Who dat? That’s just New Orleans, land of debauchery, beignets, and gumbo. Dancing in a Second Line on a Sunday is as common as watching bachelorette parties gone wrong. Jazz provides the perfect backdrop for drinking in the streets — it’s practically illegal not to — while Southern hospitality is the cherry on top.
New Orleans may appear small on the outside but it's got plenty of character to make up for it. The city is a celebration of itself, and this celebration is expressed through its food, music, and people. Residents are still finding ways to cope after Hurricane Katrina, but they're not opposed to the changes introduced through new revitalization programs. Slowly they are putting this port city back on the map. New Orleans's flamboyant personality is what keeps us saying "laissez les bon temps rouler!" So let the good times roll, it's the Louisiana way.
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February through May is arguably the best time to visit. The weather is mellow (temperatures typically range from the low-70s to the mid-80s) and most of the major festivals take place, including Mardi Gras, the French Quarter Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. You might encounter a few rainy days, but the azaleas are in full bloom and crawfish is in season, promising a quintessential New Orleans experience.
Summers in the deep south tend to be uncomfortable, as heat and humidity are extreme. Temperatures hover in the low 90s, rain is plentiful, and hurricanes are a possibility. On the upside, hotel rates are low. By autumn, temperatures and humidity decrease but hurricanes continue to threaten the area until November (peak season is late August through September). Regardless of weather threats, it's a popular time to visit as the celebrated Krewe of Boo Halloween parade, the Voodoo Festival, and the New Orleans Film Festival all take place during these months.
Come winter, temperatures fluctuate anywhere from the mid-40s to the upper 60s, but it's not uncommon to have an unseasonably warm days. The city kicks off Carnival on January 6 each year, and although not peak season, this means less crowds, cooler temperatures, and readily available hotels at lower rates.
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New Orleans is relatively flat, and when weather permits, exploring on foot is easy and enjoyable.. If you're staying in the French Quarter, Downtown, or in the Warehouse and Arts District, many major attractions are located within walking distance. But if you want to explore beyond these popular neighborhoods — which believe us, you will — there are multiple ways of getting around.
Over 30 buses and five streetcars make up the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority. A one-way ticket on either will cost you $1.25, or $1.50 on express buses. Jazz Passes are available for 1-day ($3), 3-days ($9), 5-days ($15) or 31-days ($55) for those who will heavily rely on RTA to get around. Exact change in cash and coins are also accepted.
The RTA's fleet of buses will get you to most parts of town, but if you're in the mood for a more romantic ride, hop on one of the streetcars instead. Four historic trolleys run along Canal Street between the French Quarter and Mid-City. The fifth, the St. Charles line, the oldest operating streetcar in the world, takes you through some of New Orleans's most picturesque parts of town, including the mansion laden Garden District.
Renting a car may prove inconvenient, as parking can be hard to find and rules tend to be tricky. If you do rent a car, keep in mind meter maids patrol the streets constantly, so be sure to read signs carefully. Metered street parking costs between $2 to $3 an hour, depending on the neighborhood, and most meters accept dollar bills, credit cards, and the Parkmobile app. If you want skip the headache, use Uber or Lyft instead.
Major ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are popular; as always, they provide a fixed price depending on distance and demand. Alternatively, look for taxis along busy strips like Canal Street. Throughout central New Orleans, rental bikes are available every few blocks through Blue Bikes, the local bike-sharing system. Blue Bikes cost $0.10 per minute (after a one-time $5 sign up fee), $15 per month, or $10 a month for college students (both include one hour of ride each day, then $0.10 per additional minute).
US dollars is the official currency. Major credit cards are accepted almost everywhere but it's not a bad idea to keep some bills on hand for small transactions, for picking up the tab at the rare cash-only establishment, for paying cover charges at bars or music venues, and for tipping the countless street performers you'll encounter throughout the city.
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While Voodoo worship and ceremonial practices are more limited today, the religion holds great significance in the history of New Orleans. Rooted in West African culture, Voodoo was first brought to New Orleans through the slave trade of the early 1700s; followers of the religion grew in numbers when Haitian practitioners fled to New Orleans during the 1791 slave revolt. Over time, the religion began to merge with the city’s established Catholic practices, creating a hybrid known as Voodoo-Catholicism or New Orleans Voodoo.
Roughly speaking, Voodoo-Catholicism is characterized by a belief in a God as well as in demigod-like entities, known as the Ioa, and Voodoo and Christian spirits. Rituals, trance-like states, chanting, drumming, singing, and dancing are practiced as a means of engaging with and asking for help from spirits and the loa. Gris-gris bags, talismans, and potions are also employed to influence outcomes.
Voodoo’s influence loomed large into the 19th century; during that era, Voodoo queens and kings became powerful spiritual and political leaders, with Marie Laveau being one of the most influential. Today, visitors can pay reverence to the famed figure at her burial site in the St. Louis Cemetery No.1. Shops selling Voodoo talismans dot the city, some more legit than others.
Widely popularized by Louis Armstrong's 1938 rendition, the black spiritual, "When the Saints Go Marching In" may as well be New Orleans' unofficial anthem. Get ready to march and dance to the classic, as it's frequently requested at bars and clubs, is often played during a jazz funeral, and is one of the fight songs of the New Orleans Saints. Keep an ear out for the famous chant, "Who dat?" taken from the team's version of the song; or request the song by saying "Who dat?" to performers at the local bars, who will obligingly play.
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Creole, Cajun, and soul influences mean flavors go beyond the expected biscuits and gravy so tied to Southern cuisine. The food in New Orleans is deeply rooted in traditional fare with seafood playing an important role — the city's proximity to bodies of water provides plenty of saltwater, freshwater fish, and shellfish. The same dish can come out many different ways depending where you are and who is preparing it. No matter what, New Orleans cuisine is a kaleidoscopic combination of rustic and regional options. Here is a glossary of classic dishes and drinks to help you navigate NOLA's menus:
Gumbo — One of the city's most famous dishes is a spicy, thick stew made with a roux (butter and flour mixture used for thickening) that contains ingredients such as okra, celery, peppers, sausage, seafood, and chicken, and is served over a bed of rice. Depending on the chef, it can range from a dark brown to a light golden color.
Boudin — Cajun-spiced sausage; can also be made into boudin balls, where filling is not stuffed into pork casings but rolled into a ball, battered, then deep-fried.
Crawfish étouffée — The word étouffée comes from the French meaning "to smother." Étouffée is very similar to gumbo in that it is a thick stew with crawfish (shrimp) with Creole seasonings and served over rice, but it is made with a "blonde" roux, which gives it a lighter color and sweeter flavor.
Where to try it: Gumbo Shop, Bon Ton Café
Jambalaya — Another heavy-hitter in the New Orleans food cannon, this fundamental dish is so tied to the city that it is even used as a form of speech: "What a crazy jambalaya of music at this festival!" Similar to the Spanish paella, the dish is sausage (usually andouille), chicken, seafood (sometimes all three!), onions, peppers, other vegetables and spices and combined with rice. The dish was also made famous by the Hank Williams song.
Where to try it: Jacques Imo's Cafe, Mother's, Coop's Place, Café Maspero
Po'boys — The "poor boy" sandwiches were first invented in the 1920s and sold to striking streetcar workers before it became a favorite among the working class. Things can get a little messy with these sandwiches but who's complaining? Po'boys are served on flaky, French bread and are overstuffed with lettuce, tomato, pickles and your choice of roast beef, oysters, cochon de lait (roast pork), or fried shrimp. If you want it dressed, expect it to come slathered in sauce or mayonnaise. Po'boys get really creative at the annual Oak Street Po-Boy Festival.
Where to try it: Killer Po-Boys in the back of the Erin Rose Irish Bar in the French Quarter, Parkway Bakery & Tavern, Parasol's, Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar, Guy's Po-Boys (these come with ketchup!)
Muffaletta — Another popular sandwich in the Big Easy, this Italian rendition comes with cured meats like ham and salami, provolone cheese, olive dressing (made of green and black olives, onion, olive oil, and spices), all packed between a round of sesame seed bread.
Where to try it: Central Grocery, Napoleon House, Frank's Restaurant
Red beans and rice — A Monday tradition in New Orleans, this simple dish sees red or kidney beans simmered in a pot alongside meats (ham hock, sausage, pickled pork) and spices for two to six hours. Families and chefs across the state have their own variations but it's always served with white rice. It's even offered at some jazz lounges as sustenance so the crowd during marathon jams.
Where to try it: Joey K's Restaurant, Melba's Old School Po Boys, Willie Mae's Scotch House
Beignets — The doughnut of New Orleans, beignets are fluffy pillows of fried dough piled with powdered sugar. The simple treat is best served hot and accompanied with a cafe au lait, preferably a chicory blend. So many places serve the iconic pastry, first introduced in the 18th century by French-Creole colonists, but you can try them all at the annual Beignet Festival.
Where to try it: Cafe du Monde, Cafe Beignet, Morning Call, The Vintage
Pralines — This candied treat is like a nuttier version of fudge made with syrup, pecans and/or hazelnuts, and cream. They can come in different flavors and sizes but the classic version is the way to go.
Where to try it: Aunt Sally's, Southern Candymakers, Loretta’s Authentic Pralines, Leah's Pralines
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Sazerac — The drink was named for its primary ingredient, Sazerac de Forge et Fils, manufactured by Cognac. This ingredient was eventually changed to rye, and a dash of absinthe was added but the name stuck. It also has Pychaud's bitters and rich simple syrup.
Where to try it: Any bar serves this drink but try the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel for the ultimate experience.
Hurricane — Invented in the 1940s at Pat O'Brien's Bar, this drink stemmed from an excess of rum post prohibition. The rum is mixed with passion fruit syrup, fresh lemon or lime juice, and garnished with an orange slice and cherry.
Where to try it: None other than Pat O'Brien's Bar, of course. Skip it if you're anywhere else.
Daiquiris — Although not invented in the Big Easy, daiquiris are a way of life here nonetheless. The sugary rum drink is so popular here that there are drive-thrus solely dedicated to the frozen stuff.
Where to try it: Anywhere in the world basically, but in New Orleans: New Orleans Original Daiquiris (where you can purchase by the gallon!), Big Easy Daiquiris, Tiki Tolteca, Gene's Po-Boys
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The French Quarter's opposition to chain stores means you can shop local mom-and-pop shops to your hearts delight. Voodoo stores offer talismans, gris-gris dolls, and potions; vintage shops and boutiques offer timeless pieces and modern designs, and purveyors along Royal Street sell some of the finest antiques and handcrafted items in town. Of course, there are stores like Fifi Mahony's that can take your Mardi Gras costume to the next level with wigs, fake eyelashes, and more glitter than you'll know what to do with. There's even a vampire shop catering to your gothic needs. For a literary taste of this historic district visit the bookshop built inside William Faulkner's old home.
Magazine Street is a major shopping thoroughfare that stems west of Canal Street, but you'll want to pay particular attention to the Garden District and Uptown neighborhoods to score your best finds. Homey boutiques offer everything from vintage and jewelry, to funky homemade gifts. There are also more upscale boutiques like Pied Nu and Monomin. Oak Street in the Riverbend area of Carrollton is another treasure trove for books, art, stationery, and home decor.
No shopping adventure is complete without visiting the markets, where the city's emphasis on tradition remains deep. The French Market in the French Quarter is the oldest in the United States. Here, you'll come across food, art, and clothing vendors, as well as musicians to keep you entertained throughout the day. The St. Roch Market in St. Roch is the modern iteration of the traditional markets with an emphasis on local food and drink.
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If you're not going to celebrate Mardi Gras, you can certainly celebrate the architecture of New Orleans. You're no doubt familiar with the multi-story Creole townhouses that make up a majority of the French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. The distinguished cast-iron balconies became popular after the Great New Orleans Fire in 1788. Their sturdiness serves them well underneath the strain of joyful revelers.
St. Charles Avenue, which runs through the Garden District and most of Uptown, houses the city's most breathtaking collection of Southern mansions. Many of these majestic homes resemble tiered wedding cakes. New Orleans was the largest city in the Confederacy during the Civil War, it is one of the few cities with surviving antebellum architecture. Ride the St. Charles streetcar all the way to the last stop to marvel at your dream home, making sure to get off once in a while for a closer look.
If you prefer less ornate but still charming homes, look for the shotgun houses that pepper most of New Orleans, particularly neighborhoods like Tremé and Clearwater. The long, narrow one-story homes are spare save for a few Victorian embellishments in the front. They get their name from the belief that if standing in front of the house, one could shoot a bullet clear through and out the back.
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New Orleans is fortunate to have not one, but two urban oasis right in the middle of the city. Uptown's Audubon Park contains over 300 acres of ancient oak trees, bucolic lagoons and green spaces. Visitors can have a picnic, visit the zoo, play a round of golf, or go jogging. City Park north of Bayou St. John is a sprawling 1,300 acres and is one of the oldest parks in the United States. Winding trails and ancient live oaks are the backdrop for boat rides, fishing, and picnics. Don't miss the Peristyle, a neo-classical pavilion overlooking the Bayou Metairie.
If you want to appreciate the swamp and marshland beauty of Louisiana, you can visit the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve about 30 minutes south, or the Bayou Sauvage Wildlife Refuge, 30 minutes northeast of the city. Everything from kayak, boat, and plantation tours are available for visitors.
A stay in the Garden District will have you a streetcar away from all the action of the French Quarter without having to deal with any of the debauchery. Family-friendly floats parade down St. Charles on Mardi Gras, and quiet streets filled with elegant homes whisk you away to another era. Most of the lodgings in the area are inns or historic bed & breakfasts. The neighborhoods of Lakeview/Lakeshore will, put you right on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. This may feel more like a beach getaway than a city adventure, but there's plenty to keep you occupied at City Park if lake life is not for you: the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, Carousel Gardens Amusement Park, and the Botanical Gardens are all within the confines of the park. When you're done, take a drive around the neighborhood to marvel at mid century modern houses that seem out of place amidst the rest of NOLA's architecture.
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For a place with so much history, naturally New Orleans is one of the most haunted cities in the United States (its moniker is the City of the Dead!). The French Quarter is world renowned as one of the best neighborhoods to partake in vampire, voodoo, and ghost tours. The LaLaurie Mansion is located here on Royal Street and is said to be haunted by the victims of unspeakably cruel crimes. From time-to-time the deceased owner of Creole restaurant Muriel's appears as a shimmering light in the second-floor lounge. In the Garden District, visit the above ground tombs of famed musicians and voodoo queens at St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, also known as Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. A few minutes away sits the Buckner Mansion, an antebellum style mansion once owned by a cotton magnate, and haunted today by the ghost of a former slave. Echoes of her sweeping broom can still be heard in the empty rooms. The mansion was the backdrop of an "American Horror Story: Coven" episode.
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You won't be hard pressed to find jazz emanating from every street corner of New Orleans. Preservation Hall in the French Quarter is one of the most revered jazz institutions in the city. It's a no frills spot that foregoes air conditioning and even chairs for the purest jazz experience. In Marigny, you will find Bourbon Street's less hectic cousin, Frenchmen Street. The music from the bars and lounges along its stretch can be enjoyed without bumping into rowdy, inebriated tourists (here's our itinerary to help!). Tremé is home to the celebrated Candlelight Lounge, where the jazz is accompanied by a free plate of red beans and rice. Plus there's plenty of room to dance so bring a partner. Things get classy in the Central Business District at the Davenport Lounge, the elegant third-floor lounge located inside the Ritz Carlton. There is no cover charge but keep in mind there is a dress code.
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Tremé is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the city, an area where free people of color could purchase property after the Civil War. It is also the birthplace of jazz. Today you'll find music booming from tiny clubs and Second Lines marching through streets filled with colorful Creole cottages. For dinner hit Willie Mae's Scotch House. From the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the country to the Louis Armstrong Park to the Free People of Color Museum, Tremé does everything with plenty of heart and soul.
The Warehouse and Arts Districts are a culture seeker's paradise. You'll find many great institutions in the compact area sandwiched between the Central Business and Garden Districts. The National World War II Museum (which could take a full day), the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, and the Confederate Memorial Hall Museum boast nationally prominent collections of artistic and historical significance. For smaller galleries, visit the Arthur Roger Gallery and Gallery Orange in nearby French Quarter.
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Loyola and Tulane Universities are located within walking distance of each other, so it's not news that the Uptown neighborhood surrounding the campuses is packed with college-aged students. If fraternity or sorority parties are a not your style, opt for the countless dive bars and craft beer spots in the area. Once you're spent, cheap eats and late-night munchies can be procured at local favorites like Good Bird and Creamery.
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Despite it's reputation, there are child-friendly options for fun in the Big Easy as well. Head for the French Quarter where the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas is located on the waterfront. Staying in Uptown provides easy access to Audubon Park and the zoo, or opt for Lakeview or Mid-City to be near the Children's Museum located inside City Park. The Cabildo Museum contains artifacts from the history of Louisiana inside a Spanish colonial building. You can also board a steamboat for a ride along the Mississippi River, take a quiet carriage ride through the city or play with butterflies at the Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium. If all else fail and the big questions need to be answered, get a PG behind-the-scenes of Mardi Gras at Mardi Gras World.
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