The first time I decided to drive down to New Orleans and stay for a week by myself, I knew next to nothing about the city aside from what I’d read in a few books. I did a bit of research, but a lot of what I learned was through trial and error.
Now don’t get me wrong: if you’re a tourist, you don’t need to go to great pains to appear like a local. First, you probably won’t pull it off no matter how hard you try. Second, the city is always full of tourists and most people you’ll meet are gonna be happy you’re there. They want you to spend a little money and, most important, have a great time.
So don’t be afraid to let your Midwest show a little – or your East Coast, or wherever. However, if you want to save yourself some trouble and avoid a few “Bless your hearts,” it’s a good idea to at least know the basics.
Here are my top 10 don’ts of New Orleans:
1. Don’t say Nawlins or New OrlEENZ.
Here’s the simple and accurate pronunciation: New ORlens
If you pronounce it incorrectly, someone will pointedly say it correctly in your presence, hoping to politely alert you to your mistake. I call this Southern Tact. If you’re having trouble getting it, ask for help. Most locals would rather spend the time helping you get it right than keep listening to you get it wrong.
I don’t know why, but even for a non-native like me, it’s like nails on a chalkboard when I hear it done wrong.
2. Don’t fall for tourist traps/scams.
Here are a few I’ve run into or heard about:
There are usually a couple of guys in the French Quarter dressed in official-looking black clothes that are police-ish. They will blow a whistle or hold up a hand to stop you with a stern “Sir” or “Ma’am” shaking their head or pointing toward a sign that doesn’t exist. Most tourists live in places where you can’t walk around with alcohol in the street, so you might already feel a little vulnerable crossing Bourbon with booze in hand. “Oops, did I fuck up?” is the concern these guys rely on to get you to stop. They are good-natured guys; last time they tried it, I rolled my eyes and that made them laugh heartily. They might not actually be running a scam, but it’s been so long since I stopped, I can’t remember why they’re trying to pull people in. Just be aware: they aren’t cops, and as long as your drink is in plastic instead of glass, you did not fuck up.
Be careful about sitting down for a psychic reading. Make sure you understand prices before you agree to a reading. I’ve heard of tourists agreeing to a “5-point” reading, which takes about 30 seconds, and costs somewhere in the ballpark of $300. They’ve got people nearby to make sure you pay up, and they are not sympathetic if you didn’t check the price ahead of time. You don’t need to completely steer clear, just be smart about it.
Don’t take any bets on the street, especially regarding where you got your shoes. Just say “I got ‘em in New Orleans” and walk on.
This one I cannot stress enough: do not buy tickets for any event from anyone on the street, in a bar, etc. EVER.
3. Don’t you dare piss in these hallowed streets.
Find a proper bathroom, you animal.
Anywhere you grab a drink will have one. If you aren’t willing to spend for the privilege, go to the mall at Jax Brewery on the riverside, walk to the back where the small kiosks are, turn right up the ramp and right again up the stairs for bathrooms. They aren’t the prettiest, but they’ll do.
4. Don’t go topless for beads unless you just really enjoy it.
It’s not necessary, and it will probably end up on the internet.
In the French Quarter at night, you can probably get away with it. Outside of the Quarter, you’re technically engaging in an act of public lewdness.
Also, you can get beads anywhere, so if you’re gonna whip out the ta-tas, do it for a better reason than that. “I just felt like it” is enough for me, but you might wanna check with the group you’re traveling with.
5. Don’t stay in the French Quarter your whole trip.
I love the Quarter. I once forsook Jazz Fest to continue hanging out in the Quarter because I was having so much fun – yes, I know, may the gods of jazz smite me if they must – so no judgment there. But there is so much to see, eat, hear and enjoy outside of the Quarter that it’s a real tragedy if you’re there for a whole week and never go anywhere else.
I’m working on a neighborhood-to-neighborhood guide, but there is so much to see and do throughout the city that’s going to take a while. I would suggest visiting any of the major New Orleans tourism sites or, better yet, ask a local to find something cool off the beaten path.
I’d share some favorites of mine, but the list would be so long…there are amazing houses to see, food to eat, music to hear and people to meet in every single neighborhood in New Orleans. Frenchmen Street, Treme, Holy Cross, Carrollton, Mid-City, even Metairie have been good to me. So get out there and enjoy it!
6. Don’t Airbnb unless you know how to be responsible about it.
I’m working on an upcoming post outlining the complex relationship New Orleans has with short term rentals to make it easier to know how/where to stay, but just know that STRs have negatively impacted a lot of neighborhoods, driving up the prices of homes and changing the dynamic on streets where neighbors once knew each other and now have to deal with the disruption caused by tourists constantly coming and going.
On the other hand, writers at the New Orleans Tribune, one of the most respected African-American community news magazines in America, have explained that short-term rentals have been a key source of income for minorities, and some regulations may only serve to keep that income out of their hands.
So far, my solution has been to Airbnb up on the North Shore, most of the time at a horse farm where neighbors are further apart and won’t be affected by my coming and going. If I stay in the city, it’s usually at a locally-owned hotel like Hotel Villa Convento.
This is one area where I highly recommend spending some time researching to ensure you won’t be a disruption to anyone’s way of life. I recommend actively avoiding STRs run by large rental companies that have turned a house into multiple units with no locals involved. Those are usually the worst offenders, and I believe they are working to outlaw (if they haven’t already) any STRs where locals are not living on site.
The bottom line is that, if you love New Orleans, you need to realize that everything about it that you love was created by the locals. If you disrespect the locals or make their lives harder by staying in the wrong place, you’re gonna fuck up the most important aspect of the city. Avoid that.
7. Don’t try to drive everywhere.
I always road trip to New Orleans, because having my car with me is like my safety blanket. However, once I’m in town, I like to drop it somewhere and take the streetcar or a taxi, especially to the French Quarter. You can find tons of free street parking throughout the city.
Parking in the Quarter for a day can put you out $40-50, though sometimes you can save a bit with SpotHero. That’s not too bad if you don’t mind spending the money, but I don’t see any reason to spend when I can save, so I usually avoid it.
Plus,the big lots in the Quarter, especially those close to the riverfront, are nightmares – people park outside the lines like it’s their job. You’re lucky if you can actually squeeze your car into one of the ridiculous spaces left by one of the giant SUVs and vans who parked across two spots. If you’re diagnosed OCD like me, it’s gonna make you want to explode all your insidey parts every which way.
Also, there are no attendants – it’ll be a machine. If you pay with cash, you will not get change. If all you have is twenties, and parking is 30, you’re spending 40.
Using the credit card reader isn’t much better – my friend’s card was compromised during his last vacation because the card reader at the parking lot had some sort of doohickey on it.
Just park outside the quarter, pay $3 for a one-day Jazzy Pass and ride the streetcar in. You can download the RTA GoMobile app for your smartphone to easily buy your tickets and track routes – here’s the RTA GoMobile link for iPhone, and here’s the RTA GoMobile link for Android.
This will get you out of the Quarter and seeing more of the city, so double bonus! If you’re in too much of a hurry to take a streetcar, I recommend United Cabs – they are a great company that’s been operating in the city forever.
In fact, I can’t say enough on behalf of the local taxis. I left my debit card at Bourbon House one night and wasn’t sure where it was or how I’d get home. I stopped at a hotel and asked for advice. One of the workers called his buddy, a taxi driver, because he knew he’d get me home safe. I got a ride home and was able to pay the driver the next day when I got my card back – with a healthy and well-deserved tip.
Speaking of getting a ride, do not try to get a taxi or Uber directly on Bourbon Street. If you’ve never been down, you may not realize that some streets in the Quarter get blocked off, especially Bourbon. That’s what makes it safe for people to wander drunkenly down the middle of the street. First, get off Bourbon, and then call for a ride.
Back to parking: there is also street parking available mainly on the outskirts of the Quarter but pay close attention to signs. A lot of parking is intended for short-term loading/unloading.
DO NOT accidentally park in front of someone’s driveway or garage entrance. The layout of the Quarter makes it easy to do this if you aren’t paying attention but make no mistake: it’s a major dick move. Also, don’t park on the sidewalk. If you do either of these, you may be featured on Instagram’s @fqtrafficshaming – and you will deserve it.
If you park on the street in any residential area, be on the lookout for catch basins and try not to park in front of them. The first time I stayed in Holy Cross, a local explained to me that he cleans their basin out every day because it gets clogged with debris, and then the whole street floods when it rains. So don’t leave your car on top of a drain for a week, especially in a lower-lying neighborhood.
8. Do not forget to tip.
It’s a service economy. These people work their asses off to make sure your vacation is as pleasant as possible – like that taxi driver referenced above. He didn’t have to give me a ride, but he did because he was a kind person, as most New Orleanians are.
Be generous. You’ll be remembered – in a good way – and you may get even better service next time. A server at Chartres House once remembered me two years after my last visit. People in New Orleans love giving and getting kindness because they know it makes life more amazing. Do your part. Be amazing. Tip well.
9. Don’t make an easy target out of yourself.
I’ve never found myself in a truly dangerous situation in New Orleans, and I do believe that it is much safer for tourists than many in the Midwest think. That said, these are commonsense tips I follow even when walking around Indianapolis:
Keep your wallet in your front pocket. Crossbody purses are best. This makes it harder to pick your pocket or grab your purse off your shoulder.
Don’t leave valuables in your car. Make sure you lock it with windows up. If you have no choice, don’t leave things out where they’re visible.
I had a really great bicycle that was stolen because I was stupid enough to leave it on the front porch overnight with no lock – don’t be like me. Protect your valuables.
Don’t try to look like a millionaire or wear your priceless pearls to walk around the city. You won’t look so chic when they get swiped.
10. Finally, the most important tip: don’t underestimate the combination of heat and alcohol.
Remember, when you sweat, you lose hydration even faster, so it’s twice as important to compensate with water here than at home.
Don’t get so drunk it becomes easy to part you with your money. There is a shop in the Quarter with salespeople who work on commission. If they see you are drunk, they will pull you right out of the crowd and butter you up until you’re practically begging them to take your money. And they can be quite pushy, negotiating prices. This is how I spent $150 on Tresor Rare skincare that I will never use. Infused with diamonds, my ass.
Don’t get so drunk you become an annoyance. I’m going to repeat that for emphasis: the fact that drinking is a big part of the draw here doesn’t make it okay for you to act like a jackass. I’ve heard of tour guides having to remove tourists who drank too much. Do not be this person.
Don’t get so drunk you can’t enjoy the rest of your trip. Remember, there’s still tomorrow. Drink water, take a break to sober up a bit, and come back to the booze in an hour or two. Trust me – it’ll be there waiting for you!
I also have a list of Top 5 Tips for a Great New Orleans Vacation – check it out here. Have you learned any survival tips from your time in New Orleans? Add your thoughts in the comments!