It has been said that New Orleans, Louisiana, celebrates indulgence like no other U.S. city; 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.
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).
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. When enslaved West Africans were forcefully transported by ship to New Orleans, the religion of vodun arrived with them. Vodun, or voodoo, is a religion of African origin that's also largely practiced in Haiti. After the Haitian Revolution in the late 1700s, French colonists and slave-masters sought to oppress the voodoo practitioners in New Orleans to avoid a similar uprising. This oppression encouraged the enslaved peoples to hold onto their beliefs more strongly, giving way to the development of current-day Louisiana voodoo.
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 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."
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 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.
A cluster of gay bars is at the far end of Bourbon Street, heading downriver toward the jazz, blues and alt-rock clubs and bars in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.
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.
Local cuisine is a delightful mixture of Creole, Cajun, French, soul food and a number of other styles. Vietnamese restaurants are plentiful, as well. By all means try the abundant seafood, including oysters (on the half shell, Rockefeller or Bienville, fried or poached), crawfish (also known as mudbugs—boiled, fried, etouffee or bisque), shrimp (Creole, boiled, fried, stuffed or remoulade), crab (boiled, stuffed, fried or broiled soft-shell), blackened redfish, stuffed flounder, red snapper, pompano or trout en papillote, and fried catfish.
Gumbo is a special case. It can be made with all or just one of the above, as well as with chicken, okra and sausage. Also made with a variety of ingredients is jambalaya (peppery rice, usually with chicken or seafood).
Red beans and rice (with spicy andouille sausage) is a traditional Monday meal, and you'll usually see it offered (often for free) in bars on that night. Other local treats: boudin (sausage stuffed with a spicy mixture of pork and rice), fried chicken, dirty rice (made with seasoning and chopped giblets or other meat), deep-fried turkey, stuffed artichoke, stuffed eggplant, po'boys (the New Orleans name for subs or heroes, often filled with fried seafood), muffalettas (a round sandwich stacked with deli meats and Italian seasonings), warm bread pudding with whiskey or rum sauce, beignets (fried dough dusted with powdered sugar), delightful chicory-laced coffee (or cafe au lait), pecan pralines—the list goes on forever.
And don't forget the local tradition of the jazz brunch—a late-morning meal spiced with live music—that'll kick-start your day. Be aware that some of New Orleans' Old Guard restaurants require jackets for men and equivalent attire for women.
Though New Orleans wakes up a little later (and goes to bed a lot later) than the rest of the U.S., meal times are similar to those in other parts of the country: Breakfast is usually served 6-10 am, lunch is 11 am-2:30 pm and dinner is 6-10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one and not including drinks, tax or tip. $ = less than US$10; $$ = US$10-$20; $$$ = US$21-$50; $$$$ = more than US$50.
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