Founded in 1718, the original city of Nouvelle Orleans was centered on the Place d’Armes, today known as Jackson Square. Still the heart of the city, the plaza is dominated by Spanish Colonial architecture like the Cabildo and the Presbytere, both arms of the Louisiana State Museum, and the towering St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest in the United States.
Historic New Orleans spreads from this central point out into the French Quarter, or Vieux Carré, and you’d be hard pressed to find a more romantic stroll in the South. (Although, the nearby Garden District with all its 19th century mansions may give the French Quarter a run for its money.) The neighbourhood’s cobblestone streets exude a classical charm most of the year, but erupt into a colorful, devil-may-care frenzy each winter with the city’s iconic Mardi Gras celebrations. From the first riotous krewe parading its floats down the street to the last bite of cinnamon sugar filled king cake, nobody observes Fat Tuesday like New Orleans.
Bars and beats
The rest of the year, party animals can simply make a beeline for Bourbon Street, cutting through the heart of the French Quarter. Liquor flows freely into cocktails that make no attempt to disguise their strength, from the secretively trademarked Hand Grenade to the kitchen sink Resurrection. New Orleans bartenders have long slung out innovative and wildly powerful tipples.
Between drinks, get down to the quintessential NOLA sound: jazz. Locally born musicians like Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino catapulted their hometown’s home-grown genre to worldwide fame. The legendary Preservation Hall still hosts concerts every night, but music lovers can find a live band at any number of bars and jazz lounges on Bourbon Street.
Museums and day trips
For a break from all this laissez les bon temps roulee, New Orleans is home to several museums. The collection at the New Orleans Museum of Art spans everything from paintings and photography to ceramics and antique furniture to sculpture and film, with works from Europe, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific as well as Native American art. The Backstreet Cultural Museum honours local African-American culture with photographs, costumes, and various artifacts, while visitors can get a peek at new Orleans’ 19th century peak at the painstakingly decorated 1850 House.
Outside the city, there’s ample opportunity to get close to local nature and history. Alligators and hundreds of species of birds, including egrets and bald eagles, roam free among the six parks comprising the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve. Kayak or paddleboard on the Bayou St. John, or sunbathe on Shell Beach. Historic houses like the Whitney Plantation and the Longue Vue House & Gardens only add to tourists’ day trip options.
Centuries of history have created a city as Caribbean as it is Southern. Its culture and cuisine, its art and architecture, all create a one-of-a-kind character. In spite of fires, floods, and hurricanes galore, New Orleans is resolutely full of life.