I like to think of New Orleans as a woman of a certain age. She is a beauty slightly past her prime, clearly experienced in the ways of the world and possessed of a come-hither decadence that is not to be underestimated. That sense of the exotic and ever present threat of corruption permeates the city’s narrow streets and shuttered Creole cottages. It dances down Frenchmen Street to the brassy beat of street buskers and musicians, and it second lines past pan handlers and yarn spinners, gap-toothed smiles as bright as the sun glinting off of the Mississippi River. Living here, it feels as though adventure and tragedy and bliss have happened for hundreds of years and will still happen again and again. And it’s wonderful.
To the spellbound local and visitor that gets it, New Orleans is like no other place in America, a city formed by the superstitions, traditions, and history of Creoles, Spaniards, French, Irish, Italians, enslaved Africans and free people of color. The authentic experiences are driven by independent thinkers, creative spirits, and non-conformists. It’s a place that celebrates locally-owned and eclectic businesses, watering holes and feasting emporiums.
Enamored with New Orleans since I first came here on a writing assignment in 1991, I finally listened to my heart and moved here in 2012, first to a cozy little apartment in the Marigny, walking distance to everything I loved. Now I live a few blocks from there in the 7th Ward on a street with deep neighborhood roots and a strong sense of pride and community. I have so much still to learn about New Orleans and a lifetime in which to do it.
I was just on the other side of 50, certainly not young, but definitely young at heart. And what I’ve found over the past five years, as I’ve dug deeper, is that New Orleans is a fabulous place to be and visit at any age. It’s also an amazing place to grow older without feeling that you’re giving anything up or being diminished.
I’m sure ageism exists somewhere here, but I haven’t seen it in action. People in New Orleans expect and embrace oddities and quirkiness, they celebrate differences. You can dress how you want, be age inappropriate (whatever that means), and nobody bats a glittered eyelash. Being comfortable in your own aging skin is all that matters. The city’s particular brand of magical realism delivers a sumptuous quality of life that doesn’t depend on money to access. There’s an ever-present culture, unparalleled music and art scene and constant opportunities to engage the senses, stimulate the mind and foster social interaction. If that’s not a recipe for happiness, I don’t know what is.
If you’re like me, a curious sort, you’ll want to dig a little deeper into what is possible in a place haunted by ghosts and voodoo, jazz greats and dreamers, makers of art and worshippers at the altar of excess. This is New Orleans, or at least the flash of thigh and the hint of breast that the old girl is willing to share. But there’s always hope that she’ll reveal more, if you’re willing to dance along to the music and wait as her faded youth and weary elegance become more and more defined.
Whether you’re planning your first visit or making a return trip, New Orleans is waiting for you. Here are five of my favorite things to do—why not do them when you come to town and don’t hold back, do them out loud.
Wear a wig
Wigs are so liberating. I didn’t know just how fab I’d feel in a cobalt pageboy until I discovered Fifi Mahony’s on Royal Street. Home to towering Pepto-pink bouffant wigs, glittery false eyelashes that put Tammy Faye to shame, and bright peacock-sized, peacock feather headdresses, this place is a trip. Glamour pusses clamor for the outrageous theatrical makeup, spectacular wigs and accessories geared to show-stopping performances, drag and otherwise. Pay $5 for a stretchy hair cover and you can try on wigs to see what looks great—the $5 goes towards your purchase. Since you only live once, you might as well be fabulous every day and wear Fifi’s to the supermarket. That’s quite normal in New Orleans, where pink hair is as common as Mardi Gras beads on St. Charles Avenue.
Legend has it that the cocktail was invented in New Orleans. Whether or not that’s 100 percent true, there is no denying that many a cocktail has been birthed in the Crescent City, undoubtedly the lodestar of American drinking culture. In recent years, a new generation of innovative mixologists is mixing up venerable cocktail traditions, new recipes, fresh ingredients, hand-squeezed juices and homemade syrups and tinctures to the glass.
When I want to worship at the altar of Sazerac, I go to the impeccable Sazerac Bar in the gorgeous Roosevelt Hotel, where the 19th century original recipe made with cognac, Peychaud’s bitters, and Herbsaint Legendre is favored. For a frothy Ramos gin fizz, a favorite of notorious former governor Huey P. Long, I like to wander to Bar Tonique on Rampart across from Armstrong Park, a chill neighborhood spot with a well-curated list of drinks and a daily $5 special. Neal Bodenheimer and Matthew Kohnke are pioneers in local cocktail craft, opening their innovative Cure bar in a renovated firehouse on Freret Street before this uptown corridor was on anybody’s radar.
For an old-school love potion, bartender Chris Hannah at Arnaud’s French 75 Bar mixes that namesake drink with Cognac instead of gin. I’d never had a grasshopper until bartender Brian Kientz poured me the minty Dreamsicle at Tujague’s, a revelatory sip at the bar where it was invented. And thanks to the city’s container law, you can order that ‘hopper to go and walk with it to wherever you’re headed next.
Shake your brass with Rebirth at the Maple Leaf
Rebirth Brass was founded in 1983 upon the notion that New Orleans brass doesn’t come in just one flavor. The band, known for its legendary Tuesday late-night gig at the Maple Leaf uptown on Oak Street, both upholds the tradition of brass and plays it forward, bringing funk and hip-hop into the mix. The Grammy award-winning result is epic and so New Orleans, a booty-shaking party in motion that transforms Tuesday night into a happening. The Maple Leaf, an institution since 1974, is one of the longest-running New Orleans’ music clubs with live performances seven nights a week crossing all musical styles, from blues, funk and R&B, to rock, zydeco and jazz. The place is cool, drawing lively crowds that usually spill out onto the street. The action doesn’t get going ‘til 11—if you need to nap to last, then by all means do so. Their song, Do Whatcha Wanna (check it on You Tube), is the perfect anthem to shaking your brass at every age.
Friday lunch at Galatoire’s
Friday lunch is a locals’ tradition at Galatoire’s on Bourbon Street, a big-time notable for high fashion, flowing champagne and decadent excess. New Orleanians dressed to impress line up early for the 11:30 a.m. seating, or more likely pay a “sitter” to wait in line for them. Reservations aren’t taken for Friday lunch and with only 41 tables and 132 seats in the coveted first-floor dining room, competition is fierce. But snag a table, and you’ll see a convivial scene of table-hopping, martini drinking, hoots of laughter and the occasional outbreak of song. Lunch is endless, usually still loudly carrying on come dinnertime. Through it all, the best waiters in the city serve platters of trout meuniere, shrimp remoulade and stuffed eggplant, a tradition that hopefully will never change.
Dance on Frenchmen Street
Frenchmen Street in the Marigny is hands-down one of the best concentrations of live music venues in town. Every night, within a three-block stretch, you can second line with a brass band, catch a reggae groove at Cafe Negril and swing dance at the Spotted Cat. Next door, there’s an evening art garden spotlighting local talent. A few doors up, hear excellent funk at Blue Nile with Big Sam’s Funky Nation and support local talent like Washboard Chaz at the Apple Barrel. Ellis Marsalis is a Friday regular at Snug Harbor, a stellar jazz venue. Cover charges vary, but it’s free to wander the street and people watch, music pouring out of clubs as you stroll.