It has been said that New Orleans, Louisiana, celebrates indulgence like no other city in the U.S.; its reputation for feasting and revelry, especially during Mardi Gras, is legendary. After Hurricane Katrina, the city rebuilt with fervor and tourism is flourishing. New restaurants, hotels and attractions draw millions of visitors to the city each year.
Although some neighborhoods still struggle with the aftermath of the storm, visitors to New Orleans' Central Business District, the French Quarter, Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, the Garden District and Uptown along St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street will find a city alive and thriving.
In this city synonymous with resilience and rebirth, it takes more than a hurricane or an oil spill to make New Orleanians lose their appetite for fun, food and merriment.
New Orleans is an extraordinary city, and with its unique culture and history, it has long enchanted a wide variety of visitors with a yearning for the romantic, the spiritual, the beautiful or the off-beat. (In what other U.S. city would a voodoo priestess be buried next to the mayor's family, or funerals be celebrated with a jazz band and a processional?) That magic feeling is stronger than ever, a calling card to a city with a spirit too beautiful to ever break.
Sights—St. Louis Cathedral and the French Quarter (also called Vieux Carre); the Garden District; Woldenberg Riverfront Park; an aboveground cemetery.
Museums—The Ogden Museum of Southern Art; The Cabildo; the Historic New Orleans Collection; the National World War II Museum; the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB).
Memorable Meals—Whole roasted fish; a muffaletta; po' boys and gumbo; turtle soup
Walks—Gallery hopping along Royal Street; a nighttime stroll along The Moonwalk to view the Mississippi; daytime walks along St. Charles Avenue and through Audubon Park; the neighborhoods of the Garden District.
Especially for Kids—The Discovery Garden at Longue Vue House and Gardens; Audubon Aquarium of the Americas; the Audubon Zoo; the Audubon Butterfly Gardens and Insectarium; Carousel Gardens Amusement Park in City Park.
New Orleans is sometimes called "the Crescent City" because it curves like a half-moon around a bend of the Mississippi River. Its orientation blunts the points of the traditional compass—no one in New Orleans navigates using north, south, east or west. Local directions refer to "riverside" (toward the Mississippi), "lakeside" (toward Lake Pontchartrain), "uptown" or "up river" (above Canal Street) and "downtown" or "down river" (Canal Street and below).
The city's position at the mouth of the Mississippi River and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico does make the area more prone to severe weather patterns such as hurricanes.
Areas of New Orleans that visitors typically enjoy, such as the French Quarter, Uptown and the Central Business District, were virtually untouched by Hurricane Katrina. Outlying areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview and St. Bernard Parish did see high flood waters, but revitalization is well under way. This progress is attributed to the many voluntourism organizations and the many voluntourists who have visited since 2005. Organizations such as Brad Pitt's Make It Right foundation, Beacon of Hope, St. Bernard Project and Habitat for Humanity have worked to build hundreds of homes and assist residents in returning to their neighborhoods.
Most tour companies include highlights of these areas in their city tours, or you can rent a bike, car or hire a cab to go yourself. Just watch out for potholes on the roads in neighborhoods all around town (a perpetual problem).
As New Orleans prepares to celebrate it tricentennial in 2018, the city's history is ever more at the forefront.
It was the Chitimacha and Chawasha people who were the first to recognize the benefits of settling near the mouth of the Mississippi River. The next was French Canadian explorer Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who in 1718 named what is now the French Quarter for Philip, Duc d'Orleans and regent of France. A call went out for settlers.
But few French people were willing to risk life in the mosquito-infested swamplands of Louisiana. French authorities had to lure male settlers with tales of diamonds, rubies, emeralds, beautiful sand beaches and snowcapped mountains. The authorities also had to free 88 women from Parisian prisons to be their brides. Then, they brought African slaves to New Orleans (some of whom continued to practice vodun, or voodoo, a religion that originated in western Africa).
New Orleans remained a French colony until it was transferred to Spain in 1762, but Spain gave it back to France in 1800. Three years later, Napoleon Bonaparte sold New Orleans and 40% of what is now the continental U.S. to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson as part of the Louisiana Purchase—at roughly five cents an acre. In 1805, New Orleans was incorporated as a city.
As a major port, the city was assured ongoing growth and prosperity, as well as occasional disturbances. It was the focus of several important battles, including the Battle of New Orleans (the War of 1812) and a Civil War siege in 1862 that left the city in the hands of Union forces.
But neither war nor progress has altered its status as one of the most unusual of U.S. cities. Perhaps that's because of the decades of French rule, its relatively remote location in the Deep South and its mixed population of French, Anglo-Americans, African Americans, Italians, Irish, Spanish and Cajuns. More recently, Cuban and Vietnamese immigrants have added even more spice to the cultural gumbo.
The best months to visit are March and April or October and November. Winter will seem mild to visitors from colder climes, though January temperatures have been known to drop below freezing. For Mardi Gras (February-March), expect temperatures of 46-65 F. Winter can be rainy.
New Orleans is known for its antiques shops, especially on Royal (in the French Quarter) and Magazine streets. They're filled with art, jewelry, stamps, coins, china, furniture and crystal. In addition, there are many excellent used-book stores and some shops in the French Quarter that sell voodoo paraphernalia.
There's no sales tax on any original art sold in the Arts District.
The French Quarter, which is where nearly all visitors to New Orleans start their sightseeing, is the oldest part of the city and it's still a wonder —a mix of clubs, souvenir shops, restaurants, voodoo vendors and beautiful homes (you'd be surprised at what lies behind some of the plainest facades).
Some of the prettiest cast-iron balconies are along Royal Street. The cornstalk-motif fence that surrounds the Cornstalk Hotel is particularly striking. Royal Street is also known for its antiques shops and art galleries. Bourbon Street and its cross streets house most of the tourist bars and clubs, but the locals know to go to Frenchmen Street, just outside the French Quarter, to hear some great music. Across the city, you'll find amazing music being played in some of the most unlikely looking locations.
Another French Quarter center of activity is along Decatur Street, near the river. Jackson Square is the main hub there. It was built as a parade ground for the French Army and was later used by the Spanish, Confederate and U.S. armies for the same purpose. St. Louis Cathedral is on Jackson Square, as is the Cabildo.
When you're ready to venture farther afield, head to the Garden District. This area is home to many gorgeous 19th-century mansions that evoke the Old South. A stroll around the Garden District with its quiet, oak-shaded sidewalks is a good respite from the more raucous pleasures of the French Quarter.
Among New Orleans' peculiarities—and unexpectedly popular tourist stops—are the cemeteries, which are aboveground because the city is well below sea level. The whitewashed tombs look like tiny houses, embellished with ornate ironwork and statues of lambs and melancholy angels. Seen from above, the cemeteries resemble miniature towns—so they are sometimes called "Cities of the Dead."
Metairie Cemetery is full of interesting architecture, but the most historic cemetery is located near the French Quarter—St. Louis No. 1 is small but packed with interesting structures from the 1700s, not to mention the supposed grave of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. Lafayette Cemetery (Uptown on Washington Avenue, across from Commander's Palace) and Odd Fellow's Rest at Canal Street and City Park Avenue (Mid-City) are other good choices.
Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Pete Fountain, Fats Domino and Al Hirt—each got his start in New Orleans. Still home to some of the world's leading musicians, New Orleans is one of the best cities in the U.S. for live music. It's also rare among North American cities for having no mandatory closing time for bars—New Orleans' nightlife is seemingly infinite and as colorful as the rest of the city's character. In many bars, the party doesn't slow down until after the sun comes up.
Visitors unversed in jazz history should know that traditional, classic New Orleans or "Dixieland" jazz is different from modern jazz. It's more melodic and easier to dance to than modern jazz. Although the French Quarter is historically linked with jazz, there aren't enough clubs there now to call it the center of the New Orleans music scene. Bourbon Street also has a few traditional jazz, zydeco and blues music clubs, along with a handful of bars featuring loud cover bands. Locals will tell you that Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny is the best place for live music—you can find clubs such as Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro there.
New Orleans is also recognized for its brass bands, which generally play a lively, funkier version of traditional jazz. Brass bands often provide the music at jazz funerals, which means they have to be mobile (no full drum sets—they can't be carried down the street). For visitors, it's easier to catch them in the clubs: Look for shows at d.b.a., the Maple Leaf Bar or Tipitina's uptown and be prepared to dance all night.
If you venture out of the French Quarter, you can catch some of the best zydeco music around at Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl most Thursday nights. And when you get tired of dancing, amble over to the bowling lanes and roll a few. Affectionately known to locals as Rock 'n' Bowl, Mid-City Lanes has attracted a slew of celebrities (including Mick Jagger, Tom Cruise and Kate Hudson), who are treated with consummate indifference by the owner and staff.
Club life also thrives Uptown and in the Warehouse District, which is adjacent to the Central Business District and along St. Claude Avenue on the border between the Marigny and Treme. But take a cab, catch a streetcar or stay in a group—city residents advise against walking alone from the French Quarter or from Central Business District hotels late at night.
All bars in New Orleans are smoke-free.
Mardi Gras was a pagan rite of spring before the Roman Catholic Church incorporated it as a last-chance celebration before the rigors of Lent. Mardi Gras literally means Fat Tuesday. It is the day before Ash Wednesday that begins the Lenten season. Mardi Gras was first celebrated by the ancient Greeks more than 5,000 years ago.
The colors of Mardi Gras are purple for justice, green for faith and gold for power.
Locals understand that Carnival is a season, not a day—a dizzying array of parades, masked and unmasked balls, pageants and King Cake parties are held around town.
Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire in his French Quarter apartment on St. Peter Street.
The term Creole has been used to describe people, music, ponies, architecture and, of course, food. But purists insist that it should refer only to people, generally with French or Spanish parents, who were born in Louisiana during the colonial period. Descendants of colonial Creoles often claim the name, too, and those of mixed African and European ancestry are sometimes called "black Creoles" or "Creoles of color."
New Orleans is known as the most haunted city in America, with many B&Bs and hotels claiming to be haunted. If you're not scared of ghosts, take in one of the city's many different haunted tours.
You haven't really experienced a cockroach till you've seen the large palmetto bugs that are everywhere in Louisiana in summer. And one of the worst things about these critters is that they can fly, although thankfully, they seem to scuttle more than they take wing.
Thanks to a program of generous tax credits for production companies, New Orleans has become a popular filming location, earning itself the nickname Hollywood South. Don't be surprised to see a few celebrities around town. Sandra Bullock and John Goodman own homes in the city.
Brad Pitt is especially popular with the locals for his can-do attitude toward helping the city rebuild following Hurricane Katrina. He has invested and raised more than US$45 million to fund his "Make It Right" project, which built 150 affordable, ecologically sound homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, including one designed by Frank Gehry.
Dos & Don'ts
Do settle in to the amiable hospitality that defines this laid-back city. It's normal for passersby to greet each other on the street with a "hello." You'll find it becomes habit-forming.
Don't wander around any part of the city alone at night. Crime, as in any big city, is a reality in the Big Easy.
Do tip street musicians and bar bands. Although the quality of music is high in New Orleans, the pay scale for most musicians is abysmal. It's customary to pass the hat, so keep plenty of small bills on hand.
Don't drink alcohol from glass containers on the streets; however, plastic or aluminum containers are completely acceptable.
Do keep in mind that the Crescent City Connection and The Causeway are toll bridges (and ferries also charge) upon return to New Orleans. For passenger vehicles the ferries and CCC are US$1, whereas The Causeway is US$3.
Do take advantage of the many one-of-a-kind restaurants in New Orleans. Save the chain eateries for another city.
Do take your time strolling as the locals do. Residents can always spot tourists when they quickly dart along the streets.
Don't be offended if someone calls you "baby"; it isn't a come on (except perhaps late at night in a bar), they're just being friendly.
Languages: English. Spanish is becoming increasingly popular, with Cajun French spoken in the Bayou areas.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic, Protestant), though most major religions are represented.
Time Zone: 6 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (-6 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November.
Voltage Requirements: 110 volts.
Telephone Codes: 504, area code in New Orleans; 985, area code for Greater New Orleans;
Copyright ©2017 Northstar Travel Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Courtesy of: Darla Logsdon
See More Sunsets Travel