Even if you have never been there, mention New Orleans and it conjures up images of jazz clubs, nightlife on Bourbon Street, the famous French Quarter, and riverboats cruising the Mississippi. New Orleans is one of America’s most historic and fascinating cities and if you have visited the city before and have seen the usual highlights, there are some offbeat and unusual things you can try on your next trip. Although Hurricane Katrina badly damaged the city in 2005, the French Quarter was left mostly unscathed and today it is business as usual in many of the city’s tourist areas.
New Orleans is a city easily explored on foot. There are many guided walking tours available which show you a different side of the familiar areas of the city; and also offer an unusual angle on the city’s fascinating history. Particularly popular are walks of the Garden District, where your guide will usually point out the mansion that once belonged to the novelist Anne Rice; and haunted French Quarter walks. New Orleans is supposedly one of the most haunted cities in the country and has more than its fair share of spooky stories. Several popular hotels claim to be haunted, including the Omni Royal Orleans, the Provincial and the Lafitte Guest House.
Bourbon Street – named after the Spanish family Borbon, and not the drink – is one of the most famous streets in the world, and is well known for its bars, music clubs and crowds in the evening. This is one of the few places in the country where normal drinking laws don’t apply – bars can serve alcohol any time of night. One of the most unusual drinking places is the Old Absinthe Bar, where a plaque outside lists some of its more famous customers – Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman and Sarah Bernhardt. For a more unusual perspective, take a walk along Bourbon Street in the early morning; you may see the street being hosed down to remove the excesses of the night before.
A visit to one of the city’s famous cemeteries is a must. The cemeteries are unique to the city in that most of the graves are above ground to prevent flooding. The voodoo queen Marie Laveau is buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 and her grave has become something of a pilgrimage site. If you don’t feel like walking, a popular way to experience the landscape around the city is by taking one of the several ‘swamp tours’ on offer. These tours take you through the bayous that surround the city, offering a chance to see the vegetation and wildlife unique to the area; some include a visit to an alligator hunter’s cabin.
The French Quarter, which is the most popular area of the city, is full of surprises if you take the time to look beyond the many bars and jazz clubs. One of the architectural specialties of the city is the hidden courtyards. Creole custom was to have their home oriented to the rear; consequently if you step through many doorways in the area, you will find yourself in a delightful enclosed courtyard. Two of the most beautiful courtyards are hidden away behind the Old Town Praline shop in Royal Street; and the ‘Inn of two Sisters’ restaurant in Royal Street.
Another distinct feature of the area are the narrow town houses, known as ‘shotgun houses’ so-called because you could fire a shotgun down the long hallway and straight through the length of the house. Look for other decorative and architectural details too; an iron gate on Dumaine Street has motifs on it, known as ‘devil’s pitchforks’ which were designed to keep evil spirits away. The fence outside the Cornstalk Hotel on Royal Street resembles a field of corn and was cast in 1859. The Royal Street pharmacy has a perfectly preserved soda fountain that is not in use, but the shop owners could not bear to part with it.
As befitting such an eclectic city, New Orleans has an interesting selection of museums – many of them are small and off the tourist trail. Try browsing the exhibits at the Smith and Sons Hardware Museum, the Museum of the American Cocktail and the National World War II Museum; the latter is located in the city due to the whim of an eminent historian. One of the smallest museums is on the second floor of Arnaud’s Restaurant and displays a collection of Mardi Gras costumes from the early 20th century. The most fascinating small museum is surely the Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter, which consists of two small rooms filled with voodoo artifacts. Make sure you watch the informative film which is included with your entry ticket, and gives a good overview of a practice still considered mysterious and secret to most people.
Most visitors to New Orleans stay on the north bank of the Mississippi and don’t venture across the river to the neighborhood known as Algiers. Just getting across the river is something of an adventure on the little ferry that has been making the trip regularly since 1827. Algiers is a largely residential neighborhood, with lovely 19th century houses, some small restaurants and shops. The most unusual attraction here is Mardi Gras World, which offers a behind the scenes look at the year-round construction of those famous Mardi Gras parade floats and the chance to try on some outrageous costumes.
New Orleans is definitely a city for grown-ups. But if you are visiting with children, one of the most unusual attractions is the park called Storyland. It was constructed in the 1950’s by one of the men responsible for Mardi gras float construction and features huge models of characters from children’s books. Here, there is no such thing as keeping off the exhibits – your children will enjoy being able to climb all over Mother Goose, Peter Pan’s pirate ship and Cinderella’s pumpkin coach.