New Orleans is a large Louisiana city on the Mississippi River, close to the Gulf of Mexico. Called the “Crescent City” because of the shape of its center, New Orleans is a unique urban environment known for French and Spanish origins and their resulting Creole cuisine. New Orleans is famous for its party atmosphere, epitomized by Mardi Gras. This huge all-night street celebration starts off Lent, a forty-day period of reflection before Easter, and a central Roman Catholic observance. The faith is at the core of New Orleans’ founding and history.
The heart of New Orleans is the French Quarter, or “Vieux Carre” as it was called in the mother tongue. Here you will find shops, bars, and eateries, the last of which are world-famous. Many of the city’s chefs, such as Emeril Lagasse, are well-known for their television cooking shows, in which they demonstrate the delicious fusion of French, Spanish, and African flavors. You can sample this fare at the restaurants they own while visiting the Crescent City.
While out on the town, you’ll also have the chance to hear some of the live music the area boasts, a natural offshoot from its musical history. African cultures brought rhythm and jazz to New Orleans, and voodoo as well. Take a tour to learn about these spiritual beliefs, as well as actual spirits, and where they’re said to appear throughout the city. Ghost sightings and voodoo are things New Orleans is known for.
Use this list as a guide to learn about the New Orleans elements just described, plus many more!
1. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Old, above-ground cemeteries impart a ghoulish feeling and a unique landscape for this southern city. Built at sea level, it’s not wise to dig graves in New Orleans; one’s final resting place might not be quite so final, given New Orleans’ tendency to flood. Indeed, the infamous Hurricane Katrina caused catastrophic damage in 2005 due to flooding. Fortunately, families of the area often bought tombs for their clan, and when members passed on their remains were added to them.
Lafayette Cemetery No.1 is filled with colorful and ornate funerary structures. It makes a wonderful historical tour by day and a creepy one by night. If you witness a funeral of one of the recently deceased, don’t be surprised that the partying the city is known for goes into full swing during the procession. You’ll hear that famous tune, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” played by a few horns if you’re lucky. Transition to eternal life is cause for celebration in these parts. If you’re more interested in those stuck in transition, be sure to read Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire” or see a seductive Brad Pitt in the movie. Rice is the city’s most famous author and her fictional work takes place at this very cemetery!
2. Cafe du Monde
If you’re hungry for a snack and a little pick-me-up, you simply must have the one New Orleans is famous for– beignets and chicory root coffee. There is no better place to get it than Cafe du Monde. You’ll recognize the large outdoor cafe by its striped green awning. Beignets are France’s version of a doughnut, made of their choux pastry dough, fried, and doused in powdered sugar.
The restaurant’s signature coffee is rich and delicious– the perfect accompaniment. As for accompaniment of a different sort, a musician often performs live on the abutting sidewalk. I’ve heard both a saxophonist and a guitarist provide the acoustic backdrop for the mingling of street noise and coffeehouse chatter. A stop at Cafe du Monde is a lovely way to take an afternoon respite.
3. Jackson Square
Across the street from Cafe du Monde is the historic park called Jackson Square. Originally called Place d”Armes, this is where the Louisiana Purchase transpired. The $15 million the French charged was a steal, for the massive amount of land. Sadly however, the actual steal was from the Native Americans who originally inhabited the region. A statue of a horse-mounted Andrew Jackson sits at the center of the square, commemorating his role fighting the British in the Battle of New Orleans.
History aside, the park is a great place for present-day people watching. Lots of vendors sell there wares along the perimeter, and on the side facing St. Louis Cathedral, psychics line the walk offering to tell your fortune, read your cards, and advise on life matters. Buy a small watercolor to remember your trip by, and see what the future holds.
4. St. Louis Cathedral
Did your visit to the clairvoyant in the park forbode evildoing? Terrified about the midnight voodoo tour of the cemetery you’re about to attend? For those seeking comfort, St. Louis Cathedral lies between Jackson Square and the French Quarter. It is a visually striking place to say a prayer or attend mass, with its stained glass windows, chandeliers and country flags. An iconic image of New Orleans, its three steeples and white facade are something many people immediately recognize. The church is the oldest Roman Catholic Cathedral still in regular operation in the U.S. Be sure to check out the ceiling murals and elaborately wrought ironwork at this historic landmark, too.
5. Commander’s Palace
Taste some of the finest creole cuisine the world has to offer at the Commander’s Palace, a long-time culinary staple of the garden district. Never had creole food? Think of it as cajun’s upscale cousin. And there is no more upscale restaurant to try it than this one. Emeril Lagasse helped make the eatery famous many years ago, and an endless stream of top-notch chefs have followed. Currently, Tony McPhail wields the ladle there and the restaurant has earned seven James Beard awards. I loved the shrimp étouffée, a classic dish of the region, and no doubt locally sourced from the Gulf of Mexico.
6. The Garden District
Any lover of architecture should not miss one of the many tours offered of the historic Garden District. Whether it be a modest cottage or a palatial mansion surrounded by lush gardens, all of the homes in this part of the Mardi Gras route are unique, beautiful, and shaded by mature oaks. St. Charles Avenue is the main thoroughfare and still has an operating streetcar. Anne Rice penned a detailed description of the area in her novel “Violin”. The author once lived in the exquisite Brevard House and made it the setting of her first book, too. Have a drink or grab a bite after your tour in the more commercial part of the district, Magazine Street.
7. Le Pavillon Hotel
If touring the homes of the Garden District put you in the mood for posh, you may want to spend the night at a place New Orleans is known for– Le Pavillon Hotel. With more than its share of luxury (not to mention gold leaf), this famous hotel will make you feel like the Sun King himself. Many months of the year are warm enough to enjoy a day on the rooftop pool. Rent a room, or an entire suite, such as the Napoleon Suite. With paintings of Bonaparte himself and intricately carved wood, Le Pavillon brings a little bit of Versailles to NOLA. (This is a commonly used nickname for the town.)
Another famous venue for fine dining is Brennan’s. This mainstay on the New Orleans restaurant scene is as exceptional in atmosphere and decor as it is in cookery. From the grand piano, to the extravagant staircase, to the amazing murals, a dinner here is a feast for all of the senses. Caviar, turtle soup, and even rabbit schnitzel make this place stand out, as does the extraordinary service from all who contribute. Our waiter prepared some of our dishes tableside, complete with a mini cooking course for my mother-in-law, who is not a bad chef herself. The evening at Brennan’s was a truly memorable experience.
9. Cruise to the Caribbean
For those with some time on their hands, a great way to enjoy New Orleans is as a stop on a tour of several places. Take advantage of the city’s prime location by the Gulf of Mexico, and set sail from the Port of New Orleans to tropical destinations on any of four major cruise lines. From destinations in Mexico and Belize, to Grand Cayman and Montego Bay, all the way east to the Bahamas, you can sip fruity drinks on your way to experiencing another culture.
10. Tulane University
Take the opportunity to ride the St. Charles Avenue streetcar from the Garden District across town to Tulane University. The campus is filled with some great architecture, both old and new. Or, take a free tour at the Amistad Research Center for some eye-opening socio-cultural knowledge. This premier American university is right across the street from Loyola University, a fine institution in its own right. You’d be fortunate to hear a concert put on by their music department. Or, pack a lunch and enjoy a picnic under the Spanish oaks in neighboring Audubon Park. Even better, spend the afternoon at their zoo.
11. Masquerade Shopping
New Orleans is known for the Bacchanalian masquerade parties it throws, whether it’s Mardi Gras, a New Years’ party, or Halloween, you can bet you’ll need a mask. After all, you won’t want anyone to know who’s behind there drinking all those Hurricanes– the official cocktail of the city, even one packs a wallop! There are many shops where you can purchase masks, from the most basic to real works of art.
My favorite was Maskerade, where the chatty proprietor told me all the best places to go in the Big Easy (This nickname for the city stems from a longtime jazz hall, and contrasts it with fast-paced New York City.).
12. Bike-Driven Jitney Tour
Another fun way to see the French Quarter, or as it’s called in French, the “Vieux Carre,” is on a bike-driven jitney. (We used Bike Taxi Unlimited.) Pedaling speed allows a description of more of the awesome places packed tightly together in the area. The guides are not only energetic and agile, they are filled with knowledge about the area. Be sure to ask your driver about the best bars on Bourbon Street, as they are something New Orleans is known for.
Great stores pepper the French Quarter as well, so you can shop high-end, vintage, and anywhere in between. Don’t shy away from bargaining. We were able to talk the charming owner of the Magazine Antique Mall into a deal on a silver fleur-de-lys bracelet. He also sells the vintage clothing of his daughter Bambi DeVille, who is a bit of a NOLA legend. By the way, the “fleur-de-lys” is the official symbol of the city. Like much of New Orleans, it has its roots in French heraldry and Catholicism. The flower is ubiquitous in the city, probably most commonly recognized on the helmets of their champion football team, the Saints. If you’ve brought young kids along, a fun game to occupy them is to see how many fleur-de-lys they can find.
13. Muriel’s, a Spirited Dinner
While no one knows why, many lost souls find their way to New Orleans. Perhaps it’s the fine dining or sultry ambience, because nowhere do ghosts congregate more than at Muriel’s. Only one of them lives there, however, and that’s Pierre Antoine. This beleaguered Frenchman lived a sorrowful life, but as an apparition enjoys a table set for him and guest, probably the woman whose voice is heard at the table despite no woman being visible. Pierre Antoine loves the COOLinary menu as well as the blackened redfish– he’s no idiot! Regular meals seem to lessen the periods of incessant, unexplained knocking heard in the restaurant. A lingerer himself, he invites diners to digest upstairs in the lavish salon.
14. World War II Museum
Far from the French Quarter lies the outstanding World War II Museum. WWII veterans are welcomed for free, and as the daughter of a US Navy man who served in the Pacific theater, I found the museum’s section on this fascinating and moving. There is so much to see here, you could spend the entire day and still come back. In fact, some purchase a 3-day tour. You must view “Beyond All Boundaries,” in 4-D at the Solomon Victory Theater. Then see relics from long ago housed in the spacious and modern building. The photo exhibits were my favorite, along with a room dedicated to interviews of profiled vets.
Spoiler alert: don’t attempt this without a package of Kleenex!
15. Voodoo Tour
New Orleans is known for voodoo. Like much of the city’s culture, this belief system arose from African beginnings, brought from across the Atlantic. Many companies offer tours, and we took one by foot, led by the priestess Voodoo Bone Lady, who also has a shop in the French Quarter. This spooky tour featured not only voodoo, but spectres, graveyards, and history. The priestess took us by a haunted home once owned by actor Nicolas Cage and told us the riveting story that goes with it. Though Cage no longer owns the house, he does own a pyramid-shaped New Orleans tomb. Alternatively, you can visit the Voodoo Museum to learn all about this belief system and related practices.
If you can think of other things that New Orleans is known for, share it in the comment box below.