Hanging moss. Iron balconies. Jazz. Mouth-watering cooking. Southern charm. All significant parts of American cultural lore. Ever wonder where these and more facets of American heritage derived? Take one step into New Orleans and your traveling life will never be the same. The Crescent City, nicknamed for its strategic location on a large bend of the mighty Mississippi River, is a dream come true for those seeking experiences outside of the norm. New Orleans is a fascinating melting pot of food, history, and music – a city unlike any other in the world. Remarkably resilient after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, New Orleans is alive and vibrant as ever.
The French Quarter is the heart of the Crescent City and defines its eclectic blend of cultures through architecture, eateries, shops, and historic structures. Established in 1718 by French explorers, the Quarter has been an essential part of New Orleans since its beginnings. The characteristic iron railings, over-hanging plants, and small, intimate streets add to the Quarter’s charm. Jackson Square is a communal gathering place. It is easily recognizable by gardens and a large sculpture of Andrew Jackson on horseback in the center with the river’s edge a stone’s throw away. The St. Louis Cathedral, the Cabildo, and the Presbytère nearby are filled with historic items and are open to the public.
Live music seems to be on every corner – amateur jazz musicians blowing horns, playing drums, and singing their hearts out is a thrill to experience. Hang around the Quarter for an afternoon and a spontaneous parade will inevitably march by. Lively processions for Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, funerals, and other occasions often sweep passerby on the streets into the fun.
Take a walk down infamous Bourbon Street to take in the tawdry bars and houses of ill repute. Bourbon Street is energetic any time of the day, but beads thrown from balconies and loud music pouring into the street are more frequent after the sun sets. The window advertisements and lighted signs are a sight to behold themselves.
No visit would be complete without a stop at Café Du Monde, located on Decatur Street next to the river. This quaint spot is constantly teeming with patrons anxious to try the Café’s famous beignets (French doughnuts covered in powdered sugar) and coffee laced with chicory. Guests wearing darker clothes will be light-heartedly pointed out by the wait staff as wearing the wrong color; it is quite a feat to not make a mess from the ever-present powdered sugar on the tables and floors!
The jazz brunch at the Court of Two Sisters on Royal Street is not to be missed. The French town house-style building itself dates from the early 1800s and was originally intended as an upscale residence. White tablecloths, large mirrors, and shiny tiled floors flank an enormous buffet filled with Creole and Cajun delicacies. A huge array of salads, breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, a carving station, and desserts are available to taste. The turtle soup with sherry, sweet potato salad, and buttermilk biscuits are highly recommended. Guests are seated either inside or outside in the courtyard where jazz music from live musicians wafts through the air.
(On a personal note, my grandmother dined at the Court of Two Sisters in January 1954. She was visiting New Orleans to support the West Virginia University Mountaineers playing in the Sugar Bowl against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Her picture was taken while sitting in the restaurant’s courtyard by a newspaper photographer.)
The Place d’ Armes Hotel on St. Ann Street is highly recommended for an overnight stay in the Quarter. Once a school building in the 1700s, this significant structure has been beautifully restored with exposed brick-walled guest rooms and a breakfast area. The pool and brick courtyard offers a quiet respite from the busyness in Jackson Square down the street. Check it out – www.placedarmes.com.
Besides the French Quarter, other city districts are just as unique. The Garden District’s beautiful mansions are best seen riding the streetcar on St. Charles Avenue. A past era of southern hospitality surrounds this area of town, with stunning porches just beckoning for mint juleps to be sipped on. The majestic live oak trees and hanging moss throughout Audubon Park are worth seeing, located at the end of this particular streetcar route. Browsing Magazine Street’s shops makes for a delightful afternoon walk. And don’t miss the St. James Cheese Company on Prytania Street. You will marvel at the impressive collection of cheeses and scrumptious lunch items (and it’s not a bad place to escape the Louisiana heat either!).
The National World War II Museum is also a fabulous stop. The gigantic multi-building complex transports guests into various war settings with a huge collection of memorabilia, recollections, and audio/video exhibits. The 4-D film Beyond All Boundaries superbly conveys the terrifying global atmosphere in the early 1940s. Another pavilion displays several aircrafts used during the war – guests can brave four-story tall catwalks for a glimpse in various cockpits. An exhibit highlighting Nazi propaganda tactics is on seasonal display loaned from the United States Holocaust Museum.
A plethora of excursions outside of New Orleans are at travelers’ fingertips. Numerous sprawling plantations located on the Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge are open for outings. Guided bus trips throughout districts affected by Hurricane Katrina point out the city’s ongoing recovery efforts. Also, trips into the bayous are popular in hopes of wildlife encounters. Alligators, snakes, turtles, birds, and other creatures are often spotted amidst the thick swamp foliage. Two recommended tour companies offering a variety of sightseeing options are Jean LaFitte Swamp Tours (www.jeanlafitteswamptour.com) and Cajun Encounters (www.cajunencounters.com).
The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is the gateway to the Crescent City for most Americans. Flights leaving from Charleston’s Yeager Airport lead here with typically one layover. A short taxi or Uber ride is ideal for transportation into town. Come prepared for heat; Louisiana summers are infamously stifling! Step out of your comfort zone this summer and visit a place steeped in culture like no other! New Orleans earns a spot on every traveler’s bucket list and fills up the senses without disappointment.