Dancing in the Streets in New Orleans: Music Festivals and Much More
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is sing a happy tune, hop on a plane, and head to New Orleans, where major music is happening all the time. Everyone knows NOLA is the American city that dances the night away to live music—you’ll hear it played right on the streets of the fabulous French Quarter, in clubs in the Marigny, at hotspots in the Central Business District (CBD), in the Warehouse District, down on Magazine and Tchopitoulas streets, and literally everywhere you roam in this vibrant city.
But did you know that throughout the year, New Orleans plays host to some of the greatest music festivals on the planet? Start with the massive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival held on the racetrack in the late spring (April-May) and go on to the Essence Festival, which spends every night of Fourth of July weekend indoors at the Superdome. Hit the popular Voodoo Music + Arts Experience that happens all day and all night over Halloween weekend in City Park, or come to town a bit earlier in October for the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival, the annual free weekend of shows when the blues rule in Lafayette Square.
Also free of charge are the French Quarter Festival, which occurs in early April every year and is spread out on 24 stages all over the French Quarter, and the mid-summer Satchmo Summerfest, held in the quarter at the Louisiana State Museum’s Old US Mint. The Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo gets down and funky every May for a free weekend filled with tunes, on the banks of Bayou St. John.
Plus, from March to June every year, the free Wednesdays at the Square concerts are held at Lafayette Square in the CBD, featuring many of the Big Easy’s favorite local bands, from Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers to Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Irma Thomas, and Dumpstaphunk.
Whichever music festival you choose, picking a hotel is simple in New Orleans. There are so many places to stay in the city that caters to tourists (and conventions) it is mind boggling. One of our favorites is the newly renovated Loews New Orleans Hotel, which has a practically perfect location. Sitting just at the edge of the French Quarter and the CBD, this lovely property has it all. Spacious and comfortable rooms with excellent beds, stunning views of the Mississippi River and beyond, the luxurious Balance Spa, and the wonderful Café Adelaide all combine to make this an ideal home away from home.
It’s an easy walk to most of the music festivals from the Loews, too; head one way and you can be in the heart of the quarter in 10 minutes, or walk the other way for 10 minutes to get to the Superdome. Lafayette Square is even closer. Jump on the streetcar to go farther into the Garden District and to City Park (or just take a ride for the fun of it); one-way tickets are $1.25 (at the time of writing), or buy an unlimited ride three-day Jazzy Pass for $9, which is also good on city buses.
Especially fun (we tried it out recently during Jazz Fest) is the hotel’s Girlfriends Getaway, which includes two nights in a spacious Grand Queen room (with two of those comfy beds) and two welcome cocktails at the Swizzle Stick Bar as well as a cocktail set up that greets you as you enter your room. That’s got all the fixin’s necessary to shake up a couple of martinis to get the party started. And, in classic NOLA style, they also provide a “Recovery Concierge Kit” for when your wild weekend is over—filled with things including Emergen-C, protein bars, and (naturally) headache remedies.
If staying right in the heart of the beast is more your style, the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street is the hot ticket, with its famous balconies overlooking the always crazy street scene there. But be warned, the massive street noise does not die down until about 5 a.m., so if sleeping is part of your plan while visiting, it may not happen there. That’s true of any hotel on Bourbon, which is why we like the close-yet-quiet location of the Loews.
To many of us, New Orleans is the food capital of America, if not the world. From the smallest ramshackle po’boy shop to the most elegant dining establishments, this city has it all. Home to Emeril Lagasse, John Besh, Leah Chase, Paul Prudhomme, Susan Spicer, Donald Link, and the Brennan clan, this is a place where there really are too many choices.
But choose we must! Regardless of whether or not you stay at the Loews Hotel, definitely stop into Café Adelaide, which is part of one branch of the illustrious Brennan family’s restaurant empire (Commander’s Palace and SoBou are the others run by this part of the clan, while Brennan’s, Dickie Brennan’s Steakhouse, Red Fish Grill, Bacco, Café Noma, etc., are helmed by other members).
At Café Adelaide, you’ll find mouthwatering dishes such as their signature Shrimp & Tasso “Corndog,” a single wild shrimp coated in tasso ham batter, fried, and served with five-pepper jelly. That’s spicy, crunchy, sweet, and the best “corndog” ever. For some really decadent eats, order the Absinthe Barbequed Double Cut Pork Chop, a fat, juicy, delicious chop smothered in absinthe BBQ sauce, or perhaps the New Orleans “East” Style BBQ Shrimp, an offering that successfully mashes up an Asian vibe (there’s kimchi on the plate) with downhome Louisiana grits. Pair them all with wines specially curated from the Americas, both North and South. And save room for dessert, too; they make some killer treats.
At Commander’s Palace, James Beard award-winning chef Tory McPhail whips up Creole classics including Cochon du Lait Cassoulet (slow-cooked pork shoulder and housemade boudin sausage married with a white-bean purée) and a spicy, rich gumbo. Be sure to try the restarant’s famed Turtle Soup, which takes three days to create, and if you go for lunch, martinis are only 25 cents! There’s a limit of three per person, for as they say, “‘cause that’s enough!”
Visit one or more of chef John Besh’s wonderful eateries, too. Restaurant August is a world-class, award-winning French Creole place that is priced accordingly but worth every penny. For a more wallet-friendly place try Borgne, his homage to Louisiana fishing-camp food that features $10 lunch specials every day, or head to Besh’s French brasserie called Lüke for happy hour, when raw oysters are 50 cents and wine, beer, and well cocktails are half price. It’s a steal!
Grab a po’boy (the city’s signature submarine sandwich on crispy French bread) at Acme in the French Quarter, Parasol’s in the Irish Channel neighborhood, or on your way to the airport at the Short Stop in Kenner. There you’ll find the best debris roast beef po’boy you’ve ever eaten, a finely chopped mess of slow-cooked meat that has its own distinctive flavor. Remember to grab a lot of napkins, for that’s a messy, yet soulfully satisfying experience.
If you have come to the Big Easy for a music festival, you’ll soon discover that the food being sold at the fest is incredible. Take Jazz Fest, for example. The food courts there stretch across the racetrack infield, offering up everything from hearty jambalaya and fragrant gumbo to po’boys made with fried shrimp, oysters, soft-shell crab, or, in what is arguably the best po’boy on the planet, cochon du lait. Voodoo Fest has similar long food courts that groan with delicious local tastes—look for the charred oysters from Drago’s if you hit that one!
It’s easy to get swept up by the music in NOLA, especially if you’re visiting during one of the festivals, but this vibrant city also offers plenty of other attractions.
History buffs will adore the National WWII Museum, with its pavilions filled with memorabilia from that terrible conflict. There are fighter jets, LCVPs (the amphibious landing crafts invented in NOLA by Andrew Higgins credited with helping America win the war), tanks, and much more at this truly fascinating museum.
If you’re a history-loving foodie, check out the Southern Food and Beverage Museum to see exhibits ranging from the unique foods found in each Southern state to exploring the wide-ranging international influences that make up what we think of as Southern food and drink.
To get a little pampering and relaxation after a couple of long days at a fest (there’s some serious walking to do at both Jazz Fest and Voodoo Fest), head to one of NOLA’s top spas. The Balance Spa at the Loews Hotel offers a complete menu of services and features an indoor saltwater lap pool and dry sauna, perfect for an afternoon of relaxing. Or head over to the Shine Day Spa in Mid-City for a Himalayan Salt Shine, a body polishing treatment that will leave you glowing. Combine that with a deep-tissue massage from expert massage therapist Victoria Powell (she really knows how to work out your kinks) and you’ll be ready for another full day of festing.
If it’s a bit of grooming you need, we love Embodyment Salon & Spa on Magazine Street in the Garden District. At this warm and welcoming place, start with the signature Embodyment facial done by top esthetician Amie Krake, then have her do a sunless tanning treatment, too, and you’ll be the best-looking partier when you return to the music fest. And be sure to schedule a haircut from master stylist Tommy Centanni, whose “Hollywood South” celebrity clients just might be finishing up in his chair when you arrive. He’ll give you the cut that’s just right for dancing in the streets in the Big Easy!
You can dance right down Magazine in either direction from the spa, too, and find a ton of cute shops, from antiques stores to clothing boutiques to costume shops (cosplay is an everyday thing here in NOLA). Or meander back into the CBD and visit the new Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, right next door to the Convention Center. There you’ll find discounts on top brands. If quirky souvenirs or fine art pieces are more to your liking, shop the French Quarter (especially Royal Street).
So whether you’re in for your 16th Jazz Fest in a row (like we were this year) or experiencing your very first French Quarter, Voodoo, or Essence fest, one thing is certain: New Orleans has more music (and fun) to offer than any other city in America.