Perhaps no city in the U.S. truly embodies the history, spirit, cuisine and culture of its inhabitants as clearly as New Orleans. Named after the Duke of Orleans, the city’s rich history has resulted in a heterogeneous mix of European, African and Afro-Caribbean cultures. It is perhaps the strong influence of these varied cultures and their beliefs that make New Orleans so unique. And while different culturally and even in many instances socioeconomically, New Orleanians share a close-knit community bond that is full of shared experiences (both good and not so good) that is cherished, celebrated and represented in the city’s resilient residents and their hospitality to all that visit their fair (and fun) city.
Founded by the French, then controlled by the Spanish and then back to French rule before being acquired by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans’s French and Spanish influences are evident throughout the city. This influence is especially visible in the architecture in the French Quarter, a 13-by-8 block that was once the original footprint of the city.
“Those old-world influences go beyond the French Quarter to permeate everything from our architecture to our cuisine and our music and beyond,” says Kristian Sonnier, vice president of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Because New Orleans has always been a thriving port city, cultures and traditions from around the world, not just France and Spain, converge here and manifest themselves in practically everything.”
As the largest city and metropolitan area in the state of Louisiana, New Orleans is also known for its music. In fact, it’s the birthplace of jazz and is still home to some of the most accomplished musicians. While the city is fun year-round, many consider spring the best time to visit. “Spring is a great time to be in New Orleans because the weather is mild, and spring is when many of our most well-known festivals take place, including French Quarter Fest and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” says Sonnier. From Stevie Wonder, Aaron Neville, Blues Traveler, Harry Connick, Jr. and Snoop Dogg to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Maroon 5 and Lorde, and so many more, this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which takes place April 28 through May 7, is sure to satisfy the music tastes of all who have the opportunity to attend.
When planning a visit to New Orleans, there’s no better place to start than in Jackson Square, which is located in the heart of the French Quarter. From there, you can stroll around and visit some of the city’s most famous attractions. Because food is such an important part of the city, be sure to stop in Café Du Monde for one of its famous beignets and a café au lait; Galatoire’s, which is known for its classic French Creole cuisine; Antoine’s Restaurant, which is also famous for classic French Creole cuisine and is the oldest, continuously operating, family-owned restaurant in the country; and Brennan’s, famous for its brunch and its signature dessert—Banana’s Foster.
In addition to world-class restaurants, Jackson Square also hosts a uniquely New Orleans event, the Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest. Taken from the third scene of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 play, A Streetcar Named Desire, the contest takes place during the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. The festival is celebrated around Tennessee Williams’s birthday, March 26, and while he was not a native to New Orleans, he lived in the French Quarter and called New Orleans his “spiritual home.” As a playwright, Williams used the city as the setting for several works, including Streetcar and Vieux Carré. The Shouting Contest, which is open to the public, takes place on the fourth Sunday of March, and is a tribute to the iconic Streetcar scene made famous by Marlon Brando in the original Broadway production and reprised in the 1951 film adapted from the play.
If the weather permits during your visit to the French Quarter, take a ride on Steamboat Natchez, which travels up and down the Mississippi River and offers beautiful river views of the city. For a history lesson on New Orleans, check out The Historic New Orleans Collection. In addition, The Cabildo, St. Louis Cathedral and The Presbytère, which are the three central buildings in Jackson Square, shouldn’t be missed. The Cabildo features a history museum and is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed on April 30, 1803; the Presbytere is home to a museum dedicated to Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the city; and the St. Louis Cathedral is one of the oldest cathedrals in the U.S. In addition, Audubon Nature Institute Aquarium and Insectarium is fun for the whole family.
There’s plenty to see and do in other areas of the city, as well. Take a ride along the Uptown Streetcar route and explore the Garden District, Irish Channel and Magazine Street, which boasts six miles of boutiques, restaurants, bars and lounges. In the Carrollton neighborhood, the city suddenly takes on a college town vibe due to the presence of the beautiful campuses of Tulane and Loyola universities. After browsing the shops along Oak Street, one of Carrollton’s main shopping destinations, go visit the Front Gallery of The Columns Hotel for its gorgeous view of St. Charles Avenue and some true southern hospitality in a refined, yet comfortable setting. After a much-needed break (and beverage or two) at The Columns, head over to Cooter Brown’s. This New Orleans favorite is famous for its raw bar, 84 different varieties of draft beer and an even more impressive (and expansive) selection of beers served in bottles and cans. Cap off the night at the counter in Camellia Grill, an old-fashioned landmark restaurant famous for its chocolate pecan pie, grits and its gigantic breakfast omelets, which are served all day and night.
No visit to historic Uptown New Orleans is complete without a tour of Audubon Park, Audubon Zoo and The National WWII Museum. “This is the second most visited destination within New Orleans, ranking behind the French Quarter,” says Sonnier. “This museum is really more like a campus of museums that focus on all theaters of the war. It’s amazing.” Sonnier recommends visiting Commander’s Palace, which is a local favorite for its delicious French Creole cuisine and Frenchmen Street, which is a great area for live music, dining and bars. Also, be sure to check out Crescent Park, which offers great river views of the city, and City Park, which boasts a golf course, festival grounds, a sculpture garden, a botanical garden, walking trails, boat rentals, amusement park, golf and putt-putt golf and playgrounds. The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA), which is the city’s largest and oldest art museum, is also considered a must-see while visiting New Orleans.
For myriad reasons, New Orleans is clearly unlike any place else. It’s truly eclectic and genuinely unique. New Orleans is a melting pot infused with the characteristics (and characters) of the community and injected with the seemingly endless energy supplied from the people that come for a visit. “It is called ‘Land of Dreams,’ ‘The City That Care Forgot’ and ‘The Big Easy,’ among others, and all of these names are applicable,” says Sonnier. “You simply feel different in New Orleans, in a lovely way that is hard to describe, but you will never forget it once you’ve experienced it.”
Spring is the perfect time for a road trip! Don't miss the popular Cherry Blossom festivals held throughout the United States!