Actually Cool Things You Can (Still) Do in New Orleans Right Now
Even locals love this stuff.
Back in early spring when the pandemic first hit New Orleans and shuttered local bars, restaurants, music venues and festivals, it was almost impossible to avoid the horrifying question: “Is this our lives now?” Thankfully, New Orleans did not -- can not -- stay quiet for long. These days, the heat is brutal, the go cups are canceled, hurricane season is in full swing and social distancing remains the rule, but there’s still plenty to keep you occupied. You just may need to look a little harder and get creative.
Eventually, New Orleans will be back to its colorful, glorious self. But for now, allow us to be your guide to a different kind of New Orleans: one that’s working to flatten the curve and looking to come back stronger and more vibrant than ever. Here are all the best things to do in New Orleans, right now.
It might be some time yet before New Orleans venues regain the ability to host live music, so for now, the best way to catch up with your favorite local acts is to find them online. Local public radio station WWOZ, which heartily recommends “festing in place,” has a great calendar of New Orleans musicians’ digital gigs if you’d like to browse, but it’s always a good idea to check in with the artists themselves on Instagram, Facebook and even Twitch. Don’t forget to tip: Just look for the suggested ways to donate via Venmo, PayPal or Cash App.
Pay a virtual visit to a real-life art museum
While the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art are both open for masked visitors, you can also check out some of their offerings online. Both NOMA and the Ogden have great programming available virtually, including some designed especially for kids such as the Ogden’s “Movement Mondays” with special activities just for the youngest of art lovers.
A new project to help feed hungry New Orleanians struggling to get by during these uncertain times offers an easy way to give back: Make a meal, and leave it in a Community Fridge. The project, which began just weeks ago, already has a small handful of fridges plugged in and ready for donations across the city. One location even has space for donated children's items such as diapers and clothing. Get details about the locations on Instagram, then drop off some prepared meals, snacks, veggies or other food items. Just remember: The organizers ask for no raw meat to be donated.
See the collective result of more than 20 artists getting to go a little wild while building a 12-room immersive art exhibit. From stepping into a massive pot so you can be boiled by giant crawfish to posing for selfies in front of technicolor walls filled with second line umbrellas, visiting JAMNOLA is an experience unlikely any other in the city right now. Make sure to buy your tickets for specific time slots ahead of time, as tickets are only available online.
Jean Lafitte National Historical Park
The Barataria Preserve, part of the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park, is probably the easiest, closest place to New Orleans where you’re pretty much guaranteed to spot at least one alligator in the wild. The hiking trail is gorgeous, and if you show up at around 10am on Wednesday through Sunday, you can get a free guided tour with a park ranger. (Helpful, especially if you’re not great at telling a gator from a log.) If you’ve got kids -- or just feel like one -- don’t forget to ask for a Junior Park Ranger workbook.
Spend a couple of hours taking in the weird and wonderful installations at the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, a gorgeous outdoor space in City Park adjacent to the New Orleans Museum of Art. It’s a world-class collection that received an update in 2019, doubling the amount of art on view and carving out a pretty amazing pathway that’s as much of an experience as the artwork it meanders past. The park offers as much fun for art snobs as it does for folks looking to update their Instagram with snazzy shots.
While St. Augustine is hosting mass live and in-person, the nearly 200-year-old historic African American Catholic church in the spiritual heart of the Tremé neighborhood has gone digital. Now, you can catch mass on Facebook Live every Sunday. St. Augustine has served as the church home of famous parishioners including jazz legend Sidney Bechet and civil rights icon Homer Plessy. Its regular choir performs a jazzy and gospel-tinged version of the traditional Catholic mass most weeks and guest musicians aren’t uncommon, so you'll see a lovely service no matter when you log on. Don’t forget to make a donation, too.
First-time visitors, especially, will likely want to take a formal cemetery tour, but if they're up for something less formal (and a bit more unsettling), take a quick spin through the St. Roch Cemetery, home to a famous shrine to the saint himself, where generations of New Orleanians have left ex-votos -- physical mementos thanking the patron saint of healing for his interventions. These include religious objects as well as medical ones, like leg and neck braces and plaster casts of various body parts. It’s eerie, for sure, but it’s also a glimpse into the faith of a city that’s often regarded as a place of iniquity by outsiders.
While a reservation at this New Orleans institution will usually give your credit card some serious exercise, you’d be remiss to think the happy hour is likewise high-dollar. Dubbed Bubbles at Brennan’s, you’ll find good deals here Tuesday through Thursday, from 2-7pm, and Fridays, 9am-7pm, making it a solid spot for pre-dinner drinks or lunch. Specials include cocktails for $7 and snacks from $6-15. Oh, and did we mention the champagne sabering on Fridays at 5pm? Yeah, there’s that, too.
Yes, OK, it’s swarmed with tourists, but for less than $5, it’s an iconic New Orleans experience, and you're probably going to love biting into a beignet no matter where you're from. Locals know to hit it up as far away from the breakfast rush as possible -- and to bring cash when they go. There’s also a to-go window on the side farthest from Jackson Square, so head there for the quickest service before taking your sugar-filled bag of fried dough to the Moonwalk (that’s the paved pathway) along the Mississippi River.
Easily one of the Gulf Coast’s most interestingly tiny, hyper-specific museums, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum is home to rows upon rows of jars that once held opium, cocaine, leeches and all manner of snake oil, plus oodles of ooky surgical implements and lots of fascinating historical info about the connection between the history of the pharmacy industry and the history of cocktails. (Yes, they’re totally connected!) Because of the pandemic, the museum has required tickets to be purchased in advance for specific self-guided tour time slots. Check the website for details.
Eat a snowball at every possible opportunity
After around Easter-ish, when the weather turns from warm to really warm, the city’s ubiquitous snowball shops start opening up all over, and frankly, they’re almost better than air conditioning for cooling off. Get yourselves to Hansen’s, where ol’ man Hansen invented the original ice-shaving machine (which distinguishes snowballs from their far inferior crushed-ice cousin, the snow cone), and you probably oughta make time to hit up Plum Street as well, and maybe ... well, just try them all of them. You won't regret it.
While New Orleans is well-known for the National World War II Museum -- and for good reason -- those who want an up-close look at some real World War II relics can head to the Woodlands Conservancy on the West Bank. Here, strap on your hiking shoes for a walk into the woods to find 10 ammunition magazines that stored ammo and other explosives during WWII and the Korean War. While there, enjoy the quiet walk and easy hike through one of the area’s last bottomland hardwood forests.
While our open container law has been edited for the pandemic so you can’t buy your bevs from local bars or restaurants to go, you can still BYOB. Take advantage of this luxury with a boozy picnic at The Fly -- the grassy, mostly undeveloped strip on the river’s edge of Audubon Park. It’s the perfect way to enjoy a lazy afternoon watching the ships roll down the Mississippi. Bring sandwiches from St. James Cheese Company or Gracious Bakery, both just a few minutes drive away.
Get some takeout from great New Orleans restaurants
Whether you're new in town or you've lived here for 20 years, it's no mystery that New Orleans has one of the most vibrant culinary traditions in the world. That means amazing new restaurants opening every month, even during the pandemic. We've rounded up the best restaurants in town to help you out, including a regularly updated list of best new openings. Just remember to abide by any mask requirements or posted guidelines for takeout, and tip heavily.
This bizarre roadside museum is basically just a massive collection of vintage arcade machines, odd folk art, cryptotaxidermy, all other manner of weird junk. It costs just $3 to visit, and it’s the bargain of a lifetime. While you’re up there in Abita Springs, you may as well also hit up the Abita Brewery for tours -- free if you go on the self-guided ones -- and tastings. If you’ve got yourself a designated driver, get the full experience by checking out other local North Shore brews from Old Rail and Chafunkta.
Look east for Vietnamese food
Most people know about New Orleans’ European and African-descended communities, but it’s less well-known for its active Vietnamese population. With huge pockets of immigrants and their descendants both in New Orleans East and on the West Bank (across the river), there are Vietnamese restaurants a-plenty offering pho, banh mi, and all other manner of traditional delights. Head over to Dong Phuong for its meaty, pickly banh mi on damn-near perfect French bread. It costs less than $5 and won a James Beard Award. No-brainer.
New Orleans is lucky to host the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the Audubon Zoo (Uptown), Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium (both in the French Quarter). While the insectarium is still closed, the zoo and aquarium are open for masked visitors with timed tickets. Go visit the adorable tuxedoed penguins at the aquarium or the zoo’s alligator habitat. It can get costly to visit if you have a group, so locals would be wise to take advantage of the New Orleans Public Library’s Culture Pass, which is back after a temporary suspension during Phase One. The pass allows library card holders free access to a number of the city’s cultural institutions (for two adults and up to four children) with advance registration.
Let your guests get adventurous with you and try out some new restaurants during the summertime COOLinary event. COOLinary is a month-long menu discount promotion that runs in August, which is typically New Orleans’ hottest and therefore slowest month. Enjoy the low prix fixe prices (around $20 for starters, $35 for entrees), chefs at their most creative, and the new favorites you might not have otherwise considered all August long.
Chef Leah Chase was a New Orleans icon: civil rights legend, businesswoman extraordinaire, mentor to many, inspiration to many more, and world-class chef. For over 65 years, she cooked up classic Creole comfort food at the Tremé institution she operated with her husband since the 1940s. The Crescent City unfortunately lost Chase in 2019, but her legacy lives on at her incredible restaurant. Get a taste of history for yourself with a family meal from their takeout menus, which are regularly updated on Facebook. Don’t worry: The fried chicken is always available.
Eat crawfish literally everywhere
Springtime means crawfish in these parts, and if you can swing an invite for yourself or your guests to a backyard crawfish boil while they’re in town (or find a free one at a bar somewhere), that’s the best choice of all. The social nuances behind devouring a ton of crawfish together are as key to the experience as the food itself. If you can’t, head on over to Bevi Seafood or Clesi’s, both in Mid-City, and just do it up as a small group.
St. John the Baptist Parish
The reality is most plantation tours omit the brutality that made the plantation lifestyle possible for the wealthy few. The Whitney Plantation turns this on its head, and instead is dedicated to the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the experiences of enslaved people on Louisiana’s many plantations during the pre-Civil War era. It’s a deeply sobering but beautiful testament to the resilience of a people and their culture.
Commander’s Palace has definitely gotten creative during the pandemic, offering its famous turtle soup for sale at local grocery stores, serving takeout and even starting national delivery through GoldBelly for the first time ever. And now you can enjoy the sommelier experience from this classic New Orleans restaurant thanks to its new virtual wine and cheese events, in which the restaurant delivers or offers for pick-up a selection of cheeses and wines, then gathers everyone on a Zoom call with James Beard Award nominee Dan Davis to talk through the tasting experience. See the list of these themed parties on Eventbrite.
Sicilians and Neapolitans immigrated to New Orleans in numbers only matched by New York and New Jersey around 1900. This family-owned roadhouse restaurant is kind of in the middle of nowhere over on the West Bank, and was a mafia hangout in the post-WWII era. Though the mobsters are gone (as far as most can tell), the look of the place remains blissfully old-school, as does its simple, decadent menu. It’s short enough that if there are enough of you, you can order it all but if you must choose just one thing, order their chicken a la grande with spaghetti. Oily, rosemary-studded, and smothered with enough garlic to keep you vampire-free for a week, it’s one of the more delicious things you’ll ever eat. Seating is extremely limited, so reservations are required for dine-in. To-go orders are also available.
Traditional New Orleans cuisine tends to focus on the savory, but Angelo Brocato’s has long been the not-so-secret answer for something sweeter. Since 1905 (!), this family-owned Italian bakery, gelato parlor, and coffee shop has been a Crescent City staple offering unbelievably delicious traditional offerings like Napoleons, cannolis, macarons and biscotti alongside the best cup of espresso in town. The tart lemon ice is well worth the trip alone. Don’t forget to pick out enough housemade cookies to fill a box before you head out.
Nerd out at a local bookstore
Often lost in the clamor of the Crescent City’s bustling nightlife is New Orleans’s rich literary history. Numerous legendary authors like Tennessee Williams, Fatima Shaik, John Kennedy Toole, and Anne Rice have made our endlessly inspirational town their home over the years, and things never really slowed down. Mask up and visit local indie outlets like Garden District Book Shop, Community Book Center and Octavia Books for excellent selections and fantastic recommendations from knowledgeable staff.
City Park is generally -- and rightfully -- the space most associated with outdoor activities in New Orleans, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option offered in town to soak up the sun. Located at the edge of the Bywater and French Quarter, Crescent Park is a miles-long stretch of walking and bike paths providing picturesque views along the Mississippi River the entire way. The park is perfect for those of you (the insane ones) looking for places to workout during your visit here, but with New Orleans’ lax open container laws, it’s just as easy to grab a bottle of wine or six-pack and scoff at the healthy from a bench alongside the river.
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