Brian’s Travel Spot: A Weekend in New Orleans

Traditional wrought iron balconies in the French Quarter of New Orleans.The first time I visited New Orleans was in 2010, when I took travelled on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, an overnight service from Chicago. This covers the 1,500 km route, which roughly follows the Mississippi all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, in around 20 hours. It was therefore fitting that my return to New Orleans, in March 2018, was also by train. This time I travelled on the Crescent, another overnight service which starts in New York City, although I picked it up at Manassas, just south of Washington DC.

This was part of a much longer journey which had seen me start in Boston, before taking a series of trains down Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor from Providence. Swapping a New England winter for the spring-like weather of the Gulf Coast (it was 25°C!), I spent a weekend in New Orleans before catching another train, Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, to Tucson, which marked the end of my train travel for the trip. Ideally, I’d have taken the train to Phoenix, my final destination, but sadly it lost its passenger service long ago, so instead I drove the last leg. From there, I flew back to the UK, making my final way home.

You can see what I made of New Orleans after the gallery.

  • My arrival into New Orleans Station, just 90 minutes late...
  • Time to say goodbye to the faithful locomotives which hauled me here from Manassas.
  • New Orleans departures and arrivals board. It's not a busy station!
  • When I'd first visited in 2010, I'd stayed here, at the St Peter House Hotel...
  • ... where I'd really enjoyed sitting on my balcony. Sadly it was fully booked this time.
  • Instead, I was staying just off Bourbon Street. The unpromising looking gate on the right...
  • ... led me into a long, narrow passageway (this is the view towards the street).
  • Although initially uninspiring, it provided excellent soundproofing and led to this...
  • ... secluded and leafy courtyard. I was in a room on the ground floor next to the stairs.
  • This room, in fact.
  • And here it is! No, it's not very big, but it was only for three nights. This is the view from...
  • ... by the door, and this is the view from the other side.
  • There were two rooms off to the right-hand side...
  • ... the bathroom, at the back...
  • ... and a tiny kitchen with an old gas hob at the front.
  • Importantly, this had a kettle, so that meant...
  • ... coffee!
  • And to drink my coffee? Well, I had access to this table outside in the courtyard.
  • The view for my morning coffee.
  • There was another apartment at the front of the courtyard, which had access to these...
  • ... and this bench...
  • ... while this rather glorious staircase led up to another apartment upstairs.
  • The view back across the courtyard. You can just see my room next to the stairs.
  • Talking of which, these led to more rooms, accessed via a balcony.
  • A view of the courtyard from above...
  • ... and, because I couldn't get a decent picture of it from anywhere else, a palm tree!
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I arrived in New Orleans on a Friday evening in March, a mere 1½ hours late (which, considering that I’d been travelling for 27 hours, wasn’t too bad). I was staying right in the centre of the French Quarter, which, for those who don’t know New Orleans, is both the historic core of the city and party central. Even better (or worse, depending on your perspective), I was staying in a little apartment on Bourbon Street, one of the main drags, lined with bars and party venues.

I ended up walking from the station, which takes about 30 minutes and, as I made my way along Bourbon Street, flooded with a very drunk Friday night crowd, past raucous bars, pumping out loud music, I wondered what I had let myself in for. The place I was staying, the Bourgoyne Guest House, wasn’t my first choice. When I visited New Orleans in 2010, I stayed at the St Peter House Hotel (now Inn on St Peter), a charming boutique hotel a few blocks from where I was staying this time, but in a comparatively much quieter part of town. Standing on a corner, it had a lovely, sheltered courtyard and traditional cast-iron balconies all the way around. I have very fond memories of sitting on the balcony in the morning, drinking my coffee.

Back in 2010, I’d been able to get a room there for under $100 a night. Eight years later, it was sold out, although admittedly, it was a weekend and I had left it very late to book anything (the whole trip, other than the flights in and out, was cobbled together was I went along). In my defence, I really hadn’t expected New Orleans to be that busy in early March, so I only managed to secure my accommodation a couple of days before I caught the train down. I’ll know better next time!

Since I was only staying for the weekend, I didn’t want anywhere too far from the centre, so that further limited my choices. In the end, I managed to find a room at the Bourgoyne Guest House, but even that was $140 a night (most of the other options, if they had rooms at all, were well over $200/night). Even so, as I wandered down Bourbon Street, I really did question my choices.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Yes, I had picked somewhere right in the heart of the loudest, busiest part of the city, but the room itself was ideal. It was one of several off a courtyard set back from the street and accessed down a long, narrow corridor which led off Bourbon Street. My room was at the back of the courtyard on the ground floor, with a row of rooms upstairs, accessed by an internal flight of stairs which led to a balcony running the length of the courtyard. Although I did have balcony envy, I suspect it was a little noisier up there, whereas my room really was insulated from all but the worst of the noise.

The room itself was pretty neat. I had a bedroom, which opened onto the courtyard, where I had access to a table and chair for my morning coffee. Meanwhile, off to the right was a bathroom at the back and a small kitchen with an old gas hob at the front, so I could have cooked for myself. More importantly, there was a kettle, so I could make my own coffee. I settled in, got some sleep, then headed out the following morning to explore.

You can see what I found after the gallery.

  • Looking down Bourbon Street to the Central Business District from outside my apartment.
  • From there, I took to wandering around the French Quarter and admiring...
  • ... the very distinctive architecture, which includes...
  • ... plenty of wrought-iron balconies...
  • ... of varying styles. And yes, for the record, I am suffering from balcony envy!
  • Right in the heart of the French Quarter is Jackson Square, a formal park...
  • ... with the magnificent St Louis Cathedral as a backdrop and a...
  • ... statue of Andrew Jackson (7th President of the USA) in the middle.
  • Along the sides are some lovely buildings, apparently modelled on Paris' Place des Vosges.
  • From here it was a short way to my first stop, Spitfire Coffee, which is just a block...
  • ... away from the cathedral. It's a tiny spot, with just the counter at the back...
  • ... and three stools by the window at the front.
  • My first (speciality) coffee in New Orleans, not counting what I made for breakfast!
  • From there, I carried on wandering (this is just to show it's not all balconies)...
  • ... getting as far as Esplanade Avenue, a tree-lined thoroughfare...
  • ... which marks the eastern extent of the French Quarter.
  • Nice mural.
  • From there I made my way down to the waterfront, the southern boundary of the...
  • ... French Quarter, to indulge in one of my favourite passtimes, watching the ships go by.
  • This is the view upstream towards the Central Business District and, beyond that...
  • ... the Crescent City Connection, linking New Orleans with the other side of the Mississippi.
  • There is a short streetcar line down here, but it's strictly for the tourists.
  • Instead I set off walking downstream...
  • ... which meant going along Crescent Park...
  • ... which runs between the river and the freight tracks...
  • ... affording more views of the mighty Mississippi and the Central Business District.
  • A lot of it had been very cleverly landscaped, like this, which made for a pleasant walk.
  • This marked the end of the park for me, a weird, curved bridge...
  • ... which crossed back over the tracks, leading to a residential neighbourhood.
  • Up we go.
  • The view from the top, looking back towards the river...
  • ... and across to where my walk in the park had started.
  • Look! It's one of the paddle steamers, coming back upstream.
  • The park continues upstream for a short way, but I was headed for the other side...
  • ... and this residential neighbourhood.
  • More balcony envy.
  • Safely down on the other side of the tracks.
  • I enjoyed walking through the residential streets of mostly single-storey houses...
  • ... which made for an interesting contrast compared to the French Quarter.
  • My destination was my second (coffee) stop of the day, Sólo Espresso...
  • ... a lovely, basement-like coffee shop...
  • ... where I had an excellent filter coffee and which is where I'll leave you for the day.
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On my first trip in 2010, I’d done many of the standard tourist things, including taking a paddle steamer down the Mississippi, as well as going on guided tours of some old houses in the French Quarter and the famous cemeteries in the Garden District. All of this is highly recommended, as is walking around the Garden District looking at the mansions, and wandering the French Quarter, admiring the architecture.

Although I would have happily done it all again, this time I was visiting with my Coffee Spot hat on, and, with little time available, I gave the usual tourist things a miss. Also, because it was a weekend and hence very busy, I passed on the local music scene, which I had also sampled on my first visit, attending a couple of jazz and blues bars, which are well worth it if you like live music.

Instead, I set about tracking down New Orleans’ small but vibrant speciality coffee scene, starting with Spitfire Coffee, conveniently located a block from St Louis Cathedral, the spiritual heart of New Orleans, which is in the middle of the French Quarter. Of course, all it takes is one, and at Spitfire, the barista filled me in with a list of places I needed to visit.

Suitably fuelled (both with caffeine and knowledge), I set off for my first target, Sólo Espresso, largely because it closed at three in the afternoon and time was ticking. It’s off the beaten track to the east of the French Quarter, on the border between Bywater and St. Claude, which gave me an excuse to take a 50-minute stroll through Crescent Park which runs along the north bank of the Mississippi. From there, I came back to the French Quarter for more touristing and dinner before planning my itinerary for the following day.

You can see what I got up to after the gallery.

  • I started my day with a stroll through Louis Armstrong Park.
  • The tree-lined entrance to the park.
  • Unsurprisingly, this has plenty of statues...
  • ... which celebrate New Orleans' musical heritage.
  • This was one of the more unusual ones!
  • Nice tree!
  • Nice bridge!
  • Pride of place, of course, goes to a statue of the great man himself...
  • ... Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong (and his trumpet).
  • From there it was a couple of blocks to my first stop, Pax Treme, nestling under I-10.
  • It doesn't look much from the outside, but inside it's huge!
  • I'd gone there for breakfast and can report that the food...
  • ... was excellent...
  • ... as was the coffee!
  • Next stop, Cherry Espresso Bar, all the way over in Uptown.
  • This is another coffee shop with a large and gorgeous interior.
  • Here's the view looking back towards the doors...
  • ... and here's my espresso, which was just as good!
  • From there, I made my way 10 blocks north to St Charles Avenue and the streetcar line.
  • The streetcars (this is going the other way) date from the 1920s.
  • Here comes mine.
  • I love that you can ride right behind the driver.
  • Streetcars, like buses, it seems, come in clumps.
  • It had, by the way, been raining...
  • ... and as we got into the Central Business District, it started again!
  • After dinner, I went down to the river one last time to watch the ships go by...
  • ... and was lucky enough to see the paddle steam, Natchez, setting off for a cruise.
  • I'll leave you with a view of Jackson Square and the Cathedral in the twilight.
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I started my Sunday morning with a stroll through Louis Armstrong Park, which borders onto the northern edge of the French Quarter. My destination was Pax Treme, a new venture from Scott, the owner of Spitfire Coffee, which had opened at the start of that week! Nestled under the freeway, I-10, which cuts right through this part of town, I immediately fell in love with the place!

Sadly, it had to close in early 2019 due to a series of unfortunate incidents (including a break in). The good news is that it reopened towards the end of the year (full disclosure: I provided some investment to help the reopening get off the ground) just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit New Orleans hard. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit the next time I’m in New Orleans.

From Pax Treme, I jumped in a taxi and headed all the way down to the Cherry Espresso Bar which is in Uptown, near the Mississippi on the other side of the Garden District. I spent the rest of the afternoon there, in part hiding from a series of really heavy downpours, before making my way back to the French Quarter. Although a walk past the mansions of the Garden District would have affording plenty of sight-seeing opportunities, it would have taken me about 90 minutes.

With all the rain about, I decided to make my way 10 blocks north to St Charles Avenue and catch the streetcar back to Canal Street, which marks the western edge of the French Quarter, separating it from the Central Business District. New Orleans’ streetcar network is another thing high on the tourist list and is well worth taking. Other than the short route on the waterfront (which really is just for tourists in my opinion), the rest of the network is a practical, albeit slow, way of getting around town, and fully integrated into the city’s transport network. The line I took, along St Charles Avenue, is the oldest, having first run in 1835, and has some lovely old rolling stock dating from the 1920s.

Back in the centre, I had dinner, took one last stroll along the waterfront, then headed back to my apartment, ready for an early start the following morning, when I was due to catch the Sunset Limited, Amtrak Train No. 1, all the way to Tucson, Arizona, which you can read about in the next instalment of this Travel Spot.


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2 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: A Weekend in New Orleans

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