New Orleans is different from the rest of America, in culture and in spirit. She’s an old soul. A dowager queen, regal, foreign, mysterious, irresistible, cloaked in filtered light and darkened shadows. Her unique heritage is in evidence everywhere. You notice it in the melodious French street names: Dauphine, Chartres, Barbonne, and on restaurant menus: remoulade, etouffee, beignets. You hear it in the throaty “R” of the spoken words; in the jazz, blues, zydeco sound seeping out of bar doorways and louvered windows, played by street musicians earning a dime, and coming from marching funeral processions, starting out mournfully, ending joyfully. You taste it in the distinctive cuisine emanating from deep within the bayous and flavored by influences from all those who passed through her seaport, where the Mighty Mississippi broadens into finger deltas on its reach to the Gulf. You smell it in the staleness of night-before-booze along Bourbon Street; in fragrant jasmine creeping up hidden courtyard walls. You feel it in the humid air upon your skin. You see it in her graceful brick and stucco architecture, now etched with age; in fern-draped wrought-iron balconies overhanging sidewalks; in narrow doors, brightly painted; in darkened side entrances leading to moss-covered garden alcoves tucked out of sight, illusions of secret rendezvous. The legendary celebration of Mardi Gras defines her – an elaborate parody of life, a cacophony of sound an color – horns, umbrellas, costumes, crowns, feathers, beads, drummers, revelers, royal krewes, parades, floats processions.
This is how New Orleans beckons. And, her “lessez les bon temps rouler” (let the good times roll) attitude makes her irresistible. A visit to this historic Creole city is a must do, year-round. It’s such a fun city with so many “must sees,” it’s easy to get past the heat and humidity of summer in New Orleans. It offers much, both indoors and outdoors. It’s a welcoming, easy place. A mixed-use city, New Orleans feels like a small town. Residences are layered over and behind shops, bars and restaurants, with locals living, shopping, and dining along her streets.
The French Quarter
Visitors are first drawn to the venerable French Quarter. The oldest part of the city, established by the French in 1718 as a port settlement, it’s known by its ancient name, Vieux Carré. Located on a strategic delta ridge, where the Mississippi languidly curves by, the influence of its rich history as a port town, where ships from all parts of the globe involved have stopped to unload and load goods to and from destinations all the way up the mighty river, is evident everywhere.
Walk through the Quarter on your own, map in hand, or see it and learn about its colorful history and places from a knowledgeable guide on a French Quarter Walking Tour. Or, glide through the French Quarter, along the Mississippi, and through Tremé on a City Segway Tour, day or evening. Located just beyond the Quarter, Tremé, a center of African-American and Creole heritage and home to Armstrong Park, is regarded by many as the cultural heart of the city. Segways are lots of fun, and they are a great way to see the sights without having to walk it, and hear all about this fascinating city too.
The most well-known place in the Quarter is Bourbon Street, and bar-hopping along this famous street is a prerequisite for many. It’s a busy, noisy, crowded street with a bit of a bawdy reputation it comes by rightfully. After all, it started out as a port town. Walk it and see what you find. Not comfortable bar hopping? See it, learn about it, sample it, and get ideas of where to go back and try it later on a guided New Orleans Original Cocktail Tour.
There’s so much more to the Quarter than Bourbon Street. Jackson Square with St. Louis Cathedral watching over it is its center. There’s a bit of everything here: street musicians, art, fortune tellers, and a touch of voodoo here and there. Famous Café du Monde is the place to stop for a café au lait and beignet. Just down from Café du Monde is French Market, a touristy place with tons of souvenir and food stalls offering all things New Orleans. While it’s all outdoors – translation: hot in the summertime – don’t miss it. It’s a great place to sample some of New Orleans tasty food without breaking the bank.
The best French Quarter street to walk down is Royal Street, one of the oldest and most beautiful streets in the city. It’s a must, and a wonderful place for antiques, vintage clothing and great jewelry It’s also provides lots of photo ops. Wrought iron balconies draped with colorful flowers overhang the street. Street performers entertain. Eclectic boutiques, from high end to thrift, art galleries, antique stores, jewelry stores are impossible to walk by without going in. Cafes and restaurants, some with outdoor seating, serve that great New Orleans food. Go there between 11:00am until 4pm each day when the street is closed to vehicular traffic and becomes a pedestrian mall.
Lovely Garden District, with its collection of elegant anti-bellum mansions and beautifully manicured gardens is another visitor favorite. Laid out in 1832, following the Louisiana Purchase, this is where the American’s whose wealth came from sugar, cotton, shipping, chose to live. Not wanting to live among the Europeans who lived primarily in the French Quarter, the Americans created their own enclave in the classical architectural styles popular in America at the time – Greek Revival, Italianate and Victorian – not in the style favored by the residents in the Quarter – stucco Creole Townhouses with courtyards and cast iron balconies. The Garden District can be walked, but it is best appreciated through highlights and details on a guided Garden District Walking Tour.
Cemeteries and Haunts
Cemeteries, voodoo, superstition and hauntings are embedded in New Orleans culture. First the cemeteries: “Cities of the Dead.” Because they are beautifully intriguing as well as historically fascinating, the city’s cemeteries are must sees. Elaborately carved stone crypts and mausoleums, built above ground due to New Orleans low-lying location, create the illusion of cities in miniature. Through the stories of those buried there, the history of New Orleans is revealed. To get the full experience, cemeteries are best seen on one of the many cemetery tours. One of the most beautiful cemeteries in the city, Lafayette Cemetery #1, is in the Garden District. St. Louis Cemetery #1, is the most popular, due to the magic and mystery of its most famous resident, legendary Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. She is a natural segue into voodoo, an integral part of New Orleans history and culture. Voodoo is a synthesis of Catholicism and the religious traditions and beliefs from various regions of Africa which was practiced in New Orleans by both slaves and free people of color. Venturing into the world of voodoo should be on any New Orleans visitor’s must do list. Do it on a day or night Voodoo tour. However, you don’t have to take a Voodoo tour to get a glimpse of voodoo culture. Shops in the French Quarter and other neighborhoods sell voodoo products.
Another must do: enjoy the sensory pleasure of New Orleans’ rich, robust food. Flavorful Creole and Cajun cuisine begins with the rich harvest of her coastal waters – shrimp, oysters, crab and crawfish – spiced with French, Spanish and African influences, blended in remarkable ways into gumbo, jambalaya, and bouillabaisse. Restaurants are everywhere – old world oyster bars; antique-filled, old-style dining rooms with cool tile floors, beveled glass and tin ceilings; housed in plant-shaded courtyards, old warehouses, firehouses and small cottages. Great chefs got their start here, and the rich culinary heritage of the region continues. You can find the full flavor anywhere throughout the city, in fancy restaurants, cafes, small storefront places and vendor carts. Prices range anywhere from pricey to reasonable. The best-known are downtown, in the French Quarter, along Magazine Street in Uptown, around Audubon Park. However, the culinary tradition runs so deep that good Creole/Cajun cuisine can be found anywhere. Some of the best true Cajun eateries are in tucked deep in the bayous swamps. Just ask a local. Everyone has a favorite.
Here’s a way to experience a great New Orleans meal, keep cool, get out on the storied Mississippi, and take in fabulous New Orleans views: go on a bunch, lunch or dinner cruise! Do it in style aboard a real steamboat with a steam-powered calliope on New Orleans Steamboat Natchez Creole Lunch or Dinner Cruise. How about an elegant evening, lazy river ride complete with great food, soft lighting, jazz and dancing? Find it all on the Creole Queen’s Jazz Cruise.
Museums and Attractions
For some great experiences in AC coolness, New Orleans has plenty of interesting museums to visit. Kids enjoy letting loose as they discover fun stuff to do in the New Orleans-centric, interactive Louisiana Children’s Museum in the Central Business District. Take them to Audubon Aquarium of the Americas by the river on Canal Street. It’s super! Kids of all ages will want to visit Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium, a short distance away from the Aquarium – butterflies are beautiful; some of the insect parts, creepy! With kids in tow, Audubon Zoo Uptown in Audubon Park is the place to go. Of course there’s no AC her, but there is shade. Covering over 50 acres, it has great animal habitats. Go early in the morning, before the heat of the day is too much for both man and animals (some are taken indoors and out of viewing range when it gets too hot).
Central Business District has numerous interesting and cool museums: World War II Museum, Contemporary Arts Museum, Confederate Memorial Museum and Oden Museum of Southern Art are all within reasonable proximity to each othe. City Park, one of the largest urban parks in America, does too. There you’ll find New Orleans Museum of Art, fabulous Besthoff Sculpture Gardens, Botanical Garden. Longue Vue House & Gardens, a magnificent city estate completed in 1939, ia not far away. All are well worth a visit.
A trip to New Orleans is simply not complete without getting out on the bayous – swampy, dark, boggy, mysterious; huge cypress trees rising from brackish water alive with crawfish, catfish, frogs, toads, turtles and alligators. Bayous are a natural habitat for Great Blue Herons, white egrets, possums, snakes, raccoons and an abundance of other wildlife. People, Cajun and Creole, live there too, deep in the bayous, where they have for have lived for generations. In doing so, they have preserved their culture which makes New Orleans and coastal Louisiana unique. Bayous in Jean Lafitte State Park, just ½ hour outside of the city, are popular destinations for multiple swamp tours operating in and around the city. Some tours go through the bayous in swamp boats; others in airboats. Summer in the bayous is hot and humid, but so well worth the temporary discomfort. While nothing beats the feeling of seeing this primeval land like seeing it close to nature in a boat, you can see it without the hot and humid part. Grayline’s Bayou & Swamp Tour gets you around in air-conditioned comfort. Either way, getting out on the bayous is an unforgettable way to really get a feel for the origins of this fascinating city.