A beginner’s guide to New Orleans
The Big Easy isn’t your usual North American city. Crammed full of French and Spanish creole architecture, hemmed in by Lake Pontchartrain to the north and enclosed by a huge looping meander of the Mississippi to the south, it’s about as unique as they come in this part of the world. It’s laid back, easy going and welcomes visitors like they’re old friends. Here’s what you need to know if you’re planning to visit.
From the UK, getting there just got a whole lot easier. Direct flights with British Airways from Heathrow begin at the end of March. They’re going to be a little more expensive than the indirect options but convenience may be worth paying for, particularly if your travel dates match up (the direct service operates several days a week only). Indirect, flights hubbing via Atlanta with Delta are likely to be the cheapest option, but don’t rule out other carriers. The #202 Airport Express bus (sometimes referred to as the E2) is the cheapest method of transport between the arrivals hall and downtown but of course the use airport shuttles and taxis are available.
If you want to arrive overland, then consider one of the Amtrak trains that serve New Orleans. The Crescent takes 30 hours to make its way south west from New York stopping at Philadelphia, Washington and Atlanta, while the City of New Orleans is quicker, taking 19 hours to travel south from Chicago via Memphis. Single travellers will find the roomettes a tight squeeze; I had just a small wheelie and we just about fitted, me and my bag. Book early as this isn’t a cheap option unless you can cope with a reclining seat. The good news is that once you arrive, it’s a quick trolley ride into the French Quarter from the railway station.
Much of the historic downtown area known as the French Quarter is a delight on foot (so long as it’s not raining heavily). But New Orleans also has a very useful public transport network which is convenient to use and budget-friendly. Planning your accommodation so that you stay near to a tram stop can make your holiday a whole lot easier.
There’s plenty of information online including maps:
Trams are fun to ride and simple to find. The shortest, the #2 Riverfront streetcar, links the French Quarter with the Outlet Mall at Riverwalk. The #47 Canal streetcar takes you from the edge of the French Quarter past St Louis Cemetery No. 1 and up as far as Greenwood Cemetery. The #48 follows a similar route and then heads to City Park. The #12 St Charles streetcar is great for the Garden District and Audubon Park. Single tickets are $1.25 but a 1 day Jazzy pass only costs $3 if you’re planning on making a few journeys. Crossing the river is also worth doing. You can take the ferry from Canal Street to Algiers Point for just $2. Check out the schedule here:
Where to stay
Being central to the action is key in New Orleans. It’s the kind of place where you can wander aimlessly, drink in hand, and you don’t want to have to end your evening trying to find a cab. I’ve stayed in a couple of places that are worth recommending. Both are located within staggering distance of the #2 Riverfront streetcar. If you’re on a budget, try Villa Convento. It’s atmospheric and reputedly haunted, a Creole townhouse dating back to about 1933.
Some say it’s the House of the Rising Sun, made famous by The Animals in the 1964 song. Renovation work has taken place though some parts of the hotel are a bit shabby – the lift being one of them – but ask for a room with a balcony and you should be fine. It’s website is here:
At the other end of the same streetcar line is the Marriott Downtown at the Convention Center. Ask for a room in the historic half of the hotel which has more style. I like it because you alight at the Julia Street station. Mulate’s restaurant is also nearby though when I went there the food didn’t live up to my admittedly high expectations.
If you’re on a tight budget, there are loads of ways to save money while you’re in the Big Easy. For tips on how to save money on everything from food, drink and attractions to where to find free walking tour maps, check out my previous blog post:
What to see
There’s a ton of places that are worth seeing and doing in New Orleans, so what follows should get you started if it’s your first visit.
The French Quarter
You can’t visit New Orleans and not go to the French Quarter. Amidst its streets, you’ll find the 18th century almost Disney-esque St Louis Cathedral which commands a prominent position on Jackson Square. Opposite, the Cafe du Monde is the place to eat beignets and drink the chicory-rich coffee; it’s tourist central, but a must none the more for that.
Take a horse and carriage ride from here through the surrounding cobblestone streets of the Quarter. You’ll get your bearings as you clip clop through the Vieux Carré past mansions with wrought iron balconies intertwined with trailing plants and hidden courtyards glimpsed through open doorways.
Music on Frenchmen Street
Forget Bourbon Street, which has almost become a caricature of itself. In my opinion, you’re much better off heading to Frenchmen Street. You’ll find it in the nearby Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood. There’s at least twenty or so bars and clubs where you’ll find live music. Although the action kicks off in the late afternoon, the later it gets the better the atmosphere. Some places have cover charges, others require the purchase of food or drink. Others require just a tip for the musicians. My advice is to head down there and check out what’s on during your stay. If you do want to get some advance research in, check out this site:
St Louis Cemetery No. 1
One of the most interesting things to do while in New Orleans is to visit at least one of its Catholic cemeteries. Begin with St Louis Cemetery No. 1. This is the oldest, opened in 1789. It is characterised by above ground tombs, a nod to the city’s swampy and flood-prone location. The most notable “resident” is Marie Laveau, Voodoo priestess, a religion very much alive in New Orleans to this day and a fascinating topic to explore. She rests among aristocrats, politicians, engineers and architects. Actor Nic Cage has a plot here; look for the pyramid. Since 2015, independent visiting has been prohibited after vandals spray painted Marie Laveau’s tomb. You’ll need to take a tour. Options include booking via the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries or Free Tours on Foot; I’d recommend Gray Line, especially if Sandy’s rostered on.
The mansions of the Garden District
The Garden District’s wide avenues and huge mansions with even bigger gardens contrasts with the downtown feel of the French Quarter. Many of these mansions have a story to tell, their original owners making their fortunes off cotton and other mercantile activity, and a walk around the area is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. In the midst of the mansions, you’ll find another atmospheric cemetery: Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. The cemetery was first planned out in 1832, making it the oldest of New Orleans’ seven cemeteries, and can be visited without having to book a tour.
Mardi Gras World
If you can’t get here in February for Mardi Gras, then at the very least you should pay a visit to Mardi Gras World down by the Convention Centre. The building houses an enormous collection (both in scale and number of exhibits) of former floats, props and other carnival-related paraphernalia. Guided tours are possible and will show you around; you’ll get to see some of the costumes and props being made for the next carnival. Many are revamped and recycled. One thing’s for sure: the colours will blow your mind!
Across the Mississippi lies the sleepy residential neighbourhood known as Old Algiers. It was first settled by Jean Baptiste le Moyne in 1719, who had a plantation here. It has a dark past, site of a slaughterhouse and also an 18th century holding area for African slaves. The ferry you take to get here has operated since 1827, fiercely protected by the Algiers residents from any attempt by the city authorities to close it down on economic grounds. It’s well worth a wander to explore the 19th century homes here, and of course a coffee stop in the corner cafe at the junction of Alix and Verret Streets.
The steamboat you’ll see churning up the Mississippi isn’t the first to be named the Natchez. It’s actually the ninth and dates only from 1975. It’s also not modelled on its namesake predecessors, pinching its design instead from steamboats Hudson and Virginia. Her engines came from the steamboat Clairton and were made in 1925; her copper bell came from the SS JD Ayres. So she’s a bit of a mongrel, really. Nevertheless, cruises for lunch and dinner are a popular addition to many people’s itineraries. Even if the food doesn’t impress, the music’s good and it’s interesting to head down to the engine room to have a closer look.
Hurricane Katrina tour
Despite it being over a decade since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Big Easy with devastating consequences, there are still parts of the city that bear its scars. I took a Gray Line tour in 2012 and was shocked to find so many houses still covered with blue tarpaulins and bearing the red crosses of the search teams on their doors and windows. Returning a few years later in 2015, I was less surprised to see boarded up houses as the train made its final approach into the city. Time may heal the hurt and dissipate the shock, but the economic impacts on an individual scale linger long after the city proclaims it’s open for business again. New Orleans will always be vulnerable to the impacts of hurricanes, and exploring what happened in 2005 will help you understand why.
For more on New Orleans, why not read my article on etrip.tips?