Christmas in New Orleans: The Highlights

Christmas in New Orleans was nothing shy of magical. I had booked our trip for six days, and the minute we arrived, Scott offered an “Ummm….I think you scheduled this trip for way too long.”

I kindly reminded him I had run the dates by him three times and gained his approval before booking. He shrugged and off we went in search of the largest Po’boys we could find. Within a few hours, both of us had entered into an absolute love affair with The Big Easy. “Do you still think we’re here too long?” I asked with a smile. “No way. I want to move here.” he said with the utmost seriousness.

Aside from a job interview in Alabama 9 years ago, neither Scott or I have spent any time in the South. I’ve always been intrigued by that part of the country and have longed to visit and see if it’s really as different as I imagined it to be.

I was not disappointed. As someone who has spent my 32 years in the northern most pockets of the United States (Alaska, Washington, New York and Minnesota) I can honestly say that the South is like a different planet.

I mean that in the very best way. Louisiana, and New Orleans specifically, was so completely different from any other place I’ve traveled to. The weather is different, the architecture is different, the culture, history, food, geography, music and traditions are different.

It was awesome.

If you’ve never been to New Orleans, I highly suggest a trip. It is funky, unique, friendly, weird, delicious, historical and truly one-of-a-kind. Dare I say it, our six days in NOLA was our best Christmas ever.  I strongly recommend a trip in December as the crowds were smaller and the weather was perfect — at least for a cold-blooded northerner like myself. The foggy morning mist quickly burned off, leaving us with 75-80 degree temperatures every single day. It was also the most humidity I’ve ever experienced in my life. Although my hair wasn’t a fan of this, after two months of Minnesota winter, I welcomed the balmy air with open arms.

I want to give a HUGE thank you to all the readers who offered suggestions on what to do, see, eat and experience. As you will see in this post, we tried most of these things and loved them all. You guys are da best.

Here were the highlights from our getaway, and my recommendations for anyone visiting the Crescent city.

The people

Southern hospitality is real, y’all. Literally everyone we encountered — Uber drivers, hotel staff, waiters and bartenders, tour guides, street musicians, museum volunteers, random people on the street–were so genuinely warm, friendly and delightful. We felt incredibly welcome the moment we stepped off the plane.

The food

Po'Boys at NOLA Po'Boys

Digging in at NOLA Po’Boys — our first meal of the trip.

OMG, the food. I’ll be dedicating an entire separate post to this because I could go on for days. Scott and I each returned to ‘Sota several pounds heavier, and it was worth every last calorie.

The plantations

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation

Visiting a plantation has been a life long dream of mine, and the experience was every bit as splendid as I’ve imagined all these years. We visited Laura Plantation and Oak Alley Plantation with Cajun Encounters on Christmas Eve, and had a terrific time. I was super excited to see Oak Alley as it is ridiculously gorgeous (and let’s be honest…because Beyonce filmed a music video there), but have to say that Laura plantation was my favorite. While the home isn’t as grand, the story of the property, and the families who lived there, is riveting. Our tour was 2.5 hours long, and Scott and I were hanging on our guide’s every word. “I didn’t have A.D.D. once during that whole thing!” Scott exclaimed with surprise at the end of the tour. I could hardly believe it, but he was absolutely right.

The Laura Plantation -- A Creole Plantation

Slave quarters at the Laura Plantation — A Creole Plantation

French Quarter Phantoms Tours

I knew I wanted to do a ghost and/or cemetery tour, and French Quarter Phantoms came highly recommended from our Uber driver who claimed several of his passengers raved about their tours. While we had originally planned an all day Netflix binge for Christmas, as I assumed nothing would be up and running, it turns out about half of the restaurants, bars and business in the French Quarter were open Christmas Day. So, I scheduled a Ghost and Vampire tour for that evening. (It simply isn’t Christmas without ghosts and vampires, right?) The website claimed this was one of the top 10 ghost tours in the world, so our expectations were set high.

The tour began at the Voodoo Lounge — a funky little bar right off of Louis Armstrong Park, which was just a quick walk from our hotel. We started the tour with 24 ounce hurricanes (two for one!) which were so strong, I found myself feeling warm and fuzzy after just one sip.

Cocktails in hand, we were off! Our tour guide was fantastic, and informed us that each guide does their own research and creates their own signature, one-of-a-kind tour experience for their groups. So, if we did the same tour again with a different guide, we might visit entirely different landmarks with new stories. How cool is that?

The tour was awesome. We visited several different haunted sites, including buildings where American Horror Story and Interview with the Vampire were filmed, and even stopped halfway through for a “bar break” to refill our cocktail cups at a haunted tavern. The tour was full of so much history, and is something you would enjoy whether you believe in ghosts (Scott) or are a total ghost skeptic (myself). It was an unusual way to spend Christmas, but we loved every second of it.

The Ghost and Vampire tour was such a success, we opted to participate in the French Quarter Phantoms St. Louis #1 Cemetery Tour two days later. Our original plan had been to just explore the cemetery on our own. However, we soon learned that you are only allowed in St. Louis #1 if you have a relative buried in the cemetery (and have filled out a ton of paperwork for the archdiocese/acquired the official photo badge proving you actually have a loved one buried there) or are on a tour. Good thing we booked it.

St. Louis Cemetery #1. (There are 3 of them in the city.)

St. Louis Cemetery #1. (There are 3 of them in the city.)

Once again, we started our journey at the Voodoo Lounge with two-for-one hurricanes. This tour ended up being my favorite as it was filled with so much history — particularly the crazy things that have happened as a result of burying thousands of bodies in a city that is below sea level for several hundred years. The cemetery itself is gorgeously creepy, and holds such sites as the grave of Voodoo Priestess Marie LeVeau and the future tomb of actor Nicholas Cage, which has already been struck by lightning. (Yes, seriously.)

Cemetery Vibes

If you visit NOLA, the cemetery tour is a must-do. I could literally lecture you for three hours on all of my newly acquired dead people knowledge.

The National WWII Museum

Go. Even if you are not a museum person, go. Eye-opening, heart breaking and fascinating. We loved it.

Live Music and Frenchman Street

I had expected lots of live music in The Big Easy, but both Scott and I were blown away with the amount and quality of the sounds that seemed to be around just about every corner.

From street bands to independent artists, The French Quarter was jam-packed with beautiful music in addition to loads of talented street performers. Several locals had suggested a visit to Frenchman street for more live music, so Scott and I hailed a cab and jetted over on Christmas Eve after dinner.

Live jazz on Christmas Eve at the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street

Live jazz on Christmas Eve at the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street

New rule: Anyone who visits New Orleans is not allowed to leave until they visit Frenchman Street.

Frenchman Street is an absolute delight. It is lined on both sides with bars and lounges featuring live music on a nightly basis. There is no cover charge, and each establishment has a truly unique ambiance, in addition to a fantastic and unique live band. We enjoyed performances from a folksy jazz group featuring an accordion, a rocking female duo belting out classic ballads, a rap jazz fusion group, a massive street brass and drum ensemble, a rockabilly guitar player and an indie jazz soloist all in one evening. The performers were all so talented, and the atmosphere was fun, funky and alive. We ended up taking two trips back on different evenings to soak up as much music as possible.

St. Charles Street Car

On the last day of our trip, after lots of walking, eating, drinking, late nights and hot weather, it felt good just to sit for a while. We took the street car from downtown to the end of line and back, which took about 3 hours. It was affordable ($1.25 per person each way), relaxing and a fun way to see The Garden District, Tulane, and some other parts of the city outside The Quarter. We also passed mansion after mansion after mansion. There are few things I love more in life than a Southern mansion, so I was a pretty happy camper.

New Orleans School of Cooking

A cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking only happened by chance as their building was right next to our hotel. We passed their storefront on the first day and decided to sign up for a class so we could learn how to make some traditional Cajun food once we returned home. The hands-on class was a bit too pricey for us, so we opted to attend a more affordable open demonstration class, priced at $32.50 per person.

Delicious Creole Jambalaya. Yummm.

You guys, that price in an absolute steal. We were treated to a 2.5 hour class that was not only instructional from a culinary standpoint, but full of history and highly entertaining. We learned how to prepare gumbo, jambalaya, pralines and bananas foster, and were served all of these dishes (along with unlimited beer, lemonade, coffee, tea, water AND BISCUITS) after the chef had prepared them. We even got to go back for seconds, which I most definitely was not shy about.

Scott and I have attended hands-on cooking classes before, but this was our first demo class. While it initially seemed like we were settling for the demonstration format, we actually now prefer this style of course. We learned more and were able to soak up more information by just sitting back and observing. We were sent home with recipe cards, and I’ve already successfully made my first batch of pecan pralines, which were a huge hit at our New Year’s Eve party. We did a lot while we were in NOLA, but I have to say that the cooking class was probably my favorite adventure of the entire trip.

Making new friends

As I mentioned in a previous post, Scott and I usually travel in groups or with family, friends and other couples. This was really our fist solo trip since our honeymoon! While I was worried we might grow bored/tired/annoyed with each other (I’m sure that’s bad to say…but it’s the truth!) we ended up having a lovely, fun-filled even romantic vacation.

Scott and I love each other very much, but “romantic” is not a word I would often use to describe our relationship. I suppose that’s the magic of New Orleans!

Of course, we did end up making some friends along the way. We met Jenna and Pujan on the Christmas ghost and vampire tour, and ended up engaging in some good ol’ NOLA shenanigans with them for the following two nights. There’s even talks of meeting up on a future vacation. Aren’t travel buddies just the best?

Possibly the most unflattering photo of myself ever posted on this blog.  (Actually, it’s definitely not even close to the worst…but it’s still pretty bad. You can see how my hair and the humidity were not on friendly terms.)

But Jenna and Pujan aren’t the only people we met. Are you ready for a crazy story? While waiting in line for the most delicious muffuletta sandwich in the history of muffuletta sandwiches (more deets to come in the food post) I heard a passing voice say “I love your blog!”

Surely, they couldn’t be talking to me? Or could they? I turned my head in the direction of their voice and heard it again. “I love your blog!” said a woman who was making eye contact with me. She was talking to me!

I have to admit this may have been the highlight of my trip. Lindsay and her family from Ontario (hi Lindsay!) were also spending Christmas in Louisiana and had just picked up their muffuletta at the sandwich shop. We chatted for a few minutes in which I fear I may have come across a tad bit overenthusiastic and sweaty. (Damn humidity.) While I’ve had a few people in my hometown come up to me and identify as blog readers, never I had I run into a ‘Sota reader in a different state. It pretty much made my day week holiday life. I was smiling for the rest of the day, and wish I had though to snap a photo. Lindsay, thank you for saying hello — it was seriously SO cool to meet you!

(Also, I feel it is worth mentioning that she actually initially recognized Scott, not me. Clearly, Scott didn’t let me forget this for the rest of the day.)

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You can see why I’ve described the trip as magical. Louisiana captured our hearts and gave us the most special Christmas we’ve had as a couple. We learned so much, met some wonderful people, and had some true deep south adventures! And I haven’t even touched on the food yet! Stay tuned for another post later this week where I’ll dish all things dining.

Three words: We got fat.

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