New Orleans is a city of many names. The Big Easy, Crescent City, and NOLA are just a few of its monikers. It is a city known for jazz music, art, food, and culture. It is known for its French, Spanish and Creole influences. But it is also known as a place where, as we in Louisiana say, people come to “pass a good time.” New Orleans is a place where people come to party. And no street has such a reputation as Bourbon Street.
Bourbon Street is famed as the place where you can get a taste of Mardi Gras year round. Where you can wear beads, drink more than you can handle, and, most importantly, be whoever you want to be (and not the motivational put-your-mind-to-it sort of person either). It is the place in New Orleans to be as sinful, debaucherous, and playful as you want. This is all good and fun, but these are the reasons why locals will try to steer you away.
This, however, does not need to be the case. I believe that everyone should experience Bourbon Street. I do not think that means you should be walking around with $30 worth of gift shop Mardi Gras beads all while double fisting two huge-ass beers. No, there is a more refined side of Bourbon. And unless you are in college (Bourbon bars are 18+ to enter, 21 to drink), and you consider yourself to be adult-ish (as I do), then let’s keep it classy.
Let’s begin your journey onto Bourbon Street in those wonderful evening hours between daytime and night. There are still plenty of places to stay up until sunrise that aren’t Bourbon. Between 4:00 to 9:00 pm will be best. It has the perfect amount of mischief while you can still feel safe and clean. You will also be starting your journey on the Canal Street side of the 8-block party known as Bourbon. Upon entering, do not be fooled by the majestic Ritz-Carlton, as things are not as they seem. Pass up the first block altogether, which consists of the Krystal Burger and other rip-off eateries.
Your first stop, which happens to be the most sophisticated, is the bar at Galatoire’s If you see the sex shop next door, you’ve gone too far. Yes, I said sex shop. Bourbon Street may be one of the few places where world-renowned restaurants are next door to fetish shops. Why not have both vices?
Galatoire’s is a New Orleans staple, and with over 100 years of experience, they know how to mix a cocktail. There is also the recent addition of Galatoire’s 33 Bar to grab a drink. Men folk: If you are in a t-shirt and shorts, they will loan you a jacket for the duration of your stay. This is the place to grab a classic New Orleans cocktail such as the Sazerac, Brandy Milk Punch, or Ramos Gin Fizz.
After enjoying a leisurely drink in the ambiance of such a charming establishment, you will be quite surprised upon walking back onto Bourbon St. After a brief moment of trying to figure out how these two places could coexist together, you will shrug and continue on.
As you push forward into heart of Bourbon St. where huge-ass beers, overly sweet daiquiris, and booty bouncing clubs are seen more often, your next stop, the Old Absinthe House, is a proverbial calm in the storm. This is also where the famed Absinthe House Frappe was created, so I suggest getting that. The licorice flavor of the drink is tamed by anisette and soda water.
The sign says Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinthe House because it is rumored that Jean Lafitte and Andrew Jackson strategized the Battle of New Orleans in the building. If pirates and presidents meeting don’t give you a hint to how stately this bar is, other clientele includes Mark Twain, Franklin Roosevelt, Oscar Wilde, and Liza Minnelli.
Now that you’ve had a couple of cocktails at these esteemed bars it’s time for a pick-me-up at a darker, “divier” locale. A ten-second walk off of Bourbon Street will find your feet at the Erin Rose. Their special is the decadent Frozen Irish Coffee. They are also home to Killer Po boys, which are delicious, untraditional (not fried) po boys if you’re feeling peckish. They will slay your expectations for all other po boys. Even though the Erin Rose is mere steps from Bourbon, it has a totally different and local feel. Plus the Frozen Irish Coffee is practically boozy ice-cream, and who wouldn’t want that?
Now that we are three drinks in, you have without a doubt seen people walking around with tall, skinny, and neon yellow vessels that could only be used for containing alcoholic beverages. These are the famed hand-grenades and no trip down Bourbon is complete without one. And while it may not be as refined a stop as the others, you’re getting to to-go, so it doesn’t really count, does it?
There are many Tropical Isles down Bourbon but I suggest going to the Tropical Isle Original. It is here that you can get a giant hand-grenade, or if you’re feeling inclined to showmanship, a shark attack. Upon ordering a shark attack, the bartender makes a drink out of vodka, soda water, and simple syrup. Next, she squirts grenadine into the mouth of a toy shark. Last a bell is rung, “shark attack” is yelled, and the shark goes into your drink. Thus making it look like a bloody attack. Bonus: You get to keep the shark.
This is your first official “to-go” drink. If you got a huge-ass beer earlier, I certainly will not judge you. This would be a great time to head over a street to Royal and window shop or catch some of the numerous street acts. It is okay to leave Bourbon and wander around with your drink. You can always come back when you are thirsty again.
Your next stop is yet another famous New Orleans drinking institution: Pat O’Brien’s Bar. Pop in for a Hurricane, which is a sweet, bright red, rum-based drink. And stay to people watch in the lively courtyard or sit inside and listen and sing along to the dueling pianos. At this point you’ll be feeling just fine and wondering why you never got around to coming to New Orleans before.
Upon leaving, you’ll probably be stumbling out of the door. It’s getting later and it’s time to change up the scene. Before leaving Bourbon Street, I recommend stopping at Maison Bourbon, where Harry Connick Jr. had his apprenticeship or Preservation Hall for some jazz music. Preservation Hall has three shows nightly starting at 8:00 pm starring the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. You’ll come out feeling alive.
At this point of the night, hopefully you have come to a realization. New Orleans isn’t just about the party. It’s about the way it makes you feel and the interactions you have with the people who call New Orleans home. It’s about the way it grabs hold of your soul and doesn’t let go.
So go to Bourbon Street. Have yourself a few drinks at fantastic and historical places. Just don’t let it define your New Orleans experience. Move to the side streets, get your palms read, buy some art, listen to music, eat great food, go to Frenchman, go to a museum. But most importantly interact with the people. The people who were here before Katrina, or hell, before Camille (1969) even. The people who refuse to let their city be taken away from them. These people are New Orleans.
About the Author: Alexandra Grubbs is a Louisiana native who quit her job to travel the world. After visiting France as a child, she has had a wanderlust for the new and unknown. She is cycling and eating her way around Europe and hopes that you join her on her visit to discover the best things to see and eat. Visit her website at International Spooning.
All photos are property of the author.