Situated in the U.S state of Louisiana, in the heart of the Deep South, lies the strange and festive Cajun city of New Orleans. New Orleans is a famous city in many ways, but not nearly as famous as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Las Vegas. But it deserves to be. You might recognise New Orleans as the city that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or perhaps as the famous spiritual home of Mardi Gras, which is celebrated in February each year. But there is a lot more to New Orleans than meets the eye. We’ve both experienced the magic of New Orleans – Sam in 2012 and Em in 2013 – and we agree that to be in New Orleans is an experience of a lifetime. Here’s why:
Unlike the rest of the United States, which was colonised by Spanish, English and Mexican nations, the entire state of Louisiana was colonised by the French. The French established New Orleans as a port city, and it thrived from its earliest days. Unlike the English and the Spanish, who used Africans as slaves in the 17th century, the French in New Orleans welcomed free Africans and embraced African culture. Napoleon famously sold Louisiana to the U.S government in 1803, but its French-African roots still run strong. This is what gives the city its strange and exotic culture!
If you’re coming by car like we did, the first thing you’ll notice is that New Orleans is surrounded by swampy water! The city is situated on the Mississippi river – a body of water especially famous for the steamboats that once traveled along it. To the north is Lake Ponchartrain and to the south is the Gulf of Mexico.
But the truly spectacular natural attractions you should see are the swamps – or bayous – of Louisiana. These swamps are dark, thick and mysterious. Built on the mangroves are floating wooden shacks, and in the waters below lurk alligators. In Sam’s experience, the best place to experience the strange beauty of a Louisiana bayou is at Dr. Wagner’s Honey Island Swamp Tours. The guides there will take you on an informative boat ride, using hotdogs along the way to lure in alligators. It’s an unmissable experience!
If you haven’t already realised, New Orleans is a strange city of blended cultures, and its culinary traditions are no exception! First of all, a lot of dishes involve alligator, which like many other things tastes like chicken. Secondly, lots of dishes are seafood-based. Shrimp, crawfish, and even turtle are common. And thirdly, there are lots of stews with interesting names! Gumbo for example, is a spicy seafood stew. Jambalaya is a rice dish which often contains chicken, spring onions and sausage. In a French Quarter restaurant, I ordered an alligator jambalaya and it was absolutely delicious. It’s definitely a unique cuisine that you should try during your stay.
For a full New Orleans food guide, see blogger Katherine Belarmino’s amazing post about New Orleans food!
Now we’re talking! Get ready to be blown away, because this is where New Orleans will truly impress. The city is the birthplace of jazz, and everywhere you look there is horn-blowing, drumming, and organised musical chaos. It’s incredible!
At every street corner, musicians are playing. Not buskers – just everyday people holding tubas like they were a handbag or a briefcase and just playing. And not only that, they all sound good – like “it runs in their veins” good. One of the famous performers I saw was “Grandpa” Elliott Smalls – an elderly bearded African-American who plays the harmonica and always wears overalls. He sounded unbelievable. Every night the jazz houses open, and they really go ham. People are playing, people are dancing. It’s magic!
In short, the nightlife is some of the best we’ve ever experienced. On Bourbon Street – the busiest in the French Quarter – there are jazz clubs and bars that stretch on for a good mile. Interestingly, we were both underage (20 years) during our visits, but had no trouble getting into clubs or buying alcohol. The streets are lined with a few strip clubs too, and the strippers are permitted to come out onto the road to attract crowds in. This city sure is relaxed! If you’re the clubbing type, one drink you might want to try is the New Orleans Hand Grenade (seen below). It consists of a big pipe tube with a very strong cocktail of shots. They taste great, but be careful – too many of these may end your night very quickly!
Sam – “On my first night in New Orleans, I went into the French Quarter with my twelve tour buddies. We had a walk around and saw a jazz band play in a little courtyard. As the sun went down, I had my first hand grenade of the night, and we went into a Funk club – no I.D taken. it was phenomenal. The band played some of the biggest funk, jazz and disco hits and the vibes were electric all night long! We danced so much that we left the club looking like we’d all swam ten laps of a swimming pool!”