Whether you call it N’Awlins, Nola or it’s official name, New Orleans there’s no doubt that this is one of the US’s most interesting cities in a fascinating, unique state – Louisiana. The first European settlers to the region were French, establishing New Orleans in 1718. And French can still be heard all across the city 300 years on.
As folks new to New Orleans and Louisiana we were on a steep learning curve about the local culture, traditions and possibilities when we spent a few days there in February 2017. Here are a few suggestions for things to do if you too are a novice visitor.
Learn a Bit of History
First off, it’s important to know the difference between Creole and Cajun. The region’s first European settlers were French and Spanish. They intermarried and their descendants today are the current incarnation of the Creole community, which is closely associated with urban New Orleans.
Cajuns, on the other hand, trace their lineage specifically to Acadia, a region of Nova Scotia in Canada, from where the French speaking Catholic community were expelled by the British in the mid-18th century, with 3 -4000 settling in the bayous and plains around Lafayette in SW Louisiana. Cajun is a corruption of the word Acadian.
A great way to get a taste of Cajun history and culture is to visit the re-created Cajun village of Vermilionville in Lafayette.
In New Orleans the options for improving your history knowledge are vast. We’d recommend the Cabildo – Louisiana State Museum.
The inside is full of fascinating displays and explanations of Louisiana’s interesting and complicated past.
The building itself sits beside the imposing St Louis Cathedral (1856) with the Presbytere, the Mardi Gra Museum, on the other side.
While it is not specifically about New Orleans or Louisiana, the World War II Museum is also well worth a visit. It chronicles the US involvement in WWII and is thoughtfully and creatively presented.
Try the Food and Drink
Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole dishes are one of the best aspects of any visit.
There’s gumbo – a thick stew containing shellfish, onions, tomatoes, and okra (a vegetable that helps to thicken). Gumbos often include chicken and local sausage.
Jumbalaya uses different meats and vegetables with rice. Commonly it will include shrimp, crawfish, chicken and/or pork along with a smoked sausage called andouille.
Another very tasty stew-like dish is etouffee which has similar ingredients to gumbo and jumbalaya but tends to be in a thicker sauce.
And a favourite of Cally’s was the blackened catfish. This is definitely a great place for seafood.
Then there are po’ boys – traditional Louisiana sandwiches. These are baguettes filled with roast beef or seafood in a sloppy sauce. Very filling.
If you’re after something sweet try a beignet, a deep-fried choux pastry covered in icing sugar. Yum!
For washing it down there are many varieties of beer and cocktails available at street stalls and you are allowed to drink them while walking through the tourist precinct. The favoured N’Awlins cocktail is the Hurricane – rum, fruit juice and grenadine.
Go for a Walk
New Orleans’ French Quarter is the heart of the city and where most tourists begin (and possibly end) their visit to the city. It is a great place to wander and take in the vibe.
The distinctive architecture is an attraction in its own right, and you’ll probably find yourself snapping away at the colourful houses and grand buildings.
We were there in early February so Mardi Gras celebrations were well underway (due to happen a couple of weeks after our visit).
The Garden District, just west of the French Quarter, is also an excellent place for a walking tour with its stately mansions and historic cemetery.
If you get a bit tired jump on one of the frequent streetcars and y'all can rest up a while.
Listen to Some Music
Music emanates from all corners of the French Quarter. You can pop into one of the many bars and restaurants to have a drink and listen for a while.
Or you can simply stop and enjoy one of the many talented buskers who are all around the city.
This can include whole bands setting up and playing in the street.
Whatever you decide to do, you can’t visit New Orleans without enjoying the music which is the city’s heart and soul.
Visit a Bayou
Honestly, you’re thinking of going to New Orleans and not planning to go to a bayou? Shame on you. The Louisiana bayou landscape gives the region a feel very different to other parts of the States and for a couple of Australians it was like nothing we’d seen before.
We went to Lake Martin which is just out of Lafayette.
We also went to Barataria Preserve, which isn’t far from New Orleans, and did a short walk – the Bayou Coquille Trail.
And yes, we saw a couple of gators.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of New Orleans and it’s surrounds. There is so much more to see and do. But hopefully we’ve given you a few ideas of where to start.
Here’s a bunch of websites to explore if you want to know more: