I’d wanted to visit New Orleans for years before I finally got the chance.
We’d specifically planned to travel during the off season, avoiding both Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival, so I diligently checked the guide books and determined that the former was in March and the latter in April, making May the perfect time to go. What I didn’t realize was that the Jazz Festival only started in April, but ended in May. So hotels were catch as catch can and rather pricey, but we managed to find a place just outside the French Quarter.
Our first stop, of course, was Bourbon Street. It’s a hell of an experience and, if you visit the city, walking through its crowds, performers, and “salespeople” is a must—once. It’s a trashy stretch of street and we didn’t even think of dipping into any one of the bars that line its length. Carnival barker-like men try to shout you into their bars while half-naked women gyrate expressionlessly in the doorways to strip-clubs.
No, as any local will tell you—and as many locals told us—the place to be for food, drinks, and live music is Frenchman Street. Noticeably quieter and classier, Frenchman offers a variety of restaurants and bars, each with their own performance schedules displayed outside, right next to the menus. We ate there a couple times and caught a trio of musicians, including a blind accordion player.
Fact is, to catch live music, you need only walk around. On Royal, you’re likely to see these guys, a fantastic group led by a stupendously talented singer/clarinetist. On the corner of Bourbon and Canal, we caught a brass band made up of young guys. The energy these guys put into their almost non-stop performance was astounding.
For art, head straight to Jackson Square where the fence surrounding the park is covered with the wares of local painters and photographers. Musicians and fortune-tellers also ply their trades here.
Not far from Jackson Square you’ll find the Farmer’s Market, the Flea Market, Café du Monde, and, for the literary-minded like me, the apartment where Tennessee Williams wrote ‘Streetcar’ and the Faulkner House, where the author wrote his first novel.
We took a city bus tour which provided some historical and cultural background on the city. I strongly recommend a tour of this sort; it’ll put the city in context but also allow you to see portions of the city you wouldn’t on your own. For example, our tour guide took us to the 9th where the scars of Katrina are still all too evident, due to a lack of funds for repairs. Abandoned houses still stand next to recently reoccupied ones. Dumpsters, full for years, squat by sagging porches.
Whether done strategically or not, our guide followed our trip through the 9th with a tour of the Garden District, where 700-year-old trees hug extravagant mansions. The contrast is striking. The Garden District is beautiful and can also be explored via a streetcar ride.
Of course, we had to see New Orleans’ famous above-ground cemeteries. There are several, but some cannot be navigated safely, given that they are mugging hotspots.
We also took a bike tour of the Creole area, which focused on the architecture and history of the area. Along this tour we saw one of only two untouched Banksy pieces in the city.
For me, the highlight of the trip was the swamp tour. We expected to motor around the swamp a little and, if we were lucky, we’d spot a gator or two. Fact is, if you avoid tours given aboard those ridiculous airboats, you’ll not only see nearly a dozen gators, they’ll come right up to the boat to be fed—with marshmallows. I cannot recommend a swamp tour enough; if I had done nothing else on this trip, I would’ve been satisfied.
Oh, and yes, I got myself a voodoo doll. This is Madame Scary.