One of the US’ most unique cities, New Orleans is an intoxicating mix of jazz, comfort food, open-arm hospitality and elegance. It’s only a short hop from Dallas, but by the time I’m reach the country from Dubai, I’ve already rewatched several episodes of Treme – a drama series by producers of The Wire that’s set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – which ran for four seasons from 2010-13. The passionate music in it weaves through each episode like its own character, alluring and enticing, pulling you into the whirlpool-like magic of the city. By the time we touch down at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, not only am I rested and fully charged, I’m also beyond excited to discover America’s jazz capital.
New Orleans – Louisiana’s most prominent metropolis, located on the banks of the Mississippi – has a muddy, multicultural history. Founded by the French in 1718, it became Spanish in 1763, but Spain sold it back to Napoleon in 1800, who, in turn, sold it to the US government three years later as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The deal was brokered by Thomas Jefferson to add a swathe of middle America – from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border – to the fast-expanding territory of the country.
The Big Easy’s legendary French Quarter is its oldest and most exciting neighbourhood. A grid of streets lined by pretty homes with ironwork balconies and galleries is its most distinguishable character, and both French and Spanish colonial architecture graces its every corner.
The French Quarter and St Louis Cathedral are among New Orleans’ most popular tourist hotspots, which buzz with fervour.
Layer upon layer of history are buried in its countless streets and alleys, which you can peel back with a decent tour operator to help, such as Historic New Orleans Tours. But if you want to go it alone, start with a stroll down Pirates Alley next to the St Louis Cathedral, which gets its name from the large numbers of smugglers and swashbucklers who lived here in the 18th century. One of the most famous was Jean Lafitte, who helped defeat the British in 1812 in return for a pardon. The pardon didn’t stop his pirate empire from growing through; he moved it to Texas.
The French Quarter is full of quirky historical facts. For instance, a pharmacy here gave the world the term cocktail, while Conti and Royal Streets were the original finance hub for the southern states before the Civil War. It’s where they minted the $10 notes called dix, giving the South the nickname Dixieland, still used today.
But there’s more than just legends and stories that swirl through these old-fashioned European-style streets. Many authors have been inspired by this area and in the 1920s, the French Quarter was awash with literary giants like Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s and lived on Royal. The Faulkner House on Pirate’s Alley is a national landmark, where Nobel laureate William Faulkner lived, partied and wrote his first book – Sherwood Anderson and Other Famous Creoles – with his tenant, famous designer William Spratling. Plus, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams finished writing A Streetcar Named Desire in the French Quarter in the 1940s, changing its name at the last minute to reflect New Orleans’ trams that rattled by every day.
Considering the heritage it represents, the French Quarter is naturally exceedingly well-preserved. Nothing can be knocked down so its charm remains. Further to its east the streets give way to the French Market full of jewellery and souvenirs, while to the south the quarter merges into the charming Mississippi Riverfront.
Music and culture, which draws from a mish-mash of influences from all over the world, are intrinsic to the identity of the Big Easy, a nickname that has stuck for New Orleans because of its tryst with everything fun and vibrant. but more than anything else, the city is known for being the birthplace of jazz, which is also its best-known feature. Having evolved from the European, African and Creole influences that mixed together in the sweaty city, jazz began to develop as a music genre from performances and dance gatherings that prevailed during Sunday festivals at Congo Square, attended by the thousands of African slaves brought to the US in the late 19th century thanks to the Atlantic slave trade. The first jazz recordings were only made in 1917, but it’s really always prevailed across New Orleans. It’s the ragged time tempo that continues to make the city swing towards the good life.
One of the most famous jazz venues in the city is, unsurprisingly, Preservation Hall on St Peter Street in the heart of the French Quarter. Founded in 1961 to preserve and protect traditional New Orleans jazz, it remains unchanged. Every night, the hall’s bare dimly light wooden concert room comes alive with moving performances by some of the city’s finest performers, or the folks sit on benches or on the floor to enjoy the bombastic glory of the in-house six-piece band. Over a 100 local musicians play in rotation for the hall’s nightly rehearsal sessions – a legacy that hasn’t changed since it opened its doors.
In fact, in the French Quarter, jazz wafts on the wind between the streets. Head to the ones that surround the St Louis Cathedral to watch street musicians jamming impromptu, and simply take in the joyful sounds that is the soul of this city. But while Bourbon Street is the most famous music street, a touch of authenticity awaits at Frenchman Street, which hosts some of the best musicians you’ll ever see, just hanging around outside a restaurant and playing the trumpet, violin or even upturned plastic buckets for drums.
Now, you can’t live on love and jazz, and thankfully, New Orleans doesn’t disappoint in the culinary department either. The city’s motto is ‘Let the good times roll’, and roll you certainly will after a few days of tucking into local dishes such as gumbo and jambalaya.
Seafood is a big deal in the Big Easy, along with river fish, many of which live in the swamps of New Orleans.
Creole and Cajun cuisine have a rich history here, and often the best dishes are the simplest – think red beans and rice, or fried catfish. Its history can also be tasted in New Orleans’ famous po’boy, or poor boy sandwiches – fish, seafood or meat and salads stuffed in a baguette – which were born, according to one origins story, for Italian immigrants who needed a quick meal. There’s even a festival in November that celebrates all things po’boy.
Fine dining is just as dazzling in New Orleans, and one of the four grand dames of French Quarter gastronomy is Broussard’s, which has been around since the 1920. Offering white linen fine dining, the French Creole restaurant comes with a side order of southern charm and a fancy take on local ingredients. Definitely try the broiled black drum rosalie with a rosemary and mustard crest, haricots verts and ginger apple glaze. But it’s not just all old-fashioned. Kingfish restaurant puts a modern spin on Creole classics and its tasting platter of small dishes of jambalaya and gumbo is an easy introduction to the local cuisine. Another Louisiana classic, crawfish, pops up in chowder and as a gratin with artichoke. For inventive snacks, SoBou takes the biscuit, with oyster and caviar tacos, chicory coffee duck leg confit and the deconstructed pecan pie leaving you breathless.
Lastly, you can’t leave New Orleans without trying the world-famous beignets or New Orleans doughnuts, and coffee made with chicory root at the 24-hour Café du Monde. Opened in 1862, this bustling, al fresco hangout near the French Market serves up hot beignets under mountains of icing sugar the moment you sit down. Everyone looks the same after tucking in – happy, sticky and covered in sugar.
For something a little more modern, Magazine Street is the heart of the city’s hipster enclave. Here you’ll find independent places pushing posh hotdogs, gourmet pizzas and craft beverages.
New Orleans is an alluring mix of not only the past and present, but also nature and everything that comes with it. It’s hard to believe, strolling around the sophisticated French Quarter that New Orleans was once all swamp. Native Americans have farmed this land since 400AD, creating the bayou at Bayou St John, which drained the area into the Mississippi. But you don’t have to go far outside the city to discover its natural state.
A tour with Cajun Encounters will take you around 45 minutes into rural Louisiana across the longest causeway bridge in the world. In the swamps, you’ll find brackish water (where saltwater meets fresh water) that’s home to alligators, snakes and turtles. The woods sit in stagnant pools, a world away from the energy of the sea, while swampy ditches lie in wait at the edges of the roads.
You can go exploring with a guided boat tour of the 78,000 acres of swamp area surrounding New Orleans. Out here, 11 years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept away much of the housing and even reshaped much of Honey Island swamp. The tour boat lazily wanders between the submerged Cyprus trees that make up much of the area.
In summer you might see egrets and raccoons and some of the 25,000 alligators that call this part of the world their home. It’s a bit creepy to be fair, and after a while, every piece of rotting wood swimming in the water starts to look like a predator. It’s not hard to see why they’re so perfectly settled in this environment – they’re almost impossible to spot.
When Mardi Gras fever grips New Orleans, the city never sleeps as non-stop parties, music sessions and celebrations take over.
No predator can shadow New Orleans’ most exciting time annually – the world-famous Mardi Gras where parades run different routes most days for a few weeks and the city never sleeps. Different krewes work all year to create outlandish floats and costumes, as the town lines up along the routes to cheer and catch the strings of metallic beads that hang from every tree and balcony and around every neck. Check local listings for more details but most routes take in Canal Street and St Charles Avenue at some point. There’s no better time to soak in the undying spirit of New Orleans – the easy city where living it up tops everything else!