BY KELSY CHAUVIN | Whether you’re a New Orleans first-timer or a deep fan who can’t get enough, this city seems ever ready to charm you anew. Yes, it’s a historic place — one of America’s oldest cities, in fact — and its heritage is a huge point of pride for locals. But part of its legacy is welcoming travelers and inducting them into the Big Easy spirit. That may involve vintage dives, hidden haunts, or the next generation of cultural and culinary hotspots.
More than anything, it’s an easygoing destination where people can relax and be themselves. That’s a major reason why LGBTQ travelers love New Orleans. This city loves color, whether on a Rainbow Flag, Mardi Gras beads, or the whirling feather boas of Southern Decadence.
Classic Gay Revelry
So much of what we know and love about New Orleans hinges on the French Quarter. It’s home to Café du Monde for beignets, Preservation Hall for live jazz, the French Market for souvenir browsing, and Fiorella’s Café for po-boys. They’re the kind of classic spots whose flavor long ago earned National Historic Landmark status for the Vieux Carré (“old square” in French).
Today’s Quarter is just as lively as it was back when pirates and smugglers were among the city’s savvy entrepreneurs. Duck into one of their original buildings, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on Bourbon Street, for a drink inside a landmark dating to the 1720s. Or head to its LGBTQ neighbor bar down the block, Café Lafitte in Exile, opened in 1933 and claiming to be the country’s oldest gay bar. It’s open 24 hours a day, so you can sip strong drinks among the sprits of past patrons like Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams at literally any time, day or night.
Café Lafitte in Exile is part of the New Orleans Fruit Loop, an online community calendar for the French Quarter’s gay bars and the all-night diner that feeds their late-night patrons, Clover Grill. (FYI, its chicken-fried steak will ease any hangover.)
The local queer community gets to enjoy carousing countless ways, including a spring Pride festival and nighttime parade, this year over the weekend of June 9-11. The parade happens that Saturday, marching right through the Quarter and back to the neighboring Marigny, where the party is sure to hit longtime LGBTQ outpost the New Orleans Country Club.
Come fall, Southern Decadence continues its now 45-year-old annual queer celebration with a long Labor Day weekend of parties and a Bourbon Street procession that’s raunchier than Pride. Yet it feels almost necessary in a town like New Orleans, where free-form bacchanalia is essentially a way of life, at least during festivals.
The French Quarter has always been the main tourist zone, so hotels here are easy to come by for any budget. The centrally located Royal Sonesta is elegant and affordable with the bonus of a rooftop pool and courtyard. Big chains offer packages with discounts for longer stays and bookings well in advance.
For something more personal, New Orleans Hotel Collection operates six gay-friendly boutique hotels around the Quarter, each with their own historic character, prime locations, and quiet courtyards (the Bourbon Orleans, Audubon Cottages, and Dauphine Orleans with swimming pools, too).
Bonus: This year the company is waving its LGBT banner high for its “Decadence Festival Sweepstakes Getaway,” with a grand prize of airfare, four nights in a balcony suite, dinner, bar tab, paddlewheel steamboat tour, and other perks over Southern Decadence weekend. Enter the drawing by June 30 online at neworleanshotelcollection.com/southern-decadence-new-orleans-vacation-getaway.
Outside the Quarter
Hop on the famous St. Charles streetcar to check out neighborhoods like the Garden District, where you can pass a whole day strolling, shopping, sipping, and snacking along Magazine Street.
While you’re in the area, drift over to the Southern Food & Beverage Museum, an emporium of gastronomic history and artifacts that also houses the Museum of the American Cocktail. Grab lunch or a drink there, too, at Toups South, helmed by “Top Chef” fan favorite Isaac Toups, and featuring a magnificent 1851 bar recovered after Hurricane Katrina.
The Warehouse Arts District is the culinary and gallery area that continues to see incredible restaurants and stylish hotels flourish. The Old No. 77 Hotel & Chandlery has been a trendsetting hotel for the city, incorporating local art and music within its handsome interiors, plus one of the best restaurants and cocktail menus in town at Chef Nina Compton’s Compère Lapin.
The Ace Hotel recently joined the scene, too, adding its hipster flair to the district along with rooftop bar Alto, the “cocktail-friendly oyster bar” Seaworthy, and the city’s first Stumptown Coffee Roasters.
Naturally, seafood is a staple here. The more modern Annunciation Restaurant capitalizes on the Gulf coast’s seasonal bounty, mixing daily catches with hints of Asian flavors, like its zingy crab claws marinated in light vinegar, topped with crisp peppers. Chef Jacob Cureton also seduces diners with standards like gumbo, etouffee, and grilled fish.
Venture closer to the convention center and you might be surprised at the real-deal Cajun dishes served at Grand Isle, from classic boiled shrimp and crawfish to alligator-sausage po-boys and an unforgettable fisherman’s stew. If you’re over seafood, don’t worry, they also serve St. Louis ribs. Or head to Cochon, the inventive, pork-centric restaurant that some say kicked off the Warehouse District’s culinary buzz back in 2006.
There’s no easy way to summarize New Orleans’ unique appeal to travelers. If it seems like there’s something for everybody, yes, there is. But everyone has their favorite bits. Being there in the flesh is the only way to understand what’s so beautiful and warm about this city. It’s a place where authenticity is effortless, and discovery is intimate. Anything goes, and everyone gets to enjoy it.