In July 2018 I took a trip to New Orleans as part of an international education conference. My time to explore New Orleans was limited, but I tried to make the best of my compacted free time to discover a new city. Unfortunately, this was one of those trips where everything I chose to do in my spare time left me underwhelmed. New Orleans is a city with a long, interesting history and culture, but it is also well known for its nightlife, live music scene and cuisine. I’m not sure I had enough time to truly experience New Orleans, but I will write about the few places I was able to visit.
La Nouvelle-Orléans (New Orleans) was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company, under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. It was named for Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who was Regent of the Kingdom of France at the time. In 1763 the French colony was ceded to the Spanish Empire as part of the Treaty of Paris. Nueva Orleans (the name of New Orleans in Spanish) remained under Spanish control until 1803, when it reverted briefly to French rule before Napoleon sold Louisiana (New France) to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Thereafter, the city grew rapidly with American, French, Creole, Spanish and African influences. Today you can see all of these influences around the city, which is sustained mostly by its tourism industry, as well as its port.
New Orleans has different neighborhoods including the French Quarter, Garden District, Central Business District, Mid-Town, Treme, Marigny and the Arts District. I stayed in the Garden District at the Hotel Indigo. I chose this location because it was close to the Tulane and Loyola University campuses where my conference was held. The Garden District is also a more residential neighborhood, and thus quieter than staying downtown. This was not my first time staying at a Hotel Indigo, and they describe themselves as a boutique hotel with a neighborhood feel. The Hotel Indigo New Orleans maintains a modern feel with spacious guest rooms (and very comfortable beds) and bathrooms. I was disappointed, however, in the attached restaurant, Babin’s Bar and Bistro. While I enjoyed staying at this hotel, and it was convenient for my conference, it wasn’t an ideal location for anyone looking to be caught up in the nightlife or food cultures of New Orleans. There weren’t many options within walking distance, but you could take the streetcar to the downtown area easily.
I arrived early afternoon so I wanted to make the most of my free time before the conference started. I thought a hop-on hop-off bus tour would be a good way to begin to understand the layout of the city. I bought the three-day pass that included two walking tours of the French Quarter and the Garden District. I caught the bus and stayed on until it reached the French Quarter. I took some time to walk around on my own before joining the organized walking tour. While I learned some interesting facts about the French Quarter during my tour, I would not recommend this walking tour. The guide, while knowledgeable, was not engaging or accommodating to the group or the fact that it had begun to rain. After the tour I got back on the bus but I was not able to complete the loop back to my hotel because the service ends at 5:30 pm. There was a lot of traffic due to a festival in town, so I was asked to get off and find my own way back to the hotel. Thankfully, I was able to figure out the streetcar system, which allowed me to get back to my hotel without too much trouble. Even though my experience wasn’t good on the first day, I did finish the bus tour loop a couple days later; I had paid for a three-day pass after all! Normally, I enjoy these Hop-on Hop-off type bus tours for their convenience and ability to give you an overview of a new city, but I was disappointed with this particular one in New Orleans.
Here are a few of the highlights to visit while in New Orleans based on what I was able to visit:
French Quarter – The French Quarter, also known as the Vieux Carré (“Old Square”), is the oldest section of the City of New Orleans, founded in 1718 by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. New Orleans developed around the Vieux Carré, the city’s central square, and today the district is still the center of New Orleans life. Most of the historical buildings were constructed in the late 1700s, during a period of Spanish rule, or during the early 1800s, after U.S. annexation and statehood. The district is a National Historic Landmark and it is the primary destination for tourists visiting the city.
Jackson Square – Originally known in the 18th century as “Place d’Armes,” Jackson Square was later renamed in honor of the Battle of New Orleans hero Andrew Jackson. This famous landmark in the French Quarter faces the Mississippi River and is surrounded by historic buildings. These include the St. Louis Cathedral, the Presbytere and Cabildo (Louisiana State Museums), and the Lower and Upper Pontalba Apartments (the oldest apartment buildings in the US). For over a half-century, there has been an open-air artist market at Jackson Square.
St. Louis Cathedral – The Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, also called St. Louis Cathedral is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans and is the oldest cathedral in what would become the United States. Three churches have stood on this site starting since 1718 when the city was founded. The current structure dates from 1789.
French Market – Similar to some European markets, this historical open-air market features five blocks of local food, specialty art, handmade crafts, retail shopping and more. Two of the most famous sections are the flea market at the end of Esplanade Avenue, and Café du Monde near Jackson Square.
Magazine Street – This six-mile street is a mix of nineteenth century residential and commercial buildings. Magazine Street is well known for being a popular shopping district offering a unique selection of products, many of which are handcrafted by local artisans.
Mardi Gras World – In 1946, Blaine Kern, Sr. founded Blaine Kern Artists and began creating floats. Kern, who traveled to Europe to learn float-building techniques, gained an international reputation in float building. In 1984, Mardi Gras World was created as a tourist attraction to show visitors a behind-the-scenes look at float building. Guests can tour the 300,000 square foot working warehouse where floats are made for Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans.
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 – This is the oldest and most famous cemetery in New Orleans. It was opened in 1789, replacing the city’s older St. Peter ‘s Cemetery as the main burial ground when the city was redesigned after a fire in 1788. The cemetery spans just one square block but is the resting place of many thousands. Guided walking tours are available on certain days; otherwise it is closed to the general public.
Louis Armstrong Park – Louis Armstrong Park is a 32-acre park located in the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans. In the 1960’s a controversial urban renewal project leveled a substantial portion of the Tremé neighborhood and the present-day park evolved from that land. The park was designed by New Orleans architect Robin Riley and was named after New Orleans-born Jazz legend Louis Armstrong. The footprint of the park contains the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts and several buildings owned by the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.