The tourist throngs usually flock to New Orleans hoping to discover the soul of American jazz music. But in this friendly, muggy little town on a bend in the Mississippi, the stories go beyond music: to freedom struggles, voodoo shops, crawfish gumbo and the literature of Tennessee Williams.
Glimpses of history
The best place to get an orientation to the past and present of New Orleans is the buzzing French Quarter in the centre of town. Also known as the Vieux Carré, this is the city’s oldest neighbourhood, established by the French in 1718. This warren of busy lanes is where musicians, artists and writers have always found a warm welcome.
A lazy walkabout is the best way to discover this area filled with historical and cultural landmarks, such as the St Louis Cathedral and Jackson Square. The highlight here is the fascinating blend of Spanish, French and American architectural styles in buildings, with elegant cast iron balconies. While it is possible to do an exploratory stroll on your own, joining a guided walking tour assures better perspectives.
New Orleans is the birthplace of American jazz music, as the world knows it today. From early pioneers like Charles Buddy Bolden in the early 20th century to evergreen geniuses like Louis Armstrong and contemporary greats like Kermit Ruffins, New Orleans has nurtured and presented them all to the world.
To listen to the best of the best, head straight to Preservation Hall, the music venue showcasing native jazz talent since 1961. There are three to four concerts every night, so it is best to keep an eye out for the most interesting ones and book in advance.
Else, just walk along Frenchmen Street and pop into any pub or club where the music sounds appealing. Even though there are old favourites like The Spotted Cat and The Maison, locals say that you can never go wrong anywhere on Frenchmen Street.
Jive on the streets
However, in New Orleans, it is not necessary to enter an enclosed space for jazz; music is found on every street corner, with brass bands and pop up groups playing their hearts out for an adoring public. The best place to catch such music is at Jackson Square in the middle of the French Quarter.
Most of these impromptu recitals rival the finest ticketed performances that take place indoors. Make sure to leave those inhibitions back at the hotel, and go ready to clap and sway with the crowds.
The spice of life
Begin your morning at Café du Monde, with a plate of beignets, a local version of the doughnut, square in shape and generously sprinkled with sugar. New Orleans’ cuisine has a delectable mix of French, Creole, Cajun, African and American flavours. In other words, this is foodie heaven, with a range of local specials like boiled crawfish, seafood gumbo and spongy po’boy sandwiches.
Of course, there is also more hearty southern food like fried chicken and red beans with rice to be found everywhere. For a town of this size, New Orleans has a staggering 1400 restaurants to choose from, not to mention the hole-in-the-wall joints dotting every street corner, especially in the French Quarter.
It’s cocktail time
Wash it all down with a glass of the potent Sazerac at The Sazerac Bar at The Roosevelt Hotel or The Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. This stiff mix of rye whiskey, Peychaud’s bitters, absinthe, sugar syrup and a twist of lemon is the signature drink of New Orleans. That apart, the town has a long and illustrious history of unique cocktails such as the Brandy Milk Punch and the Bayou Bash.
Cruise on the Mississippi
For a breezy and musical evening on the mighty Mississippi, get on board the Steamboat Natchez, and get a taste of the indulgent and indolent pace of life this town is known for. This is an interesting way to take in the scenic New Orleans skyline, against the background of foot-tapping live music by popular jazz bands. You can choose from a buffet lunch or sit-down dinner cruise, or if you have the time, a leisurely Sunday brunch cruise.
Sightseeing on a streetcar
Known locally as streetcars (remember Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar named Desire?), trams are a great way to sit back and explore the city at leisure. Hop on to the Riverfront Line to head to the iconic French Market by the route along the river.
But for the authentic city experience, find a seat on a green car on the St Charles Line that takes you away from the touristy side of town into its green, clean heart. The grand old mansions on St Charles Avenue tell their stories from the days when wealthy plantation owners lived here.
It’s souvenir time
From the most expensive luxury labels to the most modest high street brands, there is enough retail therapy on the six-mile stretch of Magazine Street. However, if it is exclusive and quirky artefacts and souvenirs you have in mind, then make your way to the eclectic boutiques and antique stores of Royal Street in the French Quarter.
For some memorable food shopping, your best bet is the French Market in the riverside Lower French Quarter, established in 1791 as a Native American trading post. If you find yourself there around lunchtime, then make sure to tuck into some of the rather startling local delicacies such as gator-on-a-stick.
And finally, don’t leave town without zipping into one of the dozens of voodoo shops that dot the streets around Jackson Square. In New Orleans, the idea of voodoo is no tourist trap but a real way of life, with even a couple of museums dedicated to this form of magic. Even if you are not really in need of a ‘House Blessing Spray’ or an ‘Evil Hex Remover,’ this is worth it for the sheer novelty of the experience.