The things that make life worth living – eating, drinking and the making of merriment – are the air that New Orleans breathes.
When it comes to food, New Orleans does not fool around. Well, OK, it does: its playful attitude to ingredients and recipes mixes (for example) alligator sausage and cheesecake into a dessert fit for the gods. This sense of gastronomic play is rooted in both deep traditions – truly, this city has one of the few indigenous cuisines in the country – and, increasingly, a willingness to accommodate outside influences, both in terms of technique and ethnicity.
There is either a festival or a parade every week of the year in New Orleans. Sometimes, such as during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest, it feels like there’s a new party for every hour of the day. At almost any celebration in town, people engage in masking – donning a new appearance via some form of costuming – while acting out the satyric side of human behavior. But the celebrations and rituals of New Orleans are as much about history as hedonism, and every dance is as much an expression of tradition and community spirit as it is of joy.
New Orleans is the hometown of jazz, but neither the city nor the genre she birthed are musical museum pieces. Jazz is the root of American popular music, the daddy of rock, brother of the blues and not too distant ancestor of hip-hop – all styles of music that have defined the beat of global pop for decades. All these varieties of music, plus a few you may never have heard of, are practiced and played here on every corner, in any bar, every night of the week. Live music isn’t an event: it’s as crucial to the city soundscape as streetcar bells.
There aren’t many places in the USA that wear their history as openly on their sleeves as New Orleans. This city’s very facade is an architectural study par excellence. And while Boston and Charleston can boast beautiful buildings, New Orleans has a lived-in grittiness that either feels intimidating or easily accessible. As a result of its visible history you’ll find a constant, often painful, dialogue with the past, stretching back hundreds of years. It’s a history that for all it’S controversy has produced a street culture that can be observed and grasped in a very visceral way.
Sprinkled with lazing loungers, surrounded by sketch artists, fortune tellers and traveling performers, and watched over by cathedrals, offices and shops plucked from a Parisian fantasy, Jackson Sq is one of America’s great town greens and the heart of the Quarter. The identical, block-long Pontalba Buildings overlook the scene, and the nearly identical Cabildo and Presbytère structures flank the impressive St Louis Cathedral, which fronts the square.
In the middle of the park stands the Jackson monument – Clark Mills’ bronze equestrian statue of the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, which was unveiled in 1856. The inscription on the Jackson statue, ‘The Union Must and Shall be Preserved, ’ was added by General Benjamin Butler, Union military governor of New Orleans during the Civil War, ostensibly to rub it into the occupied city’s face (it worked). Free music is performed here, or near here, on a fairly regular basis.
Lafayette Cemetery No 1
Of all the cemeteries in New Orleans, Lafayette exudes the strongest sense of subtropical Southern Gothic. The stark contrast of moldering crypts and gentle decay with the forceful fertility of the fecund greenery is incredibly jarring. It’s a place filled with stories – of German and Irish immigrants, deaths by yellow fever, social societies doing right by their dead – that pulls the living into New Orleans’ long, troubled past.
The cemetery was built in 1833 and filled to capacity within decades of its opening, before the surrounding neighborhood reached its greatest affluence. Indeed, not far from the entrance is a tomb containing the remains of an entire family that died of yellow fever. By 1872 the prestigious Metairie Cemetery in Mid-City had opened and its opulent grounds appealed to those with truly extravagant and flamboyant tastes.
In July 1995, author Anne Rice staged her own funeral here. She hired a horse-drawn hearse and a brass band to play dirges and wore an antique wedding dress as she laid down in a coffin. The event coincided with the release of one of Rice’s novels.
Live oaks, Spanish moss and lazy bayous frame this masterpiece of urban planning. Three miles long and 1 mile wide, dotted with gardens, waterways and bridges and home to a captivating art museum, City Park is bigger than Central Park in NYC and it’s New Orleans’ prettiest green space.
Art- and nature-lovers could easily spend a day exploring the park. Anchoring the action is the stately New Orleans Museum of Art, which spotlights regional and American artists. From there, stroll past the whimsical creations in the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden, then check out the lush Botanical Gardens. Kids in tow? Hop the rides
The former seat of government in colonial Louisiana now serves as the gateway to exploring the history of the state in general, and New Orleans in particular. It’s also a magnificent building in its own right; the elegant Cabildo marries elements of Spanish Colonial architecture and French urban design better than most buildings in the city. The diverse exhibits include Native American tools, ‘Wanted’ posters for escaped slaves, and a gallery’s worth of paintings of stone-faced old New Orleanians.
This was the site of the Louisiana Purchase ceremonies, the city council hall of New Orleans up until the 1850s, and the courtroom for Plessy versus Ferguson, the landmark 1896 US Supreme Court case that legalized segregation under the ‘separate but equal’ doctrine. Give yourself at least two hours to explore.
Backstreet Cultural Museum
Mardi Gras Indian suits grab the spotlight with dazzling flair – and finely crafted detail – in this informative museum examining the distinctive elements of African American culture in New Orleans. The museum isn’t terribly big (it’s the former Blandin’s Funeral Home), but if you have any interest in the suits and rituals of Mardi Gras Indians as well as Second Line parades and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (the local black community version of civic associations), you need to stop by.
The guided tours are usually great, but sometimes feel rushed, so be sure to ask lots of questions. Ask for information about upcoming Second Lines so you can check one out first.
Friday lunchtime is the best time to visit this revered institution for its traditional Creole cuisine. That’s when local ladies in big hats and gloves and men wearing bowties (without irony) buy copious bottles of …
Ask locals for restaurant recommendations in New Orleans, and almost everybody mentions Jacques-Imo’s. We understand why: cornbread muffins swimming in butter, steak smothered in blue-cheese sauce……
In one word: brilliant it’s quaint ,cosy and casual. Marjie’s is run by chefs who were inspired by Southeast Asian street food. Unique collision of flavours from different food groups. Veggies, seafood and surprising off-the conventional-rare cuts of meats. inventive menu and drinks pleasant service with zero attitude.
The thick, glistening cuts of bacon on the BLT can only be the work of the devil – or chef Nathanial Zimet, whose house-cured meats and succulent Southern dishes are lauded citywide.
Surrey’s makes a simple bacon-and-egg sandwich taste – and look – like the most delicious breakfast you’ve ever been served. And you know what? It probably is the best. Boudin biscuits; eggs scrambled with salmon etc.