© All images from Garden and Gun New Orleans City Portrait…a guide you MUST check out!

This weekend, most of my friends and family will be traveling to great city of New Orleans to cheer on the University of Alabama football team in the BCS National Championship Game. I could not be more excited for an excuse to spend a weekend with the people I love, experiencing this incredible place. Since I am not too familiar with the city, I  wanted to talk with someone about all the things we must do on our visit, and I knew my friend Clare Rush was THE person! Clare literally lights up at the mention of New Orleans and her passion for the place is contagious. Not only that, but she has great taste and knows how to have a good time wherever she goes. Last year, I went to New Orleans with Clare, and her agenda was my agenda. I did not have to think about a thing other than following her around. I must say, it was one of the best weekends I have ever had! And it definitely ended with a powdered sugar fight at Café du Monde…highly recommend that.

So here are a few words from Clare and her picks of what can not be missed while you’re there…

Moments after crossing into Orleans Parish, the intoxicating spirit of its beloved city slowly begins to enchant its guests.  For a first time visitor, it begins with earnest curiosity.  For a veteran, it’s eager anticipation.  All have heard the stories of New Orleans – stories of Bourbon Street debauchery, world class cuisine, and living jazz.   Street performers and numbered Saints.  Colored beads and beignets.  Fried oysters and French surnames.   But beyond the eats and entertainment, there lies a foundation of strength and soulful resilience.  It is a proud city of survivors who refused to allow a storm to dampen or destroy its magic.  New Orleans offers its callers an open invitation to dismiss their daily headaches and simply, let the good times roll.

My father was born in New Orleans and I lived in there until I was nearly 3 years old.  I have no memory of my years there, but every time I cross the city limits, that never seems to matter.  As soon as my feet hit Canal Street, the infectious draw of the city makes me feel like I belong.   Its allure saturates my conscience and I find myself completely content; absorbed by my surroundings.  Like the city itself, the draw is supernatural.  It is an extraordinary place that plays by its own eccentric rules.

New Orleans is only two and half hours from my hometown and whenever I can steal a weekend and journey to the Big Easy with friends or family, I do not hesitate.  The city is a wealth of opportunity and as its guest, I have only had time to try a fraction of its offerings.  However, the following stops are options that, in my opinion, you simply can’t miss.

Drinks:

A trip to New Orleans is best experienced with a drink in hand.  This city wears its wining and dining proficiencies like a badge of honor, along with their often raucous consequences.   To kick off the evening, the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone is classic New Orleans establishment.  Immortalized in the works of Ernest Hemingway, this rotating bar has a circus motif and is a perfect place to stop for a pre-dinner cocktail in the French Quarter.  Stroll over to Bourbon Street and visit The Olde Absinthe House – a local landmark that has serviced famous faces such as Oscar Wilde, Robert E. Lee, Frank Sinatra, and the great, Liza Minelli.  Additional recommended stops near the Quarter include the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt and the Davenport Lounge at the Ritz Carlton.  The Sazerac Bar is named after what most consider to be the world’s first mixed drink and the décor has been crafted to give its patrons a sense of old New Orleans grandeur.   At the Davenport Lounge, sip on your martini and listen to the headline entertainer, Jeremy Davenport, provide authentic jazz music in the plush hotspot.  If you stop in at Christmas, don’t miss the Gingerbread Room, an area decorated entirely in edible treats.   If you choose to leave the Quarter, head uptown to The Columns on St. Charles.  This award-winning bar is located in a 19-room garden-district home that has been converted into a hotel.  Have a glass of scotch while sitting at the mahogany bar or beside the roaring antique fireplaces.  Also, do not miss Cure on Freret Street.  This cocktail bar serves various prohibition era drinks – ask for a “consultation” on your order and one of the mixologists will find a spirit to fit your fancy.  Also, be aware of the house rules – No baseball caps or visors, and long pants are required after 8pm on the weekends.

Dinner:

When it comes to dining in New Orleans, the restaurant list is comprised of a who’s who of today’s culinary all stars.  But before the recent glamorous hotspots came about, there was Irene’s.  Irene’s is on Saint Phillip Street in the French Quarter (a rumored Jolie-Pitt favorite).  This old New Orleans steakhouse offers prime cuts, Italian dishes, and immaculate seafood.  Upon entering the restaurant, you will be escorted to the bar – a long, dark table shared by all who are waiting.  The shadowy corners of Irene’s are perfect for a romantic dinner, or in my mind, a meeting place for old New Orleans gangsters.  As the city’s most recognizable name, Emeril Lagasse has become the face of Louisiana cuisine – the city’s anointed culinary king.  Although there are many outstanding Emeril restaurants, my pick is Nola on Saint Louis Street.   With its high ceilings and exposed brick walls, Nola features an eclectic menu of specialty cocktails and Creole cuisine – a family favorite.

If you aren’t familiar with Donald Link, let me introduce you and announce that this Louisiana native is doing something right.   Considered one of New Orleans’ premiere chefs, his restaurants Herbsaint and Cochon are true crowd-pleasers.  Located in the Central Business district, Herbsaint is his flagship establishment.  If you stop in this award-winning French-American bistro, I recommend the housemade spaghetti with the poached egg (trust me) and the short rib.  Thanks to Herbsaint’s after-dinner drink menu, I’ve experienced some of my favorite late night conversations while sipping on a tawny port (and by favorite, I mean hilarious).   For another great choice, Herbsaint’s sister restaurant, Cochon is a tribute to modernized southern cooking with an impressive beer selection.

If you begin your night at Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt and don’t feel like venturing outdoors, walk into Domenica, a John Besh restaurant in the hotel.  Domenica, meaning “Sunday” in Italian, is modeled after a warm, inviting Sunday supper in a small Italian village.  The authentic cuisine offers delicious small plates and pizzas.   A few steps away on Bourbon Street you will find that the Bourbon House, a Brennan family restaurant, has a fantastic oyster bar, a lively atmosphere, and an extensive selection of bourbon-infused cocktails.  Finally, Susan Spicer’s Bayona on Dauphine Street is always a sure bet.

For more casual dining, New Orleans has oysters and po-boys galore.  For oysters, I recommend Felix’s, Deanie’sor Acme – all in the French Quarter.  For po-boys, it’s Domilise’s Sandwich Shop on Annunciation Street.   Located off the Quarter, it’s the ultimate hole-in-the-wall.  Don’t let the neighborhood fool you – the fried shimp and oyster po-boys are unbelievable (and don’t forget to snag an ice cold beer – the perfect po-boy companion).   Mother’s Restaurant on Poydras Street is also an excellent choice for po-boys and brunch.   Be prepared to wait in line for a table, but pass the time by sipping on one of their famous Bloody Mary’s while you do so.  If it’s a burger you crave, head over to Port of Call on Esplanade Avenue.

My favorite way to finish a weekend trip to New Orleans is with brunch at Stanley.  Located on Jackson Square in the French Quarter, Staney is the sister restaurant of the acclaimed Stella.  While you wait on a table, enjoy a malt or mimosa as you wander the square and observe street musicians, palm readers, and local artists.  I recommend the Eggs Stanley, an eggs benedict creation topped with fried oysters.

Late Night:

A trip to New Orleans would not be complete without a foray into its notorious nightlife and its enabling landscape, Bourbon Street.  While out, visit the piano bar at Pat O’Brien’s and sample their world famous Hurricanes.  However, be warned – the drink is as perilous as its namesake.  If it’s a dance floor you seek, head to Razzoo or Famous Door.  For the songbirds in your group, I recommend the Cat’s Meow.  Whether you are a people-watcher or wannabe pop-star, this is the best Karaoke bar around.   As you make your way down Bourbon, visit the Tropical Isle and order a hand grenade.  As with the hurricane, this potent concoction is lethal so proceed with caution.  To satisfy your inner cowboy, head to the Bourbon Cowboy and try your hand at the mechanical bull.  For the marine wildlife enthusiasts, the Beach on Bourbon houses a mechanical whale, and you can sport a stylish pirate hat if pop into the Funky Pirate.  If it’s after 2am and you are still itching for mischief, head to the Gold Mine Saloon on Dauphine Street for a late night throw down.

Of course, no late night adventure is truly satisfying without a little post-midnight grub.  For late night dining, I recommend Café’ du Monde on Decatur Street (also popular for breakfast).  Nothing combats Bourbon Street’s wrath like rich beignets and powdered sugar.   If you are looking for something closer to the bars, try a hot dog from a Lucky Dog vendor or a slice of pizza from a late night daiquiri bar.  Bourbon Street also houses a 24-hour Krystal if you just need a little grease.

To Do:

Aside from the culinary and cocktail experience, New Orleans offers countless additional activities to pass the time.  Visit the Aquarium of the Americas or the Audubon Zoo to observe and appreciate nature and its many species of inhabitants.  For the history buff in your group, head to the remarkable National World War II Museum to learn fascinating, and sobering details about the war in both Europe and the Pacific.  Ride the trolley up St. Charles and stroll through the Garden District neighborhoods to check out the charms of New Orleans architecture.  While uptown, browse the clothing and antique shops on Magazine Street.  If you’re feeling lucky, head to the blackjack or craps tables at Harrah’s Casino downtown for a little Vegas-inspired fun.  Finally, for the curious daredevil, take a Ghost Tour in the Quarter and listen to the spooky stories of the alleged haunted establishments throughout this mysterious city.

Hotels:

Due to its modern décor and unbeatable location, the W French Quarter on Chartres Street is a personal favorite place to stay.  Close enough to walk to the Quarter’s enticing activities, but far enough away to ensure a peaceful night’s sleep, this small hotel offer’s the perfect combination of charm and convenience.  I also recommend the Roosevelt Hotel, Bourbon Orleans, Royal Sonesta, Loew’s, and Windsor Court Hotel.  If you are a rewards program junkie (points!), as I am, the Starwood, Hilton, and Marriott properties in the downtown area ideal options.

If you are one of the many people reading this who will not be in New Orleans this weekend, I hope this guide is something you will check out when you do have the chance to visit. This list equals guaranteed fun! And for those who will be there this weekend…ROLL TIDE ROLL!