It’s Jazz Fest time, bayyyybeee! One part cultural celebration, one part culinary delight, and four parts musical orgy, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has blossomed into one of the craziest 10-day parties this side of the Atlantic. As people from all over the country and the world descend upon New Orleans starting this weekend, we thought we should put together a few pro-tips for the Jazz Fest novices out there. This will be my sixth straight Jazzfest and after a couple years of trial and error, along with a few locals showing me the ropes, I’ve figured out a thing or two (or 40).
Since the fest doesn’t stop when the Fairgrounds go quiet at 7pm each night, there is very much a choose-your-own-adventure vibe to the proceedings with fun to be had all throughout the city. So with that in mind, here’s a good starting point if you ever find yourself overwhelmed by the plethora of options at your fingertips. There’s truly no place on earth like the Big Easy so make the most of it!
1. Eat ALL of the food. Seriously. If it sounds appetizing or looks good, try it! This is as much a food festival as it is a music festival for some people, with over 50 different bayou specialties scattered throughout the fairgrounds for noshing. Many folks speak in reverent tones of their yearly pilgrimage to the Crawfish Monica stand, while others debate the merits of the Cajun Duck Po Boy over the Cochon de Lait Po Boy (which, in my humble opinion, is an absolute must-try). If glancing at the image below doesn’t make you hungry just from looking at it, you’re probably dead inside.
2. Definitely skip breakfast on the days you’re headed to the fairgrounds.
3. Try to hit at least 2 or 3 of the smaller stages and tents to take in some music you wouldn’t ever see at your typical music festival otherwise. Check out some zydeco acts at the Fais Do Do tent, marvel at the colorful attire of the Mardi Gras Indians at the Heritage stage, and make sure you go to church in the Gospel tent at least once.
4. If you’re seeing an act at one of the two main stages after 3pm, be sure to get there early or you’ll find yourself way in the back.
5. See #4 above if you’re going to the Jazz and Blues tents for big acts.
6. The Jazz and Blues tents have several misters spraying down from above which can feel quite glorious on a hot day, so they are always a solid place to chill out and rest your feet for a bit.
7. Liuzza’s is a great spot to grab a bloody mary before heading into the fairgrounds.
8. Never underestimate the importance of a good hat and comfy walking shoes.
9. The regular and/or strawberry lemonade on sale go perfectly with your favorite kind of bourbon, and spiked or not, is amazingly refreshing during the midday New Orleans sun.
10. That being said, don’t get too crazy during the daytime. It can be tempting to rage the festival, but once the music stops at 7pm, you’ve still got at least 8 or 10 hours to go if you’re doing it right.
11. You don’t need to go to the Fairgrounds every day they’re open. Take a day or two off, and use it to sleep in after your 2am Tipitina’s show, or explore some of the other parts of the city. Saturdays are always the most crowded, so that could be a solid day to skip if you don’t mind missing The Who, John Legend, or Juvenile (Juvenile will be back next year, I promise).
12. The cab line gets insane if you leave anytime after 6pm, so allow at least an hour (probably more) to get to your next destination if you plan on staying until the music ends at 7.
13. Better yet, rent a bike for the week.
14. Take your time leaving the fairgrounds because there are always a bunch of house parties and brass bands roaming the streets south of the track. Head to Fortin Street and follow your ears.
15. Tell your buddies to meet you underneath someone else’s ragestick (because you didn’t have time to make your own).
16. Make sure the owner of that ragestick doesn’t plan on moving 10 minutes later.
17. Use this tounge-in-cheek grounds map for festival navigation (see below). It’s pretty spot on.
18. Avoid Bourbon Street, especially at night. It’s mostly a depressing s***hole.
19. The French Quarter is beautiful and it’s the best place to check out street musicians, but in the name of all things holy, avoid Bourbon Street at all costs (see #18).
20. In case you didn’t already known, there are no open container laws in New Orleans. As long as your beverage isn’t in a glass, you’re free to leave a bar at any time. To-go cups are amply stocked pretty much everywhere.
21. A woefully incomplete list of fine-dining spots in the city
22. Eat a lot of oysters. We’re talking the large briney Louisiana kind of oysters — no sweet Kumamotos here! My favorite spot is Bourbon House, which unfortunately is on Bourbon Street (ignore #18), but you can pony up to the shuckers table on a stool and watch them work their magic. Get a Bourbon Milk Punch while you’re at it.
23. Po Boys, fully dressed. Domilise’s is probably the best well-known, but there are plenty of places worth checking out like Erin Rose and Crabby Jack’s.
24. Willie Mae’s Scotch House has the best damn fried chicken in the city. End of story.
25. It’s crawfish season, so get yourself invited to someone’s backyard crawfish boil. If you’ve never had crawfish before have a local teach you how to peel and eat it, and whatever you do, don’t forget to suck the head!
26. Head Uptown to go to New Orleans Original Daquiris at 8100 St Charles Ave. Get a large, and don’t forget the 151 floater.
27. After #26, hit up Cooter Browns. It’s right across the street from the Daquiris spot has a great beer selection and is another spot for oysters, while the nearby Camelia Grill is a classic old school diner institution.
28. If the restaurant you’ve been told you absolutely must try is completely booked, try going for lunch one day.
29. Port of Call is always a good fallback for a kickass burger and sugary booze drink. There will be a wait but you can always get drinks at the bar.
30. If you’re going the hotel or apartment route for your lodgings, try and book your room for 2016 as soon as you get home. Your wallet will thank you.
31. Jazzfestgrids.com is your one stop shop for everything going on if you find yourself without any plans for some reason.
32. Check out our already published list of can’t miss late night shows for our top recommendations.
33. Frenchmen Street has the closest proximity of late night venues all on a three-block strip right next to each other. If you’ve got a large group, this is probably the easiest meeting point.
34. Try to avoid the House of Blues and Republic unless there’s a show you REALLY want to see there. These venues get oversold like nobody’s business and you can barely see the stage from most vantage points at Republic.
35. Just like any city, there are shady parts of town, so stay in groups if you can. Just use common sense and don’t walk around at night in the empty parts of town.
36. If you see a musician trying to hail a cab between gigs, let them take yours. Arcade Fire needed to take our cab one year while we were trying to get out of Uptown, and we happily obliged.
37. Hailing cabs outside Tipitina’s or the Maple Leaf can be absolutely brutal. Especially at 5 or 6am when the sun’s coming up. Be warned.
38. If you’re really failing on the cab front after a Tipitina’s show, just walk down the block to Ms. Mae’s to kill some time and grab another beer.
39. For those of you that still don’t feel like going to bed after 16 hours of music, Igor’s is where most people typically will end up. This place will get damn busy come 7am.
40. Finally, when in doubt and when all else fails, go to the Maple Leaf. Never a bad time.
Well, that’s about it; hopefully these tips are a bit helpful as you navigate the city and all the wonderful things it has to offer. Have a freakin blast kids and watch out for that weather this year!