Wild, unchecked, maybe a little scary, people have called NOLA many things, but no one has ever called it dull. Many literary Americans from Mark Twain to William Faulkner, from Tim Robbins to Bob Dylan have attempted to pinpoint the charm of New Orleans. But the city has so many that even their best efforts have failed to encompass them all.
People gravitate to the mysterious and steamy air of New Orleans by the millions. With a reputation for Old-World decadence and festive flair, NOLA hosted nearly 11 million visitors in 2017. Some are attracted to its occultist vibe, with haunted houses on every corner. Others, enthralled by the liberal liquor laws, enjoy strolling down Bourbon Street, holding rich, sweet intoxicating concoctions in souvenir cups. Some love the French flavor of the city, while others gravitate toward the elegant, old architecture in the various districts. And some are just there for the jazz.
New Orleans Today
New Orleans’ unique history marks its place in the fabric of the nation, and that spirit continues to this day. In the years following the Civil War, NOLA continued as a cosmopolitan and vibrant city, with a fascinating diversity of languages, ethnicities, and cultures.
It made the international stage again in August 2005, when the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina resulted in severe flooding throughout 80 percent of the city. Poor engineering and even worse construction resulted in over 1,500 Louisianans dead. Thirteen years later, many neighborhoods and buildings stand abandoned as they were after the storm.
However marked by political corruption, New Orleans is redeemed by its progressive spirit and has provided a legacy of food, music, and myth that have become foundational to American culture.
The Districts: Must-See NOLA Places, Landmarks, and Cultural Spots
New Orleans is known for its elegant and iconic architecture. With over 300 years of history, the city hosts many landmarks and fascinating features to visit on your trip.
1. The French Quarter
The Vieux Carré, also known as the French Quarter, is one of best-known tourist destinations in NOLA. Established by the French in 1718, choosing the location based on its convenient location to the river, the Gulf of Mexico, and Bayou St. John. Previously abandoned by the native Quinipissa people, the site boasted higher elevation than much of the surrounding areas.
The Quarter brings history to life as the oldest neighborhood in the city. Its signature architecture, a blend of Spanish and French Styles, lines the narrow streets. Many buildings enjoy enclosed courtyards, influenced by earlier Spanish colonists. Lacy cast-iron balconies line every floor of the French Quarter, giving it a distinctive ornate look. Within the Quarter, you’ll find numerous historical and cultural spots of interest all within walking distance.
2. The French Market
New Orleans’ open-air French Market draws visitors with its five-block-long array of produce, crafts, and other goodies. Originating in 1791 as a trading post, it eventually received a redesign in the 1800s by Joseph Abeilard, one of the country's first African-American architects. It now resembles a bazaar, with high-vaulted ceilings and columned sides, open to the breeze. Vendor sections include a Farmer’s Market, Craft area, Flea Market and prepared food stalls, including the end cap section that houses the Café du Monde.
3. Jackson Square
Originally named the Place d’Armes by the French when New Orleans was a French colony. However, inspired the Haitian Revolution and the rampant slavery (which had more than 3,000 slaves at the time) in New Orleans, in 1811, hundreds of slaves staged an uprising. Hundreds of men walked off nearby plantations and marched on New Orleans, armed with hand tools and farm implements. Along the way, they burned down several plantation houses, sugar mills, and crops. The uprising ended badly for the rebels, with the heads of some displayed on pikes within Jackson Square.
You’ll find Jackson Square on Decatur Street, between the Jax Brewery Shopping Center and the French Market. Renamed after the War of 1812 battle between the U.S. and Great Britain where the British attempted to invade the city. General Andrew Jackson defeated the invaders on January 8, 1815.
Jackson Square is an open green space and park featuring three bronze statues of the general. Around the square, lined up along the wrought iron fence, painters ply their trade. Watch as they work or have your portrait sketched by one of the many talented artists.
4. St. Louis Cathedral
St. Louis Cathedral stands as an iconic symbol of New Orleans and is instantly recognizable across the world. Initially built in 1727 and named for the French Sun King, Louis XIV, it’s the oldest continuously active Catholic Church in the U.S.
The original structure burned down in the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 were 856 buildings were destroyed. Interestingly, another blaze followed in 1794 and burned 212 buildings and the church we see today was finished in the 1850s. The exterior brings French and Spanish architecture together in a seamless blend. The walkable plaza looks out over Jackson Square, and the St. Anthony Garden in the rear features a statue of Jesus, whose shadow is cast on the Cathedral at night by floodlights.
Other than scheduled weddings, funerals, and mass, the cathedral remains open so visitors can see the stained glass windows and religious artwork. The vaulted ceiling features medallions of religious scenes that soar high above the organ loft across from the elaborate gilt altar.
5. The Cabildo
Next to the St. Louis Cathedral, you’ll find the Cabildo, built in the late 1790s, which once housed the Spanish colonial government, as the Treaty of Paris firmly transferred ownership of New Orleans to Spain in 1763. The Louisiana Purchase was signed here, in the Sala Capitular.
Interestingly, Spain returned New Orleans to the French in the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800. It took two years for King Charles IV of Spain to finalize it, only to see Napoleon Bonaparte sell the whole lot to the United States under the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. France regained official control of New Orleans for only 20 days.
Currently, it serves as a museum to highlight the city and state history, featuring original artwork and historical artifacts.
6. The Presbytere
On the other side of the Cathedral, you’ll find the Presbytere, named for the Capuchin monks who previously lived on the site. Constructed after the Good Friday Fe of 1788, it served as a courthouse and now houses a vast collection of Mardi Gras artifacts. Some of its most noteworthy displays are the elaborate feathered costumes and decorated masks worn by revelers down the ages.
7. New Orleans Jazz Museum
As the world knows, New Orleans gave us jazz, from which all modern music was born. Located in the Quarter on Esplanade Avenue, you’ll find the NOLA Jazz Museum, which features interactive exhibits and educational programs. Once the home of an official U.S. mint, you’ll also see artifacts from that era.
8. Bourbon Street
With a reputation that evokes the envy of even the most hard-core Spring Breaker, Bourbon Street rules the night in New Orleans. Located in the French Quarter, bars, taverns, and nightclubs line the street and open their doors all hours. Passersby can peek in and check out the action. You’ll see live performances of all types, from acoustic sets to jazz ensembles to burlesque dancers in all their finery (or lack thereof.)
Many of the pre-fire buildings that survive to this day stand on Bourbon Street, including the Creole cottage that now houses Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop, built around 1772.
Popular for partygoers because of the city’s lack of “open container” laws, visitors can stroll along Bourbon Street with their favorite cocktail and see the sights on this pedestrian-friendly avenue. In fact, pubs and bars vend on the sidewalk, selling their house specialty cocktails in brightly colored, LED-lit souvenir cups.
9. Royal Street
If Bourbon Street rules the night, Royal Street rules the day. One block over, you’ll find the Quarter’s hub of fine arts, crafts, and antiques along Royal Street. Window-shop as you stroll under the intricately decorated balconies. You’ll find boutiques and antique shops stuffed with fine old silver and jewelry as well as well-preserved home furnishings from bygone eras.
The Garden District
To the delight of lovers of old homes, the Garden District in New Orleans features stately mansions from the early 1800s. Located upriver from the Quarter, you’ll find whimsical street names based on the muses of Greek mythology lined with Greek Revival and Italianate homes.
Named for the elaborate gardens throughout the neighborhood, the Garden District features historical landmarks, including the Women’s Guild of The New Orleans Opera Association. You’ll also see the Brevard-Rice House, once owned by author Anne Rice, who rose to fame based on her books about vampires who hunted the streets of colonial New Orleans. Of the homes that still survive today, one of the most outstanding is the Buckner Mansion, which featured in the television series, “American Horror Story: Coven.”
Magazine Street serves as the commercial hub of the district, stretching for six miles into the Uptown district. Along with the Greek Revival style that populates the Garden District, you’ll also see charming, ornate Victorian homes. Lined with coffee shops and cafes, Magazine Street offers a host of high-end shops, art galleries, and antique shops.
1. Faubourg Marigny
Cradled between the Upper Ninth Ward and the Quarter lies the Faubourg Marigny, or Marigny neighborhood. “Faubourg” is Old French for "suburb," and many NOLA neighborhoods and streets retain their French names.
Once the land of an outrageously stylish Creole plantation owner, Bernard de Marigny, and featuring Spanish and French architecture blended with Caribbean style, the neighborhood includes the famous Frenchman Street, where locals go for live music.
2. Frenchman Street
If you find the nightclubs of Bourbon too gaudy, you’ll find more discrete establishments on Frenchmen Street. This is where the real music of New Orleans plays, and prices consider the local market instead of the tourist dollars. You’ll also find Art Garage, formerly the Frenchmen Art Market, to buy works from local artists. The venue runs on the third Saturday of the month from 6 p.m. until midnight.
3. Faubourg Tremé
Usually simply called Tremé, its claim to fame is as the country’s oldest black neighborhood. Located northwest of the Quarter, Tremé is the historical home of New Orleans’ free people of color and still retains its unique mixed culture, combining both African-American and Creole traditions.
Once called the “back of town,” it’s located on the far side of the Quarter, away from the Mississippi River. Tremé is one of the few places in the U.S. in which free black people regularly owned property before Emancipation. The neighborhood still celebrates its inspirational role in the story of American slavery with several impressive landmarks.
4. Congo Square
Although it’s easy to assume the name is in bad taste, Congo Square marks an important historical site. The square served as a meeting place for free blacks and slaves for commerce during the 1800s. Initially named Place des Nègres, slaves sold goods they made in Congo Square to buy their freedom. After the Civil War, the square provided an open-air marketplace for the neighborhood.
5. Backstreet Cultural Museum
It seems fitting that a former funeral home houses this Tremé museum. The Backstreet Cultural Museum displays memorabilia from jazz funerals and other New Orleans traditions. It also hosts Mardi Gras artifacts, including the flamboyant costumes worn by parade marchers. The museum seeks to preserve NOLA’s unique African-American heritage.
6. St. Augustine Church
St. Augustine is the oldest African-American Catholic Church in the country. Originally established by the Tremé free people of color, the church opened in 1842. St Augustine found fame with the “War of the Pews,” which occurred after the church’s dedication. At the time, families paid for pews to sit on during mass. Nearby whites began a campaign to buy up the seats to exclude the black churchgoers. As a result, the free blacks retaliated by purchasing two additional pews for their slaves, and thus, won the war.
The Arts / Warehouse District
North of the Garden District, and tucked between downtown and the river, lies the Arts District. Once known as the Warehouse District, it now hosts museums and galleries for lovers of the arts. Once a bustling port that fell into ruin, the renovations started in 1976 with the opening of the Contemporary Arts Center. The Arts District also features several museums, including the Children’s Museum and the World War II Museum.
1. Contemporary Arts Center
Featuring rotating exhibits of visual and performing arts, the Contemporary Arts Center also provides children’s education programs, workshops, and summer camps. The first Saturday in October brings the White Linen Night, while events like SweetArts and Bourbon & Burlesque keep the adults amused.
2. The National WWII Museum
The National World War II Museum is America’s official museum for everything involving the Second World War. Covering the lead up to the war in the 1930s to the final days of the war in the Pacific, history buffs will love this comprehensive look at one of America’s defining eras.
3. Julia Street
Nicknamed “Gallery Row,” Julia Street in the Arts District features galleries on either side as you stroll along. On White Linen Night, live music fills the streets, and galleries open their doors to receive visitors and host artists’ receptions. Those who attend try to match the White Linen theme in their sartorial display as a nod to the days before air conditioning when white linen was the most comfortable option for a hot August night. Art Walk is held on the first Saturday night of the month when once again, galleries open their doors, and artists host shows with wine and cheese.
New Orleans is famous for unique cemeteries, and you’ll find tour guides ready to walk you through and provide their histories. Because so much of New Orleans is below sea level, most of the old cemeteries consist of aboveground crypts and mausoleums. Featuring funereal embellishments, many fine old statues and carefully tended gardens inhabit these “cities of the dead.”
1. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
With a worldwide reputation, you’ll find these sacred grounds near the French Quarter. St. Louis No. 1 boasts the final resting place of Marie Laveau, the “Voodoo Queen” of New Orleans. Every day, tourists and followers visit her crypt and leave offerings and write “x” on her tomb, hoping her power will fulfill their wishes.
2. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1
Located in the Garden District on Washington Avenue, Lafayette Cemetery features rows lined with crypts from 1833, which quickly filled up after waves of yellow fever hit the city. One of the most famous residents of the Lafayette Cemetery is the Karstendiek family, whose tomb served as inspiration for Anne Rice’s vampire novels. The Save Our Cemeteries nonprofit launched an effort to restore the cast-iron crypt in 2016.
3. St. Louis Cemetery No. 2
Located in Tremé, St. Louis No. 2 was established in 1823 as a result of pestilent diseases like cholera and yellow fever. At the time, people believed these diseases spread from the burial grounds. At the time, it was quite far from the center of the city. St. Louis Cemetery No. 2 is the final resting-place of Andre Cailloux, one of the first African-American Union officers to die in the war against the Confederacy.
NOLA Natural Landmarks and Parks
Along with impressive and ancient man-made structures and fun, modern venues, New Orleans also features many beautiful and peaceful natural spots to enjoy outdoor activities during your NOLA vacation.
1. Lake Pontchartrain
Covering 630 square miles and measuring over 40 miles wide, Lake Pontchartrain is awe-inspiring. Although called a lake, it’s a saltwater estuary connected to the Gulf of Mexico. Early American cultures settled the area around New Orleans over 3,000 years ago. Native people created a trade route by building a portage between the lake and Mississippi River that exists today as Bayou St. John.
The bridge that spans the lake, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, is the longest of its kind in the world. If you plan to travel the Causeway, first check their website for traveler alerts.
Surrounded by cypress swamps and marshes, conservationists work diligently to help the estuary maintain its delicate ecological balance. The lake is home to fish and waterfowl of all kinds. This fact has given NOLA a reputation for fine cuisine made from exciting ingredients. You’ll find many local fishing, boating, and hunting charters in the area.
2. Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge
On Lake Pontchartrain, you’ll discover the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, which covers over 24,000 acres and welcomes thousands of visitors while they drive through the refuge along I-10 to New Orleans.
3. Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area
On the other side of Lake Pontchartrain lies Maurepas Swamp Wildlife Management Area, which features nature walks and allows fishing, hunting, boating, and camping. Make sure you’re familiar with the local regulations and required licenses before fishing or hunting in or near the lake.
4. Bayou St. John
Once more extensive than the narrow waterway we see today, Bayou St. John links the Mississippi River with Lake Pontchartrain, forming a strip of waterfront and parks along the east side of City Park. Located between the Lakeview and Gentilly Districts, City Park features the New Orleans Botanical Gardens. Kayaking and paddleboarding are all favorite activities. You can rent either from local vendors during the warmer months of the year, which in NOLA spans from March through December.
NOLA Places to Eat and Drink
1. Cafe du Monde
Located at the far end of the French Market in the Quarter, the Café du Monde has stood the test of time since opening in 1862. The café is famous for its lightly fried beignets, a fluffy French doughnut covered in sugar. Their coffee is a blend of chicory root and ground coffee, adapted during the lean Civil War years. They serve it black or mixed with hot milk. Only closing on Christmas and during hurricanes, the Café du Monde remains open 24 hours a day.
2. St. Roch Market
You'll find St. Roch Market in Marigny on St. Claude Avenue. Once an open-air market, the Great Depression left it on the verge of extinction. A 20th-century renovation turned it into a seafood market. Now, it hosts many hungry visitors within its columns. A dozen or more individual food vendors provide regional dishes, baked goods, and happy hour specials.
3. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop
On the corner of Bourbon Street and St. Philip Street in the French Quarter, you’ll find the legendary Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Reportedly one of the oldest buildings in NOLA, the tavern enjoys a reputation as haunted too. Built in the Creole Cottage style of the 1770s, it was listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1970 and now features a broad cocktail menu and a live piano player.
4. Willie Mae's Scotch House
Situated on St. Ann Street in Tremé, Willie Mae's Scotch House gained fame for its fried chicken. Owner Willie Mae even won the James Beard award in 2005 for “America’s Classic Restaurant for the Southern Region.” Passing in 2015, her granddaughter now keeps the secret recipe alive in this casual lunch spot.
5. Snake & Jake’s Christmas Club Lounge
This Garden District eatery on Oak Street has been voted NOLA’s Best Dive Bar several times. Housed in an unassuming-looking, even dilapidated shack, its claim to fame is its laid-back, almost nurturing vibe. Once featured on Anthony Bourdain’s "Layover" series, Snake & Jake’s still feels very local with drink prices to match despite its fame.
6. Parkway Bakery
It sounds like a tea shop with pastries, but Parkway Bakery and Tavern is a full-service pub food hub in Mid-City. With live music and a dance floor, Parkway specializes in “po’boys,” the regional iteration of the sub sandwich. Established as a bakery in 1911, the shop added po’boys in the late 1920s as a 24-hour operation catering to local factory workers. It now also serves golden fried fish and seafood along with a host of other Creole-style comfort foods.
7. Peche Seafood
When visiting the Arts District during your NOLA vacation, try the Peche Seafood Grill on Magazine Street. With an open, wood-fired grill, Peche specializes in local seafood. The Times-Picayune named this fresh, contemporary restaurant one of the Top 10 restaurants in NOLA for two years running. Dishes revolve around local produce and Gulf and inland seafood, including catfish and crawfish. Despite its stellar reputation for gourmet quality, the restaurant remains very casual.
NOLA Music: The Birthplace of Jazz
Whether you like your jazz Dixieland style or smooth, there's something for every music lover in The Big Easy. Along with brass bands and string trios, you'll find rhythm and blues, rock and roll, and probably some folk and country music, too.
1. Preservation Hall
You’ll find jazz club, Preservation Hall, in the French Quarter, on St. Peter Street. Established in 1961 to maintain New Orleans’ jazz traditions, this rustic-looking music venue is a big hit with tourists and locals alike. It started with pick-up jam sessions during the explosion of rock and roll in the ‘60s, when the hall offered old-school jazz players a chance to shine. Now, over 100 jazz musicians rotate performances in the venue.
2. Neutral Ground Coffee House
Unlike most entertainment and hospitality venues, the Neutral Ground Coffee House is a non-profit organization staffed entirely by volunteers. It features live music, open mic nights, stand-up comedy, and poetry readings. Located in the Garden District, you can chill and enjoy the show while sipping coffee and eating baked goods after a day of shopping along Magazine Street. It also has an onsite library and board games for customers.
3. Old Point Bar
On the Westbank in the Algiers neighborhood, you’ll find Old Point Bar. Grab the ferry from the Quarter to enjoy rock, country, jazz, and blues. Old Point Bar features a large selection of beers for the true connoisseur. There’s an outdoor seating area as well as pool tables and dart boards inside, out of the heat and humidity.
4. Apple Barrel
Located in Marigny on Frenchmen Street, Apple Barrel serves casual pub food and features jazz and blues. Boasting amazing acoustics and fantastic character, this cozy venue is a must-see for music fans visiting the neighborhood.
5. The Jazz Playhouse
On Bourbon Street, the Jazz Playhouse is a great place to start your Quarter pub crawl. With live music, food, and signature cocktails, you’ll find it in the lobby of the Royal Sonesta New Orleans Hotel. There’s a one-drink minimum, but you won’t pay entry fees or need reservations. Enjoy fresh seafood and other Creole favorites during the show. Then finish off with one of the many sweet cordials offered on the menu.
6. Maple Leaf Bar
This hip spot in the Garden District on Oak Street is not just for music. The Leaf flavors itself as a bit of a dive, but it originally opened as a music and chess club. Check out the Rebirth Brass Band, or enjoy the evening air in the outdoor courtyard. On Sundays, they still hold the longest running poetry readings in North America.
Other NOLA Hot Spots and Cold Spots
New Orleans has a plethora of special interest spots to visit and enjoy. Delight in rare collectible books in a historical setting. Or feel chills up your spine as you pass one of the city's many haunted houses.
1. Faulkner House Books
In the Quarter on Pirate’s Alley, the literary-minded can find the world-famous Faulkner House Books. Considered a landmark on the literary landscape, the building once housed Southern Gothic author, William Faulkner, who rented rooms above the store. Avid readers will fall in love with “America’s Most Charming Bookstore.”
2. F&F Botanical Shop
New Orleans merchants know how to play to the city’s strengths, and F&F Botanical welcomes all spiritual seekers. Get your voodoo on at this unique shop in Tremé. You’ll find everything you need for creating a little magic in your life. Voodoo traditions marry Catholicism with island mysticism, so you’ll also see products such as novena candles and incense.
3. The LaLaurie Mansion
Recently renovated, the LaLaurie mansion in the French Quarter lives in infamy. You’ll find it on Royal Street, and there’s no denying its beauty. Built by Delphine LaLaurie in 1832, her reputation for cruelty to her slaves mounted until an angry mob invaded the home after a fire and destroyed everything they could find. The private house doesn't welcome visitors; however, ghost tours often stop by to look for apparitions in the upper windows.
4. Mardi Gras World
Mardi Gras is a fascinating event, particularly for outsiders. But not everyone can get to NOLA on Fat Tuesday to enjoy the festivities. However, you can visit Mardi Gras World, the world’s largest float building facility, and museum. Take the tour and learn everything you need to know about this New Orleans tradition that hearkens back to 1837. And to give you the full Mardi Gras experience, they’ll ply you with king cake and coffee as well.
Take it Easy on Your NOLA Vacation
Celebrating both life and death, and with more sheer exuberance than most cities, New Orleans is unlike any other on Earth. Its mixed heritage history makes it the true melting pot of America, with its open ports, Southern hospitality, and welcoming inhabitants.
Whether you walk on the dark side or the light, NOLA has something for everyone. Many fine authors and wordsmiths have attempted to capture its rich, vibrant soul, but New Orleans requires more than words. It must be experienced.
Written by Fawn Neun. She has been writing since she was 16 -- far too young to enjoy NOLA's many charms but certainly old enough to know what she was missing. She currently lives on the Gulf Coast in Florida with her husband and pets where she writes for Trekbible and edits both fiction and nonfiction
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