Built in a swamp, ravaged by fires and floods, and decimated by yellow fever, New Orleans is a study in endurance and contrasts. As you travel through the narrow streets of its most historic districts, spare a moment to think of the miracle that this city still exists, and that you can enjoy it. Here’s a quick intro of how the Big Easy came to be and our take on how to get the most from your visit.
The Early Years
Founded by the French in 1718, New Orleans was under Spanish rule for 40 years. Two major fires destroyed most of the original French architecture, and today, most of what you’ll see in the French Quarter is actually Spanish construction.
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 gave New Orleans to the United States, and the Battle of New Orleans brought an unlikely American victory in the War of 1812. Andrew Jackson led a ragtag team that included pirate captain Jean Lafitte to defeat the much larger and better British forces.
From then, New Orleans grew rapidly, becoming the wealthiest and third-largest city in the country thanks to its position at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Slavery flourished until the Civil War, but large communities of free black people thrived. New Orleans was part of the Confederacy, but it fell unopposed to Union forces just a year into the Civil War.
New Orleans was always a Catholic city, but an eclectic melting pot of immigrants brought and incorporated their own traditions. Voodoo queen Marie Laveau was prominent throughout the mid to late 1800s, blending ancient voodoo traditions with Roman Catholic beliefs. Even today, it’s not unusual to attend Mass on Sunday morning and then stop by a voodoo shop for supplies.
The 20th Century
Jazz music was born in New Orleans in the early 20th century, and finely honed both at the Old Spanish Fort recreation complex and in the parlors of the legendary Storyville brothels. Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong are among the pioneering jazz musicians who called Storyville home. Life was good in the Big Easy, despite a series of hurricanes that remarkably did little damage, even to the low-lying areas that had been dredged to accommodate a growing population.
By the late 20th century, New Orleans had firmly established itself as a place for the world to party, as Mardi Gras and other annual events grew into bigger and bigger spectacles. Yet the city was in trouble. Following the oil bust of the late 1980s, many people had fled for the suburbs, or even to other states, leaving behind an increasingly impoverished urban core.
In late August 2005, Hurricane Katrina set its sights on New Orleans. As Katrina grew to record size and strength, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin took the unprecedented step of issuing a mandatory evacuation.
For many New Orleanians, though, there was nowhere to go. A sizable portion of the population lived without cars, and wouldn’t receive their monthly checks for another three days. The Superdome opened as a shelter of last resort.
Hurricane Katrina spared New Orleans a direct hit, but in the days that followed, 80 percent of the city filled up with water. Thousands were trapped on rooftops, and more than 1,800 lost their lives. Most of the population scattered across the country.
New Orleans Today
New Orleans is no stranger to hardship, and her people are resilient. When the floodwaters eventually receded, the hard work of rebuilding began. New Orleans has been completely revitalized, and its urban core is thriving.
But New Orleans never forgets her past. Touring New Orleans today means taking a stroll through all that has come before. As you tread the narrow streets of the French Quarter, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 1800s.
What to See
From the elegant above ground tombs of St. Louis Cemetery Number One to the Hurricane Katrina exhibit at the Presbytere, next door to St. Louis Cathedral, concentrate on the highly walkable French Quarter. Don’t miss Jackson Square, the former hanging ground turned free-speech zone in front of the Cathedral. Across the street, Café du Monde has been serving up beignets (French doughnuts) and coffee with chicory 24 hours a day since 1862.
You can also catch a streetcar and walk the elegant Garden District, where the Garden District Book Shop stocks Anne Rice, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and other authors with NOLA ties. More than a dozen companies offer walking tours of New Orleans, and most of those companies offer multiple options. Whether you’re interested in ghosts and vampires, voodoo, food, or music, there’s a tour for you. Just be sure to check reviews for whatever company you’re considering.
Where to Eat
It’s nearly impossible to get a bad meal in New Orleans. For fine dining, visit local institutions such as Antoine’s, Arnaud’s, or Brennan’s. For more casual eats, visit the Clover Grill (read the fine print on the menu!), Belle’s Diner, or Napoleon House. Corner stores such as Verti Marte serve excellent hot food from a counter in the back. Hot dog lovers should try a Lucky Dog from a pushcart.
Everyone needs to see world-famous Bourbon Street once, but unless you’re into the college party scene, it’s not worth spending much time there. For a more authentic experience, make your way across Esplanade onto Frenchmen Street. Here you’ll find various nightclubs, the Frenchmen Art Market, and a variety of restaurants that are open late. Preservation Hall Jazz Band is sure to please, as are music venues featuring blues, funk, R&B, rock, reggae or rap. Gamblers can give Harrah’s Casino a try,
Tips for Travelers
- Bring cash: Lots of places don’t accept credit or debit cards.
- Tip liberally: From street performers to tarot readers, many people make their living on tips.
- Be street smart: Know where you’re going, don’t walk alone at night, and don’t flash wads of cash. If someone bets they can tell you where you got your shoes, keep walking.
- Be alcohol aware: Drinking on the street is legal, as long as it’s in a plastic “go cup,” and drinks tend to be strong. Keep an eye on how much you’re drinking, and be sure to stay hydrated.