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The Beginner’s Guide To New Orleans

The Beginner’s Guide To New Orleans

When it comes to enthralling destinations, it doesn’t get more exciting than New Orleans. For years, all I wanted to do was visit the famous city, bar hop through its famous live blues and jazz scene, all the while taking in one of the most eclectic, diverse places in the US. Like many others, I’ve always been fascinated by the city’s history and culture, but be warned: there’s definitely a right and wrong way to do New Orleans.

Don’t limit yourself to just the bright lights of Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street is synonymous with good times and incredible live music. Photo: Lars Plougmann/Flickr CC

The most obvious place to start is Bourbon Street; synonymous with good times and one of the most famous stretches in Louisiana. A tourist draw all day and all night, it’s lined with flashing neon signs advertising cheap drinks, fast food, and more watering holes than the African Savannah. The bars range from easygoing pubs and restaurants to risqué gentlemen’s clubs and sports bars, all with balconies overlooking the streetscape for watching the crowds below.

Wide-eyed people wander the streets in droves, courted by club doormen eager to pull in the crowds. If this is your first introduction to New Orleans, it’s easy to be seduced by the buzz of a crowd intent on letting their hair down 24 hours a day. Evenings on Bourbon Street feel like one big party, walking shoulder to shoulder with thousands of others from all over the world.

The trick is to avoid being seduced by the bright lights and cheap drinks. There’s so much more to do in New Orleans than merely limit yourself to the promise of a hangover and regret on Bourbon Street. While being swept up in the moment over a few ales can be fun, you risk missing out on everything else this city has to offer. A late, overindulgent night can mean you miss out on seeing the city during the day – and that’s when you can really get the most out of New Orleans.

Food, glorious food

Antoine’s Restaurant is widely respected as one of NOLA’s best restaurants. Photo: Michael Bentley/Flickr CC

Cajun food is one of the greatest reasons to visit New Orleans. Walking through the French Quarter, restaurants regularly have queues out the door, often waiting for a table in the rain. Fresh prawns and crawfish, jambalaya, gumbo; all dishes made to order, often cooked right in front of you. Trawling through one of the riverside markets, I stumbled across a large food stand with a massive pot of jambalaya sitting in the middle, a tantalising scent emanating through the stalls. Don’t be lured in by the cheap, fast food chains. While Willy’s Chicken Shack and Popeye’s are quick and easy (and delicious, let’s be honest), they don’t properly capture the heart of New Orleans.

Music is everywhere

Photo: The Spotted Cat/Facebook

Music is the other constant here and arguably the city’s biggest attraction, second only to Mardi Gras. It’s hard to find a place that has more musical options than New Orleans, and Frenchman Street in particular offers so many venues with live music that it’s impossible to visit them all. A quick search of venues reveals names like Tipitina’s, Snug Harbour and The Spotted Cat, the latter, one of the most popular. With names like that, how can you go wrong? Frankly there are so many places to enjoy your music, picking the best venue is like a parent choosing their favourite child; you’ll love them all equally (just don’t forget to tip the band).

Photo: Preservation Hall

Back in the heart of the French Quarter, Preservation Hall is another popular, and historic, musical option. With live performances seven days a week, you are guaranteed quality and quantity. There’s a $20USD cover charge, but as I learned, it was money well spent.

A second line parade is almost as big a part of New Orleans tradition as Preservation Hall. Usually held on Sundays (or as part of a funeral procession), they meander through the streets, a brass band leading the way, swaying and dancing to the hauntingly beautiful music. Dancing is mandatory, the more unique the better.

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There’s much more beyond the French Quarter

Photo: Kimberly Vardeman/Flickr CC

Don’t limit yourself to what’s just inside the French Quarter either. Swamp and ghost tours are great options, as are plantation tours, and even kayaking around some of the bayous that surround New Orleans. These are great ways to check out the local environment, and ghost tours offer a unique insight into the local history. With such a colourful and, at times, tragic history, New Orleans offers plenty more than just music and food. Even the people have a unique character that is hard to forget, whether they’re musicians, bartenders or the pan handler on the street declaring as you walk past, “Hey, those are some nice shoes. I bet I can tell you where you got those shoes from.”

If not done properly, New Orleans can be considered too intoxicating. Coupled with the ease of access to a good drink and lively entertainment, the streets of the French Quarter and surrounds are a labyrinth of history and culture, whose musical and fun loving undertone are characterised by the resiliant people, the sounds and the atmosphere. Just don’t get too excited and ruin the adventure by getting socially excited. New Orleans is a marathon not a sprint, if you go too hard too early, you won’t find the magic that makes this city so famous.

(Lead image: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse/Facebook)

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