William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, Eudora Welty…the list goes on and on. New Orleans boasts a proud tradition of inspiring literary greats which makes it a great destination for literary travel-lovers.
There are at least a hundred things to see and do and visit and drink and eat in New Orleans, Louisiana. It can be a family-friendly vacation zone to a hedonistic hot-spot in the space of a street or a block. It’s vibes and variations are legendary, and I was not disappointed. But I was most interested in exploring the literary side of the city so that is what I focused on.
I visited New Orleans last spring with my mom. She had a conference to attend which meant she had a hotel room with an extra bed. In exchange for room and board, I planned our itinerary. Bookish fun for me when she was attending her conference; general fun and exploration when we were out and about together.
Visiting in Spring Bonus: Literary Festival
Visiting in spring is amazing. The weather is perfect. Obviously, I can’t guarantee you’ll have sunny, cloudless, 70-degree days just because you go in the spring, but your odds are definitely better. Summer, according to more than one local we chatted with, is brutal.
Even before I arrived in New Orleans I had my head spinning in the direction of its literary tradition. I was thrilled to discover that we would be visiting for at least part of the time that the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival was taking place. I signed up for a couple writing classes and made a morning of it. It was amazing, and I half wished I could do everything they had on their schedule.
3 Books to Read about New Orleans
Since New Orleans had been on my radar as a place to visit for a while, I had done a bit of reading in advance.
The city has no shortage of reading material so I’ve selected three pieces that will give you a proper introduction and the beginnings of a solid literary appreciation for the city. One play, one work of fiction, and one compilation of essays. Not a bad line-up.
Like I said before, Tennessee Williams: kind of a big deal. Read A Streetcar Named Desire so you’ll at least know what people are referring to. It’s possible that my arrival in New Orleans coinciding with the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival brought about an out-sized awareness of Williams’ relationship with the city, but since they had his quote about New Orleans compared to other cities displayed everywhere, I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that you should at least know this work.
Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole elicits either a love-it or hate-it response, like I said earlier. But it’s definitely one to read to find out which side of the line you’re on. You won’t often meet such out-sized characters in literature or find such unusual circumstances around them.
This last one was my favorite one to read leading up to our trip. Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker compiled several essays looking at various facets of New Orleans in Unfathomable City: An New Orleans Atlas. It is a brilliant collection. Essays examine the influences shaping the city in the past 300 years, the relationship between oil and water, the good and bad of the sugar industry, the relationship with the dead and much more. 22 full-color maps reflecting the nature of each essay are included.
3 Literary Sites to See in New Orleans
This post is only a glance at the amazing literary tradition and history of New Orleans (next time I want to take a tour similar to this one from Historic New Orleans Tours). We did so much more in the few days that we were there. Our itinerary was crammed. (I wanted to make sure I earned my keep!) To see three spots we visited and highly recommend, check out these Must-See Places in New Orleans!
I’ll start in the French Quarter since that’s where most people spend their time. Hotel Monteleone is the home to The Carousel Bar and Lounge. If you time it perfectly you might get a seat at the slowly revolving bar that is designed to look like a carousel. We did not arrive at a good time – it was packed – but we were able to see it and stop to get a look at their star-studded literary list of visitors from ages past. An impressive group to say the least!
The other site we stopped to see was a bit of a surprise for me. It’s not one that will take you a long time, but it’s a good place for a short rest and I came away with a couple book recommendations so that’s a win in my book.
On our way home from a long afternoon and evening of exploring Audubon Park we decided to make one last stop at a library. That’s right, a library was calling to me all the way in New Orleans. Booknerd forever.
Latter Branch Public Library
The Latter Branch Public Library is housed in a neo-Italianate mansion that was donated to the city of New Orleans in 1907. The outside is stunning.
Just inside the entrance are two large rooms perfect for hosting book club meetings or sitting for a spell to read a book. It is a beautiful building and the perfect spot for a library.
Farther in the home is formal but cozy with a well-lit children’s section and a winding staircase to the adult books.
BONUS: If you are visiting on a Wednesday or Saturday between 10 AM and 2 PM, they have a book sale in the home’s former carriage house. Could find a gem of a souvenir!
It may not be on everyone’s list of places to go in New Orleans, but if you’re a booklover this is a great place to take a book and read for a bit in a formal front room or on an elegant outdoor porch. It’s an easy one block from the Jefferson stop on the St. Charles streetcar.
Finally, if you’re traveling with small kids, then you might appreciate a visit to Storyland in New Orleans City Park. My mom and I were enjoying a kid-free visit to New Orleans so we did not stop here. It looks like a great place to amuse children. Over 25 larger-than-life statues from favorite fairy tales and nursery rhymes create an imaginative playground to get the wiggles out and experience a fresh perspective on these familiar stories.
1 Literary Statue
Last but not least, stop by the Hyatt French Quarter Hotel. Standing in the front entrance is none other than the unlikely protagonist in A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly. Grab a selfie.
5 Bookstores in Literary New Orleans
At the end of the day, what I really geeked out about was visiting all the bookstores (and these are only 5 of them!).
I stopped at Beckham’s Bookshop first. Great used-bookstore ambiance complete with a Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque ladder on a track and section titles such as “Tall Books” and “True Crimes and Rascality.” I picked up a more academic-type book that compared three Russian authors (eclectic reading for the win!).
Faulkner House Books
This is an institution in the New Orleans bookstore scene. Set in the former home of Mr. William Faulkner himself, Faulkner House Books is a narrow bookstore with elegant, tall bookshelves neatly arranged in one room. An organized table of books runs down the middle beneath a large chandelier.
It’s a lovely space but what ultimately caught my attention was a full set of P.G. Wodehouse books along the very back wall. If suitcase space and money were unlimited, I would’ve had them all. In the end I settled for one more to add to my collection.
Dauphine Street Books
Sadly, I did not get to go inside Dauphine Street Books. I knew before we arrived in New Orleans that this was a place I wanted to visit, and then one of our bicycle-taxi-drivers recommended it as her favorite local book stop so I was doubly interested. I found the location but the doors were locked and not a person to be found. It’s on my list to check out whenever I make it back to New Orleans – this great article adds a little history to the location making it even more appealing to explore! So, if you get there first – let me know how your visit goes – I’m jealous!
Blue Cypress Books
Located a bit away from the hustle and bustle of typical touristy activity, Blue Cypress Books has used and new books with an assortment of bookish-related gifts and tchotchkes. I spent a good chunk of time looking through their offerings and came away with another Penelope Fitzgerald book for my collection. A wide assortment of books in a full but uncluttered atmosphere – perfect for browsing.
Garden District Book Shop
Garden District Book Shop is another that I did not get to visit personally. I’m including it though because it comes highly recommended by the readers of New Orleans. Looks like it has all the heart and substance of a great, independent bookstore and worth a visit!