New Orleans is many things, but boring is not one of them. While 2005's Hurricane Katrina will never ebb from the Crescent City's memory, it did little to dampen the city's spirit of joie de vivre. The French Quarter is now thronged with tourists, the Garden District sparkles, and neighborhoods like the Bywater and the Warehouse District are energized with youthful energy and exciting restaurants.
To the LGBT traveler, New Orleans feels like no other city, especially one in the American South. Flamboyance is part of the culture and queer life has been an active part of this city's identity for decades. Of course, nightclubs like Oz and events like Southern Decadence are natural magnets for gay travelers to New Orleans. But that's just the tip of the iceberg; get out and eat authentic Cajun food, ride a streetcar with your honey, hit blackjack at Harrah's, wander through crumbling cemeteries, or stumble home on cobblestone streets as saxophones cut through the air.
EAT: Only-in-NOLA Dining Options
New Orleans has a flavor all its own and boasts a culinary scene just as expansive and impressive as its aural soundscape. Creole gumbo and jambalaya, literal melting pots of flavor, are the most iconic dishes to come out of this cultural diverse region. For starters here are three unmissable institutions.
Arnaud's: Serving rich Creole cuisine since 1918, Arnaud's is a fine-dining institution in New Orleans. The sole moliere made our mouth water and watching the Bananas Foster light up like an inferno is even better after a few Sazeracs. (813 Bienville Street, more info)
Pesce: Serving modern American and Cajun fare in a hip, airy setting in the burgeoning Warehouse District. Price per person: $10-20. Good for seafood lovers and wine connosieurs. Full bar. Recommended: shrimp toast. (800 Magazine Street, more info)
The Joint: Serving barbeque and other southern staples in a relaxing, youthful environment in the Bywater district; very down-home NOLA. Price per person: $10-20. Good for meat lovers. Full bar. Recommended: ribs, combo three meats with two side plates. (701 Mazant Street, more info)
The Commanders Palace: Serving Cajun and seafood dishes in an upscale setting in the gorgeous Garden District. Price per person: $30 and up. Good for a night evening out. Full bar. Recommended: turtle soup; it takes three days to make! Make sure to make a reservation. (1403 Washington Ave., more info)
Cafe du Monde: This NOLA landmark has been serving up hot chicory coffee and beignets, hole-less donuts covered in powdered sugar, since 1862. Stop by after a night of drinking (it's open 24 hours) or before your day starts. (800 Decatur Street, more info) Bonus: take a bag of beignets and explore the nearby, historic French Market, which spans six beautiful blocks.
(MORE: 10 Restaurant Ideas and How to Make Your Own Classic NOLA Dish)
SLEEP: Where to Lay your Head in the Big Easy
To call New Orleans a melting pot would be an understatement. This crescent by the Gulf passed from French to Spanish and back to French hands before becoming part of the States in 1803. Plus, it's always had a strong connection to the Caribbean.
Ritz-Carlton New Orleans: This sumptious beauty, currently undergoing renovations to make it even more gorgeous, is in the heart of it all; sandwiched between the French Quarter and the Central Business District. The central courtyard is made for romantic assignations. Also, don't forget brunch in the expansive dining room. (921 Canal Street, more info)
Roosevelt New Orleans: If you want a luxurious NOLA experience, look no further than the Roosevelt New Orleans. The rich and famous have stayed here and it's believed the Sazerac was born at the Roosevelt. The hotel, a Waldorf Astoria property, is located in the Central Business District just across Canal Street from the French Quarter. (123 Baronne Street, more info)
Le Pavillon Hotel (pictured): Wait, are we in Paris? You could be fooled with this gorgeous property, built in 1907, during the Gilded Age. The exterior is breathtakingly beautiful and the interiors are just as gorgeous. Located in the CBD, so very convenient if you're doing business in the city. (833 Poydras Street, more info)
Bienville House: An affordable respite from the Quarter's craziness and close to Woldenberg Park and Jackson Square, the Bienville House has a cozy lobby and a convenient restaurant and bar inside. Plus: it's across from a fire station (hubba hubba). (320 Decatur Street, more info)
(MORE: 12 Places to Rest Your Head in the Big Easy)
TOUR: Check Out NOLA's Best Guided Tours
The Twirl, a Gay Heritage and Drinks Tour: Historian and writer Glenn Louis DeVillier epitomizes New Orleans, with his debonair flair and hunger for good food, good drink, and good stories. Glenn will give you an insider's view of NOLA's rich gay history on his walking tour, including the deadly fire at the Upstairs Lounge. (Meet at Little Vic's, 719 Toulouse Street, more info)
Back o’ Town Tour: Visit two neighborhoods, two cemeteries, two churches, and a haunted bar in the Vieux Carre. Participate in an special tribute at the tomb of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. It ends with you making and getting blessed your own voodoo doll. Fridays and Saturdays at 12 noon; $69 per person. (Meet at 941 Bourbon Street in Laffittes Blacksmith Shop Bar in patio area, more info)
Honey Island Swamp Tour: Small boat tour (not airboats) of the preserved wetlands with locals guides. Get up and close with a variety of animals, and you can also try the tour at night. Two-hour tours start from 9:30 a.m., 12 noon, 2:45 p.m. (seasonal), 5 p.m. (seasonal). (Call to arrange a pick up at your hotel, more info)
Jazz Cocktail Tour: Enjoying learning the history of jazz by going to four music venues with live music. Drinks guaranteed at each venue! All done in the lower French Quarter. Friday and Saturday evenings 6:30 to 9 p.m. (Starts at Mojito’s Rum Bar and Grill, 437 Esplanade Avenue, more info)
Celebration Tour: Three hour drive-by tour, where you see the French Market, Bourbon Street, St. Louis Cathedral, the Lower Ninth Ward, and city cemeteries. Starts at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.; $49 per person. (Pick up at downtown NOLA and French Quarter hotels, more info)
PLAY: 12 New Orleans Watering Holes
Wet your whistle at one, or all, of these New Orleans nightspots.
Oz: The most infamous gay dance club in New Orleans, and possibly, the South. With a sizeable dance floor, a second story that overlooks the action below, outdoor area, and hot bartenders, Oz is the place for gays to party down on Bourbon Street and is the epicenter of gay life during Mardi Gras and the Souther Decadence festival (see below). Also, lots of album release parties and live performances. (800 Bourbon Street, more info)
Bourbon Pub & Parade: The only gay club in NOLA open 24/7, the Bourbon Pub & Parade is homey and locally-patronized; it's also pretty easy to start a conversation with a stranger there. Right across the street from Oz, the Bourbon shows hilarious videos on numerous TV screens that help attract a fun-loving and usually inebriated crowd. (801 Bourbon Street, more info)
Southern Decadence: Held over Labor Day Weekend, the street party/circuit event known as Southern Decadence is NOLA's largest gay festival. The 42nd event happens in 2013, from August 28 to September 2. While VIP passes are sold out, regular admission is still available (as of July). (Much of the action happens at Bourbon Pub & Parade, more info)
(MORE: 12 New Orleans Watering Holes)
MY CITY: Advocate and HIV Plus editor Diane Anderson-Minshall
Diane Anderson-Minshall, editor in chief of HIV Plus and contributing editor for The Advocate — sister publications of Out Traveler — lived in New Orleans eight times and visited the city countless times. “It's an alluring, hypnotic, and fascinating city, especially for LGBT travelers, who will find that the city stands out as the South's most accommodating and welcoming burg,” she says. The following are a list of Diane’s favorite NOLA spots.
Pat O’Brien’s: One of my favorite places on Earth is dismissed by New Orleans natives as a tourist trap but you'd be hard pressed to have a bad time there. Pat O'Briens is a French Quarter institution, a giant entertainment complex that is broken into three sections — a classic Cheers-style bar, a courtyard restaurant area, and a kick ass piano bar. Millions of travelers come through there each year, and I've seen people stand in blocks around the line in order to get a spot inside the piano bar. Why? Because they have dueling pianos players singing songs that are both classics (like Billy Joe's "Piano Man") and Southern staples (everything from Dixie to the Alabama fight song); you'll make instant friends with the over revelers, LGBT-friendliness reins; photographers bounce around capturing you and your friends on film (they print the photos while you party, a lovely pre-Instagram memento; I have dozens); and when you do get those photos you'll notice your table is filled with empty Hurricane glasses because this is where New Orleans' famous Hurricane cocktail was invented and they still make it better than anyone else. I'm dreaming of one right now. It's popular year round but you might want to go Dec. 3, for Pat O's 80th Anniversary Block Party. The party, which is on St. Peter St. in the French Quarter, starts at 5 p.m. and goes all night. The Bucktown Allstars who will be will be playing part of the time and they'lll be serving half price Hurricanes all day long. You'll leave Pat O's with souvenirs anytime you visit (the collectible hurricane glasses go with you) and there's a special 80th anniversary glass being given out that night. (more info)
Loft 523: If I want to feel like a rock star, I stay at the industrial chic boutique hotel, Loft 523. The place is a 19th century warehouse converted to a concrete luxury hotel with only 18 huge rooms. And rock stars (and movie stars and top athletes) do stay here, in part because the place is so private that you sort of have to know it's here. It's not the kind of hotel that advertises. It's pet friendly (there's a fee associated) and it has the kind of design touches you'd expect in an chich upscale urban escape but with 12 foot ceilings and whirlybird fans. My favorite feature: the limestone bathrooms are outfitted with Agape's acclaimed "Spoon" tubs, which are bathtubs shaped like eggs and make you want to lay in them for hours. (more info)
Papa Noel and Hanukkah at Riverwalk: I tell everyone to go to New Orleans year round (except if you go in July and August be prepared to sweat and shower a lot and save a lot of money), but my favorite time to visit is December. The whole city gets in on the action. City Park, one of the largest urban parks in the U.S., gets decked out with nearly two million lights decorating 100-year-old oak trees for the Celebration in the Oaks. (and you can drive through or better yet, ride a horse-drawn carriage through the to oaks.) The Sunday before Christmas, people from all over come to Jackson Square to sing carols. St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating Catholic Church in the country, draws hundreds for their month-long concert series. Famous and local chefs offer free holiday cooking demos. And, the beautiful Mississippi River is gorgeously with bonfires meant to welcome Papa Noel (the city's version of Santa Clause). Papa Noel is just one of the many wonderful Creole traditions that remind you that while New Orleans certainly belongs to America, it's a uniquely international city with influences from far more cultures than most U.S. metros. (Bonus: Many of the hotels offer Papa Noel discounts, so be sure to ask before you book.) And if you're Jewish (or merely hate Christmas traditions), there's Hanukkah at the Riverwalk, an event where the largest Menorah in Louisiana is lit, people play contemporary Jewish music, and they hand out free potato pancakes (or latkes). Kids get free dreidels and chocolate coins (because even at holiday time, people in New Orleans like to yell "Throw me something, mister"). (more info)
Saints and Sinners Literary Festival: Originally founded in 2003, Saints and Sinners has grown into an internationally-recognized event that brings together a who’s-who of LGBT publishers, writer, and readers from around the globe It's also the liveliest lit fest out there (perhaps tying with Wordstock). There are classes and talks by big name writers (I was on a panel with the legendary Val McDermid a few years back, a highlight of my year) and days events tend to bleed into nights. At the last fest I went out with a couple of authors for dinner, then the next morning I was stumbling out of an uptown dive bar called Snake and Jake's Christmas Club Lounge into the morning light and took the trolley directly to the festival; I was one of many, many authors there who had not slept that night. So is the beauty of this congenial Crescent City. (Held in May, more info)
Susan Spicer: One of the best chefs on the planet, Susan Spicer, has owned a few restaurants in New Orleans including the award winning Bayona, which is a mandatory stop every time I'm in the city. The food is a fusion of international influences including North African, Asian, and Mediterranean and as a pioneer of the slow food movement (which takes on a whole new meaning when you're kicking it in a 200-year-old bungalow in New Orleans), you can languish there for hours with good friends, great food, and, during lunch Wed.-Fri., 23 cent martinis! (in honor of the eatery's 23rd anniversary this year). (more info)
MORE WAYS TO EXPLORE NEW ORLEANS
Enjoying New Orleans: From Fancy to Frugal
Honeymoon Two Ways: New Orleans
New Orleans for Halloween