What You Need to Know About New Orleans for Your Next Visit
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Few U.S. cities evoke quite the rich cultural and historical character that New Orleans naturally has to this day. Among U.S. cities, it’s also one of the few that truly looks and feels unique in certain ways. For these reasons and many others, there’s so much about the city that’s worth seeing, doing and enjoying any time of the year. The Big Easy, as New Orleans is also called, isn’t literally especially big, but it sure does feel that way with all the attractions and vibrant life on display.
Let’s get down to the essentials you need to know for a genuinely deep first visit to this iconic American town.
A Brief Introduction to the History of New Orleans
New Orleans is especially vital in its history and the strength with which it sticks to much of that old character. Entire streets and even individual buildings or houses are just about dripping with historical character and vibrant past events. Despite being far from the eastern U.S. coast where the country began, New Orleans is both old and full of colorful times stretching back across centuries.
The city has its origins in the French colonial empire of Louisiana and was founded all the way back in 1723, making it older than the vast majority of American cities. Almost immediately after its founding, the entire colony surrounding the nascent city was ceded to the Spanish Empire and spent the remainder of the 18th century in their possession. Nueva Orleans, as it was called during this time, naturally prospered as a crucial trading hub right at the mouth of the Mississippi, the largest river in North America.
Throughout the same century and despite two major fires that destroyed much of the town's oldest French and Spanish colonial buildings, New Orleans always rebuilt and much of the flavor of its mixed cultural heritage was preserved into the 19th century and reinforced right into the modern era.
Spanish and Frnech contributions to this include the city’s now famous architecture of wrought iron balconies, internal courtyards in homes both stately and humble and of course, the city’s famous aboveground cemeteries.
In 1800, Spain gave the city and surrounding Louisiana colony back to the French, who just 3 years later sold the whole vast territory including the city and everything north of it for thousands of kilometers, to the United States during what came to be called the Louisiana Purchase for just $15 million dollars. Considering the sheer cultural fame that the city would later come to give the U.S.A, this could certainly be called a good deal.
Much of New Orleans French andSpanish culture persisted throughout the city’s history as an American metropolis and was added to throughout the Antebellum era that emerged during the mid 19th century. This came along during the era of vast sugar cane plantations (and their attending but very tragic history of slavery) that existed before the American Civil War.
The whole mix persists to this very day in a multitude of ways that include New Orleans cuisine, cultural habits, architecture and even politics. The rest of Louisiana offers much of the same, but nowhere is this blend of societies more pronounced than it is in the Big Easy.
From the mid 19th century onward, New Orleans boomed, and by as early as the 1850’s was the third largest city in the United States. Some of this dominance in trade and industry dwindled by the 20th century but even from the 1900’s onward, the city kept and to this day hasn’t lost its importance as a thriving port city with all the economic and cultural characteristics that this has entailed.
Even a brief history of New Orleans wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the town’s sheer cultural impact on the 20th century, in both the United States and the world beyond. The main thing you need to know about on this front is the Jazz Era.
The late 1800’s were when New Orleans started to gain traction with its strangely mixed cultural roots and from the Victorian Period onwards, many of these coalesced into the dawn of jazz, which would go on to develop richly throughout the early 20th century before spreading like wildfire in the20’s 30’s 40’s and beyond into the rest of America with explosive creative twists, turns and creations that millions of people around the world know intimately to this very day.
If anything, jazz is the single most resonant and enduringly famous cultural gift of New Orleans to the rest of the world.
Where to Go, What to Do and How to Enjoy it All
Now that some essentials of the city’s history are out of the way, a breakdown of where to go and what to do when you get there is in order. Let’s get down to business.
Begin in the French Quarter
There is no single neighborhood in the whole of the Big Easy that’s more iconic and flooded by history (and sometimes literally by water) than the French Quarter. This is where the city’s essence can be found in its most visible form with the landmark St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square, the French Market on Royal Street, numerous lovely street side cafes offering beignets with Café du Monde and some truly fine Louisiana Southern food from dawn to dusk and then deep into the night.
Live music, food and drink, roaring late night parties in true city style and the simple thrum of the Easy’s history are all concentrated inside the French Quarter.
Hear Some Fine Live Music
Few American cities offer you the chance to hear some of the best jazz and blues music just about every night of the week. New Orleans on the other hand definitely does. This city offers no shortage of both low key and high visibility bars and clubs for some of the best in brass bands, blues, jazz and so many other blended flavors of live music events for any kind of taste. The clubs of Frenchmen Street, iconic bars like the Maple Leaf Bar and even simple street corners in the French Quarter all have music that sometimes reaches fantasy levels of quality flowing all year round. This truly is a city that lives and breathes live music.
Drink Easy Throughout the Night
Bourbon Street might be one of New Orleans most famous party and night life destinations, but all of New Orleans is saturated with the habit of taking late night parties where the alcohol flows freely and raising them to a cultural art form. The city has some of the most lenient alcohol laws in the whole country and it shows. If you’re having a night on the town, take it easy with each place you visit, because there’s no shortage of them and no need to hit back the shots or bottles as quickly as you can before moving on.
The bars and restaurants of New Orleans can serve booze 24 hours a day and the same goes for the city’s stores. So if you’re used to feeling rushed about last call, here is one place where that doesn’t have to apply.
Eat and Snack Your Way to Contentment
Southern cuisine in general is famous for being low on light offerings and high on sheer calorie-rich flavor, and the southern dining options of New Orleans, capital of the South, take this hurricane of flavors to a whole new level of cultural mixing. The influence of centuries of French Spanish, Creole and other cultures has resulted in dishes that are to die for, on the spicy, sweet or salty sides of things. And as hard as it is to imagine, if you get tired of genuine Louisiana Southern breakfast lunch and dinner offerings, New Orleans is nothing if not a fully modern cosmopolitan down for all kinds of other dining options that include Vietnamese, Italian, Indian, South American and Asian cuisine options.
With all that said, please don’t just leave the city without first trying at least some of its iconic gumbo, Po-Boys, red beans and rice or crawfish etouffee dishes.
Keep Some Dangers in Mind
New Orleans residents pride themselves on their gritty but fun-loving and adventurously party-going reputation, so visitors are much more likely to receive a full dose of southern hospitality than anything less, but no big city is without its dark side. In the case of New Orleans, violent crime rates are higher than the U.S. average and by quite a serious margin. So, be careful about which streets, neighborhoods and bars you just decide to hop into, particularly if you’re travelling with family and children.
It’s also worth mentioning that parts of the city are still neglected from the immensely devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Generally, these aren’t close to the main tourism hot spots, but it’s not uncommon to still run into signs of the devastation that the giant storm flooded the city with over 15 years ago.
Keep an Eye on Costs
New Orleans isn’t anywhere near as expensive as some U.S. cities when it comes to food, night life, accommodation and travel expenses, but this is a booming tourist town with no shortage of demand for everything it has to offer. What this means is that while you can budget for light spending in the Big Easy, it’s also not hard to go hard and heavy on the expenses if you want to really enjoy the night life, fine dining and finer hotel options of the city.
For a comfortable time in New Orleans for a couple or small family, a daily budget of between $150 and $300 is a good range to keep in mind. Hotels in particular can be very expensive and the same applies for drinks and food in many of the town’s more tourist-rich areas. On the other hand, major city cultural attractions and events are often remarkably affordable.