Let’s face it, New Orleans is more known for partying, drinking and general decadence than for health and wellness.
But those who visit this magical 300-year-old Southern city can now get their history with a side of kale — if they so desire — rather than a cocktail. As it turns out, in addition to pirates, voodoo priestesses and drag queens, New Orleans has more than its fair share of yogis, fitness entrepreneurs and health-minded chefs.
Here’s how to temper your excesses while vacationing in the Crescent City.
Touring New Orleans
First, a quick history lesson: The French laid out New Orleans in 1718, setting it defensively at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Its early inhabitants included settlers, convicts, nuns and African slaves. The French lost Louisiana to Spain in the Seven Years’ War, which ended in 1763, but got it back in 1800 — just in time to sell it to the United States in 1803.
Over the next 100 years, the sugar industry, the War of 1812, steamboats, yellow fever, voodoo, immigration, Catholicism, the Civil War and the Supreme Court’s ruling upholding Louisiana’s segregation laws would all impact Louisiana. Add in Mardi Gras, jazz and Creole cuisine and you have a unique culture in the so-called Pelican state. You can’t turn a corner in New Orleans without seeing a ghost of one of these influences.
Fortunately, tour operators offer many active ways to see the state’s largest city. Veteran-owned Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours takes visitors for a spin around New Orleans while imparting historical info. The tough tubes and heavy frames of their fat tire bikes are specially designed to withstand the city’s formidable potholes.
Highlights of the slow-paced Creole Crescent Tour include one of New Orleans’ famous aboveground cemeteries, the house where Edgar Degas stayed while visiting New Orleans, the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a historic church founded by free people of color, and a stop for coffee and beignets in City Park. Free Wheelin’ also offers a Garden District tour and a faster-paced ride for experienced cyclists who want to cover more ground.
If you’d rather run than bike, New Orleans Jogging Tours leads a 6.2-mile journey that passes historic buildings like the French Market and the old U.S. mint, famous culinary landmarks like Commander’s Palace Restaurant and Café du Monde, and places of more contemporary interest like author Anne Rice’s home and the house where the New Orleans “Real World” reality television show was filmed. While there are narration and walking breaks, you should be able to run a mile in 11 minutes to keep up with the group.
Swampy areas outside New Orleans have their own bizarre beauty. Join Honey Island Kayak Swamp Tours to paddle through twisted cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss, watching out for alligators and the infamous Honey Island swamp monster — Louisiana’s answer to Bigfoot. The kayak tours are an enjoyable opportunity to experience and learn about an unusual and threatened ecosystem.
Take a Fitness Class
For a uniquely New Orleanian fitness experience, take one of the free fitness classes or join a run with the Move Ya Brass movement. Local musician Robin Barnes founded the original running group when she was trying to regain her health after a serious kidney problem.
What started as an informal invitation to Facebook friends to go for a run has turned into a whole menu of free fitness classes around New Orleans. Expect a soundtrack of local music as you work out in classes with fun titles such as Bounce Ya Brass, Stretch Ya Brass and Twerk Ya Brass. As dancer and personal trainer Shanda Domango said after teaching a Bounce Ya Brass class,
We can still be New Orleanians and live a healthy, active lifestyle.”
Yoga has caught on in New Orleans just as it has everywhere else. In addition to many excellent yoga studios, residents and travelers can attend all-level classes in the Cabildo, which once served as the seat of government during the Spanish colonial period. Yoga in the historic and elegant building is offered three mornings a week.
Healthy Eating, New Orleans Style
New Orleans has long been famous for rich and heavy food. But lighter, healthier eating has gained a foothold, and a few vegetarian restaurants have even slipped in. The all-vegan Seed eatery ranges from slightly healthier versions of local foods such as Southern fried nuggets (made with deep-fried tofu) and eggplant po’boys, to genuinely healthy options like raw pad Thai or a kale and mango salad with miso dressing.
The menu notes which dishes are gluten free, soy free, raw or Eat Fit NOLA, which means they meet the health criteria of the Ochsner Health System.
In the mostly untouristed Bywater neighborhood, the Sneaky Pickle’s veggie-heavy menu includes vegan mac and cheese, beet flatbread and sushi rice bowls. Uptown, meanwhile, Chef Aron Shaya operates two acclaimed modern Israeli restaurants, Shaya and Saba, where pita bread cooks in wood-burning ovens. The restaurants mix the flavors of the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe.
If You Go
Many major carriers offer connecting flights from Richmond and Norfolk. New Orleans is easy to get around by walking and Uber, so unless you want to explore the surrounding area, skip the rental car. The city’s new Blue Bike New Orleans is an easy bike-share program available to locals and visitors age 18 and up.