A first timer's guide to New Orleans

New Orleans wrote the book on how to party, yet it's equally jam-packed with tempting eateries as it is with eye-opening, historic highlights. Here, we look at all the vital information you need to plan your adventure to the 'the big easy', and make the most of this fervently fun and flavoursome city.

A first timer's guide to New Orleans, USA © denisbin - Flickr Creative Commons
A first timer's guide to New Orleans, USA © denisbin - Flickr Creative Commons

As well as spilling the red rice and beans on one of North America's most compelling cities, we will lead you straight to the latest deals from British Airways, which is set to launch its new direct route from London Heathrow to New Orleans on 27 March 2017.

Introducing New Orleans

New Orleans sits at the mouth of the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain in southeastern Louisiana. Affectionately referred to as 'The Crescent City' (so-called thanks to the curving route of the river through New Orleans), it was the state's largest principality before Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in 2005, leaving it in third place behind Jefferson and East Baton Rouge. While it's still home to one of the largest and busiest ports in the world, it's perhaps better known for its eclectic cultural offerings.

Why go?

World-beating culinary prowess, an explosive live music scene, a heady brew of cultures (Creole, French, Spanish, Afro-Caribbean, Cajun and Mardi Gras Indian), and centuries of fascinating history all combine to make New Orleans an essential pitstop on any US itinerary worth its succotash.

Oak Alley Plantation near New Orleans, a relic of Louisiana's dark past © f11photo - Fotolia.com
Oak Alley Plantation near New Orleans, a relic of Louisiana's dark past © f11photo - Fotolia.com

Plus, it's a bona fide liberal enclave in an otherwise staunchly conservative south. New Orleans remains a fiercely unique destination that needs to be experienced. So grab that 'go-cup' (literally your drink to go), don your prettiest beads, and get ready to 'let the good times roll'.

Eat like a king

New Orleans' extraordinarily rich food scene is reason enough to visit. It frequently tops lists of America's best foodie cities, due to the sheer variety and abundance of its larder. Diets get short shrift in a city where shrimp po'boys routinely rub shoulders with sugary beignets, juicy jambalaya, and sumptuous oysters Rockefeller, to name just a handful of local staples.

Shake it like a Frenchman

Reputedly 'the First City of Jazz', New Orleans still offers an unrivalled immersion to its joyous, uplifting brass-heavy sound. In the French Quarter, 'When the Saints Go Marching In' seems to reverberate on a constant loop, and brass bands congregate on practically every street corner.

Jazz on Frenchmen Street, New Orleans © Brian Lauer - Flickr Creative Commons
Jazz on Frenchmen Street, New Orleans © Brian Lauer - Flickr Creative Commons

Hit up Frenchmen Street for the best music bars, many of which blast it out into the wee small hours with no entry fee. Frenchmen Street also hosts a lively art and bric-a-brac market that's open after dark.

Marvel at the architecture

There's just so much jaw-droppingly beautiful architecture everywhere in New Orleans it's almost impossible to miss it, but the houses in the Faubourg Marigny and Bywater districts are especially stunning and colourful.

The Oyster Bar at Bourbon House, New Orleans © Jean-Paul Gisclair - NewOrleansOnline.com
The Oyster Bar at Bourbon House, New Orleans © Jean-Paul Gisclair - NewOrleansOnline.com

Slug a Sazerac or two

The city's legendary reputation as an unabashed party town needs no introduction of course, but you probably owe it to yourself to sample its heady charms first-hand, for research purposes. America's oldest cocktail, the potent Sazerac, is thought to have been invented here, and there can be few finer places to sample one than the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone, which gently revolves to help further enhance its dizzying effects.

Hail a historic streetcar

New Orleans' handsome vintage streetcars are not only one of the city's defining icons, they're also the easiest way to get around and take in all the sights. Tennessee Williams' famous play A Streetcar Named Desire was actually named after the former Desire Street Line, just one of the aspects of New Orleans that inspired the writer to refer to it as his 'spiritual home'.

Hail a historic streetcar, Canal Street, New Orleans © Didier Moïse - Wikimedia Commons
Hail a historic streetcar, Canal Street, New Orleans © Didier Moïse - Wikimedia Commons

Take the green St Charles Avenue Line to the Garden District and glide past rows of grand antebellum homes shaded by oak and Spanish moss trees. Jump off at Audubon Park to watch the black-bellied whistling ducks while you cool off with a sno-ball. You might also want to take the Cemetery Line to visit the 'cities of the dead', and witness some of the extraordinary shrines and voodoo iconography. You can take a guided tour to help you appreciate these fully, but do note the relatively early closing time of 4pm for some. Streetcars cost $1.25 for a single journey or $3 for a one day 'Jazzy Pass'.

Get down in the Treme

It's well worth visiting Treme, just north of Armstrong Park. Treme is North America's oldest African American neighbourhood (dating back to 1794), which provided the setting for David Simon's HBO drama series of the same name, about a group of musicians and chefs piecing their lives and community back together in the wake of Katrina. Be sure to drop into the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which authentically chronicles the fascinating history of jazz funerals, the Mardi Gras Indians, and their culture.

When to go to New Orleans

Early February is a very popular time to visit New Orleans, thanks to the enduring appeal of Mardi Gras with its raucous street parades, extravagant carnival floats, ostentatiously dressed Mardi Gras Indians, and the Second Line Jazz parades. While you can witness these, and even join in, at other times of year, they're usually reserved for funeral processions, so there is a certain etiquette to follow.

Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA © Carol M. Highsmith's America - Library of Congress
Mardi Gras Parade, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA © Carol M. Highsmith's America - Library of Congress

Late April is only marginally less busy when the Jazz & Heritage Festival (commonly known as Jazz Fest) comes to town. Like many jazz festivals these days, its remit is impressively wide-ranging, taking in everyone over the years from local luminaries such as Dr John, Fats Domino, and Duke Ellington, to the likes of Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Paul Simon. Outside of these times, all months are equal, as there's never any shortage of energising entertainment to be had.

Weather wise, New Orleans has a typically southern-US climate, with cool - but not cold - winters, and hot and sticky summers. While daytime temperatures rarely drop below an average of 16°C in January, they soar to an average of 33°C in July. It's a sunny city, with December and January still enjoying around five hours per day (compared with one hour per day in the UK at the same time). Without doubt, the best time to go is in April and May - handy given the timing of popular events mentioned above.

You can find out more about the weather in New Orleans via our climate guide, and of course, you can book your seat on board one of BA's four-weekly flights direct from London Heathrow as of March 2017.

Jools Stone

Jools Stone
Posted on Thursday 23rd March 2017 in: City Culture North America

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