Where to find New Orleans’ authentic art and culture scene
The French Quarter might be the most popular destination in New Orleans, but it’s far from a comprehensive representation of the city. To truly understand this wildly unique city, travelers must venture beyond its highly trafficked tourist core to explore the lesser known yet wonderfully diverse neighborhoods that help make the Crescent City one of America’s preeminent centers of art and culture.
Go beyond the standard museums and tourist attractions of New Orleans for a side of the Big Easy unseen to most visitors and you’ll find an array of offbeat attractions showcasing the depth of the city.
Uncover unconventional art
Dr. Bob has only one rule: “Be nice or leave.” Not only is the slogan emblazoned on the playful red dinosaur sculpture greeting you at the entrance of this funky junkyard gallery and studio in the hip Bywater neighborhood, it also can be found adorning some of the many unclassifiable pieces of art for sale at Dr. Bob’s Folk Art. Showcasing the works of self-taught New Orleans folk artist Bob Shaffer, the studio features paintings and found objects depicting classic local scenes and destinations that make for a fun keepsake – far more authentic than something dredged from a tacky French Quarter souvenir shop.
Helping make the Bywater one of the leading centers of art and culture in New Orleans, the nearby Studio Be showcases works by local artist Brandan “Bmike” Odums in a once-forgotten 35,000-sq-ft neighborhood warehouse space. Adorned with a giant exterior mural and featuring large-scale spray-painted works inside mostly centering around themes of racial injustice, portraits depict everyone from famous figures like Muhammad Ali to everyday New Orleans citizens in a cool Instagram-friendly space on the cutting edge of New Orleans street art.
The Bywater is also one of the best places in the city to experience live art out in the open at wholly unique destinations like Music Box Village, a visually stunning “interactive sonic sculpture garden” in which guests are encouraged to be a part of the experience. With instruments embedded into the wooded walls, floors, and ceilings of more than a dozen sound installations open to the public for experimentation by manipulating different sounds like horns and chimes, Music Box Village also hosts live musical performances with a small bar on site.
And if your art exploration starts making you hungry, not to worry – the Bywater even hosts its own hidden taco stand located down an art-lined alley. Unknown even to many locals, Rosalita’s Backyard Tacos is open from 5-9 pm Tuesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. (Just follow the funky skeleton art painted on the wood fence in the alley off North Rampart Street between Piety Street and Desire Street.) On your way out of the neighborhood, stop by the Bywater Art Garden to snap a photo of the garden’s colorful “One Time in New Orleans” mural.
Meet the Mardi Gras Indian
Located in a ramshackle trailer shed in the backyard of a residential home in the Lower Ninth Ward, the House of Dance & Feathers is a must-visit thanks to the dedication of lifelong resident Ronald Lewis. The museum’s director and curator is an absolute gem of a human being, with his effusive spirit and intricate storytelling breathing life into the various Mardi Gras costumes, books, images, and photos of New Orleans street culture that tell a living history of this most unique aspect of local life. The small museum is open by appointment only, so call ahead and Ronald will happily give you the tour when he is available.
Over in the Treme neighborhood, America’s oldest African-American residential district, the Backstreet Cultural Museum is a small house-sized museum dedicated to local African-American culture and history. Featuring costumes, artifacts, photos, and films (including more than 500 films documenting New Orleans marching and processional culture including parades, jazz funerals, and processions from local social clubs), the museum boasts the world’s most comprehensive collection related to New Orleans' African-American community-based masking and processional traditions.
Also in the Treme, the nearby Treme’s Petit Jazz Museum is housed in a cute turquoise blue home structure and is packed with artifacts related to the history of jazz and its connection to New Orleans culture. Peruse the historic musical instruments, paintings, photos, and drawings that line the museum’s walls and tables while hearing a master class on the intersection of jazz and New Orleans history from Treme local/jazz historian Al Jackson. There’s even original contracts and sign-in books from musical legends like Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles.
Party in a renovated auto shop
Art continues to dress up New Orleans over in the Marigny neighborhood, particularly along the increasingly hip St. Claude Avenue, where you can find the graffiti-emblazoned Art Garage housed in a renovated auto body shop next to the (additionally mural-covered) Hi-Ho Lounge. Enter the sign-free event space by locating the mural of New Orleans hip hop musician Big Freedia (a.k.a. the “Queen of Bounce”) on the exterior of the Art Garage, where inside you will find rotating art exhibits and hipster-friendly events in a chic party setting.
An equally cool art space can be uncovered at the Palace Market Frenchmen, a nightly open-air art market hosting works by around 80 local illustrators, painters, sculptors, jewelers and more. Peruse handmade works at the largest daily art market in the city under romantic twinkling lights in its alleyway location as you hop between music venues along the live music-packed Frenchman Street until midnight weekly (1 am Thursday-Saturday).
Raise a glass to New Orleans culture
As drinking is an integral part of the culture in a city long associated with the birth of the cocktail, a trip to the newly opened Sazerac House should be high on the itinerary for any cocktail enthusiast. Telling the history of the famous Nola cocktail known as the Sazerac (invented in New Orleans around the 1850s), the beautiful three-story museum is located in a historic building in downtown New Orleans. Learn about the drink’s distilling methods, interact with “virtual bartenders,” and then raise a glass with a complimentary tasting.
But to experience a true taste of local cocktail culture IRL, you’ll need to get out and mingle with the locals at a few of the Big Easy’s legendary dive bars. Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge is located in a small dilapidated shack in a residential section of the Uptown neighborhood near Tulane University, where you can booze in a dark den of late-night debauchery until 7 am (or whenever the hell they feel like closing.) Bourdain drank here, as did Clooney, so maybe you should too. Be sure to stop by and see a concert at the nearby Maple Leaf beforehand for a healthy injection of authentic New Orleans music culture, particularly on Tuesday nights when local legends Rebirth Brass Band perform.
Back in the Bywater, Vaughan’s Lounge is a classic old-school neighborhood hangout showcasing some of the best live music in the city on their high-energy Thursday nights, while R Bar is another cool drinking destination in the Marigny owned by rock musician Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs. If you absolutely need to stay in the French Quarter, do yourself a favor and knock back a few with an interesting crowd of locals and tourists at the never-dull Chart Room until 4 am.
And when the munchies inevitably strike, don’t wait in line for beignets at some tourist trap in the French Quarter. Instead, eat like a local by visiting one of the many corner stores located across the city that help add to the incomparably unique charms of New Orleans like Frady’s One Stop Food Store in the Bywater. Grab some local edible art like a muffuletta sandwich or an oyster, shrimp, or catfish po’ boy at this iconic neighborhood hangout and consider yourself one of the locals. At least for a while.
Jay Gentile traveled to New Orleans with assistance from New Orleans & Company. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.