This is my 3rd trip to New Orleans and it was, by far, the best. NOLA (that’s how the people from New Orleans call it) is one of my favorite places on earth. Birdy arranged a surprise trip for us to celebrate my birthday here. This was one of the few times we have been able to share one of our trips together without one of us having to work.
Our visit to NOLA was not terribly relaxing; we were busy seeing the sights and digging into the culture from the moment we dropped our bags at the hotel. There is so much to see and do here that we had to hustle to pack it all in. Our focus was food, music, art, history and debauchery. We were not disappointed.
New Orleans is home to some of the most diverse and unique food culture in the country. Few places offer dining options that range from exquisite street food to 5 star restaurants with the fusion of Central/South American, French, Creole, Cajun and Barbecue flavors in between. We had to start at Pere Antione’s with a buffet of dishes truly unique to New Orleans; Red Beans and Rice, Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, Gumbo and finish it off with Bread Pudding.
The next morning, we started with another New Orleans’ standard: Café au Lait and Beignets at Café Du Monde. We don’t normally eat donuts, but we could not pass up these world class French pastries that have been served with a mountain of powdered sugar in this very spot since 1864. The picture in the middle was taken at approximately 2am after a long night of, ahem, sight seeing.
Lunch was Muffaletta sandwiches at Napoleon House. Yet another staple of NOLA cuisine, these things come the size of a Buick and fill you up fast. The only thing bigger than the buns is the flavor in between.
Next up, it was Frog’s Legs and Po Boy’s at Jax brewery. I can now, officially say that I have tried frog’s legs and, yes, they do taste like chicken. The Po Boy was amazing. The local beer from the brewery was on par with the IPA’s, stouts, reds and wheats that you find anywhere in the PNW.
Tacos for breakfast? HELL YEAH! That’s what we said to the Rum House. Tacos with duck, shrimp, blackened fish, breaded fish and carne asada…Throw in some fried plantains and you’ve got yourself a Cajun/Caribbean meal to start your day off right.
There were so many different foods (and so much of it) that you can’t get anywhere else in the country…we stuffed ourselves silly. Good thing we walked about 20 miles while we were here!
You can’t walk down any street at any time of the day and not hear music. Whether it’s the old man playing clarinet on the street corner, the young lady strumming and singing in front of the police station, the fella walking to work singing his ass off, a quartet giving us the old-time jazz from a terrace…music fills the air and you can’t help breathing it all in.
Starting at about 10 am, the bars begin to fill the streets with the amplified sounds of cover bands, jazz groups and blues players. As the day gives way to night, it’s hard to hear any one of the groups over the cacophony of other music drowning it out. You sample the different sounds as you walk by each bar. When you hear something that grabs your attention, you stop in and grab an overpriced beer and stay for a listen.
Jazz, rock n’ roll, blues, 90’s, classic rock, bluegrass…you name it.
But the main attraction for me are the roaming brass bands. These typically consist of a snare drummer, bass drummer, cow bell ringer, tuba (Souzaphone) player, trumpeter and trombonist. If you’re lucky, there will be 3 or 4 trumpeters and an equal number of trombonists. The power of one such band is capable of drowning out all of the amplified bands playing at the time.
To witness a brass band on the street is like a weathering a hurricane. The approaching storm looms on the horizon with the low sound of the tuba playing acapella in the distance. Soon the energy begins to swell as the bass drum joins in. You know the storm is getting closer when you hear the thunder of the snare drum and cow cowbell. And just as the pressure builds to a fever pitch, the trumpets and trombones come crashing down like lightning striking right in front of you.
You are drenched in a torrential downpour of sound. Your body bends and shakes as the music blows over you. You’re dancing to the rhythm like a tree in gale force winds. The music comes in waves…Just as the storm starts to die down, and it seems like there will be calm, the next wave begins to pound you.
The energy is infectious. The passion is inspiring. The atmosphere is electrifying. If you ain’t dancing, you ain’t doin’ it right!
New Orleans is a hotbed of artistic expression. Especially in the French Quarter, and the surrounding Creole area downriver from Canal St., a burgeoning art colony floods the streets and open-air markets with avant garde pieces. You will find paintings, drawings, sculptures, jewelry and clothing influenced by the distinct cultures of this region and its history which make this art truly unique.
Perhaps equally as enjoyable as perusing gallery after gallery of inspiring works of art is meeting the artists that create it. Meeting the artist makes buying a piece feel more real and establishes a deeper connection with that piece when you take it home. More importantly, buying directly from the artist is a way of supporting their work and ensuring they get the highest proceeds from the sale. In this way, you are making it possible for them to continue creating art.
In our particular case, we had the incredibly good fortune to meet the author and filmmaker (or, as he puts it “scenarist”) Brian Paul Brightdawn. It was a privilege to speak with him at length about his book Book Safe Glacier and his film Cure for the Crash in order to gain more intimate, personal insights into his stories. More than finding a new storyteller to follow, I feel we have gained a friend (and you can’t get that at Barnes and Noble).
Being that New Orleans was both a French and Spanish colony before it was a part of America, the place is rich in history. This history is apparent from the names of the streets to the way people are buried. The impact of religion(s), slavery, immigration, war and manifest destiny are weaved into the fabric of this region.
New Orleans is proud to tell the story of its history; Placards can be found on every street corner and monuments litter nearly all of the parks and squares. Birdy and I found “Free tours on foot” to be the perfect way to explore the history of this fine city and get some context while also being able to ask follow-up questions. Our guides were super fun and incredibly knowledgeable.
We toured the garden district for the first tour. Matthew did a great job leading us around the “American” section of New Orleans exploring the history of the peoples that settled up river (the other side of Canal St which was settled by the Creole peoples). We briefly toured the Lafayette cemetery before leisurely strolling the avenues of the northern riche who built massive mansions here around the time of the civil war.
Our second tour was with Kathy who took us through the history of the Creole section and, especially, St. Louis #1, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans. This was a fascinating, if not creepy, look into the practice of ‘above ground’ burial monuments. This cemetery is the final resting place of some New Orleans’ most famous and infamous residents. Perhaps most notable is the perpetually desecrated tomb of Marie Laveaux, the most famous Voodoo practitioner of her time (if not ever).
To me, the best aspect of these walking tours is that they are free; You pay the guide whatever amount you feel the tour was worth. This makes for a very engaging, fun trip.
These tours did not explore much of the architecture of the downtown area. I will be expanding on my observations of the downtown buildings later in my series of articles entitled “Everything They Make Now Seems Fake”. Suffice it to say, New Orleans has a wealth of noteworthy architecture in its Central Business District that is slowly crumbling or in danger of being replaced with the heartless, soulless, dis-inspiring shoeboxes of glass pointed at the sky (bleck).
When you think of New Orleans, you probably think of Mardi Gras. This likely invokes images of mass public drinking too excess in the streets, young women lifting up their shirts to get perverted men to throw cheap strings of beads at them and general grab-assery. And that’s just what they’ve shown you on TV.
Bourbon Street (and a few of the adjacent streets) is bedlam during Mardi Gras. It is a giant orgy of lawlessness and unbridled hedonism to which the police largely turn a blind eye for a few days every February. Its good fun for consenting adults. It’s also okay to just watch…
Outside of Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street is still the main thoroughfare for pleasure seekers, girls gone wild, roving packs of creepy dudes away from their wives for a few days and dumbfounded tourists. The difference is that there are no floats except during Mardi Gras.
For anyone with a penchant for gambling, there are casinos downtown on Canal Street. I’m not a gambler so I have no need to step foot inside. That being said, I’ve been close enough to see that NOLA’s casinos are on par with any other gambling Mecca.
Drinking alcoholic beverages on the street is permitted as long as they are not in a glass bottle. Marijuana is smoked openly (and quite frequently, I might add) on the streets and in clear view of the police. Public drunkenness usually begins around 10am and goes on until around 2am. As a cabbie pointed out, they don’t stop serving drinks “until people stop asking for them”.
But for all of this laissez faire attitude (especially in the French Quarter), I never once (not even for a moment) felt threatened or in danger. There are plenty of transient and homeless people who are not shy to ask for money or food, but they are neither aggressive nor abusive (well, except for the guy with the sign that read “Insults, $1”).
The police are ever-present but not overbearing. We never witnessed a single hostile confrontation or arrest the whole time we were there. In fact, the police interactions we witnessed were almost invariably positive, amiable and pleasant. We never witnessed any reason for the police to engage anyone except to ask one homeless man to move away from a doorway he was blocking (he was an out-of-town bum not familiar with the panhandling rules of NOLA).
Why you have to come to NOLA?
New Orleans is a city whose influence extends across the globe. It’s confluence of cultures helped give rise to Jazz music, Cajun cuisine and Voodoo magic. It’s home to a bustling artist community and a vibrant music scene.
Being in New Orleans is quite unlike most places. One other place in the states comes to mind when you consider destinations that play host to 24 hour craziness: Las Vegas.
How does NOLA compare to Las Vegas?
People the world round come to visit Vegas and NOLA alike- some seeking to fulfill the same base, animal desires and be close to the raging fire of carnal delights and some just to see something unusual. However, some major differences stand out between the two:
- Vegas is centered around casinos. Sure, you still get all of the alcohol, drugs and debauchery in NOLA, but without all of the ding ding ding of the slot machines
- Prostitution is semi/kinda/I’m-not-sure-exactly-how legal in Vegas and it is not in NOLA. As soon as you set foot on the strip in Vegas, you have to fight through the relentless barrage of Mexican immigrants snapping pornographic business cards together and shoving them in your face, hard-selling the to-your-door-whores. There’s none of this in NOLA
- Vegas feels plastic and artificial. It has no real history and it has no soul. It is a place to flaunt what you don’t have. NOLA has a rich history of revelry where you can get a little nuts with other real people
When you come to NOLA, be prepared to see something you won’t see anywhere else, hear something that isn’t played anywhere else, eat something they don’t cook anywhere else and do it all in the presence of some warm and welcoming folks. They’re just nice people- they’ll make you feel glad you came and you’ll want to come back soon.