As I was boarding the flight in New Orleans that would eventually take me back to Philadelphia, I kept my head on a swivel, scoping out the faces of those around me. I found my seat and focused on the doorway as the people entered, hypothesizing the scenarios of their visits based on expressions and appearances.
There are places around the world where people have a tendency to depart worn out as opposed to rested, and the United States certainly has its share: Any plane out of Las Vegas, for sure, but also Sunday afternoon flights from fiesta-oriented towns such as New Orleans and Miami. Most likely, a handful of passengers on the plane have had a wild weekend, which is good for both people-watching as well as in-flight conversation.
I would have been happy with eavesdropping across the aisle, yet as luck would have it the man who sat down next to me had been in town for a bachelor party. Lucky me, although he also may of felt fortunate - I hadn't been getting much sleep, either.
Beginning of Bourbon Street in New Orleans.
The man next to me on the plane said it better than I ever could: Bourbon Street does an incredible job of quarantining all the assholes.
I laughed when he said it. Neither of us were trying to be a prick - we admittedly had both spent some time exploring the scene (and I certainly didn't complain about the strong drinks), but let's be honest: It's no place any local hangs out. It's the same bar over and over, each block relatively the same, and the crowd is a bunch of drunk out-of-towners who are feeling good about themselves and looking to let loose.
No judgement, I played along: I drank a few Jesters and walked the street, saw some women lift up their shirts and danced to a live band. But it wasn't somewhere I wanted to spend all night - I knew there was a time limit to my tolerance.
The good thing is that although it gets the most attention, Bourbon Street is merely the gateway to nightlife in the New Orleans.
Magazine Street eventually dead ends into Canal Street as you drive east on it, running parallel to the Mississippi River and cutting right through the heart of the Garden District (Uptown). Bye-bye Bourbon - this is much more the scene for meeting locals.
Restaurants, bars, and shops line the neighborhood street, and there are significantly less bells and whistles (no party push, no loud clubs that I saw). The majority are locally owned and run with outside seating under the live oak trees, great for walking and menu/window shopping.
With the help of a friend I found a great beer bar called The Bulldog (located between Toledano and Pleasant). If you're ever in town on a Wednesday, they run an interesting special that allows you to keep the pint glass of every beer you drink (you can cash in ten of them for a free T-shirt, but I'd keep the glasses). Happy hour at the Bulldog is legit: 2 p.m. - 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, and they have 50 beers on tap and 100 more in bottles.
Frenchmen Street and Marigny:
On the eastern end of the French Quarter is the appropriately named Frenchmen Street, known for its live music scene and lack of neon lights (aka its local feel). This is a great spot to wander after you've had your fill of Bourbon Street.
We walked further east into the neighborhood of Marigny (see map below) and ended the night at Mimi's in the Marigny, recommended to my group by a local and recognized as Best Neighborhood Bar by Where Y'at and Best Bar in New Orleans by readers of The Gambit.
Mimi's serves Spanish tapas until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and has music and dancing on the second floor (either a band or DJ). Expect a younger crowd and a hipster vibe.
My advice: Window shop when you're in New Orleans. Most places do not charge a cover, so be sure to take advantage and pop in to preview the band/atmosphere of a few different spots. Don't decide on specific bars, decide on the neighborhood and let the night take you where it will. With so many bands playing at so many different venues almost every night, visitors could drive themselves crazy trying to pinpoint the perfect place.
Here's a map to help you get your bearings (click to enlarge):
From west to east: Magazine Street (The Bulldog), Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street, Marigny (Mimi's)