Known as The City of the Dead, New Orleans is the most alive city I’ve ever been to. Whether it’s the beauty and history of the French Quarter, the rambunctious and sensory-overloading Bourbon Street, the mysterious swamps, or the mixture of (very) colorful locals and overly carefree tourists, NOLA pumps energy into the world.
Ever since American Horror Story: Coven debuted, I’ve wanted to visit NOLA. The history is unparalleled, and being such a huge fan of the supernatural, it’s my kind of place. NOLA fulfilled every expectation I had, apart from not seeing a real-life alligator in the wild.
For this blog, I will break it up into parts: the French Quarter (which includes Bourbon Street, the ghost walking tour, and AHS: Coven House), Frenchmen Street and Café Du Monde, the swamp tour, and the plantation visit.
The French Quarter
I was hooked by the French Quarter (FQ) the second I laid eyes on it. I’ve seen pictures of this whimsical place, as well as been to Disneyland’s version (kudos to Disney for the realistic rendering), but I had yet to visit the real deal for myself. While the history of this place is less than whimsical, it’s easy to forget the dark history because it’s just so gosh darn charming. I loved the FQ so much that I went not once, not twice, but three times in four days.
Parking deep inside the FQ is basically like going into battle, so I don’t recommend it. All the streets going through the FQ are one-way, with parking along the side, but most is private and/or already taken for eternity. There are numerous pay-to-park lots just outside the FQ which unbelievably are not too expensive. We ended up paying around $11 for like, 7 hours. Like I said, unbelievable.
Our first stop was the Museum of Death, located in the FQ on Dauphine Street. We had to walk a bit from the parking lot, but seriously, the walk is well worth it considering the price, AND you don’t have to worry about some jerk clipping your car or some drunk messing with it. However, we had only walked a total of about 50 feet before being completely trapped in an otherworldly heavy rain storm. This is not an exaggeration; it rains in Louisiana every single day, at least once a day. It rained every day I was there, for at least an hour. We were trapped underneath an awning for a good 25 minutes before realizing we’d have to call an Uber or do SOMETHING, otherwise who knows how long we’d be stuck in this rain purgatory and we had sh!t to do that day.
Word of caution: apparently if you put the address to the Museum of Death into a GPS, it’ll take you about 60 feet ahead of the actual museum. Our Uber driver put it into his phone and we ended up in front of some cafe, but he insisted this was the address for the museum (he even showed us his phone). Due to the heavy rain and our complete ignorance of the FQ, we had no way of knowing the museum was behind us, a mere few feet away. We were very confused and wondering if they had recently closed it. We ended up having him drop us off under a nearby hotel and went inside to search for umbrellas. No dice, but we did find plastic rain parkas for $3 apiece (more words of advice: if there’s even a hint of rain, carry a small umbrella or plastic parka if you’re going to be out and about). The parkas weren’t perfect, but they worked well enough. After building up the courage to run through the 3 feet of water (not an exaggeration; the rain was coming down so fast and so hard, the drainage system couldn’t keep up), we started making our way back to my friend’s car for safety. By the time we arrived we were drenched from the bottom of our shorts down, but we survived.
Since the storms in Louisiana usually pass through quickly, we waited in the car for about 15 minutes and sure enough, the sky became clear again. It was time for Take Two, and off we went to find the Museum of Death. While trapped in the car, I googled it; the most current reviews were from a week before, so it MUST exist. We headed back towards where it said it was located and sure enough, there it was. I don’t know how we missed it, other than it’s set a bit back from the street and the rain probably played a role… or it’s like Platform 9¾ and you can only see it when you’re worthy.
It’s open 7 days a week – 10 am to 7 pm – and no pictures are allowed inside the museum. This is due to items and photographs that aren’t public or readily available online. We met the actual owner (who was working the front desk, of all places) and that’s what he explained to us. They monitor the museum very closely – through cameras and workers walking around – and if they catch you taking pictures, you will be immediately kicked out and probably banned.
The Museum of Death was unlike any place I’ve ever been. I’m not näive, nor dainty or weak, and I’ve seen some prettyyyy f’ed up things on the internet, but my stomach was legit queasy by the end of the visit. There are a lot of photographs depicting both famous and non-famous people dead from various methods: stabbings, shootings, car accidents, lynchings, beatings, etc. There were photographs of the Manson Family murders that I’ve never seen before and aren’t easily found online. There were various pieces of clothing, furniture, paintings and drawings, and other effects from numerous famous serial killers (Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, Charles Manson, and more). A theater in the back played a movie on a loop of just various gruesome (and real) deaths from around the world. We didn’t stay and watch it. There were items from 9/11 and a video of the attacks playing on a loop. There was so much more than this, and none of it is for the weak-of-heart.
After leaving the Museum of Make You Super Grateful for Life, we were starving and made our way to the Hard Rock Cafe simply because it was very close by. I’ve eaten at the Hard Rock in Los Angeles and Copenhagen, Denmark, and this was BY FAR the worst experience I ever had. I won’t get that into it, but the Cliff-Notes version is that our waitress was an idiot, terrible at her job, and nowhere to be found for 90% of our meal; all our food was wrong (presumably due to the waitress being an idiot); she charged my friend for 2 burgers she didn’t even eat but didn’t charge ME for my meal… which I ate. We got it worked out with management, but holy hell. It was a terrible experience to say the least. The only good thing that came out of it was I ended up paying $11.10 for a meal that should have cost around $30+. Regardless, I strongly suggest trying a more local, “down-home” restaurant in the FQ, and there are plenty (my suggestion is Pat O’Brien’s, but more on that later).
Once we were done with the most disappointing meal and service of a lifetime, we made our way over to the infamous Bourbon Street, known for its debauchery, bars, and boobs. I was warned prior to visiting Bourbon that I should not wear flip-flops or “any shoes you don’t want ruined”. Apparently, this was due to the amount of vomit and urine that lines the streets of Bourbon. Call me a rebel, but I wore my sandals anyway and didn’t really notice an ungodly amount of human waste. It just seemed like any inner-city street: dirty.
Our last stop of the first day was the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. It’s open Monday – Friday, from 10 am to 6 pm, and is located right in the FQ, right off Bourbon. I was super excited about this because the religion of voodoo has always fascinated me, but alas, I must say that this “museum” was a major disappointment. It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be. I expected historical artifacts, information, and just crap that you’d find in a museum. This place was a giant, multi-room voodoo shrine. It’s an extremely small, 2-room building with one way in and one way out, down a narrow hallway, so be prepared to shmush yourself into the wall while passing people. Both rooms held nothing more than various voodoo shrines and voodoo artifacts on the wall, with zero information or context. There were shrines in the narrow hallway as well, all appearing to be active shrines. They were littered with everything, including: photographs, money (cash and coins), cigarettes, playing cards, beer, candles, I.D.s, beads, small bottles of alcohol, bones, clothing, hair-ties, buttons, bottles of medicine like antacid and Tylenol, jewelry, Chapstick and other makeup, flowers, lotions, baskets, hand sanitizer, perfume, skulls, various forms of Jesus, voodoo dolls, crosses, the virgin Mary, keys, and much.. much…more…We spent only roughly 15 minutes in the museum, and that was more than enough time.
We came back to the FQ two days later, this time to visit the famous St. Louis Cathedral, Saint Louis Cemetery #1, the Coven House, and to do our ghost walking tour. The very first place we headed was the cemetery, because it closes super early (9 am – 3 pm), and we had arrived in NOLA around 2 pm. Ugh… the cemetery was the single biggest disappointment of my entire trip to NOLA – because I didn’t get to visit the damn thing. Nobody informed me that a few years ago, the city of New Orleans closed the cemetery to the public due to vandalism and grave robbing; therefore, you can only visit with a pre-approved tour (like the company we booked for our ghost walking tour). As we walked up, I noticed a long line to get in and people at the gate filtering in tourists. I asked a random guide if you needed to be in a tour to get in, and it was at that moment that disappointment washed over me like a black wave. Since the cemetery closed in less than an hour, it was by far too late to book a tour, and this was our last day of visiting the FQ. I had no choice but to cut my losses, learn my lesson (google EVERYTHING when visiting a new city), and make sure I return in this lifetime to visit it.
After pouting for a few minutes over the cemetery, we moved on to the heart of the FQ, and to Saint Louis Cathedral. Officially named The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, the current church has been standing in New Orleans since 1789. It is the oldest cathedral in the United States. The church is completely open to the public; however, when you go inside the chapel, be advised that people are actively praying. You’re allowed to walk around and observe, but they have multiple “please keep quiet” signs displayed.
Once we left the church, we walked a short way down Bourbon to find a place to eat lunch. We did not want a repeat of the disastrous Hard Rock Café incident, so we purposely chose a more hole-in-the-wall kind of place. We settled on Pat O’Brien’s, which is tucked away off Bourbon street into a little secret garden-like place where I half expected fairies to come out at any second. Inside you forget that you are on the craziest street NOLA has to offer. The food is good, they give you a lot, and most importantly – it’s reasonably priced. On my last night here, I stayed at a hotel near the airport and instead of spending money on overpriced hotel food, I Ubered to the FQ specifically to eat here again. 10/10, would recommend.
Next, we headed to the Garden District to do what every good American Horror Story fan does in New Orleans: visit the Coven House. For non-AHS lovers, the third season of the show was filmed entirely in NOLA and included a handful of real-life famous historical figures from there, like Marie Laveau and Delphine Lalaurie. The Coven House, or as it’s officially known, the Buckner Mansion, is located at 1410 Jackson Ave. Do not let the internet fool you into thinking it’s open to the public. If you google the Buckner Mansion, Google will tell you it’s open, and its hours are from 8am to 6pm. LIIIIIEEEESSSSS (for all the AHS fans out there). Do more than a quick google search and you will find countless reviews and articles that all say the same thing; no, it is not open to the public and you will not be getting inside. You will be insisting to the police officer arresting you for B&E that “Google says it’s open, Officer!”. It’s a privately-owned residence and is only available for rent a few weeks out of the year (for the economically sound and reasonable price of $20,000). The gate was securely locked and there were numerous signs in the yard stating that trespassers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. So yeah, make your own judgments here.
Our final thing in the FQ was our long-anticipated ghost walking tour. We signed up just a day or so in advance, with a company called Ghost City Tours. They offer numerous walking tours; Ghost of New Orleans Tour (the one we took), Haunted New Orleans Tour (not quite sure how it differs from the first tour, but whatevs), Haunted pub crawl (for all you alkies), Killers and Thrillers west and east (two separate tours), and a cemetery tour (St. Louis Cemetery #1). Our tour was $19.95 per adult, and $9.95 per child. They run this tour twice per night, once at 6 pm and again at 8 pm, and it’s 90 minutes long. The walking is not strenuous, so if you are wearing sandals or flip-flops it shouldn’t be an issue (my friend and I were wearing sandals). The tour never leaves the FQ, and most of the locations are located near one another.
We visited a handful of supposedly very haunted locations; however, tours are not allowed inside any of these buildings, so you learn about their history and what makes them so haunted from the sidewalk on the outside. It is still very educational and fascinating, but just a heads-up.
Some of the places we visited were St. Louis Cathedral (Touchdown Jesus), Muriel’s restaurant, the Andrew Jackson hotel, Pirates Alley (along with its 18th century drainage system still visible), the old city jail, the house with a bricked-up window because it is said that’s where New Orleans vampire Jacques Saint Germain lived, and he’d supposedly use that window to lurk into the night and do whatever it is vampires do, and finally the famed Lalaurie Mansion. There were a few other stops but frankly, I can’t remember them.
Our guide was an extremely animated and energetic woman who told us about the history of all these places and how they came to be so haunted. Apparently, quite a bit of murder and supernatural shenanigans went down in New Orleans back in the day. Of all the places we went, the only one that is completely off limits to any visitors in any capacity is the Lalaurie Mansion. There are fraudulent companies out there that will claim to be able to take you inside the mansion, but that’s a lie. It is privately owned, and the owners don’t even live there for like 95% of the year. Absolutely no tours are offered, and you cannot rent it like the Buckner Mansion. All you get to see is the outside and a peek though a small, barred gap over the door. In fact, American Horror Story
couldn’t even film here while shooting Kathy Bates’ Lalauire scenes and had to shoot “inside the house” at a different location.
*Note: my friend and I didn’t even think about bringing cash to tip the tour guide and felt like giant assholes as a result. So bring some cash with you.*
Frenchmen Street and Café Du Monde
We headed to Frenchmen Street the same night of our ghost tour because we had some time to kill beforehand (da-da-dum). Plus, my friend’s boyfriend is pretty much a local of the area and told her that all the locals go to Frenchman Street and avoid Bourbon like the plague. The biggest difference between the two is that Frenchmen is more artistically leaning, while Bourbon is all about drinking yourself into a coma. To be perfectly honest, I was rather bored with Frenchmen; however, I did score two really cool hand-painted NOLA inspired paintings.
Café Du Monde is located about half a mile from Frenchmen Street and a stones throw from Saint Louis Cathedral, and is quite the experience. I went the first day we visited the FQ, but the line was too long, and it was too hot. I thought I was going to leave NOLA without getting to try their world-famous beignets; however, on the last night I was there, I headed over after dinner. Both times I went – once during the day and once at night – the place was PACKED. Every table was taken and the lines for sit-down and to-go will have you waiting a good 15 to 20 minutes. Another important note (that I almost learned the hard way) is that they only accept cash. I stood in line for about 20 minutes only to make it near the front and see the ominous “cash only” sign looming ahead of me. It ended up being $3 even for 3 beignets, and I had EXACTLY three, $1-dollar bills. Divine intervention, perhaps?
The Swamp Tour
A swamp tour has been at the top of my bucket list for many moons, and I was beyond thrilled for “Swamp Day”. Some people would never step foot in a swamp, let alone for fun, but those people suck. Yes, there were bugs, and possibly snakes, alligators, and God knows what else, but that was all part of the allure of it (especially the gators). We researched the tours intensively, because most were quite pricey, and they put you on a large boat with like 15 other gawkers. These tours were also located closer to NOLA, so naturally they were more expensive and needed to squish more bodies through. We decided we’d have better luck expanding our search, as there is no shortage of swamps all around southern Louisiana.
We chose Last Wilderness Swamp Tours, located about an hour away from NOLA in Plaquemine, and were very satisfied with our choice. It cost $40 per adult, and $35 per children under 10 (as well as tips – we didn’t forget the tip this time). All the other tours cost between $75 – $100 per person. The *only* letdown was we did not see an alligator. Our guide – who looked like he could be the long-lost 5th Duck Dynasty brother – explained that this company is one of the only companies that does not bait or feed the alligators; therefore, you have a significantly lower chance of seeing one. However, their reasons for doing so are solid and it was hard to disagree with them. The guide explained that Last Wilderness Swamp Tours feels like it is morally wrong to feed the gators because it puts the tourists at risk, the locals at risk, and the food they feed them is not good for them. He said they would rather offer you an authentic experience and if you see a gator, great, but if not, then so be it. As it would be, the gator gods were not on our side, but that doesn’t mean the entire thing was a bust. In fact, it was phenomenal!
During the 2-hour tour, the guide took as all over the Atchafalaya Basin, where he explained the ecosystem and pointed out various wildlife (mostly different species of birds). We learned about the different trees, rising and falling water levels, and even saw a few flying fish. We learned about the crayfish industry in Louisiana and how important it is to them. We even got to hold a real-life crayfish who had just gotten done molting, so she had no claws and was completely harmless. It was a very informative tour and our boat was small, which is something we definitely wanted. There were only 6 people on the boat total, including the guide. It was a small, open, propeller-powered boat and surprisingly a smooth ride. I really enjoyed being in a smaller boat because it made the experience more personal and authentic. We researched about 8 or so companies, and the smallest boat was 12 or more people for all of them, except Last Wilderness Swamp Tours.
Oak Alley Plantation
If you’ve seen the movie Interview with a Vampire, then you’ve seen Oak Alley Plantation. It was the home of the vamp, Louis, played by then-hunky Brad Pitt, but it’s also been in numerous other video productions like Beyoncé’s music video for Déjà Vu, and the movie also named Déjà Vu starring Denzel Washington. It’s open Monday – Friday from 9 am to 5 pm, and admission costs $25 per adult, $10 for youth aged 13 to 18, and $7 for 5 or younger. You can either pay the admission and walk the grounds, or you can dine at the Oak Alley Restaurant & Inn, stay the night in one of the numerous cottages, or even get married there. I personally wouldn’t get married at a plantation, but to each their own.
We decided to just walk around on our own and meandered towards the exhibits, mainly the “Slavery at Oak Alley Exhibit”. These were various reconstructed cottages and huts that resembled the ones slaves had to live in while being held at Oak Alley. There was information about the lives of the slaves and the artifacts inside the cottages, located on signs posted throughout. It was a very sobering moment to stare in the face of how these people used to live and what they had to endure. While slaves at Oak Alley were generally treated well, they were still slaves, and treated as a slave would have been treated.
There were several informative signs posted throughout, like; “Why would a slave visit the sick house?”, information about the laundry kettle and how the slave women were forced to hand wash countless loads of laundry for the entire plantation, “expectations: life as a House Slave”, and emancipation. One of the cottages was dedicated to the clothing, identity, and life of the average slave. Another was dedicated to the kinds of tools they’d be made to use while attending to the various grounds of the plantation. One of the cottages was the “post-emancipation quarters”, which had a wall with names of numerous slaves that lived at Oak Alley. Here is where we learned that over 220 men, women, and children were enslaved at Oak Alley during its history as a plantation. We learned about the hierarchy that existed among slave ranks, and how entire families could be demoted to the bottom of the barrel for the sins of one family member. It was eye-opening, to say the least. You read about slavery in history class or hear about it, but it’s quite another thing to visit a place so drenched in such a heartless and villainous practice and history.
We eventually made our way up an oak-lined alleyway towards the Main House. No, not the famous alleyway from where the plantation gets its name, but its smaller cousin. We arrived about 5 minutes before the next tour of the Main House was set to begin, so I was able to run down the famous oak-lined walkway and snap the obligatory picture that everyone snaps at Oak Alley. If it weren’t for the soul-crushing, despicable history that went down here, Oak Alley would be a beautiful place to live or get married. It’s extremely picturesque and enchanting, and there is nowhere better to feel this than standing at the end of the famous oak-lined walkway, looking towards the Main House.
Tours of the Main House are included in the price of admission, you just must wait for the next tour to begin and cannot wander the house by yourself. Unfortunately, photography is strictly forbidden inside the house, so I have no pictures of it. I’m not sweating it too much, considering almost all the inside décor and furniture is not original anyway, save for a few pieces like a set of china and an original 19th century ceiling fan in the dining room. Our guide explained the history of the Main House, how it came to be built, the various owners, the history of the plantation, and of course, the slaves who worked here. The house is rather small on the inside, but one can easily imagine how grand and opulent it must have been in its heyday. After the tour of the inside was complete, the guide took us to the upstairs balcony where we were greeted with a marvelous view of the oak-lined walkway. If it weren’t for the black mark of slavery, living at Oak Alley would have been a dream because it’s such a beautiful location. After the tour of the Main House, we decided to call it a day (you can only visit for a max 2 hours anyway… still not quite sure how they enforce that).
Overall, my visit to New Orleans did not disappoint and I was able to mark off several items from my bucket list (seeing a real-life alligator in the wild not being one of them). There are very few places I have visited that I absolutely know I will be returning to, and NOLA is one of them. Next time I plan on staying near the FQ, or at least near the airport depending on prices, to make the trip easier since Baton Rouge is a good hour away.
City of the Dead, I will be back for you!