Not for nothing is New Orleans known as “the Big Easy” – its laid-back vibe sets it apart from other cities.
New Orleans took a battering from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the city is gradually returning to normal and opening its arms to visitors in the spirit of true Southern hospitality. This French-flavoured community on the banks of the legendary Mississippi River has seen plenty of good times and bad times, but its infectious joie de vivre is unstoppable.
Founded by the French Regent Phillippe d’Orleans in 1718, the city spent a number of years under Spanish control before returning to French ownership, eventually becoming part of the United States of America in 1803. Sugar and cotton plantation workers came first from Europe and Africa, and subsequent immigration from other continents has given the city its characteristically multicultural flavour. Influences of Creole, African American and French culture can be felt everywhere, from food to architecture, faith to art.
Of course, one of the most famous products of this cultural melting pot is the music for which the city is world-famous – jazz! The slave songs of the cotton fields gradually morphed into the Dixieland sound made famous by locally born legend Louis Armstrong, among others. On any given night in Bourbon Street you can hear great jazz pouring out of the bars and clubs, while the Mardi Gras parades leading up to Lent fill the narrow streets of the historic French Quarter with marching bands and brightly coloured floats.
Jackson Square is a magnet for artists, tarot card readers and street performers, as well as a great place to sample classic Creole cuisine for a fraction of the cost of an upmarket restaurant. Treat yourself to a steaming bowl of jambalaya or spicy gumbo, then cross the street to the historic Café du Monde for one of their famous French-style beignets and a cup of chicory-flavoured café au lait.
The influence of Voodoo is still strongly felt in New Orleans, and guided tours of the city’s ancient cemeteries may well convince you that the spirits are still active. Atmospheric Lafayette Cemetery is often used by horror film crews, while leaving a gift on the grave of the queen of Voodoo, Marie Laveau, in St. Louis Cemetery is said to make wishes come true.
Getting around on foot is easy in this flat and compact city, although it’s fun to take a trip on one of the trams (known locally as street cars) that rattle through the winding streets of playwright Tennessee Williams’ beloved French Quarter, past the ornate balconies and elegant facades of Spanish-colonial houses, hotels and shops. Taxis are plentiful and public transport is cheap and reliable, but parking can be expensive and hard to find and navigating the criss-crossing streets by car can be challenging for those unfamiliar with the layout of the city.