Following disastrous Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005, and the Gulf oil spill of 2010, New Orleans has, each time, reemerged with a bang. Indeed, on a recent visit to the city’s downtown district, it was almost hard to tell that any tragedy had ever struck at all. The French Quarter teemed with shoppers, Bourbon Street revelries were at full blast and the Friday lunchers packed in at Galatoire’s.
While certain parts of the city are looking better than ever, there are still wide swaths of New Orleans that still haven’t recovered from Katrina’s wrath. Gray Line, the tour company that’s better known for its nostalgic looks at New Orleans (from “Oak Alley Plantations” to “Cemetery & Voodoo”), has created a tour that’s a must-do for every visitor to the city who really wants to see, first-hand, the effects of Hurricane Katrina — and a host of other local tour companies have followed suit. Tours focus on the areas outside of downtown, driving through the worst-hit neighborhoods such as Lakeview, St. Bernard’s Parish, the lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly and others. The tours are a sobering and illuminating experience that can be summed up in this comment we overheard about the still-obvious damage: “It’s like a whale. You’ve never understood how big it is until you see it.”
Despite changes good and bad, New Orleans retains the savory character that makes it one of America’s most intriguing cities. The mystique surrounding this Mississippi River city goes way beyond music and revelry and can be credited to its early mix of settlers — Creole and Cajun (along with a bit of influence from the Caribbean) — that even today infect the city’s urban scene, from art to culture to cuisine, with an irrepressible joie d’vivre.
New Orleans Attractions
The French Quarter, New Orleans’ oldest neighborhood, feels like an old movie. This 7-by-15-block area has loads of character with narrow streets, and two- and three-story French- and Spanish-inspired architecture. It’s known for its plethora of bars and jazz clubs, which come to life at night, but the neighborhood is equally fascinating by day. Highlights include shopping along Royal Street, visiting the historic St. Louis Cathedral and people-watching on Jackson Square, a hangout for artists displaying their work on the sidewalk. There’s also a lovely riverfront park with a walking path.
Jazz lovers will feel right at home in New Orleans. The city boasts a musical legacy that includes pioneers like Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden, King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton — but you can opt for traditional venues or more contemporary ones. The city’s best jazz spots are located in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood (at the west end of the French Quarter). Don’t miss Snug Harbor and Spotted Cat. In the French Quarter, Preservation Hall, though not a bar, is a premier venue. Another fascinating stop is the Louisiana Music Factory for its huge collection of jazz recordings.
Organized tours are the best way to gain an insider’s view of local history and lore, and to visit the city’s unique cemeteries, with their rows of elaborate above-ground tombs (many local cemeteries are unsafe for independent visitors, so always go with a group). Among the best walking tours are the French Quarter, Garden District, Cemetery/Voodoo and other tours offered by the well-qualified guides of Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc. Viator also offers a number of walking tours. For bus tours, Gray Line offers a number of excursions, including the aforementioned Hurricane Katrina tour.
The growing museum district around Lee Circle will interest art lovers. The handsome Ogden Museum of Southern Art features artists from throughout the region. The Contemporary Arts Center across the road, a combination theater and gallery, is as interesting for its architecture as for its offerings. Or check out the excellent National World War II Museum, where the highlight is an elaborate reconstruction of the Allied Forces’ landing on Normandy in June 1944. Art lovers may also want to head over to Julia Street, in the city’s up-and-coming Warehouse District, where there are numerous edgy and avant garde galleries.
New Orleans has a serious tradition of voodoo — and you can sample it. Check out the small New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, where blue candles burn continually in honor of Marie Laveau, who was the Queen of Voodoo in the 1800s. Her grave in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 is cluttered with mementos left by her legion of latter-day followers. You can still visit a voodoo temple, and you’ll see voodoo dolls for sale all over town. You can learn all about the practices of voodoo on a Cemetery/Voodoo walking tour with Historic New Orleans Tours, Inc. The tour takes visitors to see the fabled cemeteries of New Orleans — virtual cities with avenues of stately tombs built above ground because the water table is too high for underground burial.
Take a canoe ride down the bayou via Bayou Barn. The company is based at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve — 20 minutes from downtown — where you can sail your own canoe down Bayou des Familles and spot alligators, egrets, turtles, blue herons, bald eagles and more. Guides are available with advance reservations and an additional fee. The park also has walking trails.
New Orleans Restaurants
New Orleans’ famous cuisine draws on the city’s Creole and Cajun influences. Strictly speaking, “Creole” describes descendants of the early French colonists who were born in the New World. The Creoles of New Orleans considered themselves French, and for a long time refused to learn English or associate with those who did.
Cajuns were also French, but they were country folk who had migrated down from Nova Scotia after being expelled by the British. They lived among the bayous and swamps; kept their own French patois, spirited music and dance; and have long maintained their signature spicy cuisine. Both influences are obvious in the delectable local cuisine, French in style but with an added tang of Cajun spice.
Located in the heart of the French Quarter, the Acme Oyster House offers fabulous oyster po’boys in a casual atmosphere. A po’boy, one of the staples of Louisiana cuisine, is a French baguette filled with meat or seafood. The historic Oyster House has been serving locals and visitors alike since 1910.
The century-old Galatoire’s serves classic New Orleans cuisine in a location that’s become a Bourbon Street institution. The restaurant has modified its once-strict policy to allow reservations (in past decades, the line to get in would stretch all the way down Bourbon Street). Galatoire’s traditional menu has changed little since the restaurant first opened in 1905.
Don’t miss a stop at Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter for cafe au lait and beignets (fried dough covered with powdered sugar) — a great snack to break up a long day of sightseeing. Go during odd hours (between lunch and dinner, or very early in the morning), to avoid the incredibly long lines that snake out the entrance to the cafe.
Though Zea is a chain eatery, it’s got a lively atmosphere and fantastic menu — the roast chicken is outstanding. It’s a great family place — and you can take the St. Charles streetcar from downtown.
Sophisticated Court of Two Sisters offers a jazz buffet brunch with a wide array of local favorites — like jambalaya, turtle soup and crawfish — enjoyed to the music of a jazz trio. Classic Creole dinners are served in the evenings.
Shopping in New Orleans
New Orleans is a great shopping city, particularly for art, Cajun and Creole goodies, and of course, Mardi Gras beads. It’s easy to come across one-of-a-kind finds that would be impossible to get elsewhere. St. Claude Avenue boasts “junk shops” that sell reused, recycled and vintage goods, from antiques to eight-tracks. Voodoo shops abound; you’ll find them mostly in the French Quarter. For standard souvenirs, like “Who Dat” T-shirts, key chains and postcards, head to Bourbon Street.
Buying anything on elegant Royal Street requires a hefty budget, but it doesn’t hurt your wallet just to peek at the numerous stores selling estate furniture, Persian rugs and other high-quality antiques. Interesting vendors include James H. Cohen & Sons, which sells antique guns and coins, and Joan Good Antique Jewelry, which sells, of course, vintage jewelry.
Magazine Street, the commercial center of the historic Garden District, is New Orleans’ prime shopping spot, particularly between the 2200 and 3500 blocks. The street features small, unique shops selling antiques, secondhand books, art, fashion and luxury items, with plenty of coffee shops and a handful of restaurants for when you need a break.
In the French Quarter is the famous French Market, open daily, which offers some produce and many stalls loaded with hot sauces and Cajun spices. Beyond is a flea market that is the perfect place for inexpensive souvenirs, from voodoo dolls to Mardi Gras beads and boas.
Looking for brand-name goods galore? You’ll find boutiques and upscale restaurants at The Shops at Canal Place, located near Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. Stores include Coach, Brooks Brothers and Saks Fifth Avenue.
–written by Eleanor Berman and Carolyn Spencer Brown; updated by Sarah Schlichter and Caroline Costello