New Orleans is a city that wraps its arms around newcomers in an embrace of classic Louisiana cuisine, rousing night life, jazz, European and Afro-Caribbean influences, centuries-old architecture and a touch of voodoo.
The French Quarter, the oldest neighborhood in New Orleans, captures the melting-pot atmosphere of a city smoldering in a mélange of French, Spanish, African, Sicilian and Irish influences. Its stunning architecture, decorative wrought- and cast-iron balconies, antique shops, artists and art galleries and the sense of history in every handmade brick add to the overall spell.
New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718 for its strategic position along the Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico. In 1762,
Louis XV gave Louisiana to his Spanish cousin, King Charles III. Although Spanish rule was brief — lasting only until 1801 — Spain left a lasting imprint, rebuilding much of the city after devastating fires in 1788 and 1794.
Spain ceded Louisiana back to France in 1801, but two years later Napoleon sold the territory to the U.S., effectively doubling the size of the U.S. This opened the floodgates to immigration from Germany, Ireland, Sicily and other European countries. Thousands of Haitians fleeing a revolution in 1804 also settled in New Orleans, infusing the culture with their Afro-Caribbean food, music, language and customs. All this gives New Orleans its foreign, beguiling flavor, unlike that of any other American city.
NEW ORLEANS TODAY
New Orleans is a city of about 393,000 people, nicknamed the Crescent City because it was built — 5 feet below sea level — on a graceful bend along the Mississippi River. The city’s architectural treasures create a backdrop for a pulsating music, arts, dining and entertainment scene packed with opportunities for visitors. Historic streetcars will carry you to restaurants serving classic Louisiana cuisine, on a tour of the mansions and live oaks of St. Charles Avenue or to a bistro for beignets, boudin balls or bread pudding.
More than ten years after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans a devastating blow, the city has rebuilt itself. While effects linger in the Lower Ninth Ward and parts of New Orleans East near Lake Pontchartrain, the city is rebounding. Today, there are almost 600 more restaurants than existed before Katrina in this food-obsessed city, and the music, night life and city pride have returned.
Newcomers making the transition to calling the Crescent City home should check out the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau website, www.neworleanscvb.com, to explore the city’s history, attractions, music scene and activities for the entire family.
WHERE TO BEGIN
Start with what you love. Whether your goal is to wander antebellum plantations or taste the foods that New Orleans is famous for, there’s a tour to suit you. History-lovers can explore battlegrounds, the city’s European origins and jazz landmarks while soaking up lore from local historians. Looking to delve into the world of the supernatural? Take a nighttime tour of a cavernous haunted mansion or learn about voodoo practices as you walk through maze-like cemeteries. There are excursions for the daring who want to spot alligators in the Louisiana bayous, or you can sit back and relax in a mule-drawn carriage, hop on a paddlewheel riverboat or set out on foot.
Cities of the Dead
European influence is evident in the city’s famous above-ground cemeteries. Most of the deceased in New Orleans are interred above ground because of the city’s high water table and below-sea-level elevation. There are 42 cemeteries in the metropolitan New Orleans area, and all have family-built, richly adorned tombs that can inter as many as a dozen deceased. The “cities of the dead” continue to be an item of great interest to newcomers and visitors, and cemetery tours are conducted daily by a number of tour companies.
The largest cemetery — Lake Lawn Metairie Cemetery — is worth a visit to view its astonishingly beautiful tombs set in lovely garden areas and topped with handsome sculptures.
In the mid-1800s, this was the site of the Metairie Racetrack and Jockey Club. Legend has it that an American millionaire, Charles Howard, was denied admission to the clubhouse because he was not a Creole. The miffed millionaire vowed to buy and bury the track and the club. In l872, the site became a cemetery, and in 1885, when Howard died, his eternal resting place was on the grounds of the former Jockey Club. His ornate mausoleum features a statue of a man with his finger to his lips, a request for respectful silence for those at rest.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is another gem. This cemetery was the fourth in New Orleans and was laid out in two squares, with a third square set aside for the burial of African-American Catholics, notably voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
VOODOO AND MARIE LAVEAU
Mention “voodoo” and you’re likely to draw cautious stares. Many equate voodoo with devil worship or human sacrifice, but nothing could be further from the truth. Voodoo is an amalgam of religion and spiritualism with roots in ancient Africa. Its followers believe in one god and the search for a better understanding of the spiritual aspects of life.
With its blended French, Spanish and Indian traditions, New Orleans was the perfect setting for a practice that had made its way through Martinique, Haiti and the French West Indies to the feet of the woman who became its queen, Marie Laveau.
Laveau was a voodoo practitioner with the gift of showmanship. She borrowed heavily from Catholic traditions including incense, holy water and prayer, then stirred in her own mysticism, sensuality and snakes. A hairdresser, Laveau knew when to talk and when to listen as she entered homes of the wealthy and powerful women of New Orleans. They told her family secrets, of their husbands’ dalliances and of deleting references to questionable ancestry in their own family histories. If knowledge is power, Laveau was handed all the power she needed. By 1830, she was New Orleans’ undisputed Queen of Voodoo.
New Orleanians honor Laveau every June 23 — the eve of St. John the Baptist’s Feast Day — the night believers say the spirit of the voodoo queen rises. Laveau’s grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on Basin Street is meticulously maintained by legions of followers who still place offerings there, including food or various voodoo symbols.
A good place to peer into the world of voodoo is the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum on Dumaine Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Blue candles burn continually in honor of Laveau in halls surrounded by pictures of ancient and modern voodoo rituals and magical drawings used to summon the spirits.
New Orleans neighborhoods are where the city’s culture and creativity come to life. From the historic French Quarter to the elegant Garden District to the music-filled Marigny, there is great food, music and delight to be found across the city. Here is just a handful of New Orleans’ most popular neighborhoods.
The original settlement, the French Quarter district as a whole — bounded by Canal Street, Decatur Street, Esplanade Avenue and Rampart Street — is a National Historic Landmark. So much of what makes New Orleans unique is captured in miniature in the melting-pot atmosphere of the Quarter, from raucous Bourbon Street to the bohemian elegance of Royal Street. It’s a neighborhood packed with surprises and magic.
Its stunning architecture is likely to catch your eye first. Balconies of intricate ironwork and courtyards filled with lush greenery and fountains hark back to the French Quarter’s European roots. Many buildings bear ceramic plaques informing visitors of the street names during Spanish rule, such as Calle de Borbon.
Jackson Square: Life in the Quarter centers on New Orleans’ most famous landmark, Jackson Square. Originally called the Place d’Armes, the square was renamed to honor Andrew Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The square is flanked by historic structures such as St. Louis Cathedral and the Presbytere; the Cabildo, which houses the Louisiana State Museums; and the Pontalba Buildings, the oldest apartment buildings in the U.S.
Bourbon Street: Over the years Bourbon Street has been home to vaudeville, burlesque and jazz joints, all contributing to the rowdy atmosphere the street is known for today. But newcomers may be surprised to find that Bourbon offers more than obvious night-life options. The street is also home to traditional jazz clubs, upscale lounges and historic restaurants.
Brass bands gather almost every night, filling the street with rousing music and dance, at the intersection of Canal Street and Bourbon. Canal Street continues for 13 blocks beneath elegant iron balconies and a seemingly endless row of piano bars, restaurants and music clubs. Carnival season draws thousands of Mardi Gras revelers to Bourbon Street in early spring, but catching strings of beads thrown from balconies is a year-round pastime.
Canal Street: Canal Street is a major hub. Bright red streetcars trundle down its center, luxurious hotels tower overhead and throngs of visitors and locals congregate for meals, attractions and shopping, or in transit to and from New Orleans neighborhoods. The adventurous can explore the Audubon Insectarium (423 Canal St.), an interactive museum in the old U.S. Customs House dedicated to insects. Treat yourself to first-class shopping at The Shops at Canal Place (333 Canal St.), home to retailers such as Anthropologie, renowned local jewelry designer Mignon Faget, Armani Collezioni, White House | Black Market and Saks Fifth Avenue. You can catch a movie at the luxury Theaters at Canal Place, with their leather seats, beverages and gourmet dining.
Visitors can hop on the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line Uptown to the Garden District, the Canal line to City Park and the New Orleans Museum of Art or the Riverfront line that runs along the Mississippi. You can also ask one of the ever-helpful bellmen at one of the many hotels along Canal to hail a taxi for you. At the foot of Canal at the river, you can catch a ferry to historic Algiers Point. Whether you want to explore the French Quarter, the Garden District, Uptown or Faubourg St. John, Canal is the gateway for your travels.
Faubourg Marigny & Bywater
Nestled just downriver (east) from the French Quarter are a pair of New Orleans’ distinctive and well-kept secrets: the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. Both are just minutes away from the French Quarter yet are embedded in communities that blend old-time New Orleans culture with hip, contemporary bohemianism.
Nothing encapsulates this mix more than the vibrant architecture lining the streets. From quaint shotgun houses and colorful Creole cottages to Italianate mansions, American townhomes and storefront renovations, the Marigny and Bywater exemplify how history and urban renewal can merge to create a funky harmony found only in New Orleans. A commitment to preservation and diversity along with heavy influence from the arts make for beautiful and vibrant neighborhoods.
A trip into the Marigny is not complete without a visit to famed Frenchmen Street. The locals’ version of Bourbon Street and a must-visit destination for night life, Frenchmen is a compact entertainment district whose clubs feature musical styles from traditional jazz to blues to reggae to rock. Frenchmen offers lively street culture of sketch artists, poets, bluegrass and gypsy jazz pickup bands. Brass bands are common on the corner of Chartres and Frenchmen.
During the day, the Marigny’s funky vibe persists. You can cruise antique shops and bookstores, opt for food from Creole to vegetarian or visit the gardens of Washington Square Park, all perfect places for meeting local artists, performers and neighborhood characters. Get their suggestions on restaurants to visit and acts to catch.
Across Press Street into the Bywater, the mood and pace shifts as you enter the heart of the edgier-yet-welcoming St. Claude Arts District, home to more than 30 venues for visual and performance art along with artisan crafts. Even the homes, cafes and restaurants capture Bywater’s eclectic appreciation for the arts.
Above all, these neighborhoods illustrate the relationship between the New Orleans arts scene and local life, so whether you’re looking for the New Orleans of old or want to see where New Orleans culture is headed, the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater will offer you glimpses in either direction.
Tradition, opulence and beauty are all words that describe New Orleans’ historic Garden District. With its well-preserved antebellum mansions, pristine gardens and Southern charm, the Garden District stands out as one of the country’s loveliest neighborhoods, stretching from St. Charles Avenue to Magazine Street and from Jackson Avenue to Louisiana Avenue.
The Garden District was created after the Louisiana Purchase as a settlement for new American residents of New Orleans unwilling to mingle with the earlier occupants, who were concentrated in the French Quarter. Americans made wealthy by cotton, sugar, insurance and shipping commissioned leading architects to create classic homes in Italianate, Greek Revival and Victorian styles. The homes were built on generous plots with room for the cultivation of the magnificent gardens for which the area is named. The result is a breathtaking neighborhood filled with picturesque homes and enchanting surroundings.
Over the years, the Garden District has been featured in countless movies and film projects and has attracted celebrity residents. Anne Rice, Nicolas Cage and Sandra Bullock are just a few who have chosen to call the Garden District home. And no wonder. The elegance of the neighborhood is second to none.
A common destination for those visiting the Garden District is the intersection of Prytania Street and Washington Avenue. Here, in the heart of the neighborhood, you will find a commercial pocket with shopping, cafes and the historic Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. As one of the best-maintained city cemeteries, Lafayette No. 1 has been immortalized in film, literature and photography and is a popular tourist attraction. Guided tours are available. Directly across the street, you won’t be able to overlook the colorful Commander’s Palace Restaurant. In operation since 1880, Commander’s is a New Orleans culinary institution, and its brunches are the stuff of legend.
The Garden District is easily accessible via the St. Charles Avenue streetcar, Magazine Street bus or even by carriage ride. Most travel to the Garden District to enjoy its pristine architecture, but the area also has shopping and delicious restaurants.
St. Charles Avenue
Experiencing the grandeur of St. Charles Avenue is something you can’t miss. Stretching downtown to uptown, St. Charles is a great way to see many sides of the city all along one gorgeous avenue. You can explore St. Charles on foot or by car, or for $1.25 you can hop on the historic green St. Charles streetcar — the oldest continuously running streetcar in the world — and you’re off on an old-fashioned adventure along New Orleans’ most famous avenue.
New Orleans has a full calendar of music festivals and is a stop on the A-list concert circuit. Festivals such as the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, Jazz Fest and the Essence Music Festival are just a few signature events that draw dozens of top acts to the city for days and nights filled with your favorite performers. Free festivals such as the French Quarter Festival, Satchmo SummerFest that honors legendary jazz trumpeter Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, and a local favorite, Wednesday at the Square, showcase amazing local talent and the national and international acts that can’t resist sitting in.
The city is the birthplace of jazz and a mecca for gospel, R&B and, ultimately, the rock and pop we love today. A wholly original spirit of creativity and musical magic is alive on the streets and in the clubs. Experience unbelievable live musical performances in venues from swank lounges to tiny honky-tonks to mega concerts in places like the New Orleans Arena, renamed the Smoothie King Center in 2014.
Most notable is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the last weekend of April to first weekend of May each year. For more than 40 years, music lovers around the globe have made the pilgrimage to the historic Fair Grounds Race Course for a lineup that reads more like a who’s who of music legends than an event flier. The music is phenomenal, the food inspirational. It is an event worthy of the birthplace of jazz.
No place loves its food quite as devotedly — or as indulgently — as New Orleans. Some people eat to live, but New Orleanians live to eat. As a result, the city offers one of the most incredible — and incredibly diverse — concentrations of exceptional dining and unforgettable cuisine in the world. The menu ranges through classic Louisiana cuisine such as roast duck to the celebrated Cajun specialties of crawfish etouffee, jambalaya, muffulettas, beignets, gumbo, po’boys and that humble staple, red beans and rice. For an overview, check out the new home of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in the old Dryades Street Market in uptown New Orleans’ Central City Historic District. There you’ll find the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, cooking demonstrations by famed chefs and special exhibits: www.southernfood.org.
In New Orleans, a town famous for its French Quarter and Bourbon Street, for hot Cajun and Creole cuisine and hotter jazz, one event surpasses them all as the city’s signature piece: Mardi Gras. It’s a season of revelry and romance, madness and music, parades and parties, comic costuming in the streets and grandiose private masquerade balls, even a Mystic Krewe of Barkus dog parade. Mardi Gras is a time when the gaudy and the gorgeous come together for one gigantic blowout. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Mardi Gras, however, is its connection to religion.
Carnival, loosely translated from Latin as “farewell to flesh,” is the season of merriment that starts in New Orleans each year on Jan. 6, the Twelfth Night feast of the Epiphany, the day the three kings visited the Christ child. Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” is the climax of the season before the penitential season of Lent. The date of Mardi Gras occurs 46 days before Easter and can fall as early as Feb. 3 or as late as March 9.
During the 12 days preceding Mardi Gras, more than 60 parades and hundreds of private parties, dances and masked balls are scheduled in the metro area. Fat Tuesday is a legal holiday in New Orleans, a day when half the town turns out in costume to watch the other half parade. Then, promptly at midnight, the party is over as Ash Wednesday ushers in the austerities of Lent.
Mardi Gras for Families: What kid wouldn’t love Mardi Gras? Much of the festival seems made for children, with its floats derived from the depths of the imagination, costumes and masks, colors and joyous music abounding throughout the city. And, most important, the beads, doubloons and other treats thrown to the crowds from the floats are a child’s delight.
Uptown is the best location for families to use as their base during Mardi Gras. While there is no lack of excitement, the location is calmer than the celebrations in the downtown area. St. Charles Avenue, a great spot for families to settle before the parades begin, becomes one long block party as families set up elaborate camps with picnics and barbecues.
New Orleans City Park and Botanical Garden
New Orleans City Park is a sprawling 1,300 acres of moss-draped oak trees, lagoons and walking trails through Couturie Forest. The park has the largest grove of mature live oaks in the world, some 600 to 800 years old. The Carousel Gardens Amusement Park in New Orleans City Park has one of the oldest antique wooden carousels in the country, a Ferris wheel, a miniature train, Musik Express and bumper cars, and has extended hours in the summer.
Museum of Art and Sculpture Garden: The New Orleans Museum of Art is tucked inside City Park and contains a permanent collection of more than 40,000 objects. It is noted for its extraordinary French and American art, as well as photography, glass and Japanese works. The five-acre Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden holds more than 60 sculptures, collectively valued at $25 million and nestled along meandering footpaths, reflecting lagoons and towering oaks.
Botanical Garden: The New Orleans Botanical Garden in the southern part of the park can be reached from the Central Business District near the French Quarter by using the Canal Street streetcar. The lush urban sanctuary showcases more than 2,000 varieties of native and exotic plants. The garden was created in the 1930s as part of the New Deal to generate jobs and opened in 1936 as a rose garden.
Themed gardens: The Botanical Garden is divided into a number of smaller themed gardens. The Lord and Taylor Rose Garden is still one of the most important but there are plenty of others with local and exotic plants. Visitors can walk through the authentic Japanese Garden, an aromatic garden with scented flowers or the Palm Garden, with its palm trees and bamboo. There’s also a medicinal herb garden, azaleas, camellias and magnolias, a demonstration garden with vegetables and fruit, and a butterfly walk. The Botanical Garden is adorned with more than 10 statues, mostly from the Mexican-born Louisiana artist Enrique Alferez.
Conservatory: A couple of small greenhouses hold the garden’s succulents and cacti. One of the highlights of the Botanical Garden is the rose-pink Conservatory of the Two Sisters, home to a tropical rain forest and an exhibit on living fossils: plants that existed before there were flowering plants on Earth.
Train Garden: An unusual attraction is the Historic New Orleans Train Garden, which has models of New Orleans landmarks made from natural materials such as twigs and bark. Miniature streetcars and trains travel through this scenery on a 1,400-foot-long railway track.
Learn more at www.neworleanscitypark.com.
The top-rated Audubon Zoo replicates some of the world’s most diverse habitats — from the swamps of Louisiana to the grasslands of Africa — and the creatures that dwell in them, among them Komodo dragons and two rare white tigers. The zoo is part of the Audubon Nature Institute that also manages the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. At the aquarium on Canal Street, you can walk through an underwater reef tunnel, twinge with fear at the tropical sharks, watch penguins play and go hands-on with exotic birds. Don’t forget the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium, also on Canal, for an up-close glimpse of creepy crawlers, butterflies and edible insects. Go to www.auduboninstitute.org.