New Orleans is one of those places that everyone wants to go to, based largely on its reputation as a fun, party town with jazz, blues, southern food, and a laidback vibe associated with its tagline of The Big Easy.
Just about everything you have heard about New Orleans is, or has been, true at some point. First-time visitors should do all the things that first time visitors do in any iconic town.
In Paris, you go to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Montmartre; in London it’s Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Parliament -84 House, Big Ben and Tower Bridge.
Here are ten standard things for first-timers in New Orleans. These are all tourist cliches, although fun to do. Then you can learn about ten better things to do.
Have a Hurricane in Pat O’Brien’s legendary Irish garden bar. Yes, it’s a fantastic drink. Made properly, it’s a ferocious mixture of light and dark rums, orange, lime and passion fruit juices, with sugar syrup and grenadine to give it the red colour.
Ordering beignets at the world famous Cafe du Monde on the waterfront is a must. Yes, their beignets (fried puffy dough dusted with icing sugar) are very good, but it’s like being in a crowded factory, full of tourists doing what you are doing.
Taking a lunch or dinner cruise on a paddle steamer on the Mississippi River is popular. The boats are copies of the originals and the food is ordinary, but the view from the river and the commentary is interesting. Do go to the visitors’ centre of the site of the 1812 Battle of New Orleans if you can. The centre’s helpfully provided by the National Parks Service, and it’s free, which is why it’s included in all the tours of the area.
Taking a tram or walking along the waterfront is pleasant. You’ll see the Joan of Arc statue (given by the government of France), buy pralines, and see the luxu1y shops in the Outlet Collection at the Riverwalk Centre.
Add in a visit to the French market – open air with good food stalls, and all the T-shirts, cheap jewellery and tacky mementoes you could ever desire. Bourbon Street in the French Quarter was once regarded as a must-do party destination. It still throngs and throbs every night and the LGBT parades on Saturdays liven things up.
Once the heart and soul of the New Orleans vibe, much of what happens is now quite tacky and even sleazy, although not particularly dangerous.
New Orleans has an open carry policy for drinks. It’s perfectly legal to carry an open bottle or a glass of alcohol along the street, and you can stop and buy drinks from the many street front bars.
Food is part of the appeal of the city, so everyone tries gumbo, the famous Louisiana seafood dish served over rice, or jambalaya a seafood or chicken based stew with rice. Be excessive and have Bananas Foster, bananas cooked in butter with lashings of liquor and spices served with whipped cream. The locals love it.
For lunch grab yourself a po’boy, a large soft white bread roll with a wide choice number of fillings. Seafood with salad is common.
New Orleans calls itself the home of jazz. According to New Orleans Online, the city was the only place in the New World where slaves could own drums.
“It was in New Orleans that the bright flash of European horns ran into the dark rumble of African drums; it was like lightning meeting thunder. The local cats took that sound and put it together with the music they heard in churches and the music they heard in barrooms, and they blew a new music, a wild, jubilant music. It made people feel free. It made people feel alive. It made people get up and dance. And they danced to the birth of American music.”
At Preservation Hall, you’ll hear Dixieland swing and the big band styles, but that’s all. Go elsewhere for the myriad of styles now called jazz.
City Mayor Mitch Landrieu calls it a “crazy, wonderful city”, and for visitors that’s true, but, as in the South generally, New Orleans’ past is very much alive and exerting an influence on the present day.
New Orleans is a liberal city in a conservative state. The city is reliably Democrat in a state that is now relentlessly Republican, and has always been conservative, politically, socially and religiously.
One recent controversy of note has been a campaign to remove the statues of Confederate leaders displayed in prominent places in the city.
Four statutes, of Jefferson Davis the President of the Confederacy, of Robert E Lee, the Commander of the Confederate Armies, of Confederate General PGT Beauregard and another commemorating a Reconstruction-era insurrection have all been taken down by order of the city council.
According to campaigners the statues were symbols of a reviled past, and reminders of white supremacy. To their opponents, the statues were simply part of history. Whatever view one took of the past, it was argued, the past happened and wouldn’t be changed by removing the reminders.
Behind the party image the city projects to tourists, there is a grim reality of racial division which began in slavery, continued under segregation, and has not been ended by the gains made in civil rights in more recent times.
Return traveller’s top 10
- Go to Frenchman Street where the cool clubs are. Try the Spotted Cat for real jazz and BB King’s for blues. Locals go there. This is a much nicer area than Bourbon Street and has a greater variety of music. I saw a Louis Armstrong-style septet at the Spotted Cat and a hard-edged funk band at the Cafe Negril. Check out the gigs in local entertainment paper Where Y’at.
- Visit a plantation house, or even better go to where the story of slavery is told authentically. Whitney Plantation is the only one dedicated to telling the story of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved people. Prepare for a moving experience.
- Take in a big sports game: the Pelicans for basketball, and the Saints for football. Wonderfully rowdy, parochial and demented fans, but great fun. Any competition involving Louisiana State University also inspires awesome support from locals.
- Go across the harbour by ferry ($2 for a four-minute journey) to Algiers Point, a quiet and old residential suburb, with great architecture, light years from the hubbub of downtown. It’s even more old fashioned than the set of Bock to the Future, but the place rocks on their monthly street party nights, and there are interesting pop up restaurants.
- Visit the World War Two Museum, very much not how the US won the war singlehandedly, you’ll be pleased to know. A great story well told with plenty of money spent to do so.
- Visit the Katrina Huseum – heart-rendering stories of suffering, official neglect and recovery. Officially, New Orleans is back to normal and that’s largely so, but memories and heartbreak remain.
- Take a cemetery tour; a guided walking tour which tells so much of the city’s cosmopolitan past. Hany other walking tours are available, including a ghosts’ tour. The Ursuline Convent dating from 1727 is also worth a visit. It’s worth noting that the renowned French Quarter was actually designed and built by Spanish architects and craftsmen. (Its architecture is very Castilian and not at all French.)
- The open-air night art market down towards Frenchman Street has many remarkable art works available across all genres: high quality and worth a look even if you don’t buy.
- Try Harrah’s casino. It’s enormous; the restaurants and bars hum with excitement and the artists and entertainment are top class. There’s a degree of sophistication here that is enticing, and you don’t have to gamble to enjoy the allure of the place.
- Take a cooking class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. Learn to cook local food with the wonderfully demonstrative Nita Duhé. She talks and cooks all the local classics.