What to do in NOLA, San Fran, D.C. and the Ville
Story and photos by JD Dotson
There are few things I like more than traveling. I am the quintessential tourist (minus the Hawaiian shirt and socks with sandals) with a giant camera around my neck, and I want nothing more than to explore. Summers are meant for sightseeing, whether by plane, via car or in our own backyard. Some of my favorite tourist destinations across the country are places where I have friends with a couch or a spare room. This provides a less expensive trip along with the added benefit of hanging like a local while mixing in the touristy bits.
Since the first time I set foot in New Orleans as a college student, the city captured my heart. Going on a nearly 30-year love affair, I never have a lack of something new to see and do in the Big Easy. Senses are in overload in the French Quarter with music coming at me from every direction – the street vendors, buskers, the crowds adding to the din. The French- and Spanish-influenced architecture immediately sends me back in time. The smells of the streets, the spicy food, buckets of alcohol and the sometimes unpleasant smells that accompany summer days in the French Quarter mingle in the air. The heat can be oppressive, but wait 10 minutes and a summer rain will fall just long enough to cool things off and make the streets steamy.
It’s hard to quantify the draw of the city for me; it’s a combination of factors. I love the diversity of the neighborhoods from the Garden District through the quarter to the Marigny and Bywater. The people of New Orleans are colorful and creative. They love their town for good reason and it shows, whether they are a native or a transplant. There are foods I typically don’t eat at home. Only in New Orleans do chargrilled oysters and crawfish make their way onto my plate, and I will take my coffee with chicory any day.
My advice for visiting is this: Start your day out at the French Market with an organic banana daiquiri. You will be tempted by all the swirling boozy slushie machines in the Quarter, but nothing will compare to the boozy organic fruit smoothies of this place. Second, pace yourself. The bars close in the wee hours, just long enough for the owners to hose everything down before reopening. On that note, get your drinks in a to-go cup since you can walk in and out of most bars with drinks in hand. The third tip: Be a tourist! This town is the best for doing touristy stuff – graveyard or swamp tours, French Quarter haunted tours, Garden District mansion tours. Do it all, then spend some time away from the fray and find some local restaurants, dives and outdoor sights to check out. One of my favorite places to explore is Crescent Park – the quiet riverfront park with a view of New Orleans is a sharp contrast to the bustle. Also, the city is chock full of street art – some sanctioned, some rogue – so keep your eyes peeled for it.
Washington D.C. is another perfect town to get your tourist game going. The 17 Smithsonian Museums and the zoo all have free admission year-round with changing exhibitions, and they’re located in close proximity to each other. D.C.’s public transportation is easy to navigate and safe, and the addition of the City Bikes makes getting around a breeze. My number one bit of advice is to inquire early about admission to a couple of the more popular museums. The brand new National Museum of African American History and Culture and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are two of the must-see sights and both are difficult to get tickets to. The other must-see, in my opinion, is the National Portrait Gallery for the hall of presidential portraits and some rotating exhibits.
Outside of taking full advantage of the nearly 140 million objects, artworks and specimens for free, my favorite must-visit neighborhood of Capitol Hill is home to the Eastern Market. This spot is an indoor market and café with every type of food and drink imaginable. In addition, it’s surrounded daily by vendors selling all manner of handmade arts and crafts and flea market finds. All that bargain hunting and sightseeing works up quite an appetite and we always end an Eastern Market morning with brunch at Le Pain Quotidien. I can’t resist a good French bakery and feel like all the steps accumulated walking this vast city should be rewarded with a Pain au chocolat (or two).
Another of my favorite cities to explore, and one with public art every few feet, is San Francisco. The weather can be wonderfully mild in the summer, which makes for enjoyable exploring. Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Lombard Street, Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 are all popular tourist sights. The birthplace of the Summer of Love in Haight Ashbury and the epicenter of the gay rights movement in the Castro make these neighborhoods popular destinations and worthy of exploration. San Francisco is a city built into hills, which offers multiple opportunities for spectacular views from the top of Bernal Heights neighborhood, Dolores Park and Buena Vista Park. The city is home to more than 220 parks with the largest and most popular one being Golden Gate Park. I start my days at a new favorite coffee shop, Blue Bottle, with a cup of their iced NOLA cold brew. The chicory flavor in the bold coffee reminds me of another favorite town.
I’ve spent a good long time and taken a great run while exploring Golden Gate Park from one end to the ocean. The park reminds me of a choose-your-own-adventure book – paths and roadways leading in different directions, adventures and sights ever-changing depending on whether I take the left path, or the right one or the road less traveled. Working my way through multiple scenarios eventually leads to the beach, and that’s a good place to end. After all of the hiking and running around the hills, I treat myself to a spa day in Japantown. Kabuki is a traditional Japanese communal bath with hot pool, cold plunge and wet and dry saunas. Definitely relaxed and restored, Kabuki is a perfect, quiet ending to my busy explorer schedule.
My wanderlust is usually kicked into high gear at any given moment, but some days it’s just too hard to get away. A couple of places in my own hometown offer a mini staycation and luckily transport me away, even for a brief period. The Parklands at Floyds Fork is a rich, diverse network of trails and paths, parks, waterways, woodlands and fields. I see something new every time I visit, branching off into different directions and getting away from the city for the peaceful quiet of nature. The park is nearly 4,000 acres of land and 60 miles of paths just outside of downtown Louisville. It’s begging to be explored, and I am more than happy to oblige. Post-hike and exploration, a trip south of the border is in order. El Mundo’s back patio on a summer day is such an excellent spot. The authentic and delicious menu fits perfectly with the vibe of the place and both are always spot on. El Mundo takes me out of town in my mind; I know there is a busy Louisville avenue just beyond the wall, but I am too in love with this bison-stuffed chile relleno in front of me to care.
Whether you’re jetting or road tripping or just out of for the day, get that camera out and be a tourist. Stay hydrated and revel in all that this crazy world has to offer. VT
Organic Banana French Market
1100 N. Peters St. #27, New Orleans
St. Roch Market
2381 St. Claude Ave., New Orleans
2300 N. Peters St., New Orleans
Le Pain Quotidien
660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE, Washington, D.C.
The Eastern Market
225 Seventh St. SE, Washington, D.C.
Blue Bottle Coffee
66 Mint St., San Francisco
Golden Gate Park
Kabuki Springs and Spa
1750 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
2345 Frankfort Ave.
The Parklands of Floyds Fork