New Orleans: Finding Your Way Through the Big Easy
It is no understatement to say that New Orleans is a city of unmatched character. And where there's character, there are gay folks splashing color and entertainment upon a city already doused in vivid personality. From the moment you arrive, the city somehow seems to usher in your celebratory spirit - usually aided by some form of gastronomic or liquid love, served with a smile by someone so happy to see you it feels like home.
The Big Easy has always been a dynamic cultural Mecca that's welcomed all manner of artists, families and revelers. They're drawn to its reliable and unique brand of fun, enriched by three centuries of colorful urban heritage that's funneled French, Spanish, American Indian, and Creole influences into everything from its architecture and music, to food and Mardi Gras parades. You might call it an enormous social jambalaya that forever welcomes new flavors.
New Orleans is, thankfully, a manageable city to visit thanks to its scale and layout, plus its convenient historic-landmark streetcars. Of course, the beating heart of it all begins and ends with the French Quarter - that singularly gorgeous neighborhood that casts spells of enchantment on all who pass through it.
Picture horse-drawn carriages clopping down Royal Street, where you'll discover trademark wrought-iron balconies while a local jazz quartet and tap dancer set the pace for a leisurely stroll down the lane. This kind of scenario happens every day here. No, you are not in a Tennessee Williams play. Yes, it is totally dreamy.
The French Quarter
As might be expected in such a flamboyant locale, the Quarter is home to much local LGBT history and remains a hotspot for most of the city’s full-time gay bars. One of them was inspired by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar on Bourbon Street, which claims to be the oldest structure used as a bar in the United States - a fitting crown for such a festive town. As far back as the 1930s, the bar welcomed diverse clientele with open arms (plus a dose of discretion). But in 1953 the owners lost their lease and wound up reopening a new establishment across the street, called Café Lafitte in Exile. Today it is among the oldest gay bars in the country, and in classic French Quarter fashion it is open 24/7.
A block away you’ll find another gay mainstay, the Bourbon Pub & Parade, where nightly parties span everything from burlesque to comedy shows to Sunday tea dances, and of course drag. Here you’ll find the only weekly drag king show in town, Tuesday’s Girlbar party. There’s also a handful of other good bars just off Bourbon Street, like thumping dance club Oz, leather-clad Rawhide, or the local hangout 700 Club.
No trip to the Quarter is complete without a deliciously addictive beignet and café au lait at Café du Monde on Decatur Street, the neighborhood’s main thoroughfare and minutes away from Audubon Acquarium. Stroll eastward to peruse the wares of local artists and retail stands at the French Market, and consider sampling a freshly made pecan praline from Aunt Sally’s on the way - if only because this is New Orleans, the spiritual home of indulgence.
From there you’re heading in the right direction, because things get arguably more interesting on the eastern edge of the Quarter as you dip into the Marigny. Frenchmen Street rivals Bourbon for lively music venues and local haunts, and come nightfall more cool spots open on the side streets, like the simply named Friendly Bar.
Welcome to the Marigny district, home to abundant eclectic, tattooed and queer New Orleanians. Though some may argue otherwise, this is the city’s "gayborhood," which works in tandem with the adjacent Bywater area, itself long anchored by the Country Club New Orleans. A neighborhood secret for decades, the Country Club began as a gay retreat but is now a gay-centric, yet all-welcoming restaurant and lounge, with a private, clothing-optional outdoor pool, Jacuzzi and lounge area (plus a Thursday ladies’ night).
Nearby, Big Daddy’s is another classic local dive open 24/7, with the Deep Lez party filling the place with beautiful lesbians and their lovely gay boyfriends every other Tuesday. Cross the street to grab a bite before the party at friendly Mimi’s in the Marigny.
You’ll find gay-owned and -friendly accommodations in the area, such as the Burgundy B&B, where owner Carl Smith will personally welcome you into his restored 1890s "shotgun double" home, complete with back patio and hot tub. For something a little more regal, try the Marigny Manor House, which occupies a landmarked two-story Greek-Revival "cottage."
LGBT New Orleans
If you think Mardi Gras is the wildest party in town, you haven’t visited New Orleans during Southern Decadence, the annual Labor Day weekend celebration packed with parties, contests and adult-only revelry.
No matter what time of year, one never knows where the action may crop up in the Crescent City, so pick up a copy of the weekly alternative newspaper the Gambit to get the scoop on shows and parties during your stay. The city’s online resource, New Orleans Online, also features a dedicated LGBT section with plenty of tips on venues, museums, special events, and more.
The LGBT Community Center of New Orleans in the Marigny also can be a resource, and a friendly place to visit for local tips and to show your support for this hardworking non-profit.
Your New Orleans Bucket List
A streetcar ride is a must in New Orleans. These classic beauties will transport you as if back in time down beautiful St. Charles Avenue, one of world’s the most scenic boulevards.
In recent years, New Orleans’ wonderfully flat land has welcomed a bicycling explosion. Rentals are affordable and easily found, as are interesting bike tours that can take you deep into otherwise undiscovered-by-tourists territory. Check out companies like Big Easy Bike Tours and Confederacy of Cruisers to book your two-wheeled adventure.
You can also gear up and pedal your way to quintessential "NOLA" music venues like Preservation Hall to soak up the live-music scene the city was built on. Check the Gambit for all the week’s live-music listings during your trip.
Because food in New Orleans is practically religion - a vast, all-consuming faith that encourages everyone to partake in abundance - guidance is often best left to one’s own personal tastes and word-of-mouth tips upon visiting. Beyond a little advance research, the wisest move a visitor can make is chatting up a savvy New Orleanian for restaurant advice. One after another "can’t-miss" joint will get your mouth watering, and before you know it every meal will be spoken for. So seek out your favorite dishes to steer you the right way, be it fried catfish po-boys or crawfish étoufée, or red beans and rice or piled-high muffulettas. If you’re a real foodie, consider a hands-on cooking class at one of the city’s cooking schools such as Langlois Culinary Crossroads or The New Orleans Cooking Experience.
Likewise, you can’t throw an oyster shell in these parts without finding a friendly place serving fine drinks, though Mid-City does seem to be an emerging scene for the cream of the throwback-cocktail crop. Don’t be fooled by the understated facades - bars like Twelve Mile Limit, Pal’s Lounge and Mid-City Yacht Club whip up some amazing liquid treats. Plus they always go well with the full-tilt passion of New Orleans Saints football fans, so do catch a game in a local hangout if possible.
Whether you define decadence as cocktails at 7 a.m., that extra serving of beignets or exploring the city’s rich cultural history, New Orleans will certainly lure you back time and again.
Decadent food, good friends, stunning costumes and non-stop dance parties make Halloween New Orleans, a benefit for Project Lazarus, one of the premier LGBT Halloween events in the country. EDGE readers can enter to win a free trip for two, which includes:
CLICK HERE to enter.
*Roundtrip air value not to exceed $500/person. Must be at least 21 years old and a resident of the continental U.S. Odds of winning depend on the number of entries received. Other restrictions apply. See official rules for details.