From skipping repellent tourist drinks to not taunting malevolent ghouls, here’s a list of things NOT to do in New Orleans.
New Orleans has been called “The Accidental City” for a few reasons. They built NOLA on a mosquito-infested swamp, it resides below sea level, and has historically been a magnet for hurricanes, disease, roaches, rats, and marauders. Yet despite the universe’s best efforts, New Orleans is still here and still thriving. There are a million things to do in New Orleans, but the lesser spoken of things to avoid can be just as helpful for a fulfilling visit to the Big Easy.
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DON’T Wear Mardi Gras Beads Unless It’s Carnival
Wearing Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans at any time other than the official Carnival season is like wearing a wedding dress on a first date—it sends the wrong message, and it calls negative attention to yourself. If you’re wearing a neck full of beads during the summer, you’ll make yourself the target of a tourist scam. Someone will likely approach you—as they did my cousin—and bet they can guess “where you got your shoes.”
My cousin scoffed at the proposed bet, confident that this French Quarter hustler would never guess he bought his hand-sewn bluchers from a men’s shop in Eastern Connecticut. The man looked my cousin up and down and said, “You got them on your feet!” My cousin laughed and tried to walk away, but the man came after him, insisting on being paid for the clever rouse. All of this was because my cousin made himself look like a tourist by wearing beads close to Labor Day. Carnival officially begins in early January for the Feast of the Epiphany and doesn’t end until midnight on Fat Tuesday, so there’s plenty of time for tawdry plastic baubles if your trip happens to fall within those holy days.
DON’T Relieve Yourself in the Street (ESPECIALLY During Mardi Gras)
In New Orleans, people tend to regress by a few decades, often turning the most respectable professionals into unhinged children of the night. If you’re bar hopping, you may find yourself on a stretch of street devoid of bathroom options. This situation becomes especially true during Mardi Gras, where many bathrooms are off-limits to non-customers, not to mention the enormous lines of like-minded revelers looking for relief. During the five epic days leading up to Fat Tuesday, the police are on high alert. If caught in the act, they will take you to Orleans Parish Prison, toss you in the general population, and leave you there until Ash Wednesday. They won’t let your friends bail you out either, as the police force is stretched too thin to process any releases. If you get caught on a Friday evening, you’re in the clink until the following Wednesday.
DON’T Be Afraid to Ask a Local
In most cities, you might hesitate to ask the heavily pierced topless woman playing banjo in the street for a restaurant recommendation, but this is New Orleans. She probably knows a hole in the wall that serves life-changing yakamein. Locals truly love to guide visitors through their avenues and share all of the city’s sensory delights. Each neighborhood has its own flavor of residents, and they all know where to find the best of the best, be it food or music. Locals may not always give you precise directions to their favorite destination; they might tell you to “keep walking until you see Manny sleeping in front of the red house with the cross-eyed cat.” But with a bit of luck and Google maps, you’ll find places you’d never experience otherwise without the help of an enthusiastic New Orleanian.
DON’T Let Anyone Tell You to Skip Bourbon Street
Everything you’ve heard about Bourbon Street is true. There is no description too outlandish to encapsulate this iconic thoroughfare that runs from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue. Named after the royal house of Bourbon in France, it’s famous for its vast stretch of thumping, neon-laden bars that entice visitors with cheap drink specials and the promise of a night they’ll never forget. While the cons of Bourbon are lengthy (it often smells atrocious, it can be perilous, and you’ll always ruin nice shoes), it’s still Bourbon Street, and you have to visit it at least once.
If the typical tourist traps aren’t your thing, explore a little deeper. The farther you walk away from Canal Street, you’ll find a kinder, gentler Bourbon featuring must-visit bars like Old Absinthe House, the legendary Good Friends established in 1761 as America’s oldest watering hole, and the delightfully haunted Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. From the time I was eight years old and saw a naked lady riding a bike to the night I got punched in the face twice, I can safely say that I’ve never had a bad time on Bourbon Street.
DON’T Spend All of Your Time in the French Quarter
The pleasures of the Quarter are many, as are its sins, but spending your entire trip within its amusing confines is like visiting a buffet and only eating shrimp creole—it’s delicious, but you must branch out. A relaxing streetcar ride from the edge of the French Quarter to Oak Street, located in the picturesque Riverbend area, will only cost you a dollar and a quarter. There you’ll find quaint coffee shops like Zotz, an impressive wine collection at Oak Bar, and one of the city’s live music staples in The Maple Leaf, where Jazz Fest headliners have been known to take the stage during drunken late-night sets. The Irish Channel neighborhood, The Bywater, Mid City, and Freret Street offer different tastes of the city and cater to the more discerning traveler. The Quarter is a must-see and a jewel in New Orlean’s crown, but venturing farther out will only deepen your appreciation of this city.
DON’T Dismiss a New Orleans Summer
Yes, it’s hot. Unbelievably so. It’s hard to understate how uncomfortable it feels outside when temperatures soar into the nineties and the humidity gets cranked to a hundred percent. The heat in New Orleans is genuinely oppressive during the summer, but when the afternoon rain arrives to cool things down, there are few joys more uncorrupted than a dewy beer in an air-conditioned bar during a downpour.
There’s something intellectual about drinking in a local saloon during a summer thunderstorm. You could imagine yourself conversing with Tennessee Williams or ruminating over Hemingway’s description of rain-soaked Parisian rooftops. Or you could do neither and just watch the steam rise from the sun-baked pavement while you sip a cold beer. If the romantic aspect of unpredictable weather isn’t enough, New Orleans summer offers a myriad of festivals, quirky events, and the same year-round live music schedule.
Tales of the Cocktail, the premiere booze, and hospitality event in the United States, occurs in late July and elevates the city’s drinking culture for a few short days. If you want to test your party stamina, The Red Dress Run happens smack dab in the middle of August as thousands of “runners” in red dresses descend upon the French Quarter for a weapons-grade day of bar hopping. Lastly, the city sees a sharp drop in tourism, so prices are lower and deals like the annual Coolinary, where you can find absurd discounts at some of New Orleans’ most renowned restaurants, only happens in the summer.
DON’T Drink the Sugar Water
Most of the signature drinks that cater to the tourist crowd are nothing more than sugar, food coloring, and cheap grain alcohol. These drinks claim to represent the city’s spirit, but there are more suitable, less crippling cocktails to enjoy while you’re in town. Try a Sazerac at the Roosevelt Hotel or a French 75 at Arnaud’s if you prefer a drink that won’t cause temporary blindness and massive hangovers the following day. Cure on Freret Street specializes in traditional and eclectic cocktails shaken by painfully hip bartenders. While a greasy breakfast can remedy most hangovers, too many sugary cocktails off Bourbon Street can rob you of your will to live.
DON’T Skip The Wank
New Orleans proper has more to offer than you could ever pack into a weekend, but check out the Westbank (or as some locals call it, “The Wank”) if you’re staying a bit longer. Home to a thriving Vietnamese community, you’ll find many traditional restaurants like Tan Dinh in Gretna. The Westbank is also perfect for the golf enthusiast. The TPC of Louisiana is a surprisingly affordable championship golf course in Avondale. If your visit happens to fall during mid-April, you won’t only enjoy almost perfect weather, but you can also catch the Zurich Classic, the PGA’s most lively professional golf event. Unlike many tournaments that can be slightly reserved, the Zurich is a four-day party on the Westbank. After a few beers and a plate of oysters in the Acme tent adjacent to the 17th hole, you’ll be calling it “The Wank” too, as you cheer for your favorite golfers on a boozy April afternoon.
DON’T Miss a Festival
A wise person once said, “you can’t swing a cat without hitting a festival in New Orleans.” That person was my uncle who, after three “Huge Ass Beers,” wandered into French Quarter Fest, never to be seen again. Whether it be oysters, tacos, crawfish, catfish, blues, film, dance, or the renowned Jazz Fest—you’re sure to find a festival to your liking in the Big Easy.
While more significant events like Voodoo Fest in October boast huge musical acts, smaller festivals pack the most cultural punch. The Tennessee Williams & New Orleans Literary Festival may not be as well known, but this five-day celebration in late March has something you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Festival-goers assemble beneath the ornate apartments next to Jackson Square and compete for who can best duplicate Marlon Brando’s iconic “Stella” scream from A Streetcar Named Desire. Anyone can enter, and the raw passion must be seen to be believed.
DON’T Play With the Ghosts
New Orleans’ haunted history is well-documented, and while some dismiss it as another quirk of an already peculiar city, its origins are all too real. Many of the most infamous tales stem from New Orleans’ violent and checkered past when tormented enslaved people and voodoo queens were brutally killed for practicing their religion. The city has numerous tours that will take you to haunted hot spots and tell you their stories, and some bars like Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop even claim to be plagued by spirits.
While you may not believe in the afterlife, there’s no denying the spiritual energy that envelops the Crescent City. Depending on your intentions, these spirits can be malicious. Countless tourists have reported strange and terrifying occurrences while staying in some of the city’s older hotels. These are anecdotal, of course, but if hauntings frighten you in the least, make sure to visit New Orleans with an open heart and positive vibes, and you might not encounter a ghost baby writing your name in blood on the bathroom wall.
DON’T Rent a Car
Renting a car in New Orleans is a bad idea for a few reasons, most notably, the unbelievably poor condition of the roads. Without local knowledge of the cavernous potholes around the city, you could easily run your rental into one and tear off the front end. Hitting some of the potholes around town can feel like a drone strike has targeted your vehicle; it’s as jarring as crashing an escape pod on the surface of Mars.
There’s a water-filled pothole on Magazine Street so deep that you can fully submerge a human being. Take that expensive possibility out of the equation and use the streetcar or rideshare of your choice. Also, car break-ins are rising, and you wouldn’t want to be on the hook for a shattered window. Many of the most picturesque areas are highly walkable, so ditch the rental and hoof it as much as you can. New Orleans is meant to be experienced deliberately, but watch your step; you wouldn’t want to be swallowed by a pothole. No one knows how deep they really go.
DON’T Pet the Celebrities
Much of the hype around New Orleans being dubbed “Hollywood South” has faded. In the past, the city offered unbelievable tax credits to movie studios and the narrow streets filled with movie trucks. Celebrity sightings exploded, and many tourists would overstep and try to interact too closely. Those credits have dried up, but the city is still a hotspot for production.
Don’t be surprised to run into one of your favorite stars having a drink at a dive bar or taking in a show. Luminaries of the big and small screens love Nola because it’s a place where, for the most part, they can unwind and exist without interruption. So, chill out if you see Tom Cruise enjoying a bowl of gumbo at Coop’s. Leave him be; the chances are he’ll be much more approachable after a few drinks, and you can politely ask him for a photo or tell him why Vanilla Sky is a perfect film.