I’ve typically spent this week of freedom with my family in Florida… aka sleeping 12 hours a day, chilling in the pool, eating more ice cream than usual and trying to get a tan.
This year was quite different and I couldn’t be happier about it. After some other plans fell through, me and three friends planned a short trip to New Orleans. It felt random because it wasn’t a city that had a high priority on my travel list – but we found a cheap flight and had a place to stay so it was a done deal.
I’ll be honest, day one was not the best. We showed up, ate a subpar dinner and walked around the surrounding area – which led us to Bourbon Street. Think block after block of neon lights, tourist traps, brightly colored drinks in plastic fishbowls and catcalls. Not my cup of tea…in fact I walked back to the hotel fearing how I would spend the rest of my week.
However, the next day brought a fresh perspective – we went to the National WWII museum which was fabulous (seeing the film is totally worth the extra $5, FYI), explored part of the Lower Garden District and wrapped up our afternoon with some amazing pizza and a pit stop at an affogato bar called Drip.
One of my goals for the trip was to experience the music scene of the city and I’m convinced that we couldn’t have done it better than our night on Frenchman Street. Going off a recommendation, we went to a little venue called D.B.A. to see a live band. They were absolutely incredible! Going a tiny bit off the beaten path was totally worth it – the experience felt incredibly authentic and we all left raving about how much fun it was.
Later on in the week we hopped on the famous streetcar and headed down St. Charles Street, admiring the beautiful homes and scenery. We spent time exploring Tulane University’s campus and wandering the neighborhoods – stopping in a sweet little bakery and bookstore.
That evening we went outside of the immediate city to see more live music – a band that has played the same venue every Tuesday night for decades. The band, Rebirth Brass Band is quite legendary in their Maple Leaf gig and despite the hefty cover charge and long wait it was totally worth it. I was blown away by the talent of the players and the locals’ enthusiasm for this tradition.
There’s no argument about it, the locals of New Orleans were hands down some of the best people that I’ve interacted with throughout my travels. Every single person we asked for recommendations, directions or anything was so incredibly willing to help us out or share some of their favorite things to do in the city.
Guidebooks, Trip Advisor and Yelp reviews can be incredibly helpful, but taking the time to talk to the actual humans who make New Orleans into the vibrant, diverse city it is, is what transformed my week and my opinion of the city.
Talking to our Uber drivers about their favorite places in the city led to serious conversation about their experiences during Hurricane Katrina. Going on a walking tour with a local taught me so much incredible history about the French Quarter in a couple hours. Exploring places off the beaten path and walking miles throughout the city led us to try amazing restaurants, see artwork and other awesome sights that we would have never found in a guidebook.
One of my favorite afternoons was spent curled up on a couch in Stumptown Coffee Roasters, reading a new book and enjoying all the people filtering through the coffee shop – locals and tourists alike. A random guy played the piano for a couple hours and it was simply blissful to just be – to experience all sorts of sides of New Orleans – to be extra mindful of my surroundings.
This trip reminded me, once again, that every single place in this world is incredibly unique. Yes, some cities have glitz and endless attractions, while others may not even have the luxury of a stoplight. But what makes these cities individual and interesting are the people that inhabit them and the decades that have shaped it. Taking the time to actually learn about New Orleans – the history, the pain and triumphs that have taken place there – and the people that have so passionately rebuilt it made it a personal, worthwhile experience.
We could spend the rest of our lives behind a screen – reading, watching and learning about the infinite places in this world. Feeling *this close* to them in virtual reality. But nothing will ever beat a physical experience – swaying to jazz music next to strangers, getting lost in neighborhoods or sitting in a coffee shop getting to experience people’s day to day lives.
Get out – traveling doesn’t have to be expensive, but the experiences gained are priceless.