When deciding to visit New Orleans we thought that it will be another very interesting place. But we never expected that NOLA, as New Orleans is often called, will fascinate us so much. Now we have the answer to the question that Louis Armstrong asked in one of his songs – yes, we know what it means to miss New Orleans. See for yourself what we miss the most.
Every city is different. One is hectic and vibrant with business life, the other is characterized by silence of a peaceful province, but nowhere so far did experience such a special and unique atmosphere which prevails in New Orleans.
The oldest and most well-known district of New Orleans, which was declared a National Historic Symbol of the United States, is the French Quarter. Since the founding of the city in 1718 by a French settler Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, the city was growing quickly around the French Quarter, making it the very centre of NOLA.
This is where most of the visitors head first. Also residents of the city who want to enjoy the wide range of attractions go there. There’s a choice of restaurants and bars, shops and galleries – various shows, festivals and performances are also organized here by many artists.
The most characteristic feature of the area is, however, the exceptional architecture. The city fire in 1794 destroyed most of the French colonial style buildings. At that time the city was under the Spanish rule, therefore destroyed buildings have been replaced with new, built in accordance with the Spanish trends. The result of these changes can be admired today, when walking the streets of the French Quarter. The buildings are characterized by richly decorated walls and incredibly elaborately decorated balconies, most of the facade is painted but still with fashionable at the time pastel colors.
There would be no French Quarter without Bourbon Street, which is the most famous street in all of New Orleans. Usually pretty quiet during the day, every night it starts to live, filled with the hordes of tourists. Especially during numerous festivals organized in the city center, e.g. Mardi Gras, which is on the last day before Lent, also called “Fat Tuesday”. Bourbon Street on those dates attract thousands of people – both locals and tourists – to participate in a common party.
You can eat delicious traditional cuisine in many restaurants, or enjoy live music. Unfortunately, at night the music disappears from Bourbon Street – it moves mostly to Frenchmen Street or gets closed in the clubs. This is due to the law introduced in 2010 that’s not allowing any music to be played on the streets of French Quarter between 21:00 and 8:00.
Just as the French Quarter can be called the center of New Orleans, Jackson Square can be called its heart. In 1960 Jackson Square was put on the list of USA National Historic Symbols, for the role of city center, which he held in New Orleans from the beginning of the history of the city.
The square is surrounded by magnificent monuments of architecture on each of the sides. Among them worth mentioning is the Cabildo building (which is the former town hall, where the documents of selling Louisiana to the United States are stored) or St. Louis’s Cathedral. The greater part of the square is a green area, with the statue of Andrew Jackson – the US president, who in 1815 was leading US forces and defeated the British in the battle of New Orleans. The last side of Jackson Square is an open passage to the Mississippi River, with a promenade full with locals and tourists.
Just like in the whole district, everywhere around Jackson Square countless numbers of street artists can be seen – musicians, painters, sculptors, sometimes magicians, fortune-tellers and many others. Although not everyone likes their presence, Jackson Square was considered one of the best public spaces in America in 2012.
French Market is a part of the French Quarter, which includes 6 blocks of buildings – from Jackson Square, along the Mississippi River, up to the big market. The most important part is of course the market itself. Founded even before the European colonization, it is probably the oldest of its kind in the United States.
Initially it was called the “meat market” because it was the only place in the whole French Quarter, where you could buy and sell the meat. Only later, when the sale of meat distributed in the city, it was renamed to French Market. Currently you can find here almost everything – from fresh foods and traditional local produce, to clothes and handicrafts, devotional items and antiques sold at the flea market. And you can try various types of foods, including raw seafood or alligator meat skewers in the numerous bars located here.
Another very interesting place in New Orleans is Garden District. Though far from the French Quarter, it is definitely worth a visit and a longer stroll along its charming streets.
Old oak trees in the gardens, iron fences and gates, exquisitely finished doorways – these are just some of the elements of beautiful aristocratic mansions and palaces of Garden District.
Walking around New Orleans you just can’t skip one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city, which are unique and very characteristic cemeteries. Since the city is located on a very wet and swampy areas, burying dead in traditional graves dug in the ground was very difficult or completely impossible. It was therefore decided to build above-ground tombs. Strolling cemetery alleys you can admire a variety of tombs, crypts and mausoleums, some decorated with crosses and statues of saints, others quite plain.
The oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans is the St. Louis Cemetery No.1. Walking around the French Quarter it takes only 15 minutes with a guide to know the history of this unique place and see, among others, burial-place of the legendary “voodoo queen” Marie Laveau.
During our walk around the Garden District we visited a little less known (only a little less, because it appeared on the Silver Screen many times – eg. In “Interview with the Vampire”) Lafayette Cemetery No.1. The old tombs, some destroyed and others only slightly nibbled by the tooth of time, adorned with strings of beads or other personal memorabilia left a big impression on us.
Residential wooden houses
One of the most emblematic images that can be seen throughout New Orleans, are the settlements of small wooden houses. They are all very similar, and the houses look almost identical. They’re so-called “shotguns” or small rectangular houses made of wood, usually no wider than 3.5 m. There is no corridor and the rooms and the kitchen are arranged one behind the other. Name “shotgun” comes from the mocking that if you stand in the open front door and fire a shotgun into the house, the pellet will fly off the yard door without destroying a single element inside the house.
It was the most popular style of building houses across the southern US, from the 60s of the XIX century until about 1920. In 1920s shotguns in NOLA started to be a symbol of poverty. Their number may indicate how many residents of the city to fall into this social group.
Today, part of shotguns is demolished and replaced by modern buildings. Another part of them is subjected to restoration, as historical monuments. After the restoration they usually acquire a completely new shine, and only the richest can afford them. The third and largest group of old shotguns are still in districts inhabited by the less wealthy. So shotguns on one hand are still a symbol of poverty, on the other hand, however, a symbol of wealth for some.
After Hurricane Katrina
In 2005 hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and turned out to be one of the most devastating cyclones ever to hit the United States. As a result of the hurricane more than 1,800 people lost their lives, and another 700 have been reported missing. Because of malfunctioning system of dykes, security and levees more than 80% of the city has been flooded.
The damage caused by the hurricane in the New Orleans was estimated at 81 billion USD. As a result of Katrina, population of the city in the first years after the catastrophe has dropped by nearly a half. Although most of the city is once again open for residents, and neighborhoods where losses were less severe operate correctly for a long time, many parts of the city still work on removing the hurricane effects and restoring municipal services. The most destroyed neighborhood – Lower Ninth Ward – is still not officially open to residents, though some of them have returned to their destroyed houses with no other place to which they could go.
A grim joke might seem to do a tour to the places that were most devastated by the cyclone and take pictures of the effects of this great tragedy. Yet this is not a joke. Many travel agents offer so-called “Katrina-tour”, or excursions to the Lower Ninth Ward, calling it “the most moving experience tourism”. It’s worth noting that venturing out into these areas alone isn’t safe. Many residents do not wish to have their homes photographed and can be aggressive, and the crime rate there is the highest among all the districts of New Orleans.
It is said that in New Orleans the culture just flows on the streets, because the city is one big scene. It is worth stopping for a moment and immersing yourself in the omnipresent music – musical performances, street artists playing all kinds of instruments, local bands promoting their albums. Music on the streets of the French Quarter can fit all the moods. Just see and listen for yourselves the short clip below:
NOLA is the birthplace of jazz, and gospel music mecca. R&B, hip-hop as well as rock and pop bands dynamically develop here. It will not be an exaggeration to say that the original spirit of creativity and musical magic lives on the streets and in the clubs of New Orleans. At night, musical heart of the city beats on Frenchmen Street, but the incredible live music can be found anywhere throughout the city – from gourmet restaurants, clubs and bars to mega concerts on big stages of the city. Anyone who loves music will find a place where the music and the unique atmosphere will keep him for hours.
Up until NOLA we didn’t visit a place where we could eat so many fantastic dishes. An incredible variety of flavors so typical to New Orleans made the sightseeing more enjoyable. Every day we promised ourselves to try at least one new dish. What we tried?
Oysters from the Gulf of Mexico
Absolutely the best and arguably our favorite flavor of New Orleans were oysters.
Every day we used to eat at least two dozens. In each form and with each serving tasted sensational – raw, sprinkled with only lemon or with salsa or horseradish and grilled on half-shells with herbs, parmesan cheese, butter and sprinkled with breadcrumbs, which is famous Oysters Rockefeller. You can get them in almost every restaurant in town – always fresh and always delicious.
You cannot leave New Orleans without trying the gumbo. Although this is the most traditional dish NOLA, it comes from a combination of four different cuisines of the world – Western European, African, Caribbean with a slight influence of the cuisine of indigenous people of North America.
Basically, we can distinguish two main types of gumbo – gumbo with meat (chicken and sausage) and the gumbo with seafood (shrimp, oysters, crab meat, etc.). The dish is always cooked for a few hours, always the main ingredients include celery, onions and peppers, and always served with rice. However, like the Polish bigos, there is no one “right” recipe how to cook gumbo, because how many chefs – so many different variations of this dish. We tried three different gumbo and quite frankly it’s hard to tell which one was the best.
Another one of the classics of New Orleans kitchen is jambalaya, which is very similar to gumbo. The main ingredients are different types of meat (chicken, sausage, alligator or other meat) or seafood, the classic trio of vegetables – onions, celery and bell pepper – garlic and parsley, all flavored with a variety of characteristic spices. The main difference between gumbo and jambalaya, however, lies on finishing the dish – gumbo is served with cooked rice separately, and in jambalaya rice is added as an ingredient during cooking. Which dish is tastier? Although so similar, it tastes quite different, so it’s hard to compare them.
Creole shrimp or crawfish
Creole shrimp or crawfish could be called a more spicy version of gumbo. Prepared from one type of seafood, traditionally served with rice, not much different from the gumbo apart from being more spicy.
Red beans and rice
Yet another classic cooked in one pot and served with rice. According to the unwritten tradition, the residents of New Orleans usually cook red beans and rice… on Mondays. Why? Because to prepare it you can use the meat leftovers from the Saturday and Sunday, and because beans need many hours of cooking, that time can be spent to washing and cleaning the house after the weekend. Although the dish is interesting in taste, we definitely prefer the our Polish equivalent – Breton Beans.
Alligator meat skewers and sausages
At the French the Market and at some restaurants, you can get alligator meat skewers or sausage. Is it tasty? We didn’t try it, but the lady sitting next to us in one of the bars said it tastes much like pork. We’re not sure if that’s how alligator tastes, or just sausage had a lot of pork added, which has completely changed the flavor.
We also didn’t try this classic, but we mention it because it’s the city’s traditional sandwich. What distinguishes po-boy from other sandwiches? Prepared on baguette bread tall sandwich has many layers of sauces and vegetables, with most important of them – roasted meat – on the top. To us they looked a little like hamburgers, only NOLA-certified.
Finally something sweet! For there’s nothing better than a good coffee and something sweet.
Traditional beignets, often called French doughnuts, taste like fluffy Angel wings pastry – fried in deep oil and sprinkled with a huge amount of powdered sugar. They taste best still warm with café au lait, or simply coffee with hot milk in a 1:1 ratio. The most famous place in New Orleans which serves traditional beignets and café au lait is Café Du Monde, on the corner of Jackson Square.
With what is most often Louisiana associated? Of course with the swamps. We could not leave New Orleans without seeing, if only for a brief moment, these famous wetlands. So we decided to book an organized tour in one of the many travel agencies. We woke up very early in the morning (by our standards of “early morning”) and took a one-hour bus ride to the swamps, to see for ourselves this unique scenery, which we saw so many times in different movies.
Honey Island swamps are among the least altered by human activities river marshes throughout the United States. Some call it the “most pristine” wetlands in the United States. Located on the border of Louisiana and Mississippi states – Honey Island swamps cover area of about 280 km2, with the majority secured by government program to protect the natural living environment of wild animals. Among the wild inhabitants of the marshes are alligators, turtles, snakes, raccoons, coypus, wild boars, bears, owls and white-tailed eagles.
The aura that accompanied us during the tour, helped to fully feel an amazing atmosphere of Louisiana swamps. The morning was gray, slightly hazy and the air was heavy and humid. Boat slowly flowed the branches of the Pearl River, going through swamps and tall grass. Everywhere around on tall trees we could see a very distinctive Spanish moss, making the trees look even more darkly and gloomy. Sometimes among the branches you could see the birds watching flowing boat in silence, and between the bushes on the river banks wild raccoons seeking food. The most amazing were however alligator eyes submerged in the water, which we could see occasionally somewhere in the water or in the grass and twigs on the shore.
Magical landscape, a lot of interesting information and stories from the swamps, wild animals fed by the guide right on the edge of the boat – it’s the essence of more than two-hour trip, which ultimately made us want to visit New Orleans again in the future.
- Are you going to New Orleans, but you don’t have too much money? Here’s a list of 50 free attractions in the city! Though not all are available throughout the year, such as Mardi Gras (carnival) and the French Quarter Festival (in April), but surely you can find a few things that will interest you.
- Do you want to keep up to date with musical events in New Orleans? Take a look at the Guide to the Music of New Orleans. You will find there information about upcoming concerts, festivals and major music events in the city.
- To eat oysters do not have to do a lot of searching. In various restaurants the cost is around 12 USD for a dozen fresh oysters and from 20 USD a dozen Oysters Rockefeller. Is it expensive? Yes, because there’s one place in New Orleans, where every day during Happy Hours, between 16:00 and 20:00 when ordering a beer you can buy a dozen fresh oysters for 3 USD or chargrilled for 7.50 USD. Oysters are always fresh and the beer from small breweries delightful. Got you interested? Head on to the Samuel’s Blind Pelican at the Saint Charles Avenue.
- Do you want to try gumbo, jambalaya, Creole seafood or red beans and rice? You can try each of those in any restaurant serving traditional New Orleans cuisine. However, we recommend finding a place that serves all the dishes in small portions “to try out” for the price of one traditional serving. We found such a place on French Market and for 25 USD we tried: a traditional gumbo, seafood gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp creole and red beans with rice.
- In French Market and in some restaurants you can get alligator meat skewers or sausages. It is quite expensive delicacy – one skewer costs about 4-5 USD, and the price of roasted alligator sausage begins at 8-9 USD.
- Po-boy is the most popular type of sandwich in New Orleans. Average po-boy price is about 5 to 10 USD, depending on the variant.
- Beignets, which are the New Orleans traditional doughnuts, and café au lait can be purchased at many coffee shops in New Orleans. The most famous of them is Café du Monde at the corner of Jackson Square. One set – a small coffee and three donuts costs 6.50 USD .
- The trip to Honey Island swamps can be booked at almost every local tourist agency in New Orleans. Prices and duration of the trips are very similar – about a two-hour trip costs from 23 USD to 30 USD if you get to swamps on your own and from 48 USD to 60 USD with hotel pickup and transfer. Take a look at different offices offers, because many of them offer promotions and discounts, eg. if you book two tickets or book via the Internet, you can save up to 10 USD for 1 ticket. Here are three example offers from different travel agencies: www.honeyislandswamp.com, www.cajunencounters.com and www.pearlriverecotours.com.