From the city’s rich history to its stunning architecture, amazing cuisine, vivacious people, world-class attractions, and unique music heritage that underscores everything and every part of the city, I just can’t get enough of it!
I’ve been to the Big Easy (one of its nicknames, along with N’awlins, The Crescent City, and a host of other monikers) several times and on each visit I gain a greater appreciation for all that it has to offer.
One of the most striking and welcoming things I consistently experience here, is that across all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, New Orleans is a city of people who possess an enduring spirit and undying love for their hometown.
Out and About
In almost any city I visit, I always look to see if they have some kind of overview tour—a vehicle (literally and figuratively) for getting, as they say, “The lay of the land.” One of the best ways here is to embark upon the City Sightseeing New Orleans Hop-On Hop-Off Bus.
Conducted on an open-top, double-decker bus, the tour makes a 1 hour, 30-minute continuous loop around the city to 16 different stops. And true to its name, you can hop on and hop off any time to enjoy any of the neighborhoods, eateries, music venues, retail shops, and more nearby.
Many of the stops are located at some of the city’s biggest attractions including Harrah's New Orleans Casino, the Louisiana Children's Museum, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, and the Creole Queen, just to name a few.
Instead of just exploring via the bus for one day, I highly recommend purchasing a 2-Day Experience Ticket which includes a Garden District tour. This 45-minute, guided walking tour of what some call New Orleans’ most beloved and historic neighborhood, provides an up-close and personal view and historical account of the city’s early founding, architecture, former and current residents, and what an integral role this neighborhood has always played in the landscape of the city.
The War that Changed the World
One of my favorite attractions along the route is the National World War II Museum. Recognized as one of the top museums in the world and a top New Orleans attraction, the museum is a mind-blowing combination of interactive multimedia experiences detailing literally every aspect imaginable of this War that Changed the World.
I’ve been here twice, spending hours each time, and still have not experienced all that this outstanding facility has to offer. The exhibits are truly amazing, such as the Road to Tokyo, D-Day Invasion of Normandy, and Arsenal of Democracy, among others – each featured in an array of galleries, buildings, and pavilions around the expansive museum campus.
First-person oral histories, a stunning collection of artifacts and memorabilia, historic films, and more draw visitors into the center of this conflict, leaving no stone unturned. To your ticket you can also opt for the movie, Beyond All Boundaries, or for any of a series of exclusive guided tours and special themed events.
No matter your age, race, or lack or wealth of military experience, no visit to New Orleans would be complete without a visit here. To say that it is a life-changing experience is an understatement.
The Dead Come to Life
Another “do not miss” when in The Big Easy is a cemetery tour. There are several companies that offer them, many encompassing different interesting themes and angles. One of the best I’ve experienced here is the Cemetery Voodoo Tour offered by NOLA Historic Tours.
This tour meets at the Backatown Coffee Parlour, a locally-owned coffee boutique located on Basin Street in the Historic Storyville District. Backatown is definitely a far cry from a “coffee shop” with inviting couches, lounge areas, an outdoor patio, and lots of fantastic local artwork.
The menu features fresh baked pastries, pies, cakes, a variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, brunch items, soups and salads, and of course premium coffee and espresso drinks, juices, teas, smoothies, and the like.
I highly recommend coming early before your tour, or afterward to enjoy the ambiance and food and drink here.
After our delicious morning meal, we met one of the city’s best tour guides—David Higgins. A very animated, knowledgeable, and personable man, David is the quintessential New Orleans historian. In fact, his lineage speaks to the soul of the city, as he is the son of Billy Higgins, the Blue Note Records house drummer and most recorded post-World War II jazz drummer.
David started out with a brief overview of city history and the surrounding neighborhood, adding numerous interesting insights as we began walk toward St. Louis Cemetery 1 and 2.
There he regaled us with the history behind New Orleans’ above-ground burial spaces, family traditions, “natural cremations,” and the “Who’s Who” of current cemetery “residents” and those who have already secured their tombs for when their final day arrives.
We didn’t know it at the time, but David is also a self-taught musician whose instruments include the melodeon and harmonica, as well as a music composer whose themes include several aspects of Louisiana history. All of this just added to the educational facets of the tour.
After Congo Square we ventured to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church & International Shrine of St. Jude. Everything inside the church is awe-inspiring, from the stained-glass windows to the light fixtures, statues, altar, murals, and Honor Rolls for the police officers and firefighters who had lost their lives in the line of duty.
We finished up this excellent, enlightening tour at the far end of the French Quarter at the former home of Marie Laveau, the city’s premier voodoo priestess, arguably New Orleans’ most famous personality.
In addition to the Cemetery Voodoo Tour, NOLA Historic Tours offers several exciting daily and private tours including Creole Mourning, New Orleans Music, Treme/Storyville, JKF Assassination Conspiracy, Swamp, and Scandalous Cocktail Hour, among a bevy of others. They also have a special African American tour that is often combined with a visit to the city’s iconic Backstreet Cultural Museum and/or a meal at the famous Dooky Chase Restaurant or Lil Dizzy’s Café.
Whatever your particular interests, they have a tour for it!
Celebrating all things ““Fat Tuesday”
Attending Mardi Gras is one thing. But delving into the history, customs, and how they build those spectacular floats is another. Which is why you absolutely have to spend some time at Mardi Gras World.
Located in a kind of hidden warehouse on the south end of the Convention Center in the Central Business District (they offer free shuttles to and from several locations in and around some of the bigger hotels off Canal Street), the Mardi Gras World adventure starts with beads and a slice of the classic Mardi Gras confection—King Cake—at the ticket counter, followed by a short film providing a general overview of this annual celebration.
The enterprise began in 1932 when a local New Orleans artist-turned-sign-painter by the name of Roy Kern, and his son, Blaine, built a float on the back of a trash wagon - pulling it through the Mardi Gras parade by a mule! Also an artist, Blaine’s talents caught the eye of many folks in town, and before you knew it the duo were invited to design and build floats for many of the Krewes—organizations that host a variety of Carnival related celebrations—in town.
Fifteen years later, Kern Studios—now Mardi Gras World—was born.
Visitors today will find a thriving working studio where they can embark upon a self-guided tour and watch the scores of talented artisans from Monday to Friday (the facility is open for tours 7 days a week) doing everything from initial drawings and design to casting, decorating, painting, and more.
This incredible behind-the-scenes environment provides a truly up-close-and-personal look and understanding of everything that goes into creating these marvelous floats and accompanying props. In fact, over 500 floats are built and decorated in this very facility for clients from all over the world every year.
The entire process is fascinating and if you’ve never stood next to a Mardi Gras float you will be blown away by the size and scale. Its no wonder that the company invites you to “Come see where the Mardi Gras magic is made!”
Sharing the story of the African American Slave Trade
Over the years, I’ve visited several plantations in the New Orleans area: Laura Plantation, Oak Alley, and Houmas House among them. However, Whitney Plantation delves into the story of the slave trade in a way that will leave you breathless.
Our group embarked upon this adventure with Gray Line Tours by boarding a comfortable coach in the French Quarter at the Steamboat Natchez Dock. About an hour later we arrived at the Plantation, situated along the west bank of the Mississippi River.
The almost 270-year-old Whitney Plantation property— listed on the National Register of Historic Places and originally called “Habitation Haydel”—is huge, encompassing acres of open green spaces, bridges, walking paths, gardens, centuries-old, moss-draped oak trees, and original and restored buildings.
Tours are self-guided using either a cell-phone app or via headphones and handsets—both detailing the history of over a dozen numbered stops around the property.
One of the most notable buildings is The Big House. Built in the Spanish Creole architectural style, it is said to be one of the state’s earliest raised Creole cottages still in existence.
Another major feature of the tour is the stunning memorial artwork. Created by a wide array of artisans, each memorial station details an aspect of the slave trade and slave life in painstaking detail, scope, and scale. Far more than mere “outdoor lawn art,” these immense sculptures and memorial structures lend the feeling of walking through a major metropolitan city museum, rather in an alfresco environment.
Inside the Visitor Center Museum you will find a wealth of gallery spaces, exhibits, and artifacts from this horrendous period in history that together provide a very deep understanding about the depth of the enslavement of people from all over the African continent, as well as the different nationalities that participated in the slave trade including the Dutch, English, Cubans, French, Danish, and Portuguese, among others.
No matter how many times my classes our coursework in school focused on slavery, or how many historical attractions and museums on the topic I’ve visited in the over 40 years since, I never realized the astounding numbers of—into the several millions—who were captured and shipped all over the world against their will.
Upon arrival in new lands, they were forced to cultivate crops including cotton, sugar cane, indigo, and others, in turn playing a major role in the development of the respective countries’ commercial landscape—completely at the expense of every aspect of their life—mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
But the point here at Whitney Plantation is not to instill a sense of melancholy or guilt, rather to educate all who visit about this significant period in history and how it continues to influence—in both positive and challenging ways—every aspect of our cultural, political, religious, educational, and humanitarian landscapes—for all people—today.
Love at First Sight
From the city’s wonderful people to its rich history, music heritage, outstanding food, world-class attractions, stunning architecture, and so much more, it’s no wonder that people from all over the world absolutely fall in love with New Orleans.
Laissez Le Bon Temps Rouler!
Read on for more exciting aspects of The Big Easy!