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New Orleans: A Home to Return To

I didn’t grow up in a family that traveled very much or very far, but that’s true for a lot of families. It’s not that we never went on vacation, just that most of our traveling was limited by our resources, and my mother’s fear of flying. But no matter! We still found our way to here and there, staying with friends or family, and keeping each trip no farther than a day’s drive away. As a child, I loved our longer road trips to places like Missouri and Tennessee most of all. I loved watching our flat northern Indiana landscape begin to roll with hills, and then mountains depending on the destination. It was always my pleasure to travel anyplace any family member wanted to bring me along, but the place I longed for most was New Orleans.

New Orleans was my Grandma Billie’s favorite city, and my Grandma Billie is among the fiercest women I’ve ever known. Before she passed away in 2015, it was the only place she’d told me I must visit over the course of my own life. “You’ve never seen, heard, or tasted anything like it,” she explained to me with open palms & wide eyes. Here’s what you have to understand about my grandma: she was really very picky about where she traveled. She rarely had nice things to say about any of the places she’d traveled. In fact, most of her stories about places she’d been outside of our city ended with, “and THAT’s why I’ll never go back.”

Not so with New Orleans.

Talking about her trips to New Orleans in the sixties and seventies lit her up inside, and all that light shone right down on me. That’s why when New Orleans Tourism reached out and asked if I’d like to visit and write about my time in the city, I did not hesitate to say yes. New Orleans was already on my personal travel list, and had been for as long as I could remember. This trip was going to happen with or without them, but with them, I would get to see the city from the perspective of the folks who knew it best. In honor of my ferocious grandmother, and her life-long love for this town, I invited one of my most badass friends, Diana, to come along with me. I also had the pleasure of spending time with two brilliant creative women who were born & raised in New Orleans to get their take on their hometown.

The Loa Bar at the International House Hotel is a hidden gem inside the Central Business District. Photo: Rebecca Todd

Upon landing at the delightful New Orleans airport, Diana and I made our way to the International House Hotel. The staff was friendly and accommodating right away, held our bags until our room was ready, and gave us some fantastic recommendations for places to grab lunch while we waited. We put on our sunglasses, grabbed some water, and burst out onto the sidewalk that would lead us to the French Quarter a few blocks away. It was the middle of the day, but The Quarter was already full of folks itching for a good time, and a great beignet.

Trashy Diva is a locals’ favorite for funky fashion finds. (Photo: Paul Broussard)

Diana and I found our bliss at Café Beignet, where we sat, sipped coffee, people-watched, and stuffed our faces with the fried doughy treat. By the time the hotel texted me to say our room was ready, we were well-stuffed and ready for a break. Still, we stopped to buy lingerie at Trashy Diva on the way back. It was the first time I’d ever over-indulged myself before trying on sexy things, but in New Orleans, it just felt like the right thing to do.

Cafe Beignet s a subtle but tasty spot to enjoy beignets in the French Quarter. Photo: Rebeca Todd

The following day brought me to the doorstep of artist Rebecca Rebouché. Well known for both her collaboration with global lifestyle brand Anthropologie, and her sprawling commission-based family trees, Rebouché understands and enjoys the magic of New Orleans. That’s part of the reason she returned to her home state, post-Katrina. After the levees broke, it took four days for her to hear from her family.

Photo: Rebecca Rebouché

“They were all okay, but they had a bunch of people staying with them and they were out of power for weeks. My sister had an infant at the time. They told me about bathing him in a bucket in the yard.” Rebouché says. “Even though I had spent my life trying to get out of Louisiana, I felt this incredible connection to the city as a whole, and the people of it, and my heart was just broken.”

And so she did. Rebouché returned to New Orleans, briefly worked for an ad agency, then decided to strike out on her own just as the recession hit. She made a name for herself through consistently gorgeous work, and some favorable collaborations. Her career has blossomed almost as well as her family trees, and she does not take it for granted that New Orleans has been the true home of her career  as an artist so far.

“I’m a romantic and New Orleans is like your great love. It’s like a really powerful relationship. It’s got a ton of problems and sometimes you think you’re just going to walk away, but you can’t because it lives in your heart and that’s how I feel about it,” Rebouché says.

And on top of that because the good parts too, it romances you day after day. Just the way that the banana trees kind of sway in the wind and the brass bands come down the street. You have this anchor of Mardi Gras every year and it brings you back to life after winter. “Twelve years could go by, and you think you’ll leave when you run out of romance, when you run out of poetry, but that moment never really arrives.

During my few days in the city, I understand Rebouchè’s sentiments. It’s clear to me that I won’t get to see everything New Orleans has to offer on this trip, but even if I came back a million times, I still might not because New Orleans’ magic truly lives inside the people who make up the city. From our receptionist at the hotel, to our tour-guide at The Whitney Plantation, to the ladies who helped us choose our lingerie, and our Lyft drivers, every single person we encountered in New Orleans had a bit of a story, and a lot of love for their home.

National WWII Museum Art director and designer, Reba Joy Billips finds little moments of beauty all over the city, even right on the street. “I live on Magazine Street and Louisiana, and I find inspiration oddly enough in the nature that we have. At night walking on Camp street, because we have LED lights, it makes a hatch print on the ground. And to me it’s the most beautiful thing, just seeing nature make art,” Billips says.

Billips came to art-making in a way similar to how I came to writing: it was the only thing I liked doing so much that it motivated me to work past the point of boredom. Also, like Billips, while I was always art-inclined, I was not convinced it could be a career choice.

Until, of course, it seemed like the only choice I could make in order to have any measure of personal fulfillment and success. No pressure or anything.

“My parents are very practical. They’re from the south, they had big families, low income, so it was like no, I need to go make money. I always thought, “I can’t do art. You can’t make money doing that. But I had never seen myself work so hard.It was hours and hours and hours and hours, and I was so fulfilled by it. I just followed it,” Reba Joy says.

Some of Reba Joy’s clients have included beloved brands like New Orleans Zatarains. Photo: Zatarains

Billips and I sat over coffee, chatting with each other about this thing we both have, this inability to be motivated by few things other than the thing we get to do. We shared tips and advice, and it began to feel like I was sitting with a long-time friend.

Though I must say, it’s hard not to feel that way during most of the encounters one has in New Orleans. Still, this felt like a unique and wonderful connection. I asked Billips why she stays in New Orleans, she seems like the kind of person who could live anywhere in the world and make it work. She says she would like to try living other places in the future. But there’s something about New Orleans…

“There’s just a camaraderie. It’s kind of like we’re in it together. Like we may have our differences, and it flares up at certain times of the year, and sometimes, like during Mardi Gras or during rain season, it all comes back together again,” Reba Joy says. When people are in need, people tend to help one another. It is a big community. It’s a big family. I mean, families fight. Families don’t always see eye-to-eye. But they still care about each other.”

And there it is.

People in New Orleans care about each other. People in New Orleans feel like family, even when they aren’t related to you.

Diana and I ate our way through the rest of our trip, and bought our way through every little market we passed. We struck up conversations with strangers, bought a few drinks, and accepted even more. It struck me that part of the reason my Grandma Billie must have loved this place, is because it feels like a great big family. My grandma, who loved to get her family together in big groups with good music and great food, my goodness. She must have felt right at home in this town. So did I.

When I would return to college after a trip home, my grandma would say, “This will always be home as long as you keep coming back.” I can’t imagine that New Orleans is a place I won’t keep coming back to. There’s more to see, I know. But more importantly, there are more people to meet. And in New Orleans, that means meeting family.

Ashley C. Ford lives has written or guest-edited for The Guardian, ELLE, BuzzFeed, Slate, Teen Vogue, New York Magazine, Lenny Letter, and other publications. She has been named among Forbes Magazine's 30 Under 30 in Media (2017), Brooklyn Magazine's Brooklyn 100 (2016), and Time Out New York's New Yorkers of The Year (2017). She is currently writing her memoir, Somebody's Daughter, which will be published by Flatiron Books under the imprint An Oprah Book.

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