There are countless ways for visitors to explore the history and culture of New Orleans this year. // © 2018 Pableaux Johnson
Feature image (above): The iconic Jackson Square // © 2018 Getty Images
Earlier this year, The New York Times placed New Orleans in the top spot on its list of “52 Places to Go in 2018,” citing how the diversity of the city’s residents — who have emigrated from many parts of the globe — has helped “define New Orleans in the American imagination: music, food, language and on and on.”
Other publications, too, such as Conde Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure, named New Orleans as the place to be in 2018, and Fodor’s Travel insists that “300 years later, the most unique city in America has more to offer than ever before.”
It may be New Orleans’ tricentennial this year that pushed it onto must-visit lists; a yearlong celebration will honor the founding of the city by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who in 1718 traveled to this unique bend of the Mississippi River, 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. And travel magazines have also congratulated the city on not only bouncing back in big ways since Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, but also for improving the destination by expanding bike lanes, incorporating green spaces, opening new hotels and restaurants, developing infrastructure and much more.
But no matter why New Orleans has been named a top place to visit this year, the 300th anniversary adds another layer of fun to the Crescent City, with ongoing exhibits, concert series, lectures and special events until the end of the year.
Bienville and his brother Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville had traveled to Louisiana in 1699, naming the vast territory “Louisiana” for France and its king, Louis XIV. By the early part of the 18th century, the brothers had explored the Gulf Coast and established posts at Biloxi, Miss., and Mobile, Ala.; the latter was named the capital of the Louisiana colony.
“The problem with this scenario is that Biloxi and Mobile are not on the Mississippi River,” said Chris Cook, training coordinator for The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), a museum, research center and publisher working to preserve the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South.
In 1718, Bienville found the area that would become New Orleans: a crescent-shape bend in the Mississippi that local natives found perfect because of its high ridge along the banks and unique vantage point for spotting approaching enemies. Bienville named his town La Nouvelle Orleans, or New Orleans, and by 1721, a street grid was formed; the capital was moved from Mobile; and residency reached more than 400 people, according to Cook.
“It was the beginning of the modern city,” he said.
It’s not clear exactly when in 1718 Bienville arrived in New Orleans, but historians generally agree it was in the spring — which is why this year’s larger tricentennial events, such as NOLA Navy Week and Tall Ships New Orleans, will be held in April.
Celebrate All Year
New Orleans, by nature, is a happening place. So many events occur every year that celebrating the city’s tricentennial almost seems redundant.
“You have 138 permitted New Orleans festivals already happening this year, so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” said Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation (NOTMC).
Regardless, numerous festivities are planned to honor the anniversary. And Romig notes that although there are already events scheduled, the city will continue to add activities to the calendar throughout the year.
“New Orleans comes to the party all the time,” he said. “Our current mayor, Mitch Landrieu, wanted to spread it out as much as he could.”
Spring events will include a “Making New Orleans Home” symposium with NPR commentator Cokie Roberts; themed activities within regular festivals such as the French Quarter Festival and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; and the arrival of international naval ships. The city’s tricentennial committee has restored historic Gallier Hall, which once served as New Orleans’ city hall, and will open the Greek Revival building to the public in March.
The year’s fun will end on New Year’s Eve, when “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” will broadcast from the Crescent City, and a fleur de lis will drop from the top of Jax Brewery.
THNOC, with its vast assemblage of colonial documents and artifacts, will be part of two events. From Feb. 27 to May 27, THNOC will host exhibit “New Orleans, the Founding Era” on two floors at its building in the French Quarter, featuring items borrowed from French, Spanish and Canadian collections.
“‘The Founding Era’ is going to focus on the first decades of the city,” said THNOC’s Cook, who serves as the liaison between curators and those who work with visitors in the museum galleries.
He notes that the theme will center around what the founding of the city meant for the people of North America, Africa and Europe, as well as what it meant for the neighboring Spanish colonies.
“Making New Orleans Home: A Tricentennial Symposium” will follow March 8-11 from THNOC; it will examine the city’s 300-year history and include panels on immigration, both forced and voluntary, according to NOTMC’s Romig.
“New Orleans was once the capital of the slave trade,” he said. “It’s our history, and we intend to speak to it.”
On April 17, the Archdiocese of New Orleans will present a Tricentennial Interfaith Prayer Service at St. Louis Cathedral. The centuries-old structure, located in Jackson Square in the French Quarter, is the oldest Catholic cathedral in continual use in the U.S. The Archdiocese is also showcasing a special exhibit, “The Church in the Crescent: 300 Years of Catholicism in New Orleans,” at the Museum at the Old Ursuline Convent, located inside Ursuline Convent, which was built in 1745 and is considered the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley.
On April 20, The Orpheum Theater will present “New Orleans Voices of Congo Square,” a music and dance performance celebrating the culture of the Masking Black (Mardi Gras) Indians. Congo Square was a place where slaves and free people of color gathered on Sundays for dance, music and community.
The city’s main tricentennial events will occur in mid-April; naval ships from the U.S., Canada and France will park at the riverfront from April 19-25, and Tall Ships New Orleans will debut April 19-22. In both cases, the public will be allowed to board and tour the visiting historic ships. Admission is free, but VIP passes, which will allow visitors to access a hospitality tent and bypass lines, are available for a fee. And what’s a New Orleans event without food? Louisiana’s Tabasco hot sauce is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year and will host a cook-off between the ships’ culinary specialists and Louisiana chefs, according to Romig. The naval week will culminate with fireworks over the river April 21-22.
Meanwhile, annual events such as the French Quarter Festival, which runs April 12-15, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which runs over two weekends from April 27 to May 6, will likely have a tricentennial flare, Romig says. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will conclude with a tricentennial fireworks display on the final day.
From Oct. 25 through Jan. 27, 2019, New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) will showcase “The Orleans Collection,” an exhibition featuring items once owned by Philippe II, Duke of Orleans. Philippe, the namesake of New Orleans, was a patron of the arts, collecting an astounding 772 paintings in his lifetime. The exhibition will include artwork from Florence, Italy’s Uffizi Gallery; Paris’ Musee du Louvre; and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, among other museums, according to Vanessa Schmid, senior research curator for European art for NOMA. There will also be related programs, such as curator-led talks, gallery tours, seminars, film screenings, a two-day symposium and more.
Additionally, the 2018 NOLA Foundation has challenged both visitors and residents to chalk up 300,000 volunteer hours in the city by the end of the year through a partnership with the United Way of Southeast Louisiana, HandsOn New Orleans and NetWork Volunteers. Projects run the gamut, but the challenge aims to offer those “addressing issues of equity, resilience and public safety,” according to United Way’s website. Visitors can view volunteer opportunities and register for projects on the New Orleans Tricentennial website.
“It can be something as easy as helping paint a school to helping people around the house to reading to schoolkids,” Romig said.