With its vibrant food-and-drink scene, incredible architecture and idiosyncratic mystique, New Orleans is one of the most distinctive cities in America. There’s just nowhere like it. For NOLA virgins, a new luxury hotel creates a well-placed base for exploring and experiencing a mix of must-see classics and under-the-radar joints.
Where to stay
First a bit of orientation: Canal Street is like the city’s diagonal spine, with relevant neighborhoods spreading out on either side like wings. Swooping south and west of Canal is the Central Business District, while north and east find you in the famous French Quarter. Typically, we’d recommend you avoid staying in the corporate-y, construction-snarled former or the touristy, traffic-snarled latter. The Four Seasons New Orleans, which opened in August, makes us reconsider our own tested advice.
Located in the former World Trade Center, the property is a luxurious mix of bars and restaurants, fifth-floor pool and spa home to a Sazerac-themed men’s massage and 341 pristine white-and-caramel rooms big enough to do gymnastics in. The Crescent City wants not for idiosyncratic Airbnbs, headline-making boutiques like the new St. Vincent and plenty of passable filler in the mid-range, but there’s very little in the traditional luxury market, which is why Four Seasons’s arrival — along with its best-in-class service — is such a BFD. We’ll also say that while it isn’t in our desired neighborhood, what the riverfront CBD location lacks in charm it makes up for in convenience, just 15-minute walk to the Garden District in one direction and through the Quarter into Marigny in the other. Come to think of it, it’s actually perfect for first timers, which is who this weekend itinerary of powdered-sugared greatest hits and interesting, lesser-known stops is ideal for. Grab a geaux cup and let’s roll.
What to do
DAY 1: Right of Canal
You’ve heard about the beignets, sourdough donuts buried in blizzards of powdered sugar, at Café du Monde, the French Quarter legend established in 1862. Grabbing a bag of them, still warm from the fryer, and a chicory-kicked café au lait is not an original way to start the morning in New Orleans, but it is a very delicious one. You can take your time under the iconic spearmint-striped awning or snack while wandering the Quarter — caution: you will look like a cocaine lord after — and specifically Royal Street, home to jaw-dropping antiques dealerships like M.S. Rau and galleries like Frank Relle, whose “Until the Water” series features haunting nightscapes of Louisiana bayous and swamps. For another perspective on water and weather, Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, one of the permanent exhibits at the Presbytère museum on Jackson Square, shouldn’t be missed for its thoughtful storytelling and sobering artifacts.
Continue up through Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square to lunch at Fritai, Charley Pierre’s year-old homage to the street food of his native Haiti. Decorated with vivid paintings and masks, the easygoing dining room is a stage for grilled shrimp with citrus and pikliz (vinegary pickled veggies) and crispy wings marinated in spicy, herbaceous epis, fried and smothered in tangy passionfruit barbecue sauce. Get your steps in exploring the adjacent neighborhoods of Marigny and Bywater, stopping in the former for a drink at the evocative Elysian Bar. Part of the Hotel Peter and Paul, the joint lives in a renovated Catholic rectory. Try the Fletcher’s Paradise, a Madeira-and-Cognac punch flavored with pineapple and cardamom.
That Louisiana heat and humidity is probably getting to you about now, so catch a ride back to the hotel to clean up before dinner at a New Orleans legend, Brennan’s. The bubblegum-pink Royal Street restaurant has been in business since 1946 and is one of those rare establishments beloved by locals and tourists. The dinner seating is promptly at six, so be on time. What awaits in the rarefied watermelon-colored dining room includes robust gumbo, roasted oyster domed in cornbread crumbs and glazed duck with farro done in the style of dirty rice. Save room for tableside-flambeed dessert; this is the place that invented bananas Foster.
DAY 2: Left of Canal
Today takes you to the opposite side of New Orleans, starting with a leisurely walk from the hotel to breakfast in the Garden District, one of the most scenic, real estate envy-inducing enclaves of the city. It’ll take about 25 minutes to get to nostalgic-for-the-’90s Molly’s Rise and Shine — plenty of time to stop and smell the jasmine and wear out the heart button on your Trulia app — for Mason Hereford’s sweet-and-savory carrot yogurt and pitch-perfect take on a McMuffin sandwich. Continue along Magazine Street, lined with shops and cafés, into Uptown. (Hansen’s Sno-Bliz makes a strong, heat-beating detour for a New Orleans snowball doused with homemade syrups like root beer, wild cherry or spearmint.) Your destination is Audubon Park, covering 350 acres between the Mississippi River to St. Charles Avenue. Check out the Zoo, Aquarium or Nature Center if you’re traveling with kids, arrive for a pre-booked tee time at the lagoon-laced public course or just sit for a spell under the ancient oaks before catching the famous St. Charles Streetcar back into the CBD. Get off at St. Joseph Street and walk a block to the National WWII Museum, a massive institution whose multimedia exhibits and 250,000 artifacts will keep history buffs engaged for hours.
Head back to the hotel, but not to your room yet. Around the backside of the X-shaped tower is the entrance to Vue Orleans, an interactive mini-museum that tells the story of the city and its characters before its elevator whisks you 33 stories skyward to a window-wrapped observation room. That’s cool, but the real finale is another level up on a separate elevator, to floor 34 and the outdoor observation deck. Walking around the circular track really puts the city you just traversed in geographic context, along with its relationship with the life-giving, life-taking Mississippi. Something to think about over dinner at Miss River, Alon Shaya’s tribute to the cuisine of the city. Visually, the restaurant stuns with its rose quarzite bar, floor of fan-shaped black-and-white tiles, brasswork and mirror-backed banquettes, as does the food and drink: plush, sweet potato brioche rolls with cane syrup-sweetened Louisiana butter; redfish courtbouillon; fried oysters encircling a zingy chopped giardiniera-and-iceberg salad inspired by one of Shaya’s favorite restaurants, Mosca’s, an Italian American legend just outside the city. Prepare to be stuffed but not so stuffed you can’t manage an after-dinner drink under the 15,000 strung crystals at the Chandelier Bar. It would be so easy for this space to be just another good-enough, money-printing lobby bar. Instead, the bartenders wear immaculate white jackets, the disposable cocktail napkins are real linen, and the exquisite crystal glassware feels like it came from the Titanic. From drive-through frozen daiquiris to elegant Sazeracs, cocktail culture is part of city’s DNA, which the historically minded drinks menu leans into. Invented in the 1850s, the Brandy Crusta is a triple threat: Cognac, Maraschino, and Curaçao, balanced with lemon, bitters and sparkling sugar coating the half the rim like frost. Have one. Have two. Indulging is part of the New Orleans experience, and your bed is only an elevator ride away.
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