Throughout my teenage years and adulthood, it stayed in my memory as an exotic place. Everything was unfamiliar and exciting, a whole new sensual experience: the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tropical weather, the humidity, enormous watermelons, people carrying guns. And cars. Cars everywhere. Huge cars.
When I had the opportunity to see New Orleans again, this time with an 11-year-old of my own, I was thrilled. We would have 3 days, rather than the 3 weeks we had back then, so we had to use time wisely.
OK, I’ll stop myself before I get carried away with a lengthy reminiscing intro here. Without further ado, here’s a selection, a mere 11 things out of many many, that you’ll love in The Big Easy.
1. Chasing ghosts
Of all the things to do in this curious city, this is my favourite. A night-time haunted history tour to everything mysterious, weird and ghostly in New Orleans.
From a young girl who froze to death whilst waiting for her man, to active poltergeists in a hotel, to a massively morbid socialite serial murderess… all that and many more intriguing stories in this post.
2. Creole architecture in the French Quarter
The typical New Orleans architecture is Creole – and homegrown. It’s all about merging Caribbean, French and Spanish architectural styles to fit into the the hot, humid climate. Delightful style, delightful colours. Don’t forget to look up.
3. Jackson Square, by day and by night
Also in the French Quarter is Jackson Square, where important events have taken place. This is the site of the Louisiana Purchase, where Louisiana became a US territory, when the USA bought it from Napoleon for 15 million dollars in 1803.
Why Jackson? In 1815, Andrew Jackson – then general, later president – thwarted Britain’s attempt to take the city in the Battle of New Orleans. You can see the local hero on horseback on the square.
For the last 100 years, Jackson Square has been a gathering place for artists of all kinds, some talented, others less so. During the hippie era, the square took off as a place to run New Age business: fortune telling, palm reading, tarot cards, crystal balls and the like.
Art for sale on Jackson Square
Just behind the square is St Louis Cathedral. I think the mix of Renaissance, Gothic and Spanish colonial architecture yielded a lovely result.
But let’s have a look at the back of it. Come with me, and I’ll introduce you to an unusual version of Jesus.
Jackson Square with St Louis Cathedral behind the statue of Andrew Jackson.
Walking past the cathedral one night, we turned to have a look at it from the back – and spotted this very cool light phenomenon. Not sure it was designed that way, or if it’s a lucky coincidence. Either way, this scene just shouts New Orleans. Or perhaps I should say whisper.
At night, Jesus with outstretched arms casts a mighty – and spooky – shadow.
4. Have a peek in voodoo shops
Have a look in one of the voodoo or occult shops in the French Quarter or in Treme. You’ll find all sorts of weird items, like spells, candles, jujus (objects that protect you), gris gris (voodoo amulets), potion oils – and Away All Evil Spirits furniture cleaner!
But keep your comments, your hands and your cameras to yourself. The staff is not too keen to answer all the strange (and often offensive) questions and comments tourists come up with. Don’t touch the stuff. And no photos!
5. Ride a streetcar along Canal Street
New Orleans streetcars are legendary, in part because of the one named Desire. You can pretend you’re Blanche duBois.
“What you are talking about is brutal desire–just–Desire!–the name of that rattle-trap street-car that bangs through the Quarter.”
6. Mardi Gras – or Mardi Gras World
Mardi Gras is a chapter all its own.
Remnant of Mardi Gras in the trees
We were here a few weeks after the event, so missed this traditional carnival. If you aren’t here during that heady week in February, you can still have a look at all the prep at Mardi Gras World. This Lent festival requires one massive machinery.
New Orleans is busy planning Mardi Gras 2022, which will take place from 6 January (12th night) to 1 March (Mardi Gras itself, i.e. Fat Tuesday).
Mardi Gras World
You were waiting for this, weren’t you?
Gumbo, jambalaya, po’boy, muffaletta, crawfish etouffe, oysters, prawns, the list goes on. NOLA is famous for its kitchen, and rightly so. In my opinion, it’s the most exciting city in the US, with the most exciting cuisine. More about New Orleans eats in this post.
8. Try the beignets
Beignets are so quintessentially New Orleans, I’m letting these powdered sugar-covered deep-fried squares of dough get a number all their own. These sacchariferous delectables are originally French and were brought here in the 1700s by Acadians/Cajuns from Nova Scotia.
You can try beignets a few places about town, but Cafe du Monde on Jackson Square is legendary. The open air cafe was established in 1862, and the recipes remain unchanged. At Cafe du Monde, the beignet is the only food item on the menu and they are served in orders of three.
9. Music, music everywhere
There’s always music in New Orleans. Always! Indoors, outdoors. Musicians on every street corner, day and night. But then you’d expect nothing less here in the birthplace of jazz.
Come on, sing Basin Street Blues with me – slowly, flowingly, a bit huskily – as if it’s a hot summer night in Nawlins:
Won’t you come along with me, to the Mississippi? We’ll take a trip to the land of dreams, blowing down the river down to New Orleans.
OK, for the last two, let’s branch out a bit. We’ll head out of town for a bit of exploration.
10. Boating on the mighty Mississippi
Take a trip in a paddle steamer up the Mississippi to Chalmette, combat grounds in the Battle of New Orleans. Along the way, you’ll also see poignant reminders of a more recent catastrophe. Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on New Orleans in 2005.
More on paddle-wheeling – and the War of 1812 (the American one) – in this post.
This is a difficult one. Plantations are a double-edged sword. They can teach us about history – but it’s a pretty awful history, from an era when people were anything but equal.
Creole society was ahead of its time. They had no problem with women running businesses and owning property. Already in the early 1800s, the smartest child (regardless of gender) would inherit the family business.
I could go on. And on. But for once, I think I’ll actually stick with 11 things. 11 things to love in New Orleans.
Where to stay in New Orleans
You will not be surprised to hear there are heaps of exciting places to stay in the Big Easy. Up for ghosts? Then you have a few options in the French Quarter:
- The Andrew Jackson hotel, where poltergeists roam.
- Hotel Provincial, old Civil War hospital (Confederate, natch), where blood stains suddenly appear in odd places and moans and groans are heard. The ghost of a soldier hangs around, trying to get a message to his girlfriend. Harmless guy, they say.
- The Inn on Bourbon, where once stood the house of Marguerite, a mature woman who fancied young men. When one of her young lovers left her for another, she killed herself and left a note warning him she’d be back to off him and everyone else who had harmed her. The young man died shortly after. Marguerite is frequently seen leaving the house and walking down Bourbon Street.
If you’re not into haunted hotels, you have several options as well, of course.
You might not want to stay in the French Quarter. Bit noisy at night. We stayed around the corner from Bourbon Street, just far enough away from the night time excitement, at The Saint Hotel. Now, there’s a name with more than one meaning, at least in New Orleans. More about this funky and sinfully fabulous hotel in this post.
PS: Observant readers will notice I’ve left out several important spots in and around Nawlins:
- Alligator spotting in the bayou: Cat and I went out to the swamp, hoping to spot some alligators. We had a pleasant enough boat trip, but this was February; no alligators were sunning themselves on a rock or lurking in the waters.
- Garden District: We had dinner here one night. Didn’t have time for a proper look, but what we saw looked cosy, all mansions, cottages, snazzy boutiques, leafy oak trees, and, well, gardens.
- St Louis Cemeteries: New Orleans’ historic cemeteries are known as Cities of the Dead. They have vaults above ground due to the high water table. I remember being fascinated with these mausolea when I was a young ‘un – or at least they seemed like mausolea then. I have a photo of one of the three St Louis cemeteries in an album in an attic somewhere, taken with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic. Photo quality: not good.
- Lake Pontchartrain: We didn’t have time to explore this now sparkling clean, shallow estuary this time round – or for driving across Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, the world’s longest continuous bridge. First time, all those years ago, I remember splashing and playing here.
And so we’ve come full circle.
Hanging around Lake Pontchartrain with brother, aunt and mum. Mandeville, I think it was.
Here’s where New Orleans has been covered on Sophie’s World:
- New Orleans by Instagram
- New Orleans Streetcar
- Mardi Gras World
- Taste New Orleans
- Chasing Ghosts in New Orleans
- Where to stay in New Orleans: The Saint Hotel
- Laura Plantation
- Oak Alley Plantation
- Mississippi Paddlewheeling and the War of 1812
- First time travel abroad
Well, what do you know! That’s 11 posts, counting this one. Magic number!
Disclosure: I’ve been in New Orleans twice: once on my mum’s dime, and once, we were guests of New Orleans.com. Anything and everything I write is always my own views. Always!