New Orleans’ 300th birthday – locals pick their Big Easy favourites
Three hundred years ago this spring, Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne founded the settlement of La Nouvelle-Orleans on high ground 100 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River. With Philippe II, Duke of Orleans on the throne of France at the time, the name was a no-brainer.
The original city was centered around the Place d’Armes, now Jackson Square. A hurricane destroyed most of the young city in 1722, so the streets were rebuilt in a grid pattern to create what is now known as the French Quarter.
The French would later hand it over to Spain before it briefly returned to French rule under Napoleon, who subsequently sold the state of Louisiana to the United States for around $11 million, which he planned to use to invade the United Kingdom!
By the 1840s, the busy port's population had doubled – thanks largely to refugees from Haiti's revolution, German and Irish immigrants – and New Orleans was the USA's richest and third most-populated city as well as being one of its most unique and diverse.
The American Civil War put paid to some of that prosperity and its importance as a port waned, as road and rail impacted river traffic. Battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the city and its residents worked tirelessly to restore it to its former glory and tourists have flocked back in their droves.
The list of must-dos in the birthplace of jazz could fill a whole notebook. There are the decadent delights of Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, then there are just some of the local delicacies to try – crawfish, catfish, gumbo, beignets, po’boys. At Mardi Gras, multi-coloured king cakes spring up everywhere to match the blaze of colour throughout the city.
For history and art buffs, there is the New Orleans Museum of Art, the National WWII Museum, Louisiana Children’s Museum, the Southern Food And Beverage Museum or you can visit Chalmette Battlefield, the site of one of the last battles of the American War of Independence. Shop for antiques and, well, everything on Magazine Street or head to Frenchmen Street for an authentic New Orleans music and nightlife experience.
Take a streetcar through the stunning Garden District or head out on the Bayou and get up close and personal with alligators and crocodiles. In short, there are a million and one things to see, eat and experience on a trip to The Big Easy, so to mark New Orleans' 300th birthday, we’ve recruited local experts to give us their recommendations.
Vicki Bristol at The New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau
“New Orleans offers tourists endless experiences to enjoy throughout the year. The city is teeming with places to eat, music to appreciate and its culture is unlike any other. Attempting to narrow down a list of attractions can be a difficult endeavour, but for first-time travellers on short stays, I’d recommend checking at least one box in each of the following:”
“It’s hard to go wrong when choosing a place to eat in New Orleans. Café Du Monde is the place to be for its proximity to the French Quarter and its delicious beignets. At Parkway Bakery & Tavern, you can enjoy a po’boy and see what all the fuss is about. And if you still have room, dinner at Commander’s Palace is an easy choice.”
“Another defining aspect of any good New Orleans vacation is to experience the city’s popular music scene. Preservation Hall offers up some iconic jazz sounds and is merely one example of the city’s living history. If you’d rather blues, The Spotted Cat Music Club is a local favourite. And if opera or classical music strikes your fancy, The Orpheum Theater is a historical venue that often hosts the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.”
Unique cultural experience
“Art, history and stunning architecture are mainstays of the New Orleans tourism experience. A stop at the National World War II Museum sends visitors on a historical journey through one of a kind exhibits, displays and educational experiences. The Arts District of New Orleans has many great works on display for the public. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, check out some of the guided tours of the city such as the Drink and Learn Tours, the Architecture Tours of New Orleans or Mardi Gras Tours.”
Taylor Bruce at Wildsam
“Wildsam Field Guides is a throwback travel series that spotlights the stories of cities through first-person interviews, personal essays, illustrated maps and a city almanac. The field guides are full, offbeat and inviting, like all great cities. In the New Orleans edition, learn about classic Creole cuisine, hurricane history, jazz masters of note, where to order a Sazerac, who makes the best po’boys, and more. Here’s a sample of what New Orleans has to offer:”
Where to drink
“This is the Good Time capital of America, whether you’re rubbing shoulders in a local’s dive or classic cocktail den. And our local favourite is Bacchanal in the Bywater neighbourhood. Opened as a wine outpost in a once desolate area, it’s now a bustling garden of mismatched furniture, live music and flowing rosé. Plus killer views of the barges and cruise ships.”
What to see
Lush landscapes, Creole patina and the Great River make this city ever intoxicating. One lesser-known place to experience the magic of New Orleans is one of its above-ground cemeteries. St. Roch Cemetery, pronounced “rock”, is serene and historic. Visitors leave mementos for answered prayers – “ex votos” — and have since 1876, when the wrought iron gates first swung open.
What to eat
Finding the Creole and Cajun signatures, from beignets to turtle soup to crispy fried chicken, is what NOLA is all about. For a legit seafood po’boy, try Parkway Bakery. This century-old joint on the Bayou has mastered the art of the fried shrimp po’boy. Eat it “dressed” with Zapp’s chips and a cold bottle of Barq’s.
If that's got you hankering for a trip to the Big Easy, or the rest of North America, check the latest deals on flights and hotels here.