New Orleans is a strange place. “Mud bugs” are a delicacy. Spontaneous musical performances are commonplace. Voodoo is a religion. Drinking in the street is legal. Funerals sometimes involve jazz bands and dancing in the streets.
New Orelans is also a happy place, where a joie de vivre permeates everything. No matter where you go, you’ll meet welcoming people eager to brag about their beautiful city as well the most essential thing for a visitor to do --- Laissez Les Bon Temps Roulez (Let the good times roll).
5…Don’t let the mud bugs bite
The number one thing to do in New Orleans - hands down - is eat. From five-star French bistros to $5-beignets-and-café-au-lait at Café du Monde (800 Decatur St., 504-525-4544), you’ll find good food in every price range.
New Orleans’ regional cuisine could go toe to toe with local fare in any other part of the country. Cajun and Creole eats rule here, and local specialties like gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée are reason enough to get on a plane to Louisiana. You may have had pale imitations of these Big Easy classics elsewhere, but in New Orleans eating these dishes is often a life-changing experience.
The city's rightfully known for its seafood. Local oysters on the half-shell are delicious in season, which is broadly defined as any month containing the letter “R.” Another taste treat are “mud bugs,” aka crawfish. Though you’ll find the tail meat of these tiny crustaceans embedded in pricey entrees, the little bugs are perhaps best enjoyed boiled whole with spices. If you do order them boiled, you’ll get a plate of what appear to be tiny lobsters. Twist off the head (some people suck out the contents of the head as well, but this is an acquired taste), pull the sweet chunk of tail meat out of the other half, and enjoy.Wash it all down with an Abita beer. A good bet for crawfish and a cold one is Acme Oyster House (724 Iberville St., French Quarter, 504-522-5973).
Two local sandwiches merit attention. The po’ boy is a loaf of French bread filled with…well, pretty much anything (fried oysters or shrimp are particularly tasty). The muffuletta - a large, round sandwich filled with ham, mozzarella, salami, and olive salad - is so perfectly delicious only a good view can make it better:pick up your sandwichfrom Central Grocery (923 Decatur St., 504-523-1620) and walk to nearby Jackson Square for a picnic in view of St. Louis Cathedral.
4…Rock You Like a Hurricane
New Orleans is synonymous with partying. Legendary Mardi Gras (usually in February or March) is the city’s best-known bash, but many other worthy celebrations happen throughout the year. In late May, 75 of the city’s restaurants and 175 domestic and international wineries present five days of palate-pleasing offerings at the New Orleans Wine and Food Experience. And on Independence Day weekend, the city thumps along to R&B and hip-hop beats as the Essence Music Festival rolls into town.
Of course, there’s always a party in the French Quarter. Once the sun goes down, the neighborhood’s legendary Bourbon Street lets down its hair. Music fills the air, and people pack into the street to drink and mingle. Basically, it’s the best block party ever. And it happens every night. Bourbon Street is packed with walk-up bars, and you can grab a beer, daiquiri, or shot and imbibe as you walk down the street. A variety of other potent alcoholic concoctions are available as well, and perhaps thebest known is the hurricane, a mixture of passion fruit, lime, and a lot of rum. The drink was invented at French Quarter institution Pat O’Brien’s (bar: 718 St. Peter St., restaurant 624 Bourbon St., 504-525-4823), where you’ll find dueling pianos and plenty of booze.
3…And all that jazz
Jazz, blues, zydeco, rock, R&B…you’ll hear it all here. The city hosts countless music festivals throughout the year, including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a two-weekend over-the-top celebration of music and food, takes over the city’s Fair Grounds Race Course (a horse track) in late April. But you’ll hear music literally everywhere in the city. Bars and music clubs host excellent local acts most nights of the week, and you’ll often catch impromptu performances on street corners - sometimes by complete bands. Sing along or dance if the spirit moves you - chances are you won’t be alone.Just be sure to toss something into the hat or bucket; the music may be free, but the musicians’ food isn’t.
You’ll find a bunch of clubs in the Quarter, including Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop (941 Bourbon St., French Quarter, 504-525-5169). Another New Orleans Institution is Preservation Hall (726 St. Peter St., French Quarter, 504-522-2841), where you’ll hear amazing jazz from 8-11 most nights. For a less-touristy vibe, head to Faubourg Marigny, Bywater, or the Warehouse District, where you’ll find edgier acts and more locals.
2…Roam the neighborhoods, remember Katrina
The French Quarter is the heart of the city, its original settlement. Built on top of a natural levy that follows a crescent-shaped curve of the Mississippi River, the Quarter feels as if it is in a state of arrested decay. Everything here seems ancient, and its centuries-old cobblestones and wrought iron railings witnessed and withstood fires and wars, piracy, and rebellion. Anchored by St. Louis Cathedral, today’s quarter is filled with antique shops, excellent restaurants, art galleries, posh hotels, and, of course, raucous Bourbon Street.
Nearby, the Warehouse District is home to cutting-edge galleries and some of the city’s dining institutions. The CBD (Central Business District) is New Orleans’ downtown, and funky Bywater and Faubourg Marigny border the Quarter. Further afield, the Garden District is filled with some of the most gorgeous homes you’ll encounter anywhere, as well as the legendary Commander’s Palace restaurant (1403 Washington Avenue, 504-899-8221). You’ll find fantastic shopping on Magazine Street, a thoroughfare filled with funky independent shops, galleries, and restaurants, stretching from the Garden District to Uptown, where you’ll find beautiful Audubon Park.
Tourists looking for signs of Hurricane Katrina may be surprised by the lack of evidence of the natural disaster. Most of the hurricane-affected areas frequented by visitors have been rebuilt, but you’ll still see pockets of reconstruction in other residential areas of the city. Some homes in Lakeview, near Lake Pontchartrain, are still being renovated, and rebuilding is proceeding slowly in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was devastated by the levy breaches in the wake of the storm.
1…Stop texting, start chatting
If “melting pot” is shorthand for New York’s culture, New Orleans is a pot of bubbling gumbo incorporating Spanish, French, English, African, Caribbean, and Native American flavors, among others. You’ll see their influences in the food, of course, as well as the music, architecture, and art.
It helps to bear in mind, also, that the city was once an outpost on the edge of the frontier, and settlers who chose to make the port a home marched to their own beat. Over time, the city became a refuge for artists and outcasts, pirates and rebels. Against that backdrop, New Orleans is somewhat infamous for its links to mysticism and the occult, so have your palm read if you dare, tour one of the city’s famous above-ground cemeteries, or visit the New Orleans Historic VooDoo Museum (524 Dumaine St., French Quarter, 504-680-0128).
If New Orleans doesn’t win you over by the time you go, it’s a good bet you forgot to talk to the locals. The city has long been a magnet for people with independent streaks, creative eyes, and excellent senses of humor. So head to a bar and strike up some conversations. Chances are the memories of the people you meet here arethe ones that’ll linger the longest.