With nicknames of the ‘Big Easy’ and ‘Crescent City’, New Orleans sits just over a hundred miles from the Gulf of Mexico, hemmed in on three sides by the a bend of the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. A major Gulf Coast shipping port and one of the top ten visited cities in the United States, half of New Orleans lies below local mean sea level and it is named by FEMA as the nation’s most vulnerable city to hurricanes.
Originally called Balbancha (land of many tongues) by native inhabitants, today’s New Orleans was founded in 1718 by French colonists and named for Philippe II, the Duke of Orleans and regent of France at that time. French for almost forty years, Louisiana was ceded to Spain in 1763, then traded to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
During the Revolutionary War, New Orleans was an important port for aid smuggled to the rebels and moving equipment upriver; by the mid-1850’s, New Orleans was flush with millionaires benefiting from the commerce of sugar cane plantations. As the Confederacy’s largest city, ‘Nola’ was occupied by Union forces early in the Civil War, allowing it to retain much of its iconic 18th century French and Spanish influenced architecture which became the backdrop for the birth of Jazz in the Victorian era of the late 1800’s. Aside from its rich cultural heritage and resultant strong tourism industry, New Orleans is also a regional center for maritime industry and key locale for oil refining and petrochemical production.
New Orleans always seems to be having a party, as evidenced by ever present live music, impromptu street parades, and a daily nightlife scene that has no ending hour. The French Quarter is ground zero for this festive mindset, with thirteen blocks of legendary Bourbon Street- named for Louisiana’s 18th century ruling family- anchoring a string of nightclubs. Eighty square blocks of the original colonial era city decorated with intricate, lacy cast ironwork, the Vieux Carre (Old City) became a popular shopping district in the 1840’s as business began to shift to the American Quarter across Canal Street.
Another popular French Quarter street is Royal, known for its locally focused art galleries and eclectic antique shops. The heart of old New Orleans is Jackson Square, originally known in the 18th century as Place d’Armes, which is itself centered by a 1856 statue honoring Andrew Jackson, hero of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. The square is surrounded by notable buildings: the 1789 triple-spired St Louis Cathedral- oldest in continued use in the United States, the Cabildo- the original City Hall and site of Louisiana Purchase signing, the Presbytere- built to be a religious residence but never used as such, and the Pontabla Apartments- claimed to be the oldest in the country. The apartments are still rented out, but the Cabildo and Presbytere are today state museums.
Jackson Square is also the place to find dedicated street artists at work and jaunty horse drawn carriages for hire. Alongside the Mississippi is the European styled open air French Market with two hundred vendors spanning a length of six blocks. Open since 1791 making it the country’s oldest public market, the French Market was originally an indigenous people’s trading post and continued to evolve as a cultural and commercial hub for new immigrants. The Market is perhaps today most known for 24 hour Cafe du Monde, serving traditional coffee with chicory and fried fritters known as beignets since 1862.
The French Quarter is but a small bit of New Orleans, with the serene and leafy Garden District being easily accessed by the St Charles Streetcar- oldest continuously operating in the world. This part of town was developed in 1832 for newly wealthy American arrivals and houses a tremendous collection of 19th and 20th century mansions in styles such as Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, and Eastlake. St Charles Ave is the annual Carnival parade route and home to two universities, Loyola and Tulane, and Audubon Park- site of the 1884 World’s Fair. Audubon also operates the Aquarium of the Americas adjacent to the French Quarter with its exhibits including aquatic life of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
New Orleans is also known for its forty European style cemeteries with over six hundred above ground burial vaults and memorial monuments, the oldest and most conveniently located being 1789 St Louis Cemetery No. 1, just outside of the French Quarter. True aficionados of live music will venture to Frenchmen Street where a lively three block stretch offers nightly entertainment on a street sporting traditional Creole styled cottages and townhouses.
Canal Street- once the widest in the world, designed for a canal that was never built- divides the French Quarter from the Central Business District, which covers what was once the newer section of town called the American Quarter. This section of town is home to Lafayette Square, named in 1824 for French General Lafayette; today’s square has been the site of a race track, graveyard, zoo, 1812 soldier encampment, and most recently, public concerts and civic events.
The spring celebration of Mardi Gras has been recorded in New Orleans as far back as 1699, and if you’re traveling at some other time of the year, you might wish check out Mardi Gras World, a behind the scenes tour in a working warehouse that produces 80% of the city’s elaborate parade floats.
For a more off the beaten path off-season look into Mardi Gras and its traditions, hop over to the Treme neighborhood and the more intimate and homegrown Backstreet Cultural Museum. For a look at what the area looked like before today’s modern controls of the Mississippi River and its bayous- and to see alligators in the wild- check out one of the many guided swamp tours within an hour’s travel of the city. Another glimpse into the past can be found at Oak Alley Plantation, just an hour’s drive.