orleans
I didn’t have a chance to do this myself, but a friend who did recommended it, if you want to learn about the swamp ecosystem, its animals, and the ecological pressures it faces.
Shop on Magazine Street – Uptown
Stretching for over an hour of walking, this is the place to go if you want to do a little shopping. Places to hit include Pilot/Powell, an upscale clothing store with several sustainable, high-end brands, Green Serene, a slightly crunchy clothing store; and Branch Out, which sells vintage and sustainable goods. Personally, most of what I found wasn’t really my style, and I didn’t find shopping in New Orleans as nearly as rewarding as all the cultural things to do, so I might recommend you skip it if you have less than a week in the city. But I also got a recommendation for UAL Designer Vintage, in the French Quarter, which is famous for its selection.
Seaworthy – Central Business District
This was my absolute favorite meal of our trip, both because of the tasty food and the romantic ambiance, but also because I was lucky enough to find myself at a panel on sustainable seafood with Chef Kerry Heffernan just a few days before in New York City. (I’m a nerd, and love a little education before a meal.) Located in the Ace Hotel, Seaworthy serves only sustainable fish, with just the right amount of Cajun spice. There are wild-caught and sustainably harvested oysters from American waters served with white and red mignonette and horseradish, fat peel-and-eat shrimp, frog legs fried in gluten free batter, and ceviche, to name just a few memorable dishes. Grab a classic cocktail or a fresh interpretation and settle in for a leisurely meal.
The Green Goddess – French Quarter
This little restaurant has vegetarian options, but also serves boudin, shrimp, creamy oyster soup, and incredible cocktails, many of which many were completely unfamiliar to me. I got an Acadian breakfast with sweet potato biscuit, boudin, grits, pepper jam, and two poached eggs that broke perfectly over the boudin. Illich got savory salmon stuffed French toast. I recommend both!
Cafe Du Monde – French Quarter
You’ll be told to go to this world famous café for a hot beignet doused in powdered sugar. There will be a two long lines, make sure to get in the one that is to-go so you can take your beignet right up to the river view, and don’t order the frozen coffee. It may look good, but it comes in a styrofoam cup.
Other excellent restaurants to visit in the French Quarter include Sylvain, Cane & Table, Napoleon House, Italian Barrel, El Gato Negro for vegetarian options, Sucre for artisanal pastries, Cafe Amelie (“the best courtyard in New Orleans,” for “the quintessential New Orleans Quarter experience,” according to Cummings), Mosquito Supper Club, a weekly Thursday pop-up with gumbo and bayou cajun seafood, and The Farmers Market Pavilion, a historic and vibrant market with full-service eateries serving breakfast, lunch and dinner and a variety of fresh produce and seafood, local specialty foods, cheese and wine, sandwiches and salads, and sweets. The Farmers Market is also home to two weekly fresh food farmers markets: Wednesday Crescent City Farmers Market (weekly 1-5 pm, October-June) and French Market’s Artisan Saturday Market full of local food, art, and crafts, as well as daily farmers market vendors with fresh local foods. For some local treats to take home, stop by Rouses, a Louisiana, family-owned grocery chain supporting the local community, farmers, and fishermen. The stores feature Mardi Gras king cakes and South Louisiana specialties made by their “Bayou Boys” (butchers and seafood managers).
Commander’s Palace – Lower Garden District. This southern style restaurant has a policy of sourcing within 100 miles, but you wouldn’t know it just from walking in. A huge mansion where the tables come with balloons and a jazz trio wanders around playing for each table, it feels like the kind of place you should only visit if you are in the mood to really celebrate a graduation or birthday and you are unapologetically Southern and white. The brunch is glutinous – don’t eat for at least 12 hours beforehand, because it’s a prix fixe menu (huge dessert included!), and you will find yourself in a sugar and food coma. They talk a big game about the dress code, but we saw a guy with flip-flops and jeans, and a woman wearing a full yoga outfit with sneakers. (I strongly suspect the dress code is so they can refuse service to anyone who doesn’t “fit” what they are looking for.) In summary, delicious, but bizarre and would definitely give you gout if you went there regularly.
Other places to try in the Lower Garden District include District Donuts for a slider or donut made with locally sourced ingredients, Surrey’s Café and Juice Bar (which is BYO champagne for brunch), Cochon Butcher for a locally-sourced sandwich, Pêche for sustainably caught seafood, and HiVolt Coffee, which also serves vegan goodies; and Raw Republic juice. At the end of the night, stop into Howlin’ Wolf for some excellent music.
Fair Grinds – Fair Grounds
This café operates as a social enterprise, with a large selection of teas, fair trade organic coffee, sandwiches, donuts, and gluten free options.
Tulane’s School of Culinary Medicine – Tremé
This school teaches doctors how to cook healthful meals, and you can get in on the action by reserving your space at their fundraiser dinner series, where acclaimed chefs come to cook a meal. In the same neighborhood, check out Liberty’s Kitchen, a Youth Development Project serving fresh food.
Other recommended restaurants: Domalise for a po’ boy and Patois (both Uptown) for a locally-sourced brunch (you can walk off your calories afterward in the beautiful Audubon Park); Cake Cafe in Marigny for a famous boozy cupcake for $1; Big Easy Bucha (Midtown) which serves locally brewed kombucha in a bright, wide-open space; and Comprere Lapin (Warehouse District), which serves award-winning, seasonal food.
You can look up a calendar of live music here. Or you can spend your night wandering in and out of the hot spots. Freret Street is a must-hear, with The Other Bar, if you’re in the mood for a low-key, chill atmosphere with free skee ball; Gasa Gasa, a smaller, more intimate music venue; and Publiq House, a former grocery store turned sports bar. If you just want a beautiful cocktail in a quiet setting, try Cure, where I got a winter twist on the Sazerac.
Bourbon Street is just too much to handle for us – we grabbed a po’ boy and ate them sober while people watching (so many drunk, fighting couples), but if you want to walk through just to get a taste, end your walk at the relatively mild Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar. Other exceptions to the Bourbon-street-is-obnoxious rule include Fritz’s European Jazz Pub, Preservation Hall, and Pat O’Brien‘s for the dueling pianos and hurricanes.
Frenchman Street is another great area where you can pop in and out of bars without paying a cover. Try Spotted Cat, Apple Barrel, Cafe Negril, Allways, and Hi-Ho.
In the Marigny, hit up DBA, Snug Harbor, and Mimi in the Marigny.