Idyllic islands, rolling surf, untamed nature and showstopping wildlife all help make Panama an irresistible destination.
Sat at the crossroads of the Americas and connecting two oceans, did you know that beyond its cosmopolitan capital and legendary canal, it’s a biodiversity hotspot? Or that this narrow isthmus produces some of the world’s finest – and most expensive – coffee?
There's plenty to know on the practical side as well. Read on for our top tips for traveling to Panama.
Panamanians love to party, and barely a week goes by without a fiesta, from La Feria de las Flores y del Café in Boquete to the countrywide Carnaval, whose largest and loudest celebrations are in Las Tablas on the Península de Azuero.
There’s also Easter, Christmas and New Year’s. November’s numerous independence-related festivals see shops and offices closed and locals flocking to the beach. Hotel prices often double around public holidays and can be booked out weeks in advance.
The country’s tropical climate means two seasons – hot and dry from December to April and hot and wet the rest of the year. Although the amount of rain depends on what coast you’re on, downpours usually come in short, sharp afternoon bursts before the sun forces you to put your Panama hat back on.
Pack high-factor sunscreen and hot-weather clothes, but carry something for the icy air-conditioning and high altitudes, and sturdy boots if you’re planning any hardcore hikes.
The Panamanian Balboa may be the country’s official currency, but the bills in use are US dollars. Prices are listed in $ or B/ but both currencies have the same value. Carry small bills for tipping, markets and rural areas, and enough cash in case the ATM doesn’t work – or there are no ATMs, like in the San Blas Archipelago.
Ensure that you’re up to date with the recommended vaccinations before you travel and check the current COVID-19 rules of entry, including submitting an Electronic Health Affidavit to your airline before you fly.
If you’re thinking of road-tripping south to Colombia, think again. The infamous Darién Gap – the land link between Central and South America – is a mash-up of impenetrable jungle, primordial swamps, poisonous snakes and dubious characters, and there’s no road crossing.
But if you plan to head north to Costa Rica and beyond, several long-distance bus lines, such as Tica Bus, cover Central America.
English is widely spoken, especially in Panama City and Boquete, but mastering a few basic Spanish phrases will endear you to the locals and help if you travel away from the tourist hotspots.
Panama may be laid back but it’s important to be polite. Always greet people – buenas is a catch-all term for hello – and don’t forget to say please (por favor) and thank you (gracias). And listen out for one-of-a-kind Panamanian phrases, such as que sopa? (what’s up?), buco (a lot), and pinta fria (cold beer).
It's best to avoid subjects involving politics, religion, the Panama Canal and the Panama Papers out of respect to Panamanian residents.
Panama moves at a relaxed pace, including the cities, so don’t expect lightning-fast responses to requests. As in most of Central America, punctuality is a loose concept, and service in restaurants can be leisurely – meals are meant to be enjoyed and can stretch over several hours – so if you skip the strict schedule, no worries.
Panamanians dress casually as a rule but tend to be a bit formal in the capital. You don’t have to wear suits or high heels, but the faded T-shirts, short shorts and flip-flops that were fine in Bocas del Toro can look out of place here. And shirtless men are an absolute no-no.
Panama’s yellow licensed taxis can be a wallet-friendly way to get around, but don’t forget to negotiate a fare before you set off. Taxis aren’t metered, official rates are usually ignored and tourists are routinely overcharged; ask a local for an idea of the cost in advance.
Uber is a better bet, available in Panama City (although drivers are often willing to go cross-country), along with UberEnglish for non-Spanish speakers and UberAssist for people with mobility issues. Lyft is also available.
Tips aren’t compulsory, but they are welcome. In pricier restaurants, if it’s not already been snuck on to your bill, leave a 10% gratuity. Taxi drivers don’t expect a tip, but you can round up the fare, and if someone helps you with your luggage, give them around $1 to $2.
Smoking is prohibited in all indoor public spaces, hotel rooms, workplaces, public transport, outdoor dining spaces and sports venues. You can face a fine if you’re caught smoking in a non-designated area. The same goes for vaping, and it’s illegal to import and sell e-cigarettes.
Not only are mosquito bites itchy, they can also spread diseases such as dengue fever, so use a heavyweight bug spray, especially if you’re heading to the jungle.
If you need emergency medical assistance, dial 911 for an ambulance. Panama City has good hospitals and clinics, but facilities are more limited outside the capital; make sure you have adequate travel insurance.
With a combo of heat and humidity, it’s important to keep hydrated, particularly if you plan to get active. Tap water is normally safe to drink, especially in cities, but if you’re going off the beaten track, avoid plastic pollution and invest in a water-filter bottle such as the LifeStraw Go, which you can fill up from any water source.
Panama is one of the safest countries in Central America, but it always pays to take a few precautions.
Pickpocketing is common in crowded areas of Panama City, including bus stations, markets and shopping areas, so keep your valuables safe.
As in any big city, steer clear of poorly lit streets or wandering around dodgy neighborhoods alone after dark. Avoid carrying all your credit cards at once, or wads of cash, and if you need an ATM, try to use one inside a bank during the day.
Report a crime by dialing 511 9260 (the Tourist Police in Panama City) or 104 (National Police), and keep the number of your embassy handy.
Before you take the plunge on Panama’s two coastlines, check for strong currents or riptides. Inland, heavy rains can cause flash flooding and landslides – October and November are usually the wettest months – so check the weather forecast and follow local advice before hitting the hiking trails without a guide.
While the risk is low, keep your eye out for venomous snakes, such as the fearsome fer-de-lance, while trekking along jungle trails, and avoid swimming in rivers unless you know they’re crocodile-free.
Foreign visitors are asked to carry their passport at all times, and the police sometimes check, but it’s safer to carry a photocopy or photo of the opening pages and entry stamp and leave the real thing somewhere secure.
Panama takes its drug laws very seriously. Getting caught with a small amount of illegal drugs, or even being with someone who is using drugs or has them in their possession, is grounds for arrest and can lead to a heavy fine or a harsh prison sentence.
From clear turquoise seas to the coffee farms and cloud forests of Chiriquí, Panama can be as chilled out or as thrilling as you wish.
With a plethora of deserted islands, chilled Caribbean vibes on one side and monster Pacific swells on the other, Panama sits poised to deliver the best of beach life. And a whole other world begins at the water's edge. Seize it by scuba diving with whale sharks in the Pacific, snorkeling the rainbow reefs of Bocas del Toro or setting sail in the indigenous territory of Guna Yala, where virgin isles sport nary a footprint. Meanwhile, surfers will be psyched to have world-class breaks all to themselves. Hello, paradise.
Panama City is culturally diverse and driven, rough-edged yet sophisticated. And there's much that's new or improved. Central America's first subway is operating, the historic Casco district has been beautifully restored and a massive canal expansion completed. Take in the city's funky particulars. Pedal the coastal green space, explore the Casco or attend an avant-garde performance and you will realize this tropical capital isn't only about salsa: that's just the backbeat.
In Panama, nature is all about discovery. Explore the ruins of Spanish forts on the Caribbean coast or boat deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe. Wildlife is incidental: a resplendent quetzal on the highland trail, an unruly troupe of screeching howler monkeys outside your cabin or a breaching whale that turns your ferry ride into an adrenaline-filled event.
Adventure tourism means zipping through rainforest canopies, swimming alongside sea turtles or trekking to sublime cloud-forest vistas. One small tropical country with two long coasts makes for a pretty big playground.
You don't have to make it all the way to the Darién to get off the beaten path – though if you do, you've hit one of the most biodiverse spots on the planet. Soak in the spray of towering waterfalls near highland Santa Fé. Visit one of Panama's seven indigenous groups through community tourism. Live out your castaway fantasies in the Guna Yala or idle on a wilderness beach in Península de Azuero. Howl back at the creatures sharing the canopy. Panama is as wild as you want it to be.
Panama is a pilgrimage for adventure lovers, culture and history buffs, and, naturally, beach bums owing to its biodiversity, rich coastlines, and unfathomable islands. The great news is that nationals from over 100 countries can enter Panama and enjoy its treasures without needing a visa.
Here’s everything you need to know about the entry requirements for Panama.
As part of the visa waiver program, Panamanian visas are not required for visitors who hold a valid passport from the US, Canada, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and most European countries.
The general tourist visa duration is three months (90 days). This was reduced from six consecutive months after a policy amendment in October 2021 (only citizens of Canada and the United States are exempt from this and can still stay as tourists for 180 days). The duration you are given will be at the discretion of your customs agent, but you can generally stay for up to 30 days.
To qualify for this tourist stamp upon entry, you must have a passport that’s valid for at least six months (with several blank, unused pages), proof of economic solvency of no less than US$500. This can be cash, traveler's cheques, recent bank or major credit card statements, and evidence of an exit flight.
Panama is notoriously strict about travelers having proof on onward travel; you might not be allowed to board a flight to Panama without this. You will also need to make sure you adhere to any sanitary measures in place by the Ministry of Health of Panama (MINSA) at the time of travel.
There are two Panama visa types for the tourists that require one: stamped visas and authorized visas.
Citizens of Cameroon, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Ghana, India, Malawi, and Zimbabwe are among those required to have a stamped visa. This can be obtained by applying at your closest Panamanian consulate or embassy, and travelers will normally be able to stay for 30 days at a time.
A more restrictive permit and an authorized visa are needed for citizens of many Middle Eastern countries, as well as some other African and Asian countries. This includes travelers from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Benin, Egypt, Haiti, Indonesia, Lebanon, Nigeria, Suriname, Syria, and Tunisia. Applicants for authorized visas will need a letter from a local Panamanian sponsor who can provide a recent utility bill, bank statement, a completed Panama visa application form, a valid passport, and two passport photographs.
Fees and requirements vary according to the embassy you visit and it’s a longer process than obtaining a stamped visa as approval is needed from the Panamanian National Directory for Migration (NDM). Early applications (at least 90 days before intended travel) are encouraged.
You do not need a visa to transit through Panama if you will not be leaving the airport. Cruise tourists passing through the Panama Canal don’t need visas either.
Always check Panama's visa, passport, and health requirements ahead of your trip on IATA’s Travel Centre or enquire directly with your local embassy or consulate.
If you have been given a tourist stamp or visa valid for less than 90 days, you can apply for an extension while in the country called prórroga de turista.
Be sure to wear long-sleeved clothes (and long pants for men) when you go as you will be turned away if your clothing is deemed unsuitable. Visa extension applications aren’t straightforward and it is not always clear which nationals are eligible.
To help stimulate the economy after a sharp tourism decline during the pandemic, Panama introduced the Short Stay as a Remote Worker Visa program (Visa de Corta Estancia Como Trabajador Remoto) for location-independent workers with proven income from outside Panama. This is one of the newest Panama visa types introduced by executive decree in May 2021.
If you’re employed, self-employed, or own a foreign company and earn at least US$36,000 a year, you can apply to stay for up to nine months with the possibility of a one-time extension for an additional nine (up to 18 months in total).
Other requirements include medical insurance covering your full stay in Panama and an affidavit of non-acceptance of any employment in the Panamanian territory. A fee of US$250 will be required for the National Immigration Service.
International immigration attorneys Fragomen state that applicants will need to apply for the remote worker visa while in Panama after entering on a regular tourist visa. For further assistance, consult with a Panamanian law firm.
If you’re traveling to Panama from Brazil, you must be vaccinated against yellow fever and show proof during check-in. The only exemption to this requirement is if you hold a certificate of contraindication on medical grounds.
Specializing in typical Panamanian cuisine since 1983, El Trapiche is a popular destination for any visitors to Panama City. In Spanish, ‘el trapiche’ is a mill which squeezes the juice out of a sugar cane. The restaurant lives up to its name by using the very best of local produce, turning it into a variety of wholesome Panamanian dishes. A signature delicacy includes the ‘Panamanian Fiesta’, a complex eight-dish concoction offering the best of local cuisine. Whether seated in the air-conditioned dining room or outside on the terrace, the atmosphere is relaxing and friendly. Introducing new specials every week and with two venues to choose from, El Trapiche has become a favourite.
Bar, Pub, Hotel Restaurant, Boutique Hotel Restaurant, Restaurant, Pub Grub, Wine, Beer, Cocktails.
An absolute culinary gem, Tantalo Kitchen offers an internationally inspired tapas-style menu with a Panamanian touch. Each dish is a creative combination of local meats, fish and vegetables with Indian, Mediterranean and Latin American influences, served as Spanish tapas in portions ideal for sharing on the long communal tables in the restaurant. The creative interior, decorated with paintings by local artists, together with the leafy vertical garden along one of the interior walls add to Tantalo’s enticing ambiance. After a delightful meal, the rooftop bar presents an unbeatable escape, offering a selection of exotic cocktails and a chance to admire the breathtaking view of the city below.
Contemporary art sometimes seems to take a back seat in a city enamored of its ornate and storied past. Scratch the surface, though, and you’ll find a strong and growing creative scene in New Orleans, teeming with makers as well as collectors. Over the past couple decades, a vibrant arts district has emerged out of an historic neighborhood of storehouses and warehouses, with the core running along Julia Street, not far from the World War II Museum. It’s worth your time to spend a few hours checking out what some of the best sculptors, painters, and photographers in the South (and beyond) are producing these days.
The architecture of New Orleans attracts visitors who marvel at the pleasing cacophony of the local streetscape. The 18th- and 19th-century homes, storehouses, and shops—which, thankfully, still exist in considerable abundance—are as distinctive and homegrown as the city’s brass-band sound. The quirky appearance of the city's structures raises questions: Like, what’s with all the iron balconies? Why are the houses so narrow? Why do so many French Quarter homes have four front doors? The Preservation Resource Center is here to help sort these out. Founded in 1974, the center’s mission is to maintain and interpret the city’s buildings and neighborhoods. The group’s Warehouse District headquarters (located in an 1853 showroom for an iron foundry) provide a good first stop for anyone curious about New Orleans architecture and how it got that way.
Rock ’n’ Bowl is where to go to find sharps, flats, spares, and strikes all hanging out together. It’s a bit unclear whether this is a nightclub hiding out in a full-size bowling alley, or a bowling alley out enjoying a secret nightlife. Either way, it’s a very New Orleans destination, located near the upriver edge of the city. (It’s about a $15 cab ride from downtown.) After Katrina and a parting of the ways with his earlier landlord, the owner moved a few blocks down to this former paint store, installed new lanes, added a bigger stage, and hauled much of his original funky decor to the new spot. Check the website for forthcoming shows—there’s always plenty of space for dancing, which is especially fun during Thursday zydeco nights.
New Orleans doesn’t have the national renown of Minneapolis or Portland when it comes to bike culture. But its reputation is growing. Structurally, it's already a great city to explore on two wheels: It’s dead flat (highway overpasses are really the only hills to speak of); multiple side streets offer lightly traveled alternates to the main arteries; and there’s always something to look at as you pedal along. Bicycle Michael's is a Frenchmen Street anchor, a packed-to-the-rafters yet laid-back spot that offers easy rentals by the day or longer. The shop is well situated between the upriver French Quarter and the downriver neighborhoods of Marigny and Bywater.
As the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the United States, St. Louis Cathedral is something you won't want to miss on your trip through the Big Easy. Enjoy the spiritual splendor of the interior, then meander the laid-back streets surrounding it. Vendors, street performers, and fortune tellers await you in Jackson Square.
New Orleans' green spaces run the gamut from City Park, which spans 1,300 acres and is the 6th largest urban park in the United States, to the city block-sized Jackson Square, a French Quarter gathering point for artists, musicians, and street performers. The former has walking trails, botanical gardens, and an open-air sculpture garden, plus tennis courts, an 18-hole golf course, and a mini-golf course, but most come to see the world's oldest grove of mature live oaks. Uptown's Audubon Park is frequented by walkers, joggers, and cyclists who make their way around the park's 1.8 mile loop—and it's also home to the Audubon Zoo.
Mardi Gras World, located in the Port area of New Orleans near the convention center, is a fun stop any time of year. Your tour starts with a brief history of Mardi Gras, a chance to try on some of the elaborate costumes and a taste of New Orleans' famous king cake.Your are then taken behind the scenes to witness a team of artists constructing floats for the next Mardi Gras season as well as a look at the warehouse that houses past years' floats.
The Beauregard-Keyes House stands out in a neighborhood—the French Quarter—already filled with standout buildings. Built in 1826, it’s a superb example of the then-newly-popular Greek Revival style, with its bossy pediment and sweeping granite stairs, which displaced the more austere Creole style. It’s been home to an illustrious roster of residents, including legendary 19th-century chess player Paul Morphy (born here in 1837 and world champion before he turned 20) and Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard after the Civil War. Next door and visible even if you don’t take the guided tour is a small, walled parterre garden, restored to the formal style of the middle 19th century.
An acclaimed food historian explores the roots of New Orleans’s cultural character through its cuisine.
In New Orleans, it’s not out of the ordinary to taste a delicious combination of flavors that leaves you wondering, “Who could've thought to create this?” Esteemed food historian, educator, and author Jessica B. Harris has devoted her life and studies to exploring this thought, tracking foods of the African diaspora from across the Atlantic rim to the crux of American culture, history, and identity. So, when considering the classic combinations that characterize Creole and Cajun cuisine, it’s safe to say that Harris has a clue as to their creation.
We caught up with the acclaimed culinary expert about the unique intersection of cultures, traditions, and history that can be found in New Orleans’s classic cuisine. Here’s a taste of what she told us.
You live part time in New Orleans and have researched the city’s classic cuisine extensively. What draws you to the place?
“Well, my standard answer is that my soul stays there. There’s something about New Orleans that I connect with. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Caribbean and places like Senegal and Brazil. In New Orleans, there’s a commonality that I see, understand, and love. People tend to think of New Orleans as being the northernmost point in the Caribbean. What you see in the architecture, hear in the music, find in the street life, and eat on the plate—it’s different in New Orleans. Really, it’s anomalous in the United States.”
Can you elaborate on that anomaly?
“Ultimately, in New Orleans, you see a braid of the three cultures that formed the bedrock of the United States. You see Europe with the French, Spanish, Sicilian, and Italian influence. There’s the African influence, which is the beating heart, soul, and underpinning of the place—its cuisine in particular—because those are the folks who were doing the cooking in houses of status. And then, of course, native people had a hand in the pot as well.”
What classic New Orleanian dish exemplifies the blend of these three influences?
“Gumbo! The dish itself can be traced back directly to what was eaten in Africa before any Europeans showed up. When it became a part of New Orleans’s cuisine, it was altered, and influences were added. For example, the filé powder used in many gumbos comes from sassafras, a Native American ingredient which is used as a parallel to the traditional African thickener, okra. So you’ll see these different influences in different ways. But the bottom line is, everybody’s grandma makes a different gumbo.”
So one can one can look to New Orleans’s cuisine to better understand the city’s history?
“My specialty is concerned with the food of the African diaspora, and specifically, exploring what happened to it after it left the continent. But much of human history can be read through the looking for, the impulse for, and creation of food. Really, this is a city that has been eating out of a cultural matrix for centuries.”
In your opinion, is the food you’ll find in New Orleans restaurants today reflective of the city’s history?
“Food is constantly in a state of change, and New Orleans’s cuisine really reflects that. Several of New Orleans’s contemporary restaurants came out of a growth post-Katrina, so the plates are shifting. I’m talking about tectonic plates, but it’s also a metaphor for the dining room. The food you find in New Orleans today is still within the tradition of what the city was; now we’re just seeing different kinds of influences.”
Food trucks have become part of the culinary establishment in New Orleans, as in so many other cities. Here the fun part remains chasing them around, an activity that can introduce you to unfamiliar neighborhoods and bars. Among the more reliable and delicious mobile vendors for cheap eats is Taceaux Loceaux (pronounced in local fashion as “Taco Loco”). Its tacos feature innovative and tasty fillings, like a flavorful Texas brisket, or a “Seoul chicken” with kimchi. Most nights the truck is parked outside uptown-area spots, including Kingpin and Dos Jefes. The owners work social media like pros, tweeting (@tlnola) their location every time they start serving, followed some hours later by an online last call.
Chef Tory McPhail was recently named James Beard's Best Chef South and his forward-looking take on Creole classics keeps this New Orleans institution, which has launched the careers of the likes of Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse, current. Still, you can't go wrong with classics like the turtle soup, gumbo, and bread pudding souffle. On Saturday and Sundays, there's more pomp than usual, including a jazz trio that makes its way from table to table, but weekday lunches are nearly as iconic and, thanks to 25-cent martinis, a good reason to have a midday cocktail.
Revel is easy to overlook—it’s on a busy stretch of Carrolton Avenue (just off the Canal Streetcar Line) amid a slew of other neighborhood restaurants. But it's the only one here helmed by Chris McMillian, among the nation’s most prominent bartender-historians. He knows the history and lore of New Orleans drinks better than anyone, and is pretty conversant with cocktails from, well, just about anywhere. The drinks list here is solid, but ask McMillian what he’s been enjoying whipping up lately, and order one of those. And come hungry—the kitchen, manned by his son-in-law, serves up great bistro fare.
Charlie’s is old-school New Orleans writ large. It’s one of a handful of surviving notable neighborhood steak houses (it’s not far from where the original Ruth’s Chris was also once a neighborhood spot), a no-frills joint with faux-wood paneling on the walls and no menus to hand out. The waiters ask you what size you want, and also if you'd like to start with an order of fried onions. (The correct answer is yes.) Pro tip: Kick off your evening an hour earlier and a couple blocks away at Pascal’s Manale with a dozen or two bivalves at the marble oyster bar of a revered Italian-Creole “red gravy” spot.
Owen Brennan founded a fine-dining restaurant empire in 1946, when the proprietor of Arnaud’s taunted him by saying that no Irishman could succeed with anything other than a hamburger joint. Brennan got his revenge at this French-and-Creole restaurant located in a sprawling pink 1795 Spanish-era structure that’s become iconic. After some slouching in recent years, Brennan’s is back on culinary maps following a change in ownership (from one branch of Brennan descendants to another). Pro tip: It’s more famous for breakfast than dinner. Among the more noted dishes is eggs Hussarde, involving poached eggs and Canadian bacon served with both Marchand de Vin and hollandaise sauces.
Every streetcar ride should take you to a neighborhood beer joint. So this makes an excellent spot to hop off the St. Charles Streetcar. Owner Polly Watts has carved out a name for this place with her terrific selection of craft beers, many of them extremely limited releases. As a bonus, there’s an equally impressive whiskey-by-the-glass collection. The downstairs, where locals hang and shoot pool, offers an ideal environment for starting a conversation. (Sample question: “Hey, you know of any good bars for music tonight?”) If you’d like somewhere quieter to chat while marveling over an obscure kolsch, clomp up the narrow wooden stairs to the second floor, and see if you can wangle a seat on the balcony.
Hansen’s was started in 1939 by Ernest Hansen, who engineered a loud, homemade machine that shaves the ice to a fineness that many argue is unmatched across the city. (Oh, and they will argue.) The shop is still run with considerable care and attention by Ernest's granddaughter, Ashley. Snowballs—cups of thinly shaved ice topped with brightly colored sweet flavorings—are a minor obsession in New Orleans. While widely available, snowballs, as well as the culture that surrounds them, seem more advanced at Hansen’s. The selection of flavors is vast, and true connoisseurs mix and match flavors, adding two or three to an order to get just the right balance. (Almond-lime? Orange-coconut?)
Verti Marte is at heart a cramped, bare-bones deli. But any effort the owners have failed to expend on stocking the shelves or sprucing up the decor they’ve put into making excellent food. Head to the small counter in the back and make your request; while your sandwich is being assembled, forage for chips or soda. Verti Marte is known for its oversize po’boy sandwiches (shrimp, dressed, is among the more popular), along with muffulettas and tasty side dishes, like smothered cabbage and Brussels-sprout salad. Still hungry? Nobody has gone wrong by ordering the bread pudding and pecan pie.
Nina Compton, a native of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, came to New Orleans a few years ago to compete in the Top Chef television series. She didn’t win the culinary slugfest, but New Orleans came out ahead—a short time later she returned to set down roots by opening Compère Lapin, a charming, brick-accented restaurant in a hotel that's a reasonable stroll from the French Quarter. It’s good to get there early to grab a drink at the bar, which treats its libations with the same seriousness as the kitchen does its food. (A frozen drink… with chartreuse.) The dishes are alive with creative Caribbean flavors—among the more memorable plates are the seafood pepper pot, black drum, and curried goat.
This late-19th-century city-owned seafood market, which was by and large abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, was reborn as an upscale food hall several years ago. The dilapidated structure was spruced up and the navelike interior painted an austere, modern white. Then a dozen or so food vendors moved in, serving as a sort of incubator for those with an idea but no desire to go the food-truck route. It’s a great place to swing by for lunch or a casual dinner—you can get craft cocktails and spend some time at the oyster bar, then browse the other offerings, which include crab mac and cheese at Fritai and alligator-sausage hash at Elysian Seafood.
Sucré opened a couple of years after Katrina swept through a bustling stretch of Magazine Street not far from the Garden District. It quickly established itself as the city’s premier destination for chocolates, macarons, gelato, and, well… basically anything with sugar. The original shop is bright and modern rather than cluttered and fussy, and the intricately decorated confections are neatly housed in chilled cases, like jewels in a vitrine. But there’s nothing precious about the tastes here—it’s all big, bold flavors. If you're here around Mardi Gras season, ask about the seasonal king cake, all lustrous and gilded. Sucré also recently opened a French Quarter outpost with an upstairs tearoom.
The fragrant, pleasingly cluttered Central Grocery is a holdover from an era when Italian-run groceries occupied storefronts throughout the city. This timeworn shop across from the French Market still boasts an old-world charm, filled with tall shelves crowded with imported goods and various whatnots, mostly Italian. But that’s not why you’ll see lines out the doors. The crowds are clamoring for muffulettas, classic New Orleans sandwiches that originated here about a century ago. (Slogan: “Imitated by many, but never duplicated.”) A muffuletta comes on a type of round, flattish loaf (not unlike a focaccia) that originated in Sicily. The details may vary, but it typically includes cured meats (capicola, salami) and cheese (provolone). What distinguishes it from a hubcap-shaped hoagie is the topping—a tangy marinated-olive salad. Know this: You don’t need to order a whole one; a quarter-sandwich is still plenty filling for one person.
As the elevator doors open onto the rooftop of the recently-refurbished Pontchartrain Hotel, two things hit you almost immediately: the buzz of conversation and the eclectic décor, with weird and wonderful artefacts and posters lining the way to the bar. The main room itself feels like a cool, post-war loft, festooned with sepia photographs, vintage typewriters, and even old letters and postcards. The cocktail menu deviates from the classics (though you can order those, too) but not in too pretentious a way. Rums and gins blend with recognizable ingredients and are accessibly renamed: The Skyliner, The Seersucker.
The local Lower Garden District doyens have taken to this whiskey bar in droves. There aren’t many dedicated whiskey bars in New Orleans, so if you’re into brown liquor, this low-ceilinged, windowless room—with more than 300 whiskies, bourbons, ryes, and scotches—is the place to be. You could keep coming for a whole year and never get bored: Selections range from the usual barroom suspects to rare Japanese imports. And if you’re not sure where you stand on whiskey, there are affordable flights to guide your palate.
The swank bar at The Little Nell’s flagship restaurant also draws from a 20,000-bottle wine cellar and is ground zero for New Year’s Eve partying. 675 E. Durant Ave., thelittlenell.com
Try: Xavier’s White Cosmo
Bar Marilou, tucked secretively along the side of the new Maison de la Luz hotel, is the most striking library you’ve ever seen, with scarlet bookshelves, orange ceilings, and tiger-striped carpets. It’s currently the only bar in the United States designed by the acclaimed Paris-based dreamweavers Quixotic Projects. If you’re lucky enough to be a hotel guest, you can push through one of the bookcases into a smaller, but equally plush, private parlor. It’s as decadent a bar as you’ll find in New Orleans, which is saying something.
Set amid a row of dive bars on a vaguely insalubrious block of Lower Decatur is the anonymous bar and restaurant that started the city’s mini-Tiki trend. There’s a sense of Old Havana as you enter, though you have to imagine the cigar smoke. Up front is a colonial-looking bar with high ceilings and chandeliers, then out back there’s the kind of tropical courtyard that NOLA does best, all leafy greenery and convivial seclusion. The Tiki-skewed drink menu ranges from familiar Piña Coladas to less-known creations such as Bombos and Bellowstops.
Housed in a building that dates back to the early 19th century, the dimly lit Black Penny has an old-fashioned spit-and-sawdust feel—in the best kind of way. The layout is simple: a lounge with cream booths, and a small barroom that displays the Penny’s crown jewels: around 100 regional, national, and imported craft beers. Fortunately, the bar staff treats everyone like a local and will patiently mentor you as you take on the extensive drinks menu. They know their beer, and that enthusiasm is infectious.
The thoughtfully curated beer selection at this locals’ favorite includes drafts from 12 taps. 319 E. Hopkins Ave., meatcheese.avalancheaspen.com
Try: Split a 750-milliliter bottle of barrel-aged beer from Glenwood Springs’s exquisite Casey Brewing and Blending (made almost entirely from local ingredients, including Western Slope fruit), or try a nano-batched hoppy ale from Carbondale’s Idylwilde Brewing.
The tastefully colorful Creole cottage in a relatively quiet corner of the French Quarter is a suitably historic home for Jewel of the South, a new venture from two of the city’s most renowned bartenders. Named for a 19th-century local bar that was among the first in the city to serve cocktails, Nick Detrich and Chris Hannah have opened up this small, perfectly formed rustic tavern—think bare brickwork and dark woods—in miniature, which pays homage to those early days with an interesting and esoteric list of sours, cobblers and more.
Wine is the main focus at Saint-Germain, and it’s a robust but not overly extended list that concentrates mainly on European labels. The sparkling selection is all French and German, with Spanish and Italian (and even Lebanese) nosing into the whites, reds, and roses. There are at least a dozen wines by the glass, some as cheap as $6 a pour. This spot is perfect for a lazy Sunday afternoon with a group of friends, hanging out in the courtyard dipping into bottles of wine and bar snacks.
In 2016, Ace added another link to its chain of ultracool hotels when it opened an outpost in a renovated 1928 building in the Central Business District of New Orleans. While the Ace employees here are just as edgy as their counterparts elsewhere, they temper that cool with the warm ease of New Orleans’s locals. Guests enter the hotel through a lobby of mismatched low-slung sofas and vintage coffee tables set in conversation-friendly groupings beside a lovely and ornate wooden bar. Most of the furnishings and artwork complement the hotel’s dominant forest green hue, which itself seems to have been inspired by the color of the streetcars that trundle past on Carondelet Street. Afternoon and evening and late at night, the lobby bar is kept busy by hotel guests as well as a stream of others drawn here by the stylish vibe. Some, of course, come for Ace’s dining options: Josephine Estelle is a well-regarded Italian restaurant (in a town full of stellar dining); Seaworthy offers cocktails and a wide array of oysters in a narrow tiled bar; a branch of Portland’s Stumptown Coffee serves the morning people strong coffee and pastries; and Alto, a covered bar beside the small rooftop pool, has a selection of snacks to offset a sizable menu of cocktails. Back on the ground floor, another attraction, Three Keys, is a small music venue that programs a busy schedule of live performances and deejays. Upstairs, past the old-school photo booth in the elevator bank, you’ll find eight floors of guest rooms in several configurations, all with black-out curtains and cork floors, amenities which nicely muffle any noise from the lobby and rooftop party scenes. All rooms come with a curated tray of local snacks (and some condoms), and a full-size refrigerator supplied with beer, wine, soda, and water, as well as a freestanding and dangerously well-stocked bar. Toiletries in the black-tiled bathrooms are from Rudy’s Barbershop. The guest rooms, painted in the same dark tones as the lobby, can feel a bit dimly lit, but are kept airy by the large windows and high ceilings. Your fellow hotel guests will certainly include bachelor/bachelorette parties, couples, people traveling with dogs, and some business people, but few families with children. Finding distractions in New Orleans is never a problem: The Ace's CBD neighborhood has some notable restaurants (Willa Jean, especially, for great breakfasts) and is walking distance to the French Quarter and the National World War II Museum, among other attractions.
This family-run hotel, originally opened in 1886, is steeped in history from its classic furnishings to its esteemed guests. Literary legends William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway have stayed here; Tennessee Williams wrote about the hotel in his play The Rose Tattoo, and Truman Capote was known to prop up the Carousel Bar & Lounge on many a night. The merry-go-round–like bar (which makes a complete revolution every 15 minutes) is probably the hotel’s most famous feature, and a Vieux Carre cocktail there is de rigueur. Guests will also want to visit on-site restaurant Criollo, which offers an updated take on traditional N’awlins fare.
- High design mixed with historic details
- A restaurant from a James Beard–nominated team
- Character-filled common spaces like the parlors and sun room
Located in New Orleans’s culturally rich Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, the 71-room Hotel Peter and Paul comprises a historic church, rectory, schoolhouse, and convent, all built in the 19th century. When converting the site, local resident Nathalie Jordi and New York–based interior design firm ASH NYC took pains to preserve original features like cypress wood moldings, stained glass windows, and marble fireplaces, while adding signature details like antique chandeliers and custom rugs handmade in India. As a result, each guestroom has a personality all its own, evident in touches like canopy beds, Italian linens, and trays of locally sourced snacks.
That love for local eats extends to The Elysian Bar, where the team behind James Beard–nominated wine bar Bacchanal serves regionally focused fare like roasted Gulf shrimp and braised beef short ribs, and Sundae Best, which offers small-batch ice cream made with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. Also on site is a cheery cafe for coffee and pastries; two grand parlors for reading the paper in a vintage rattan chair; a sun room modeled after Claude Monet’s Giverny home; an amber-hued bar serving low-proof spritzes for aperitivo hour; and a tranquil brick courtyard lined with palms, ferns, and vines. More impressive still is the decommissioned Catholic church, designed by famous New Orleans architect Henry Howard. Here, the hotel hosts a mix of private and public events, from weekly concerts to yoga and floral design classes.
First opened in 2004 in a former office building in the Central Business District, the Loews New Orleans Hotel completed a $4 million renovation in November 2014. The new look is modern, but with a nod to the Big Easy: rooms and suites (which, by the way, are among the most spacious in town) are done up in soothing blues and grays, and feature local photography on the walls, and the carpets have a wrought-iron fence motif. Large picture windows afford vistas of the city or the Mississippi River.
Run by the legendary Brennan family and named after the vivacious Adelaide Brennan, the hotel restaurant also got a makeover—think canary-yellow seats, teal tufted banquettes, and Andy Warhol–esque pop art of its namesake.
Opened in April 2001, this Central Business District property, a converted dry-goods warehouse, is a departure from the typical New Orleans hotel. Instead of fleur-de-lis wallpaper and Louis XIV chairs, you’ll find Fortuny lamps, Herman Miller desk chairs, and Agape “Spoon” tubs in the palatial bathrooms. The 18 lofts (two are penthouses), with their white walls, concrete floors, and modern furnishings, feel straight out of the pages of Dwell.
The hotel doesn’t have the amenities of a larger hotel; the lobby is meant for checking in, not hanging out, and there’s no restaurant or bar to prop up, but guests have privileges at the sister hotel, International House. And, most significantly, the fact that there are just 18 rooms means that from the minute you check in, the front desk team knows you.
Why we love it: Atelier Ace's first luxury property in New Orleans, with antiques and other unique design details to lust after
- The guests-only library bar, hidden behind a bookcase at Bar Marilou
- Colorful marble floors in the bathrooms
- High-end service, but plenty of privacy when you want it
Atelier Ace partnered with Pamela Shamshiri of L.A.-based Studio Shamshiri to design this 67-room property, which opened in April 2019 in an old City Hall annex in the Central Business District. Shamshiri decorated the distinctive guest house with a mix of antiques she collected from around the world, plus custom art and design elements like colorful marble floors, French wallpaper, and vintage-inspired glass light fixtures. Keep an eye out for a reoccurring snake motif throughout the hotel, from sculptural snake shower-door handles in the bathrooms to cobra lamps in the hallways and slithering ceramic elements in the fireplace of the lobby lounge. It’s a little bit Garden of Eden with a hint of the occult, making you feel as if you've checked into the private home of an elderly socialite—maybe Iris Apfel—that’s filled to the brim with fabulous souvenirs from her worldly travels over the years.
Maison de Luz is located just across the street from the Ace Hotel New Orleans and guests are encouraged to pop over to the sister property to enjoy the rooftop pool or grab a crawfish roll at Seaworthy. Back at Maison, however, the common areas—including a hidden library bar—are just for overnight guests, creating the feeling of a calm refuge within the city.
Occupying what were the Maison Blanche department store and the S.H. Kress & Co. five-and-dime, this stately hotel first opened its doors in 2000 after a $250 million overhaul of the then-shuttered Beaux-Arts buildings. After Katrina, the property underwent a second renovation, which included the expansion of its spa (now a sprawling 25,000 square feet) and the addition of a private entrance for Club level guests.
This is a Ritz-Carlton, so you can expect the same (high) level of service and luxury—think ornate furnishings, sumptuous linens, and a $3.5 million art collection—as at other properties within the brand. But the property isn’t just another Ritz. Bellmen wear seersucker, the bistro serves po’ boys, and there’s live jazz in the lounge (which also serves a mean Vesper).
A trio of 1830s townhouses, Soniat House exudes an Old World elegance, from its wrought iron balconies to its white-jacketed porters. Rooms and suites have just the right amount of character so that they feel of an era without being precious or overly frilly. The hotel renovated all of its bathrooms and some guest rooms, and there are flat-screen televisions, Wi-Fi, and other modern conveniences—but the point here is really to take a step back, put your gadgets away, and enjoy the leafy courtyard. It’s the kind of place where you feel you ought to be wearing a frock and a fascinator (for ladies) or seersucker (for the gents), where time slows and an afternoon cocktail feels very appropriate. Luckily, there’s an honor bar on the first floor next to reception. Pour yourself a stiff drink and take it up to the veranda, where you might catch a ghost tour in progress or just take in the street scene.
Opened in April 2015, this is one of the newest additions to New Orleans’ hotel scene. It’s also one of the most unique. Set in an 1854 warehouse near the Port of New Orleans, the property pays homage to its past as well as to its Arts District location. The look is contemporary industrial, with plenty of original architectural details (hardwood floors, exposed piping and brick, wall-to-wall windows) paired with Tivoli radios, flat-screen TVs, free Wi-Fi, and other modern conveniences. The hotel lobby is part art gallery, with a rotating collection curated by the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, part commissary, with locally crafted products displayed in chandlery cases, and part coffee shop, with pastries from the neighboring restaurant—which is one of the hottest openings this year.
Compere Lapin (French for “brother rabbit” and also a fictional character in Caribbean and Creole folk tales) serves food that draws on chef Nina Compton’s island roots, classic French training, and traditional Creole fare. The result is wonderfully colorful dishes like conch croquettes with pickled pineapple tartare sauce, roasted jerk corn with aioli and lime, and curried goat with plantain gnocchi and cashews.