New Orleans — or ‘Nola’ as she’s also affectionately known — means Mardi Gras, but this city has so much more to offer travellers.
The historic French Quarter, the grand paddle-steamers that still ply the mighty Mississippi, the spicy flavours of Cajun and Creole cooking, and the macabre mystery of the city’s ‘above ground’ cemeteries are all waiting to be experienced.
Enjoy this New Orleans travel guide.
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New Orleans for history lovers
New Orleans transcends the youth of the ‘New World’, and feels much more like the timeless European cities of Paris, Venice and London.
The French Quarter is a mind-blowing chance to step back in time and there are treasures to be discovered around every corner. Peel back the layers and learn of the folklore hidden in the cobble-stone streets with the help of a guide from Friends of the Cabildo. All proceeds from these walking tours go towards the work of the Louisiana State Museum.
Our guide Stephanie describes the city’s dark history — destruction by fire and outbreaks of disease — believed by some to have come from a curse on a city built over a Native American burial ground. It’s no wonder New Orleans has long inspired tales of vampires and voodoo, and continues to fuel murder mysteries, crime thrillers and the latest CSI incarnation!
Cursed ground was not the early city’s only problem. Due to settling sediment, much of New Orleans sits below sea level. To counter the issues associated with burying the dead in soggy earth, the city’s oldest cemeteries consist of rows of elaborate above ground crypts. Take a guided tour of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. It’s the final resting place of the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans herself — Marie Laveau.
Top cultural experiences in New Orleans
New Orleans’ cultural attractions are many and varied.
This is the birthplace of jazz and a jam session at Preservation Hall is a must-see during your visit. The raw energy, creativity and soul on display nightly will captivate you — whatever your feelings about the virtues of ad lib. Jazz lovers should consider visiting the city during the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The festival began back in 1970, and continues to celebrate the city’s musical heritage with gusto.
Pay a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum to marvel at the flamboyant Mardi Gras costumes. If you are able to time your visit for the Mardi Gras festival (which is usually held in February), you’ll witness the legendary celebration that takes over the town. It’s a heady mix of parades, parties, elaborate masks and shiny beads (throws) tossed into the crowds by performers.
Wind down in an 18th century pirates’ den — Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar — for a voodoo ice cocktail and shanty by the piano. Look out for the bullet holes in the walls, a remnant of pirate Jean Lafitte’s battles with the British (and anyone else who crossed his path)!
Great places to eat in New Orleans
Forget the American clichés of hamburgers, hot dogs and apple pie; while in Louisiana, you’ll enjoy mouth-watering Creole and Cajun flavours.
For the tastiest of things to do in New Orleans, the guides from Free Tours by Foot give a great introduction to the French Quarter’s foodie culture, where you’ll sample po’ boy sandwiches (French baguettes stuffed with prawns, crab or crawfish) and jambalaya (a spicy chorizo, chicken and rice dish). Finish with a sweet treat — beignets (moreish French-style doughnuts) washed down with a chicory-blended coffee.
For a southern-style barbeque, The Joint has belt-busting portions of ribs, pulled pork, brisket and all the ‘fixins’. Take a trolley-car further afield to Jacques-Imo’s for blackened redfish and a dish that would’ve bitten back — alligator cheesecake with fried green tomatoes.
Where to shop in New Orleans
You can continue to savour the flavours of New Orleans when you get home.
Visit the Pepper Palace and stock up on essential Cajun and Creole spices. The tabasco jelly beans pack quite a punch!
For gifts for those back home, the crazily colourful t-shirts and artworks on offer at the Jamie Hayes Gallery beat the usual touristy knickknacks hands down.
To vamp up your holiday wardrobe, drop by the Boutique du Vampyer for Goth-inspired clothing and accessories.
Ways to relax in New Orleans
There are lots of things to do in New Orleans that will leave you feeling refreshed and revitalised.
Built as a port on the banks of the Mississippi River, New Orleans offers plenty of options for enjoying the water. Airboat rides are an exhilarating way to get up close and personal with the wildlife of the bayou — alligators, snakes and turtles to name a few.
For something a little more sedate, the Audubon Nature Institute offers leisurely walks through peaceful gardens. There’s a replica swamp with scheduled feedings of the locals.
No visit to New Orleans would be complete without travelling like Mark Twain on the charming Steamboat Natchez. You’ll enjoy a buffet dinner, with a jazz band to serenade you — ‘watchin’ the tide roll away’.
If you prefer to catch your dinner, join Captain Ed on a fishing charter in search of trout or bass. He’ll even arrange for your fish to be cooked at a local restaurant as you watch the sun set after another amazing day in ‘The Big Easy’.
Do you have any tips to add to our New Orleans travel guide? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Barry Johnson is a freelance travel writer living in Sydney, but with previous homes in Europe, North America, Asia, and the Middle East. His love of adventure led to getting lost in a Californian forest a week after The Blair Witch Project went viral, building a giant Buddha on a Cambodian mountain, camel racing in an Egyptian desert, and teaching English to Peruvian children as they taught him Quechuan — the language of the Incas.