Today’s stop on our tour of great places to visit in the United States is the vibrant, unique, resilient, truly iconic city of New Orleans. I have a special fondness for the Big Easy (one of the city’s many nicknames) because one of my first cases as a young lawyer involved spending a good bit of time in and around the French Quarter. Since I assume that current-century observations might interest you more, I enlisted as tour guide my Embassy colleague Charles Shaw, who recently returned from vacation in Louisiana.
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LAISSEZ LES BONS TEMPS ROULER
by Charles Shaw
New Orleans is a city for all senses. It’s a place to go to feel alive — the unique cuisine will energize your taste buds, the raw jazz will seduce you, and the festive atmosphere will put you in a constant party mood. The city’s representative annual event is the Mardi Gras festival, dubbed by travel writers the “Greatest Free Show on Earth,” but visitors can experience the Big Easy’s dynamic vibe all year round. It is no accident that the city’s unofficial motto is Laissez Les Bons Temps Rouler (“Let the Good Times Roll”).
Situated in the heart of the Mississippi River Delta, New Orleans lies on a bend of the Mississippi River roughly 105 miles (169 kilometers) north of where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the largest and most populous city in Louisiana, a State located in the Deep South and bordered by Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. With a population of 370,000, New Orleans is about the same size as Christchurch.
New Orleans has one of the richest and most fascinating histories of any city in America.
Founded in 1718 by the French as a strategic port for their expanding empire in North America and the Caribbean (and named for the then-Regent of France, Philippe d’Orléans), La Nouvelle-Orléans was originally the area now called the French Quarter, centered around what is now named Jackson Square. The city grew and prospered as the French empire expanded in the New World. It long remained the largest and richest city in the southern colonies, all the way up until the American Civil War.
The first Europeans to visit the area were the Spanish, in the 1520′s. The French began arriving in the late 1600′s and named the territory “Louisiana” in honor of then-King Louise XIV. In 1762, France ceded control of the territory (including New Orleans) to the Spanish empire. In 1800 Napoleon Bonaparte purchased the 828,000 square miles (2.1 million sq.km.) of territory back from Spain, and then sold it to the United States in 1803 for US$ 15 million. That “Louisiana Purchase” by President Thomas Jefferson more than doubled the size of the U.S. The State of Louisiana (representing a small portion of the Purchase) was admitted to the Union in 1812.
The city’s culture is a result of that history of multiple influences, not only French and Spanish but also Haitian, English, and German. Particularly notable was the mass migration of thousands of French-speaking refugees expelled by the British from the Acadia region of what is now Canada and Maine in the 1760′s. Those “Cajuns” as well as Caribbean migrants and descendants of French and Spanish colonials (“Creoles”) intermingled to create a unique fusion. The mother tongue of more than 10% of New Orleans residents remains a language other than English, and voodoo, Roman Catholic, and Afro-Caribbean cultural traditions blend in interesting ways.
The best way to start your visit to New Orleans is to head straight to its oldest neighborhood and beating heart — Vieux Carré, a.k.a. the French Quarter. The Quarter is a National Historic Landmark and one of the most visually striking places in America, famous for its intricate iron-wrought balconies, brick and cobblestone streets, garden courtyards, brightly painted buildings, and restaurants and cafés.
Although called the French Quarter, the buildings are almost entirely Spanish. Many of the old Creole buildings can still be enjoyed, having survived great fires in the 1700′s, wars in the 1800′s, and hurricanes in the 2000′s. One such grand original is the Cabildo, where in 1803 the Louisiana Purchase contracts were signed, transferring France’s remaining New World territories to the United States. Located next to St. Louis Cathdral, the Cabildo is now part of the Louisiana State Museum and houses many of the relics of the State’s rich history.
The Quarter is probably most famous for Bourbon Street. Although relatively quiet during the day, Bourbon Street springs to life once the sun goes down. It is a vibrant pedestrian thoroughfare renowned for its party atmosphere and home to jazz clubs, bars, restaurants, and boutiques. You can have dinner at a Cajun restaurant, have drinks at a jazz club, and move on to a zydeco bar, or any combination of dozens of great options.
Along Bourbon Street and indeed throughout the Quarter, particularly in Jackson Square, you can enjoy large numbers of street musicians, artists, magicians, and other performers. There are often spontaneous street jams or processions as musicians join together. You can even become part of the performance yourself by stepping into the somewhat cheesy but remarkably fun and aptly named Cat’s Meow, a popular karaoke bar.
I also enjoyed spending time in Jackson Square, the birthplace of the city. In addition to watching all the street performers, you can visit St. Louis Cathedral (the oldest continuously active basilica in America) and the French Market (the oldest public market in the country). If you’re an early riser, I recommend starting the day with café au lait and beignets at the world famous Café du Monde before starting your sightseeing and shopping.
Near the French Quarter is St. Charles Avenue and the Garden District. First developed in the early 1800′s, the Garden is rightly famous for its hundreds of well-preserved antebellum (pre-Civil War) mansions. A National Historic Landmark, the Garden District is one of the most extensive and impressive collections of historic southern mansions in the country. It is a great place for a quiet stroll or to study history, since some of the homes are open to visitors and filled with vintage furnishings and art.
The Garden District is also home to the longest streetcar line in New Orleans. Zipping along and around St. Charles Avenue for more than 150 years, the St. Charles Avenue Line is the oldest continuously operating street railway system in the world. Its vintage decor reminds one of a simpler time and perfectly captures the charm of “The City That Care Forgot” (another one of New Orleans’ nicknames). I highly recommend that you take a ride.
Another interesting and enjoyable excursion in various parts of the city is visiting the old cemeteries. New Orleans is one of the only cities in the United States that is below sea level, making underground burial impossible. As a result, the city’s many cemeteries are filled with distinctive European-style above-ground tombs and mausoleums, which are attractions in their own right (with a multitude of styles ranging from very old vaulted tombs to modern pyramids). Visiting a couple of these large “Cities of the Dead” makes for a unique experience.
Of course, you can’t talk about New Orleans without talking about music. The city is the birthplace of Jazz and the home of legendary jazz icon, Louis Armstrong. (If you are an Armstrong fan, have a read of the blog post by our Consul General Jim Donegan about the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s monumental performance here in New Zealand, in Hamilton.) The city has a large number of jazz clubs, so you can’t go wrong sampling the different offerings as you explore.
A good place to start (or end) is Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Back in the 1950′s a music-loving art gallery owner invited musicians to rehearse each night on his premises. The jam sessions grew and became popular, so the gallery moved next door, and Preservation Hall was born in the original space. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band still performs nightly at the original 726 St. Peter Street. If you want a second opinion, Louis Armstrong said, “Preservation Hall. Now that’s where you’ll find all of the greats.”
If you would like to learn more about jazz in addition to enjoying the performances, be sure to visit the Old U.S. Mint, which houses the New Orleans Jazz Club Collections of the Louisiana State Museum. The facility contains the largest and most comprehensive historic jazz collections in the world (including items such as Armstrong’s first cornet) and doubles as a performing arts center. It is well worth a visit. Since the city isn’t just about jazz, there are also collections focused on big band & swing, rhythm & blues, soul, Native American, funk, gospel, brass band, country, zydeco, Cajun, and other aspects of Louisiana’s rich musical tradition.
New Orleans’ Blues history is particularly deep. The local style of blues developed from jazz and Caribbean influences and is marked by heavy use of piano, saxophone, and, occasionally, horns. It’s not always easy to find blues in the homeland of jazz, but if you want to hear some great authentic New Orleans blues, there is no better place than the Funky Pirate on Bourbon Street. Home to beloved New Orleanian blues vocalist Alton “Big Al’ Carson and his Blues Masters, the Funky Pirate is one of the most spirited and lively music clubs in the Quarter, with entertainment second to none. It was one of the highlights of my trip.
New Orleans is the “Festival Capital of the World,” and you are likely to bump into a street fair or music festival whenever you happen to visit. Worth planning around are particularly electrifying celebrations such as VOODOO Fest (featuring artists from a variety of musical genres), French Quarter Festival (hosting more than 150 musical performances celebrating New Orleans’ multicultural heritage), and the critically acclaimed Jazz & Heritage Festival (with unforgettable jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, Cajun, folk, and a lot more).
And if you’re feeling visual-artistic, there are many additional options. For example, if you plan your trip during the northern summer you can enjoy the Warehouse Arts District’s White Linen Night – or the French Quarter’s whimsical companion piece, Dirty Linen Night – and view great art accompanied by live music by an eclectic mix of New Orleans’ cutting-edge homegrown musicians. If it’s your taste buds seeking adventurous pleasure, be sure to visit when the Oak Street Po-Boy Festival is on and sample the best of New Orleans’ unique cuisine. (I’ll talk more about that important topic later.)
The biggest and most famous event of the year is of course Mardi Gras, on the last day of the city’s carnival season. (Mardi Gras always falls on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, hence “Mardi Gras”, which means Fat Tuesday.) The first Mardi Gras was celebrated in the area in 1699 by French explorers just south of where the city now stands. Pre-Lenten mask balls were common from the city’s founding, and in the early 1800′s the current nature of the celebrations took shape with the founding of the Comus organization which launched themed parades, carnival krewes, a secret planning society, post-parade gala ball, and other customs.
People from all corners of the planet come in droves to see the “Greatest Free Show on Earth” with its marching bands, critically acclaimed parades, street revelry, marching bands, crazy costumes, floats, performers, jam sessions, and, naturally, the beads. Thanks to the Twelfth Night Revelers krewe in the 1870′s, revelers and spectators still throw doubloons with krewe emblems as well as strings of brightly colored beads from floats and balconies. A few pictures might give you a better sense than my words could:
The city has a packed performing arts schedule beyond carnival. Particularly popular is Broadway in New Orleans, which brings touring Broadway musicals year-round. There is also rich availability of opera, ballet, symphony, and ensemble performances, including the powerhouse Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra at the historic Saenger Theatre. If you like the visual arts, there is the extensive Arts District, as well as a large number of galleries and museums including the highly respected New Orleans Museum of Art.
New Orleans is also a center for higher education, with more than 50,000 students enrolled in top-rated tertiary schools including major research institutions Tulane University and the University of New Orleans; Loyola University, one of the largest Jesuit schools in the United States; and Xavier University of New Orleans, the only historically black Catholic university in America. All of these schools are active in the community and stage performances open to the public in venues across the city. The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane is just one excellent example.
It is certainly easy to keep yourself and your family busy and entertained while in town. In addition to everything else I’ve mentioned, I recommend a visit to the Audubon Nature Institute, which houses a zoo, aquarium, insectariums, and other adventure centers. There are also more than 45 museums and countless other attractions to explore, including the Historic New Orleans Collection (a museum and research center located in a complex of historic French Quarter buildings on Royal Street) and Confederate Memorial Hall ( ).
And be on the lookout for street corner jam sessions, spontaneous processions, and jazz funerals, an iconic part of New Orleans culture. In a jazz funeral, mourners convey the departed through the streets to the cemetery in a procession with a brass jazz band. The music is somber on the way to the cemetery, and then becomes upbeat. Onlookers often join the procession in a show of respect for the deceased or because they are enjoying the music. This “second line” of participants often dance to the music, wave handkerchiefs, and twirl brightly colored parasols.
And then there’s the food. The Big Easy’s cuisine is a world-famous blend of Cajun and Creole food that you won’t find anywhere else. Much imitated, it is truly sui generis and at the core of what makes New Orleans so exciting and special. First, a brief explanation; then, a few suggestions from the grazing I did during my vacation.
Having limited access to ingredients and relying heavily on assorted spices and the “holy trinity” of onion, celery, and bell peppers, the resourceful Cajun people pioneered a truly unique style of food. The Creole style is a fusion of the city’s multicultural European, Caribbean, and African colonial influences. The resulting distinctive blend of flavors manifests itself in such food staples as jambalaya, étouffée, beignets, and, my favorite, gumbo. Another of New Orleans’ signature dishes, red beans and rice, is immortalized in Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong’s iconic signature: “Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Louis Armstrong.”
You can dine like a local at the Royal House Oyster Bar in the heart of the French Quarter. Not only renowned for being the one stop for anything oyster, this iconic seafood restaurant also offers a taste of Cajun and Creole style gumbo, étouffée, and jambalaya. On the sweet side, if the crowds at the ever-popular Café du Monde are too big, don’t panic. There is more than one place to get your beignet fix. Particularly if you’re in the mood for somewhere relaxed and quiet, Café Beignet serves the deep-fried choux paste delicacies and café au lait without the huge crowds found at the more famous du Monde.
Other great food options include The Court of Two Sisters which serves authentic Creole cuisine and is renowned for their daily jazz brunch, a part of the restaurant since its inception. The Louisiana Bistro has a menu packed with Cajun and Creole classics, but if you can’t decide what you want, I recommend you try the iconic Feed Me special. Great for adventurous diners, Feed Me gives complete freedom to the chef to create a three- to five-course meal that will excite your taste buds. Finally, to indulge what I think is the the best gumbo in New Orleans, go to the Gumbo Shop. For what could be the best breakfast of your life, go to Stanley.
There’s plenty to do just beyond the New Orleans city limits, too. There are beautiful plantation homes, the distinctive rural towns of Cajun country, Mississippi cruises on historic paddle boats, otherworldly bayous and wilderness areas, alligator farms, and the diverse, exciting outdoor recreation options of Lake Pontchartrain, the Mississippi Delta, and the Gulf Coast.
Among the many noteworthy and interesting 18th century plantations flanking the Mississippi are Oak Alley and the San Francisco Plantation House. A bit further from the city is the Acadian Village near Lafayette, which offers a window into 19th century life in Louisiana. Also very popular is Avery Island, home of Tabasco sauce and the iconic Jungle Gardens, a 170-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary.
As everyone knows, New Orleans and the southeastern Louisiana region was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, with about 80 percent of the city flooded after levees failed. It was a huge blow. Many neighborhoods, historical sites, and natural areas were badly damaged, but New Orleans has roared back since then. Mardi Gras and Jazz & Heritage festivals continued without interruption, there has been a strong resurgence in tourism, and an economic revival driven by small businesses and entrepreneurs continues to accelerate.
Several major national sports championships and tournaments came to town immediately after the hurricane, and the New Orleans Saints finally won the Super Bowl (for the first time in the club’s half-century history). The city I visited was as high-spirited, raucous, richly seasoned, and fun as ever. But I wouldn’t have expected anything else. After three centuries of history marked by conflagrations, Civil War, invasion, and multiple transfers of sovereignty, no single storm was going to kick the fizz out of the Big Easy.
That’s it for my travelogue. I hope that I’ve sparked your interest and given you some vacation ideas. Whether it’s your first visit or your tenth, you’ll have a blast spending time in New Orleans. There’s nothing else on Earth quite like it.
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Charles’ tour covered the landscape very well. I would just note by way of supplement that New Orleans has birthed am impressive roster of native sons and daughters who reflect as well as photographs the special character of the city, including …
… legendary pirate Jean Lafitte, Louis Armstrong, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice, Truman Capote, Lillian Hellmann, Harry Connick Jr., Fats Domino, Al Hirt, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, John Kennedy Toole, Emeril Legasee, Paul Prudhomme, Edgar Degas, John James Audubon, Dorothy Lamour, Ellen DeGeneres, John Larroquette, and Reese Witherspoon, just to name a few.
For more information about New Orleans, what to see and do, and how to plan your visit, please take a look at the city’s official tourism website.