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New Orleans: City of Dreams

Let the good times roll in the Crescent City, where joy is found in luscious cuisine, brass bands and year-round celebration.

 

The party-hearty city of New Orleans, La., seduces visitors. Maybe it’s the delicate architecture and Mississippi River mists, or perhaps it’s the luscious taste of Creole and Cajun cuisine—or maybe even the simple joy of celebrations, from daily small observances to the gargantuan Mardi Gras and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The city has won the hearts of many, and for good reason.

Colonized by the French, ruled by the Spanish and the United States, and influenced by native Indians as well as Africans brought as slaves, New Orleans has a deep history—and it shows in its architecture, culture, music and cuisine. While the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 slowed the city down, major New Orleans tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants have since reopened, and New Orleans is ready to show you a good time.

Call it New Orleans, the Crescent City, or even the City That Care Forgot, but don’t call it by the outsider nickname, the Big Easy—as it’s frowned upon by locals. That’s about the only time you won’t get a smile from New Orleanians, who are always happy to help visitors out, whether with directions or advice on the best place to get an oyster po’boy. By all means, lose yourself in this river city on your New Orleans vacation, because like the Earl King song says, “there ain’t no city like New Orleans.”

Hot Draws in the Crescent City: New Orleans Neighborhoods

French Quarter

New Orleans’ French Quarter is full of historic architecture, although not many buildings of French influence are left after fires in 1788 and 1794. Start in the center, Jackson Square, flanked by the Pontalba apartments (the oldest apartment buildings in North America), the Presbytère, the Cabildo (where the Louisiana Purchase was signed) and St. Louis Cathedral. The Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St.), dedicated to the history and culture of New Orleans, has a museum and collection of French Quarter buildings that allow insight into the city’s past.

Have a breakfast of beignets and café au lait at Café Du Monde. Shop for antiques on Royal Street or for knicknacks in the French Market. Many people think about Bourbon Street when they think of New Orleans attractions. And if you haven’t seen it, you should—once. If you like it, by all means, enjoy yourself. If you don’t, you can now move on and dive more deeply into the culture.

The Garden District

There’s a reason that New Orleans has more National Historic Landmarks than any other city in the United States. But don’t just stay in the Quarter to see New Orleans’ architectural gems. Uptown along St. Charles Avenue, you’ll find Queen Anne Revival mansions, Greek Revival mansions and plenty of picturesque homes. Take a stroll down Magazine Street for some great shopping, or stop in at the Audubon Zoo, one of the attractions in the Audubon Nature Institute (the others include the Audubon Insectarium, the Aquarium of the Americas and the Entergy IMAX Theatre—and are located on the Riverwalk and on Canal Street).

Faubourg Marigny

The Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, located across Esplanade Avenue from the French Quarter, was once part of a plantation owned by Bernard de Marigny. When he subdivided the plantation, the first suburb downriver from New Orleans’ original settlement was created. Meander down Frenchmen Street and catch live music at the handful of popular clubs, stop in at Michael’s Bicycle to rent some wheels, get a bite to eat at the Marigny Brasserie or cool your heels at Washington Square Park, where a flock of Quaker parrots hangs out. One of my favorite places to eat here is La Peniche, a cozy coffee shop that always turns out tasty food. If you’re in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, the Marigny is a great place to be.

Warehouse District

Just the other side of Canal Street from the French Quarter lies the Warehouse District. Originally an industrial area, warehouses have now become occupied by galleries, museums and restaurants. Meander along Gallery Row on Julia Street, or stop in at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art (its After Hours offerings are especially fun). The National World War II Museum, nearby, is the country’s official museum dedicated to World War II. Get a bite to eat at Cochon, a Cajun restaurant just a short distance from the galleries. 

Must-See New Orleans Attractions and Activities

New Orleans Music

In the Crescent City, no celebration is complete without music—and with melodies played on the street and in clubs daily, it’s a city of continuous celebration. Just walking down the street, you can hear music pour out of clubs and people’s homes, and it makes you want to linger and hear more. From jazz to blues and Latin, Cajun and zydeco, African and Caribbean—the best way to experience all these great sounds is to get out and hear some live, local music.

Start at Preservation Hall in the heart of the French Quarter. More than 40 years old, the Hall serves as a sanctuary to New Orleans Jazz and is filled with portraits of musicians who’ve played here. Catch a show any night of the week and hear veteran (and newer) jazz musicians. All shows start at 8:15 p.m.; tickets are $10 per person. 726 St. Peter St., tel. 504-522-2841. www.preservationhall.com

On the club-packed, two-block stretch (in the 500 and 600 blocks) of Frenchmen Street, which begins at Esplanade Avenue, you can catch some of the best music in the city. Duck in at the Dragon’s Den on Esplanade Avenue, then meander down Frenchmen to sample bands at The Blue Nile, Apple Barrel Bar, d.b.a., The Spotted Cat and Snug Harbor. If things get too crowded, get a “go cup” and take your drink outside to enjoy the melange of music from the sidewalk.

[Read more about the best live music spots in New Orleans.]

Festivals

New Orleans loves to party. From Mardi Gras and carnival season to Jazz Fest and a seemingly endless list of New Orleans festivals throughout the year, any time is the right time to be in town if you’re looking for a reason to let the good times roll.

Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday” in French, is the biggest party in town. The carnival season begins on Jan. 6 each year, with balls and occasional parades ramping up to near-frenzy the two weeks before Mardi Gras (in 2009, Mardi Gras is on Feb. 24). Park yourself along a parade route to see the floats and catch some great throws (beads, doubloons, plastic cups and more), look for elaborately costumed Mardi Gras Indians or celebrate with folks in the street. Contrary to popular belief, you can completely skip the Bourbon Street mess and have a very pleasant New Orleans Mardi Gras.

If you’re not in town during Mardi Gras, take a trip to Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World to see what it’s all about. For less than $20, you can see how the colossal parade floats are sculpted and painted. In mid-February 2009, Mardi Gras World will move from its original location on the West Bank of the Mississippi River to a new, larger studio next to the New Orleans Convention Center—which allows for more floats and fun! 1830 Port of New Orleans, tel. 504-361-7821. www.mardigrasworld.com

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the second largest festival in New Orleans after Mardi Gras and spans over two full weekends at the Fair Grounds. Jazz is at the heart of the festival, with traditional and contemporary jazz tents—but New Orleans Jazz Fest offers a little something for everyone, with zydeco, R&B, gospel, reggae, Latin and rock added in for good measure. Local art, crafts and food are also featured. Jazz Fest is held during the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May. In 2009, that means April 24 to 26 and April 30 to May 3. Festival schedule and tickets are available at www.nojazzfest.com.

[Read more about Mardi Gras and other New Orleans festivals.]

Cemeteries, Voodoo and Ghost Tours

New Orleans’ cemeteries are referred to by many as “cities of the dead,” and some of them are beautiful in their decay. Built aboveground out of necessity to keep bodies out of the way of the high water table, cemeteries contain sun-bleached stone tombs, “oven vaults” built into the walls at the edges, filigreed ironwork, stone angels and crosses—all arranged in multiple rows, like streets.

St. Louis Cemetery #1, near the French Quarter (at the corner of Basin and St. Louis Streets), is said to be the final resting place of famed Voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. History buffs will want to take an organized tour (www.saveourcemeteries.org) of the cemetery, because there are many local luminaries buried here.

With slaves from Senegal, Gambia and Nigeria came the voodoo influence in New Orleans. It’s now so tightly woven into the fabric of the city that most residents know it’s not the scary thing Hollywood makes it out to be. Add to your education and visit the Voodoo Spiritual Temple at the edge of the French Quarter, which is far different than the tourist voodoo shops you’ll see. Priestess Miriam is a welcoming hostess and is happy to answer questions. 828 N. Rampart St., tel. 504-522-9627. www.voodoospiritualtemple.org

Many hotels and buildings in New Orleans, from the French Quarter to the Garden District, claim to have “permanent residents” in the form of ghosts. If you’re intrigued by stories of the spirit world, many local businesses offer nightly ghost tours to get you closer to the city’s haunted history. Inquire at your hotel for a recommendation. 

Where to Stay and Eat in New Orleans

Recommended Hotels 

New Orleans has a wealth of wonderful hotels and bed and breakfasts from which to choose. If your desire is the French Quarter, you can’t go wrong at New Orleans hotels like the Hotel Monteleone or Soniat House—or stay in the nearby Faubourg Marigny at a New Orleans bed and breakfast, La Maison Marigny. Uptown treasures include the Columns Hotel and Chimes Bed and Breakfast.

The Central Business District (CBD) has the Windsor Court Hotel, International House and many national hotel brands like W, Loews and Hilton.

Regardless of where you lay your head, it’s not very difficult to get from place to place in New Orleans. It’s easy to stay in the Marigny and still walk through the Quarter and take a cab to an Uptown music club.

[Read more about exceptional New Orleans hotels and bed and breakfasts.]

Recommended Restaurants

Some of the most famous of New Orleans’ many restaurants are temples of Creole cuisine. A landmark since 1880 and crown jewel of New Orleans dining, Commander’s Palace is regularly at the top of everyone’s list, and for good reason. Many of its chefs (like Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse) go on to greatness after beginning their careers here. 1403 Washington Ave., tel. 504-899-8221. www.commanderspalace.com

Another old-line Creole restaurant, Galatoire’s has been around since 1905. It’s the place for traditional dishes—you won’t find cutting edge cuisine here, but extremely good French-Creole dishes made from recipes that haven’t changed in years. 209 Bourbon St., tel. 504-525-2021. www.galatoires.com

Café Reconcile is a non-profit organization that trains at-risk youth in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and is building the Emeril Lagasse Foundation Culinary Institute in the restaurant’s second floor. The result of this training and opportunity? Great food and a happy restaurant staff. 1631 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., tel. 504-568-1157. www.cafereconcile.com

Your choices don’t end here. There are far too many excellent restaurants in New Orleans for one vacation. Even adding other culinary landmarks, such as Antoine’s, Broussard’s and Emeril’s isn’t enough. It’s time to plan your return trip already.

[Read more about top New Orleans restaurants.] 

More Trip-Planning Tips

Best Times to Visit

Because of the wealth of events and festivals throughout the year, just about any time is a good time to visit New Orleans. If you dislike hot, humid weather, the best months to avoid are July and August (although the off-season low hotel rates may make you reconsider). While hurricane season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, it’s best to remember that even though they can wreak havoc (especially with Katrina), they don’t happen terribly often.

If you’re coming to town for a big event, like Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, make sure you get your hotel reservations early. The last thing you want to do is figure out how you’re going to get around when you’re staying way out of town.

How Long to Stay

If you’re in New Orleans for a long weekend, stick to activities in and near the French Quarter, Mid-City and the Uptown (Garden District) areas. There are plenty of things to see, places to eat and music to hear to keep you going well beyond the time you have. If your Crescent City vacation lasts a week, consider getting out of town for a day on a plantation or swamp tour.

Tours

The River Road runs approximately 70 miles between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and is home to colossal plantation houses, many built in the Greek Revival style. Most notable homes are Oak Alley Plantation, Houmas House and San Francisco Plantation House. The Laura Plantation, also worth a visit, is where the folktales of Compair Lapin—later known as Br’er Rabbit—were recorded. A handful of companies lead tours to these plantations, including The Old River Road Plantation Adventure (tel. 866-671-8687, www.plantationadventure.com). Prices vary, depending on which tour you choose.

Honey Island Swamp Tours take you deep into the heart of a cypress swamp on a two-hour guided ecological and natural history tour. Get a safe view of alligators, deer, nutria, otter and more, while you glide through the swamp and get back to nature. Tour prices: $23 adult, $15 for children 12 and under. Tel. 985-641-1769, www.honeyislandswamp.com.

Hurricane Katrina tours are still available, for those who want to get a closer look at the devastation from the hurricane and flood of 2005. Gray Line runs three-hour tours to the most heavily affected neighborhoods. Tour prices: $35 adult, $28 for children ages 6 to 12, free for children under 6. Tel. 800-535-7786. www.graylineneworleans.com

Getting There and Getting Around

The main airport serving New Orleans is Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY), just 15 minutes west of the city. Among the airlines serving the airport are: American, Continental, Delta, Southwest and United.

A taxi from the airport to most New Orleans hotels will cost about $30 for one to two people. There’s also the Airport Shuttle, which offers transportation to and from Downtown and Uptown New Orleans hotels, the French Quarter, the Convention Center and cruise terminals. Cost is $15 one way and $30 round trip per person; free ride for children under 6. If you’re taking the shuttle back to the airport, be sure to call (tel. 504-522-3500) and reserve your ride more than 24 hours before your flight.

Amtrak’s City of New Orleans and Crescent routes take you to New Orleans as well, and arrive at the Union Passenger Terminal in the Central Business District.

Unless you’re going outside the Greater New Orleans area, there’s really no need to rent a car. Between walking, streetcars (the St. Charles Streetcar charges $1.25 each way) and taxis ($2.50 flag rate, $1.60 per mile thereafter), you can get anywhere. If you’re taking a swamp tour or River Road plantation tour, transportation is usually provided. For ultimate convenience, do what I do: Program the United Cab telephone number (504-522-9771) into your cell phone, and call them whenever you need a lift. 


Destinations: New Orleans

Themes: Culinary, Romantic Getaways, Urban Endeavors

Activities: Arts and Entertainment, Sightseeing


User Comments

New Orleans: City of Dreams I live in New Orleans and I have to say that this was one of the best travel articles on the city I've seen. Jill is spot-on with all of her recommendations.

New Orleans: City of Dreams This makes me want to pack my bag and go right now!

new orleans: city of dreams I've been to new orleans several times, but not in recent years.Jill Robinson's article reminded me of how much I enjoyed my visits in the past. Perhaps it's time to return.

New Orleans: City of Dreams Sounds like you've been there!

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