I’ve waited my whole life to explore the landscape of New Orleans culture, and over the past couple of years, I’ve been consumed with a desire to experience the south. Southern food, language, history, belief systems, all of it. Louisiana is about as south as you can get, and New Orleans was the perfect place to whet my cultural appetite. Affectionately coined ‘The Big Easy’, and renown for everything from the birth of Jazz, deep fried crawfish, Mardi Gras, and more recently, the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans proved to be the ultimate expression of healing old wounds, celebration, cultural survival and a synthesis of modernity and antiquity. I spent 5 days exploring this incredible part of the country, and thought I would start off my New Orleans series with a good ‘ol fashion list of my favourite places to experience New Orleans culture.
1. Jackson Square
Built some 295 years ago, originally a military plaza named Place d’Armes, Jackson Square is now a gathering place for artists, musicians, taro card readers, voodoo kings and queens and any other walk of life you could dream up. With the truly spectacular Saint Louis Cathedral casting a majestic shadow across the square, the Cabildo nestled along the square (once the seat of the colonial government in New Orleans), and the historic French Market just down the way, Jackson square serves up New Orleans culture in various mediums.
2. The Garden District
Once a collection of plantations, the area from St. Charles, in the north, 1st Street on the eastern boundary, south to Magazine Street and Toledano skirting along the west, the area was sold off in small parcels to wealthy American settlers who wanted to escape the ‘Creole-ridden’ French Quarter. Thankfully, this gorgeous neighbourhood of 19th century homes went unscathed for the most part in Hurricane Katrina. A walking tour will explain the various architectural styles and let you peer into the historic lives of those who made it what it is today (I’ll blog more on that later!)
3. City Park
I didn’t know a thing about New Orleans City Park. I saw it on a map, at the end of the cable car line and thought it would be a great way to spend an afternoon. Little did I know I would be frolicking beneath the world’s largest collection of mature live oak trees, some dating back more than 600 years. Here you’ll find Creoles (and tourists) picnicking beneath whispering oaks, listening to live music, or sipping chicory coffee at the Morning Call, one of New Orleans’ oldest coffee houses.
4. The French Market
How could I possibly pass up the opportunity to explore the oldest open air market in the United States? It was also once the only place in the French Quarter that was permitted to sell meat! Today, the market spans a mere 6 blocks, housing a slew of vendors hawking everything from souvenir trinkets, artworks and kitchen gadgets to organic smoothies and the best crawfish tacos you’ve ever had in your life!
5. Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1
I think all of the cemeteries in this city are exemplary of New Orleans culture, but Saint Louis No. 1 is the oldest, dating back to 1789, and the most renown. It is the final resting place of the Voodoo Queen, Marie Laveau, the future resting place of Nicolas Cage (more on that later!) and weaves a fascinating narrative pertaining to burial practices and religious rites. The only way to see this historic cemetery is by taking a guided tour, or by getting permission from the Arch Diocese himself.
6. The French Quarter
If you’re pressed for time, the best way to squeeze in as much New Orleans culture as humanly possible is to position yourself in the French Quarter. It’s hard to believe that this stunning neighbourhood could fall out of favour with any cultural group, but it was all but abandoned by wealthier American settlers who wanted to carve out their own city. Artists, authors and musicians of all backgrounds began to coalesce in the early 1920’s, and after the Second World War, it was brimming with American servicemen. A number of walking tours take you through the Quarter, with commentary on everything from slave owners, architecture, brothels and all things of a ghostly nature!
7. Oak Alley Plantation
To understand the history of Orleans, one has to travel outside to the plantations. Life was very different for a person of colour in the French Quarter, than one who worked the local sugar cane plantations. For obvious reasons, Oak Alley is one of the most picturesque (and most photographed) plantations in the southern United States. The double row of 300 year old live oak trees lull the visitor into a mood of whimsy, and romance. The grand mansion rising up out of the earth like a polished diamond, it’s hard not to be captivated by such a scene, yet also hard to comprehend that this was once a thriving sugar cane plantation where more than 200 slaves lived and worked.
8. Whitney Plantation
The Whitney Plantation is one of the only plantations in the United States dedicated solely to the history of slavery. It’s not located in New Orleans, but a mere 45 minute drive outside of the city, and well worth a visit. The site exhibits powerful, beautiful and heart wrenching displays of slavery, from life-size sculptures of the children who lived here, giant, rusted out sugar cane vats, and includes written accounts of children born into slavery on this plantation, nearly a century ago.
9. Louis Armstrong Park
You only need a few moments in this beautiful park, and I couldn’t possibly leave New Orleans without paying homage to the most influential jazz musician in the world, Louis Armstrong. The park spans 32 acres, and lies on the border of the French Quarter and Tremé (or Treme), historically, one of the most important neighbourhoods for free people of colour.
I have plenty more to say about this enigmatic city, and in the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing plenty of New Orleans travel tips, my own feelings on the history of this region, and in-depth articles on various activities, where to find good eats, where to sleep, and where to find more of New Orleans culture.
Ya’all come back now!