By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Luis Eduardo Guillén
New Orleans is definitely one destination you must visit. Aside from being a European jewel in the United States, world-famous for playing a major role in the history of jazz and blues, it is truly unique. People came to this Mississippi River port in the state of Louisiana from all over the world, combining cultures and traditions to forge the identity of this shining, magical city.
This multiculturalism is linked to the city’s origins. Founded by the French in 1718, the city was later ceded to Spain (between 1763 and 1801) as compensation for services rendered to France by the Spanish in the battle against their common enemy: England. In 1803, Napoleon Bonaparte decided to sell the territory to the fledgling United States. Add to this cocktail of cultures the Native American legacy and the enormous influence exerted by the Africans who came to the city as slaves during colonial times.
To absorb this cultural and historical heritage you have but to walk around the French Quarter, the soul of New Orleans. A veritable open-air museum, it is perhaps the city’s largest tourist attraction; many visitors come to the city just to wander the streets of the Quarter and be transported back to its origins. They also discover and enjoy its architecture, although despite the Quarter’s name, it is more closely related to Spain than France. One picturesque example of this can be seen on the street signs: although the streets have French and English names, on every corner you’ll see tile signs commemorating the name given to the street during Spanish rule.
Of the thousand possible ways to visit the neighborhood, we chose to start the day with a classic: the famous beignets at Cafe du Monde (800 Decatur St.). These fritters are covered in powdered sugar and served with roasted coffee with chicory, hot chocolate, or orange juice. Believe it or not, this is only thing on the menu at this iconic cafe, which opened in 1862; everyone recommends trying this local delicacy here, so, naturally, you mustn’t leave town without doing so. Of course, given its fame, the place is always packed. When you get the chance, go for breakfast or a snack.
Right next-door is the French Quarter Visitor Center, with exhibits highlighting the city’s history and traditions and other tourist information. The top floor has stunning views of both the Mississippi River and Jackson Square, which is home to the Cabildo and Saint Louis Cathedral. After taking advantage of the spot to snap some classic postcard views of the neighborhood, we cross Decatur Street to visit these two historic buildings up close and breathe in a little of the square’s bohemian air.
As expected, it was crowded. This is one of New Orleans’ key sites, where street artists gather to show off their talent and artisans come to sell their wares, creating a joyous, festive atmosphere. Hopefully, like us, you’ll catch a good jazz band; if not, you’re sure to come across a mime, juggler, or singer at the foot of the Cabildo to help you pass the time. While there, we went inside the former seat of the Spanish government, now the Louisiana State Museum, which houses valuable artistic and historical treasures.
And next to this building is Saint Luis Cathedral, which was first built at the same time as the city. The Cathedral is the oldest Roman Catholic Church still operating in the country and is among the few set in front of a public square, in the Spanish tradition.
We walked back down Decatur Street for a few blocks until we came to the French Market. The current structure dates from 1791, but the history of the market goes back to the native tribes who gathered on the banks of the Mississippi River to barter their goods. The French Market is the country’s oldest public market and has played an important historical role in the city’s economic development. And the best part: it’s a friendly, extremely clean and orderly place, decorated with old photos that show how the market has changed over the years.
It has a little of everything: fresh fruits and vegetables, spices, cafes, food stalls offering local specialties, crafts, books, souvenirs, and other trinkets. And there’s no shortage of musicians playing jazz and street performers adding color to the day, not to mention all kinds of events and festivals listed on the Market’s website. It is without a doubt a vital part of daily life in New Orleans.
Although the market provides an opportunity to try some of the local dishes, restaurants abound in the French Quarter. But before recommending anything, let’s define the local cuisine as either Cajun or Creole. Cajun food is the traditional cuisine of the descendants of the French Canadians who settled here after being expelled when the British Crown acquired much of the French territory in Canada. Creole cuisine is a mixture of French, Spanish, and African culinary styles developed by the children of settlers and slaves born in Louisiana. Except for some differences in the way the food is prepared and spices and ingredients, there is no real barrier between the two, since both are local and integrated into restaurant menus, which are very eclectic. It couldn’t be otherwise in a multicultural city like New Orleans, but it is interesting to learn some of the history.
Traditional dishes include red beans and rice, gumbo (seafood stew with rice), jambalaya (a kind of Cajun paella with chicken, prosciutto, and shrimp, among other things), pralines (a French delicacy made with toasted almonds coated in caramelized sugar), beignets (we already recommended Cafe du Monde, but they’re everywhere), po’boys (sandwiches on baguette bread, usually containing seafood or battered fish), turtle soup, and seafood prepared in various ways.
Where to try these dishes? Try Desire Oyster Bar (Hotel Royal Sonesta, 300 Bourbon St.), an iconic place that introduced us to the local way of eating raw oysters; Court of Two Sisters (613 Royal St.), a historic restaurant, famous for its picturesque courtyard, elegant lounges, and daily Jazz Brunch; and Muriel’s (801 Chartres St.), close to the heart of Jackson Square, one the spots I enjoyed most, thanks to the legend that says the ghost of the former owner still inhabits the place. But, as I said, dining options, of all types and for all budgets, abound in the historic part of New Orleans.
Apart from its historical, cultural, and gastronomic wealth, many people visit the city in search of fun. Which is perfect, because having a good time is inscribed in the DNA of the people of New Orleans. There’s a reason why these folks are famous worldwide for Mardi Gras, their incredible Fat Tuesday celebration. Mardi Gras is celebrated throughout the city, but people come from around the world to be in the French Quarter, on Bourbon Street, on this holiday. So much so that even during the off-season it’s possible to participate in the crazy and liberating experience. The street is full of bars, clubs, and discos with live music: salsa, rock, jazz, blues, funk, and reggae. But during Mardi Gras the party is on the street, where rivers of people roam from one side to the other with their drinks in hand because, unlike in other US cities, in New Orleans it is legal to drink alcohol in public. And the fun is endless.
The party on Bourbon Street is excellent, and without a doubt the quintessential nightlife experience, but it’s not the only place to go after dark.
If you prefer something less touristy, or enjoy mingling with the locals, I recommend a walk down Frenchmen Street. It’s not in the French Quarter, but it’s not far away. This street is vibrant, full of clubs, restaurants, shops, and even a craft fair. The dynamic is similar to that of Bourbon Street, but with a different flavor. I suggest going early for dinner, to sample the culinary offerings and enjoy the live music. And after eleven at night, take to the street and go from bar to bar in search of just the right band, or go ahead and enjoy a little of each. Most bars don’t charge admission, so it’s easy to come and go, listening to whatever genre tickles your fancy. There’s a bit of everything, like a musical pharmacy.
New Orleans offers many other attractions outside the historic city, even beyond the city limits, but we’ll leave them for another article; now that Copa Airlines will be flying to this multicultural paradise, we’ve got plenty of reasons to return.
Other “Don’t Miss” Stops in New Orleans
While in the city, here are a few more tours you don’t want to miss:
The Garden District where you can visit the famous Lafayette Cemetery and the neighborhood’s historic mansions.
The Louisiana Bayou in southern New Orleans, where you’ll witness the natural riches of one of the United States’ largest swamps.
Tour Oak Alley Plantation, a journey into the past to learn about life in the southern United States before the Civil War.