A heady confluence of the haughty European and the boisterous third-world, New Orleans is often referred to as the northernmost Caribbean city.
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Precious architecture stands alongside careening overloaded junk trucks, sumptuous delicacies tickle palates while offal in the streets offends the eyes. Never be in a hurry, and any time you step outside, be ready for a meandering conversation with a total stranger.
The spiritual and cultural heart of New Orleans is the French Quarter, where the city was settled by the French in 1718. You can easily spend several days visiting museums, shops, and eateries in this area. Yet the rest of the city’s neighborhoods, radiating out from this focal point, also make for rewarding rambling. The mansion-lined streets of the Garden District and Uptown, the aboveground cemeteries that dot the city, and the open air along Lake Pontchartrain provide a nice balance to the commercialization of the Quarter. Despite its sprawling size, New Orleans has a small-town vibe, perhaps due to locals’ shared cultural habits and history. Families have lived in the same neighborhoods for generations; red beans and rice appears on almost every table on Monday; people visit cemeteries and whitewash the tombs of their departed on All Saints’ Day; and from the smartest office to the most down-home local bar, New Orleanians are ready to celebrate anything at the drop of a hat.
It’s a great city to walk around, anchored by the beguiling French Quarter and the adjoining faubourgs (originally, ‘suburbs’). Despite the city’s bawdy reputation, it’s the moment when things are quiet – late afternoon when everyone is at the hotel getting ready to go out, early morning when the light explodes on the city and work crews come out to spray away last night’s sins – that New Orleans reveals its subtler charms.
When to Go
With the possible exception of July and August (unless you happen to thrive on heat and humidity — and some really exceptional hotel deals!), just about any time is the right time to go to New Orleans. The best time of year is December, before and during Christmas. The town is gussied up with decorations, there are all kinds of seasonal special events, the weather is nice — but for some reason, tourists become scarce. Hotels, eager to lure any business, lower their rates dramatically, and most restaurants are so empty that you can walk in just about anywhere without a reservation. Take advantage of it.
New Orleans Districts Guide
French Quarter: the oldest, most famous, and most visited section of the city. Most tourists will want to center their visit here. Those who explore other parts of town as well will find the city offers additional treats. Many old-line restaurants are in the Quarter, along with music clubs, museums, antiques shops, and drinking establishments.
Central Business District: What many cities call “Downtown” (though in New Orleans this term is often used to refer to a different part of town downriver). Adjacent to the French Quarter; has many attractions. The “CBD” has high-rise hotels and some excellent restaurants, along with many museums (the National D-Day Museum, the Louisiana Children’s Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Contemporary Arts Center) and a gallery district on and around Julia Street. Includes the “Arts District” and the “Old Warehouse District”.
Uptown: 19th century residential section upriver, take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. Uptown includes the “Garden District“, which is more noted for its Victorian architecture than gardens. Also contains some of the City’s best local restaurants, and the Audubon Zoo. Magazine Street hosts some 80 blocks of antique stores, art galleries, interior designer studios, and clothing stores ranging from funky thrift shops to upscale boutiques.
When in New Orleans…
- Stay in the French Quarter at Omni Royal Orleans Hotel
- Stay “outside” the French Quarter at Le Pavillion Hotel
- Grab a muffuletta at Central Grocery Company or a beignet at Cafe du Monde
- Have some fresh or charbroiled oysters at Acme Oyster House