(Click on any photo to enlarge in a new window.)
The title of this blog is an unashamed attempt to drive up the number
of hits by implying that it’s a guide for first-timers, rather than the
guide OF a first-timer. I’ve just returned from ten days in New
Orleans, my first visit.
I’ve been to the USA quite a few times, having seen New York,
Washington DC, Atlanta, bits of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee; and
then on the other side of the continent, the Los Angeles and San
Francisco areas. New Orleans isn’t like any of them. In fact, it’s
At least, the old heart of the city is unique, even if the wider
metropolitan area is pretty much generic American. But it’s a big
heart. On a map, you can identify it as the part that lies mostly
Southward loop of the Mississippi river. Incidentally, the Northern
bank of the river here is the East bank, and the Southern is the West
bank. I don’t know, it’s some convention about whether you face
upstream or down, or something.
That oddity probably wasn’t the reason, but it definitely took me a
couple of days to get a feel for the geography of New Orleans. The
streets do generally follow a grid pattern, but the grid kinks from
district to district. The tourist core of the city is the French
Quarter, a rectangular grid of about a dozen ‘verticals’ and six
‘horizontals’. Once you’ve remembered which streets run parallel and
which cross, then you can easily find your way around.
The French Quarter is bordered on one side by Canal Street, which forms a public transportation hub to the inner city, linking the most
interesting districts. You can be transportated by bus or streetcar
West to the Garden District, and University Area and Zoo. (The
University is the one with Professors.) Another street car line runs
North-South down the centre of Canal itself (it’s cool New Orleans
speak to drop the “Street” or “Avenue”) and the city’s third line links
the foot of Canal at the river to the huge convention center to the
West, and the French Market to the East.
Bus routes also run East from Canal, across the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ of
the French Quarter; and further afield to the Faubourg-Marigny and
Bus and streetcar prices are a very reasonable $1.25 for each single
journey, or $1.50 for a “transfer” which allows you to take a second
(or even third, or fourth!) line to your destination. You can also buy
a day pass for unlimited travel from the driver. Three and five-day
passes can be bought from the RTA machine on Canal, or from a number of
stores, notably all the branches of Walgreens the pharmacist (of which
there are many, some open 24 hours).
Canal Street is a curious mix of the most upmarket hotels and shopping
combined with tacky tourist shops and cheap, utilitarian stores for
downmarket locals. Actually, the latter two classes intersect.
Historically, Canal formed the boundary between two towns: old French New Orleans, and the town of new American settlers, once the state had been sold to the USA in 1803. The American side is now known as the Central Business District, and as the name suggests, it’s the most boring part of central New Orleans, although not entirely devoid of attractions.
The French Quarter’s central axis is its most famous street: Bourbon
Street. Bourbon is ideally suited for stag parties and hen parties and
the like (what Americans more comprehensibly call bachelor and
bachelorette parties), or in other words, totally unsuited for normal
people. OK, you probably will want to experience it for one evening,
but bear in mind that it’s brash, tacky, vulgar and full of annoying
drunks. Trust me, there are other streets where you get a much classier
type of drunk. Every building on Bourbon is a bar, restaurant or strip
club. (Or, at least, I assumed that they were strip clubs. I was
informed by a more adventurous colleague in search of erotic
entertainment that the real activity is prostitution.)
Speaking of buildings, it’s the architecture that makes the French
Quarter so quaint and tourist magnetic. (Yes, as well as the alcohol
and easy ladies.) Virtually everything dates to
the nineteenth century, or even the latter years of the eighteenth.
Everything. What would be an execptional survival in San Francisco or
Washington is just par for New Orleans. Most buildings are
authentically decrepit and wonky; the main exception being the
cathedral. Even though it’s a genuine old building, dating to 1794,
recent renovation has rendered it pristine. It looks like the Disney
Decatur Street, which runs in front of the cathedral and forms one
border of the French Quarter, is one option for bars absent of people
you’d like to strangle. It also has the green, open space of Jackson
Square facing the cathdral, and opposite that, a mini amphitheatre,
where there’s entertainment at weekends. Right next to that is the Café
du Monde, which claims to have invented the beignet – the New Orleans
square doughnut. Mmmm, beignets. (It’s pronounced “BAY-nyay” in true
Decatur (pronounced d’cater) parallels the river. Until relatively
modern times, the riverfront was entirely industrial and maritime, even
right here in the city centre, but there is now a nice esplanade to
stroll along, named “Moonwalk”, not in memory of Michael Jackson (that
would be the brewery) but for “Moon” Landrieu, the progressive Democrat
mayor who promoted its regeneration.
Apparently, many tourists never see any part of New Orleans other than the French Quarter. Unless your time was so short that you couldn’t go elsewhere, a little more exploration is highly recommended. Adjoining the French Quarter on the East side is the district known as
Faubourg-Marigny. Although mostly residential, it does include
Frenchmen Street, a much better and more authentic site for real New
Orleans nightlife than Bourbon Street.
The quiet, tree-lined streets of the rest of the Faubourg-Marigny are mostly filled with the old, original style of house, the shotgun shack. Generally built as a semi-detached pair, the shacks are narrow, but deep, with a single column of interconnected rooms with no corridor. In the one we stayed in, you had to walk through both bedrooms to get to the kitchen.
On the opposite, Western, side of Canal Street to the French Quarter
and Faubourg-Marigny, the Garden District is a moderate walk or short streetcar ride. It too is residential and filled with traditional
houses, but these are mansions, not shacks. All big columned porticoes
and that sort of thing. And gardens, of course. Further out is the
University area and Riverbend, but I only got there for one night,
seeing a gig at the Maple Leaf with the Rebirth Blues Band.
After kindly being allowed to sleep on a couch in the Faubourg-Marigny during the Fringe Festival, which was based in that area, I moved out into an orphanage. Now the St. Vincent Guest House, it features the original mid-1800s buildings arranged around a courtyard (now with a pool) and offers a range of accommodation from private rooms to shared dorms. It’s shabby but picturesque. Being on Magazine street in the Lower Garden District, it’s within walking distance of Canal Street
(about 20 minutes) or a choice of either bus or streetcar (about 7 minutes). The streetcars on St. Charles Avenue run all night, which is handy for nights out.
As well as the Charles and Canal streetcars, a third service runs
during daytime along the riverfront. It’s very handy for getting from
Canal to the French Market, a covered market on the site of the
original one, but now under a modern open-sided shed. If you must buy
tourist tat, this is the place, because it’s about two-thirds the price
of identical items in the shops. (OK, I bought two t-shirts and a
baseball cap, but the latter only because the hot sun was burning my
My visit in the latter part of November coincided with a spell of
exceptionally hot weather, with temperatures just below 30°C instead of around 20°C. If you like that sort of thing, and I do, April or October
would be a better month to visit. In July and August, with the average
temperatures well above 30°C and, more importantly, high humidity, I
could imagine that it might be less pleasant. August and September are
the peak hurricane months.
Most of the damage done by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has been repaired, but it’s still easy to find some buildings, mostly homes, that are still boarded up. Even more sinister are the remaining search team
symbols, spray-painted on the walls, a large “X” with notations of the
date and any survivors — or bodies — found.
While I was in the city, I happened to see a television news item about
the release of the annual ‘City Crime Ratings’ publication, which is
compiled by a commercial organisation, but based on FBI crime
statistics. What made it newsworthy was that New Orleans had dropped out of the top ten most dangerous cities, from 6 last year to 13. Out of 400. (Top of the charts this year is nearby St. Louis, Missouri; and the 400th, or safest, city is Colonie, New York. No, I hadn’t heard of it either. For obvious reasons.)
Drink and excess may be the typical fare of New Orleans, but curiously,
the statistic where it doesn’t do so badly is problem binge drinking.
(Maybe the stat only applies to residents, not visitors.)
With 24 hour drinking and no legal prohibition on boozing on the
streets (as long as your container is not glass) you’d think that New
Orleans people might have alcohol problems, but apparently not. Perhaps it’s the old Southern European culture of drinking for enjoyment, rather than the Northern ethos of drinking to get blotto.
The other excess is food. New Orleans cuisine is a rich mixture of
European, American and African influences, from gumbo and jambalaya to the sandwiches for the poor boys. (A po’boy is a soft sub filled with, typically, either slow-cooked roast beef or seafood. You can buy them everywhere.)
You can always find somewhere to eat at any time of the day. Always unhealthy. But that ‘s the New Orleans way: eat, drink and be merry.