Difference between revisions of "New Orleans"
Revision as of 19:37, 1 June 2011
New Orleans  is one of the most celebrated cities of the American South, and the largest city in Louisiana (some 350,000 in the city, 1.2 million in the metropolitan area as of 2010, and still re-growing), as well as the state's top visitor destination. The city has a reputation for historical roots, hot and muggy weather, great food, great music, and great times. Despite being hit hard by catastrophic design failures of its federally constructed levee system following Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still the tourist hot-spot it always has been. Jazz music still rules the city's streets and there's still a bit of Mardi Gras all year round.
Nearby communities and suburbs:
New Orleans is known for a host of attributes like its famous Creole food, abundant alcohol, music of many styles, nearby swamps and plantations, 18th & 19th century architecture, antiques, gay pride, streetcars, museums. Nicknamed the Big Easy, New Orleans has long had a reputation as an adult oriented city. However, the city also offers many attractions for families with children and those interested in culture and the arts. It is a city with a majority Roman Catholic population owing to its European origins.
Famous festivals like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest bring in tourists by the millions, and are the two times of the year when one needs to be sure to book well in advance to be sure of a room. The city also hosts numerous smaller festivals and gatherings like the French Quarter Festival, Creole Tomato Festival, Satchmo SummerFest, the Essence Festival hosted by the magazine, Halloween parading and costume balls, Saint Patrick's Day and Saint Joseph's Day parading, Southern Decadence, and so many more. The city takes almost any occasion for an excuse for a parade, a party, and live music, and in New Orleans most events often have a touch of Mardi Gras year round. Like they say, New Orleanians are either planning a party, enjoying one or recovering from one. Party down!
After Hurricane Katrina
In late 2005 New Orleans and the surrounding area was hit by hurricane Katrina. Much worse than the hurricane was the failure of the federally designed levee system; in what has been called "the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history" when some 80% of the city flooded.
New Orleans was not destroyed, but the flood was a severe blow, perhaps the worst disaster to hit a U.S. city since the great San Francisco earthquake 99 years previous. The good news for travelers is that the businesses and historic and cultural districts of most interest to visitors fared relatively well compared to other residential sections of town. Also, since this city has many attractions and a long tradition of catering to visitors, now is a good time to visit New Orleans since crowds are lighter, local merchants are eager to please visitors, and good deals can often be found on accommodations.
New Orleans and it's tourism industry are back. The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is busy. Taxi companies are functioning, as are public transit routes including New Orleans' popular streetcars. The Audubon Zoo, the Museum of Art, the Aquarium, and many other attractions have reopened (and even expanded), and festivals, art openings, and other events again fill the city's schedule.
However, not everything is back to normal in the city; scenes of devastation can be seen in many neighborhoods. More than two-thirds of the city's pre-Katrina population is back living in the city; most of them have a fierce love of their city and have faced many hardships in their continuing efforts to rebuild it bit by bit.
The city's public services - especially police - have struggled to return to their full strength, and are dealing with a city where decades of neighborhood stability have been disrupted. The city overall has experienced an increase in crime as a result. (See "Stay safe" below.)
While some visitors decide to confine their trip to the more fully intact parts of the city or just visit the worse hit areas as part of a half-day "disaster tour", for others the historic events of Katrina and its aftermath are the focus of their visit.
Volunteer projects such as “New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity” which builds new houses has attracted volunteers doing good work.
Many groups on a regular basis document the progress of the city's post-Katrina rebuilding effort. Organizations such as Levees.org are vigilant in encouraging further investigation into the flooding and hurricane protection issues surrounding New Orleans, and visitors to the city are encouraged to tour ravaged areas and help keep alive, the attention needed to restore New Orleans to its original grandeur.
New Orleans and the Acadians
The main culinary tradition in New Orleans is Creole - which means the culture and its cuisine already flourishing when Louisiana was purchased by the U.S. in 1803. The creoles were the peoples originally in New Orleans from its founding, differing from the outback styled Cajuns. Creole has a mixture of influences, including French, German and Spanish with a strong West-African foundation. Creoles cook with roux and the "trinity," a popular term for green pepper, onion and celery. These are the base for many savory dishes.
Despite what many visitors expect, the population, food, music, and traditions of New Orleans are not predominately Cajun. The Acadian or Cajun (from 'Cadien, pronounced kay-juhn) people developed their rich culture in rural parts of Louisiana, south and west of the city. These peoples were descended in a massive diaspora from areas such as Nova Scotia (previously called Acadia) when control of Canada was passed to the British. There are some good places for Cajun food and music in the city-- mainly these are branches of famous Southwest Louisiana Cajun places that opened up locations here. Many Cajuns still live in rural Louisiana. As late as WWII Cajuns were used as French translators for the U.S. Army.
Since the Louisiana Purchase, other major immigrant groups and influences on local cuisine and culture have included Italian (mostly Southern and Sicilian), Irish, Caribbean and Central American. Hondurans are traditionally the largest Hispanic group in the metro area, but after Katrina, there is now an influx of Latinos, mostly hailing from Central America and Mexico that have decided to stay after helping in the construction boom in the aftermath of Katrina. Smaller populations of Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans are also sparsely located throughout the area. In the late 20th century a sizable Vietnamese community was added to the New Orleans gumbo. They can be found around New Orleans East and portions of the Westbank (Marrero, Harvey, & Gretna).
Best time to visit New Orleans is between late November and early June.
The Atlantic hurricane season, which includes the Gulf of Mexico, is June 1 through November 30. The most active month is September.
Louis Armstrong International Airport (IATA: MSY, ICAO: KMSY)  is the city's primary airport, located in the suburb of Kenner. After a severe dip after the disaster in 2005, by late 2006 the airport has rebounded to 3/4 of its pre-Katrina flights with daily flights to/from 37 destinations throughout North America. Additional flights have continued to be added in more recent years. European vacation packages are available from the UK on several British airlines who offer charter/cruise services nonstop to the Crescent City.
To get into town a taxi ($33 for one or two people, $14 per person for three or more) is quickest; that's the flat fee from the airport to any spot in the French Quarter or Central Business District. Limo service is also available for rates starting at $35, and the airport shuttle  is $20. See the airport website  for other options.
A cheap way to get to town is the Jefferson Transit Airport Express route E2-Airport , which is only $2. On weekdays, the bus runs straight down Airline Highway (US 61) to Tulane and Loyola Ave. in the New Orleans Central Business District; the trip takes 45 minutes. (From this intersection, simply walk toward the river, deeper into the central business district, and take a left, crossing Canal Street and into the French Quarter. From Canal Street one can also take the streetcar Uptown or into Midcity.
The Airport bus stop is on the second level of the airport, outside door #7 near the Delta counter on the west end of the terminal, in the median (look for the sign and bench); the stop is a fair walk from the east end baggage pickup, and you'll probably have to ask at an information desk to find it.
Many major hotels have shuttle buses from the airport. Even if you're not staying at one of those hotels, the shuttles can often be a value for those getting in to town if their destination is near one of the hotels.
The main artery into and out of town is Interstate 10, going to the east and west.
By bus or train
Bus and train stations are next to each other at the Union Passenger Terminal (1001 Loyola Avenue), by the edge of the Central Business District and within walking distance of the Super Dome. Both Greyhound  and Amtrak  service the terminal. Three Amtrak routes pass through New Orleans: City of New Orleans, Crescent, and Sunset Limited.
LA Swift  offers service to New Orleans from Baton Rouge. Stops located at Loyola Ave/Howard Ave (in front of the Union Passenger Terminal) and Elk Place/Canal St. $5 one-way.
If you are visiting the French Quarter, casinos, or just the Central Business District, a car may be more of a burden than an asset. Most hotel parking is valet/remote/expensive/difficult at best. New Orleans is ready for visitors, and the rapid transit, trolley cars and buses are plentiful 24/7. Walking is fun and healthy during daylight and early evening. After midnight, you may want to call a taxi, but likely it will be a short trip at reasonable cost. For the best way to see the city, try renting a bike from one of the several bike rental companies in the French Quarter.
With a car
Be alert that the streets of much of the city were laid out before the automobile, especially in the older parts of town of most interest to visitors. There are many one way streets, and in some neighborhoods two-way side streets may be so narrow that cars going one way may need to pull to the side to let vehicles going the other way pass when someone has parked on the street.
Due to consolidation of the underlying soils, potholes are common and road conditions are often poor for a developed country.
Street signage is sometimes unclear or missing, and some signage lost in Katrina not yet replaced, although the situation has been improving significantly.
Parking is often hard to find around many areas of interest to tourists, but there are generally pay lots in the area. Hotel parking can cost over $30/night downtown and in the French Quarter. One garage in the Quarter offers a discount coupon that can be printed out before hand. They only charge $15/night when a customer presents the coupon. Here is a link to the coupon: .
Those who don't know how to parallel park may wish to just leave their car in a pay lot when visiting much of the city.
Without a car
Those staying in or near the French Quarter can easily get around by foot, with optional occasional trips by streetcar, bus, or cab if they wish to visit other parts of town. Bicycle rentals are available on Bienville Street in the French Quarter and Frenchmen Street in the Marigny among other places.
The Riverfront, Canal Street and St. Charles streetcars travel to or near many of the sites listed here. Fares for buses or streetcars are $1.25, 25¢ extra for a transfer (good only on another line but not a return trip on the same line). Express buses are $1.50. Have exact change ready; operators do not provide change.
Public transit is by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority ("RTA") .
Note on Mardi Gras: During Mardi Gras in February, transportation of any sort will be a challenge. If you decide to get your own car, parking will be exorbitant (as high as $10 per hour) in the French Quarter and the City Area. Should you try to get a taxi, chances are you will have to call more than one company, and several times each, before you get a booking. After that, you will probably have to wait an average of 45 minutes to one hour. It is strongly recommended that you do get a car and park close to the streetcars or just outside the city area.
Knowing which way is up
The older neighborhoods of the city, (which comprise nearly 45% of the city), were laid out along the banks of the Mississippi River. Except for the grid of the French Quarter, streets were laid out either following the river's curves or perpendicular to them, not according to compass directions or a grid.
For this reason, locals in these parts of town often don't give directions according to "north, south, east, and west". The four directions, instead, are "up" (or "up river" or "up town"), "down" (or "down river" or "down town"), "river" (or "towards the river" or sometimes "in"), and "lake" (or "towards the lake" or "back" or sometimes "out"). Don't be daunted, this makes sense when you take a moment to understand it.
Look at a map of the city. If, for example, you are taking the streetcar that runs along Saint Charles Avenue from the French Quarter to Carrollton, you see that the route starts off going south, then over some miles gradually turns west, and winds up running northwest. This is because Saint Charles reflects a bend in the river. From the local perspective, the entire route goes one way: up (or on the return trip from Carrollton to the Quarter, down).
Know that Canal Street is the up river boundary of the French Quarter. (Keep going further "up" away from the Quarter and you'll be in "Uptown".)
Some streets are labeled "North" and "South", this reflects which side of Canal Street they are on (despite the fact that Canal Street runs from southeast to northwest). The part of Rampart Street on the French Quarter side is North Rampart Street; the part on the Central Business District side is South Rampart. Also, a good map of the entire city is a must, as people from out of town may have to learn to simply match letters on signs to letters on the map. You see, most street names are French and Creole in origin and may be hard to pronounce. For instance, try to pronounce these example street names : Urquhart, Rocheblave, Dorgenois, Terpsichore, Tchoupitoulas, Burthe, Freret. (For the record, locals say "Urk-heart, Roach-a-blave, Der-gen-wa, Terp-sic-cor, Chop-a-two-lis, B'youth, Fa-ret.") Now you understand.
Many major New Orleans streets are divided, with a "neutral ground" (median) running down the middle. For this reason, the traffic lights have no dedicated cycle for a protected left turn. On streets with a wide neutral ground, there is a solution. Imagine turning from an avenue to a street; the solution is to turn left on green, queue in the stretch of the street between the two halves of the avenue, then proceed once the traffic light on the street has turned green. On streets with a narrow neutral ground, there is not enough room for cars to queue. In these situations, left turns are often prohibited; the solution is to go straight, take the next U-turn, then take a right turn when you arrive back at the intersection. Streets such as Tulane Avenue famously have "No Left Turn" signs posted for miles. In these situations, the adage "three rights make a left" comes in handy.
Detailed listings of attractions are mentioned in the Districts sections listed above. Highlights include:
Day trips outside of town
In addition to year-round attractions, a series of celebrations and festivals provide additional interest:
Although the city has made great strides in its post-Katrina recovery, many neighborhoods like Gentilly and the Lower Ninth Ward remain in need of help as their residents rebuild their lives. Volunteers and work groups do much of the work for organizations like the St. Bernard Project or Rebuilding Together, working alongside homeowners to restore their lives. Annunciation Mission links volunteers to work projects and provides lodging and meals to individuals, mission trips, and groups of all faiths and sizes.
New Orleans is justly famous for the music it produced. There are usually several good performers somewhere in town even on a slow night. Understand that most of the good stuff is not along the tourist strip of Bourbon Street.
The best ways to keep informed about who is playing where and when:
The seafood is fresh and relatively cheap compared to many places. Some think it is often best fried, but you can try seafood of a wide variety cooked many different ways here. Note: Some visitors have recently expressed concern about the safety of local seafood due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Seafood that makes it to the markets and restaurants is safe. Oil affected areas are closed to fishing, and catches from unaffected areas are being inspected in even more detail than usual. Some items, such as oysters, may be in shorter supply.
Oysters are a popular specialty, gulped down raw, battered and fried, in a po' boy sandwich, or elegant Rockefeller style.
There may on occasion be some exotic items on the menu. Yes, you can have alligator if you’d like - it mostly tastes like chicken (but chewier). Try nutria only if you’re very adventurous; many who've tried it say there's good reason eating nutria has never caught on. The softshell crab, on the other hand, can be excellent.
Crawfish (don't say "cray" fish) is a popular dish here, usually boiled in a huge pot of very spicy water and served in a pile with corn and potatoes. If cracking open the shells and sucking the heads isn't your thing, try them with pasta or in sushi or any other way they’re prepared.
Po-boys (don't say "poor boys") are the distinctive New Orleans variation of the sandwich. Unless you request your sandwich put on something else like sliced white bread (while you're in New Orleans, don't bother), it will be served on a po-boy loaf, similar to French bread; bread pundits debate whether the New Orleans po-boy bread is the same thing as the baguette of France or qualifies as its own unique type of bread (some say it actually IS French bread but because of the humidity, the bread ferments very quickly and gets its distinctive taste and texture). Either way, it's good, but only part of what makes the sandwich tasty. The rest is what is put on it, of course. Roast beef with "debris" gravy, fried shrimp, oysters, etc... You'll probably be asked if you want it "dressed". In New Orleans, "dressed" means with lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, and sometimes pickles, depending on the restaurant. Every neighborhood in New Orleans has its favorite po-boy places; the better ones butcher, slow cook, and season their own meats. The po-boy is a great and filling taste of New Orleans at a reasonable price.
The Muffaletta is a sandwich served on a big round airy Italian loaf (also called a muffaletta) which is similar to focaccia, it consists of a variety of sliced meats such as capicola, salami, and mortadella as well as cheeses topped with olive salad. Unless you have a very big appetite, half a muffaletta will probably be plenty for a filling meal. It was created in New Orleans around 1906 at Central Grocery on Decatur where you can still purchase them.
Gumbo is a tasty Louisiana traditional stew, originating in West-Africa and comes in numerous varieties. The vegetable base is traditionally okra (in West-Africa, the Wollof language word "gombo" means okra) with filé (sassafras leaves) used as a thickener. Seafood is the most common meat; but one will just as often find chicken, duck, smoked sausage or "andouille" sausage, the ages-old "gombo d'zherbes" (vegetarian) and other types of gumbo on many a menu. Gumbo is universally served with rice.
Red beans and rice sounds bland, but is a tasty, comforting treat prepared in the New Orleans way. The beans are slowly cooked until they reach a creamy texture, with a mix of onions, bell pepper, celery, and spices. Especially traditional on Mondays. It can be vegetarian but may not be; ask. It is often served with spicy, smoked or "andouille" sausage.
Local fresh produce: Have you heard of Louisiana strawberries, satsumas and creole tomatoes? If not, it's probably because they're so good that locals eat most of them right here! The strawberries come in around Jazz Fest time, satsumas in December and the creole tomatoes in early summer. You may spot "mirliton"; on the menu, a vegetable not common in most of the United States. In Mexico and the Southwest, it is called "chayote", though travelers to Guatemala may recognize it as the same thing that's called "hisquil" down there. Of course, when the first crops come in, there are parties, festivals, and parades commemorating the strawberries, creole tomatoes, or mirlitons.
Bananas Foster might be the most well known Orleanian delicacy served at the end of a fine meal. Consisting of warmed bananas mixed with brown sugar, cinnamon, butter, and rum poured over vanilla ice cream; it is usually made flambe style in front of the customer just before serving. There are a number of restaurants in the French Quarter that specialize in combining the show of making it and serving it as well.
Snow balls or sno-balls are the New Orleans take on the northern "snow cone" or flavored ice done with more finesse. Ice is not crushed but shaved into microscopically fine snow in special machines, and flavored with syrups, fresh made at the better places. New Orleans sno-balls are often topped or layered with sweetened condensed milk, but this is optional. The flavors need not be overly sweet, and can come in a wide variety ranging from striking to subtle, including such treats as wild cherry, lemonade, chocolate cream, coffee, orchid vanilla, and dozens of others. Locals almost worship the better neighborhood sno-ball stands during the city's long hot summer; try the refreshing treat as a snack or desert and find out why. Note, many snow ball shops will close in the winter, as New Orleans is surprisingly chilly between November and February and the demand dies down.
Beignets (pronounced "ben-yays") are a deep fried square pastry covered with powdered sugar. Most famously found at Morning Call & Café du Monde, Beignets are a traditional New Orleans treat enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Beignets are traditionally served in orders of three with café au lait.
Café au lait is a coffee served half brewed coffee and half hot milk. Coffee in New Orleans differs from any other coffee in the world. During the Civil War, coffee beans were very scarce. The local French extended their coffee supply by adding ground roasted chicory (the root of endive lettuce) to the brew. New Orleanians became very accustomed to the new beverage, noting that the chicory softened the bitter edge of the coffee while enhancing the robust flavor. Many taste a slight chocolate flavor while drinking café au lait, due to the addition of chicory.
Many restaurants will have hot sauce as a condiment on the table (even Chinese and fast-food restaurants). Louisiana is the creator of Tabasco sauce after all. Although always flavorful, not all New Orleans food will be very spicy hot. Many locals do like to add hot sauce to many dishes. If you can take it, give it a try.
In many of the fine restaurants around town, people take their clothes as seriously as their food. Despite the obnoxious heat and humidity in the summertime, don’t go to these restaurants dressed in shorts/jeans; they won’t let you in. This applies only to the nicest (and some say best) restaurants in town but there are plenty of places that you can wear shorts to (many of which are great too). This is what you've been saving your pennies for.
You can head out the door with an open container of alcohol-- but not in a bottle or can; to try to keep broken glass and jagged metal from filling the street, local laws mandate you use a plastic cup while on city streets and sidewalks. These are known locally as "go cups", and every local bar provides them, usually has a stack of them by the door and the bouncer will take your drink from you and pour it into the cup because bars can be held liable if they don't. Use them, because New Orleans Police are watching for it, especially on Bourbon Street.
Some drinks are noted for their potency, such as the tourist favorite "Hurricane" (a fruit punch and rum drink), which originated at Pat O'Brien's bar but now common in the Quarter, and the "Hand Grenade" (billed as "New Orleans' Strongest Drink") at the Tropical Isle. However, drinking does not have to be about quantity. Popular refined local cocktails include the "sazerac" and the "Ramos gin fizz". Beer lovers should try local brews like "Abita" on tap, from light Wheat to dark "Turbodog" to the quirky "Purple Haze", a raspberry beer loved by some. New Orleanians also love wine.
Those not accustomed to the Southern heat and humidity should be sure to drink more water or other drinks without alcohol than they usually do during the day to avoid dehydration.
Listings of some top choices of the city's famous bars can be found in the neighborhood articles.
Katrina alerted the world to the danger of hurricanes in this part of the world. However if one visits a place vulnerable to natural disaster, at least hurricanes give warning. During the height of the hurricane season, from July through October, be sure to check with the weather service before going to New Orleans, and if a large storm is threatening the Gulf Coast, consider a change of plans. If one threatens the city while you're there, play it safe and leave early; don't wait for an evacuation order to head away from the coast. If you cannot get out of the area you should at least be sure to get to a hotel located on high ground.
Worries about health risks in New Orleans remaining after the post-Katrina cleanup were fortunately unfounded. The main health concerns are the same for the rest of the U.S. South: If you're not accustomed to the sub-tropical heat, drink plenty of liquids and pace yourself in the sunshine. All restaurants and cafes had health and sanitation inspections before reopening after Katrina.
The majority of the city's notorious crime problem is manifested away from the parts of town of interest to most visitors, but always be aware of your surroundings. The Central City neighborhood is having the worst problem, and at present should be avoided by casual visitors. The Bywater area has also been having serious problems, and visitors are advised to check on current local conditions before visiting that neighborhood and take extra care if they go.
While the French Quarter and attractions most visited by tourists are some of the safest areas from violent crimes, beware opportunistic thieves looking for a chance to snatch something from visitors who are not keeping an eye on their valuables. A famous 19th century sign from the Quarter reads: "Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women." Not much has changed. Tourists can be so distracted that they are separated from their common sense and, theoretically, other things. Keep things in your front pockets, and be careful with your digital on Bourbon.
Around parts of the French Quarter and nearby areas with many tourists, visitors can encounter hustlers who will try to get a few dollars from visitors offering anything from a flower to a hat, a foot massage, or even to clean your shoes. Another popular tourist scam is to bet a tourist $20 that the scammer knows where the tourist got their shoes. If the tourist takes the bet, the scammer responds, "You got them on your feet" and demands the $20. Remember that you are under no obligation to talk to people and it's just best to ignore them.
All and all, though, the government and police are aware of the problem and are there to help you, but you can help them (and yourself) also by using one simple rule: use your common sense (as one would do in any other sizeable city). Being alone and utterly drunk is not the the best state to be in when walking through a deserted alley in downtown New Orleans on a regular busy Saturday night, and during massive crowd-drawers like Mardi Gras or Southern Decadence, one should be more careful than on an average Wednesday afternoon.
Last but not least: looking for drugs or illegal activities will not only expose you to danger; if someone you just met is trying to lure you into a strange part of town for something decadent, assume you're probably being set up for a robbery or worse. Also be advised that Louisiana has the harshest sentencing laws in the country as most felonies carry a mandatory prison sentence, so conduct yourself accordingly.
The telephone area code for New Orleans and the nearer suburbs is 504.
There are cyber-cafes throughout the city, with the greatest number in the French Quarter and CBD. Many coffee houses and some bars offer wireless internet connection.
The New Orleans Public Library  has branches around the city. Out of towners can get 1 hour of free internet access on library computers upon presenting photo ID; try to go at a time when school is in session to minimize risk of long waits. Libraries also provide unlimited free wireless internet access.
If you have a car and want a short adventure, drive north on the Lake Ponchartrain Bridge for a thrill. As soon as you get to the other side, start looking for the plentiful seafood offerings: fresh crab and shrimp out of the lake at very reasonable prices. The small cities and towns on the North Shore include Covington, Mandeville, and Abita Springs
I-10 runs east west through the city, I-55 dumps into I-10 West of the city and Pontchartrain; I-59 outflows into I-10 on the East side.
River Road  is home to a stretch of Plantations. The plantations are scattered along the River Road on both sides of the Mississippi between Greater New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Sugar plantations brought in a nice bit of income back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there are some lovely homes with the archetypal oak collonades at the entrance. There are also plantations in the French Creole style. The most popular plantations include Oak Alley , Laura , and San Francisco .
You can also arrange for a swamp tour. Spring at Jean Lafitte swamp is a lovely time to see the swamp iris. Also, the first and longest running prison rodeo is just up the way at Angola . Before and after the rodeo, the inmates sell crafts, such as belt buckles, wallets, original paintings, and the inmates earn money for their families.
If you like to run, there are great road races such as the Red Dress Run (everyone wears a red dress and running shoes, men and women) and the Mardi Gras Marathon.