Five years ago this week, New Orleans was just starting to wring itself out after Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and killed some 1,500 souls. World media were covering the rescue and recovery efforts 24/7, and the more we saw, the more a lot of people became convinced that it would take a miracle for the city to ever get back on its feet.
Well guess what? Miracles happen. Five years on, New Orleans is well on its way to erasing the damage done in that awful week. Terrible reminders still remain in many parts of the city -- irreparably damaged homes, still-boarded storefronts -- but the sweet smell of rebirth is more than a match for any lingering odor of defeat. Tourism is up, and the fact that in 2011 and 2012, Royal Caribbean, NCL, and Carnival will all have ships sailing from the city, some of them year-round, is going to increase the foot-traffic even more.
Here's a quick rundown of some of the essential New Orleans experiences -- sights, smells, tastes, and treats that will get you into the essence of what may be America's most distinctive city.
Exploring the French Quarter
Comprising about 90 square blocks, the French Quarter (also known as the Vieux Carré, or "Old Square") was laid out by the French engineer Adrien de Pauger in 1718, and a strict preservation policy pre-Katrina (and high ground and good luck during and after the storm) has kept it looking much as it always has. Its major public area is Jackson Square (bounded by Chartres, Decatur, St. Peter, and St. Ann sts.), where musicians, artists, fortunetellers, jugglers, and those silver-painted "living statue" guys gather to sell their wares or entertain for change. The handsome buildings that surround the square date from the late 18th century and are designed in Spanish style, a reminder that New Orleans was part of the Spanish Empire from 1763-1801.
Beyond the square, the Quarter's narrow streets are dominated by hundreds of late 18th- and early 19th-century Creole townhouses, most of them two- and three-storey affairs with businesses on the ground level and residences above. The ornate, wrought-iron balconies that adorn many of these houses are the Quarter's crowning glory, many of them blooming in a thick growth of hanging and dangling plants. The western and central parts of the Quarter are thick with restaurants, shops (many of the tacky, tourist variety), bars, and galleries. The farther northeast you walk, toward Esplanade Avenue and Rampart Street, the more residential it all becomes -- a nice reminder that the French Quarter is still an actual neighborhood, where people have lived for hundreds of years. Pay attention to the details here. A quick look through a crack in a gate might give you a glimpse of one of the Quarter's lovely courtyards.
Riding the St. Charles Streetcar to the Garden District
Aside from the French Quarter, the one other neighborhood that's an absolute must for visitors is the Garden District, one of the city's most picturesque areas. It's mostly residential, but what residences! Bounded by St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street between Jackson and Louisiana avenues, the whole district was originally the site of a plantation, and the land was eventually subdivided and developed as a residential neighborhood for wealthy Americans. Throughout the mid-19th century, developers built the Victorian, Italianate, and Greek Revival homes that still line the streets.
To get there, take the St. Charles Avenue streetcar from the French Quarter. The oldest surviving street rail line in the world, the St. Charles uses vintage green streetcars built in the 1920s. The line was out of service for more than two years after Hurricane Katrina, but is now back up and running, with a main boarding point in the Central Business District, at the intersection of Carondelet and Canal streets. The fare is $1.25 each way -- an amazing bargain for such an iconic experience.
Stuffing Yourself on Rich Food
New Orleans has always essentially been one giant restaurant, with rich foods such a specialty that the city was always at the top of the "fattest cities" lists -- until the rest of America caught up. Post-Katrina, a restaurant boom has seen a reported 300 additional restaurants opening around the city.
The most New Orleans of New Orleans dining experiences is probably to be had at Commander's Palace in the Garden District, famous for its haute Creole cuisine and famously extraordinary service. It's been in business since 1880. A bit younger (there since 1918) is Arnaud's in the French Quarter, set in three interconnected, once-private houses from the 1700s. Especially delicious menu items include the signature appetizer, shrimp Arnaud, and the classic bananas Foster dessert. Galatoire's, on Bourbon Street feels like a bistro in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris and is one of the city's most venerable restaurants, run by the same family since 1905 and served by waiters who've been here for decades.
There are way too many other options, new and old, to list here. Luckily, Frommers.com has a list of the best New Orleans restaurants.
Grabbing Beignets at Cafe du Monde
To taste (and wear) the most characteristic New Orleans snack, visit Café du Monde, which has been selling its signature concoctions from a spot on the edge of Jackson Square, just off the Mississippi River, since 1862. It's basically a 24-hour coffee shop that specializes in beignets, which are square doughnuts served hot and drowned in powdered sugar. It's a great spot for people-watching, but if you don't want to wait for a table, you can always get a bag of beignets to go. Grab lots of napkins, too. Moist towelettes would also help, or maybe just a big wet towel.
Cruise passengers can follow trails of powdered sugar to find a second Café du Monde at the RiverWalk Mall, within easy walking distance of the cruise terminals.
Visiting the Museums
Most people don't think of museums when they visit New Orleans (much of the city looks enough like a museum that you wouldn't think they'd be necessary), but in fact there are several great ones.
In the Warehouse District, just west of the Quarter, the National WWII Museum began life as the D-Day Museum, but had its mission expanded a few years back by Congressional sanction. Created originally though the inspiration of historian Stephen Ambrose, the museum tracks the arc of the war from the days before Pearl Harbor through the Japanese surrender, presenting the story in a style reminiscent of a documentary film, with artifacts and visualizations interspersed with films and audio clips telling the soldiers' personal stories. This month, work began on a new, $35 million addition called the United States Freedom Pavilion: Land, Sea & Air, which will honor all of the service branches who fought in the war and display a number of large artifacts, including a restored Boeing B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber.
Almost across the street, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art presents what's probably the finest collection of Southern Art in the United States, from classic to modern. My favorite is the collection of works by self-taught artists George Andrews and others, but the entire collection is wonderful.
Frommers.com has a comprehensive list of New Orleans museums.
Exploring Katrina History at the Presbytère
Part of the Louisiana State Museum on Jackson Square, the Presbytère was built in 1791 and went through several uses before becoming part of the Louisiana State Museum in 1911. It's long been a Mardi Gras museum, tracing the history of the annual event with everything from elaborate Mardi Gras Indian costumes to Rex Queen jewelry from the turn of the 20th century, but this fall that exhibit will be moved to the second floor to make room for Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond, a 6,700-square-foot interactive exhibit that uses contemporary accounts, historical context, and scientific info to show Katrina's impact on the city and the region.
Also on Jackson Square, the Cabildo, another Louisiana State Museum property, was the site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase transfer. Today it holds an exhibition that traces the history of Louisiana from exploration through Reconstruction.
Walking Bourbon Street after Dark
The main drag of the French Quarter, Bourbon Street is either the coolest place or the worst hellhole you'll ever visit -- depending, y'know, on your perspective. Lined end to end with rowdy bars, music clubs, and strip joints, it's a 24-hour frat party writ in yard-long cocktails, cheap 16-ounce beers (and larger), tasteless T-shirts hawked from dozens of identical shops, unbelievably loud live rock and blues bands blaring from nearly every open doorway, and thousands of red-eyes zombies swaying as the street pitches and rolls around them.
So why go? Because you must. Me, I don't like to linger, but on the other hand, it's nice to see that there's a place for this kind of thing in the modern world. And really, you have to admire their commitment and stamina. At the corner of Bourbon and Orleans, Johnny White's Sports Bar, "the bar that never closes," even lived up to its rep during Hurricane Katrina, staying open 24-7 despite rain, wind, flooding, looting, curfew, and other trials. Why not? Can you think of better reasons to drink?
Bar- & Club-Hopping on Frenchman Street
Much cooler than Bourbon Street, at least for the "I puked enough in my youth" set, is Frenchman Street, the main drag of the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood (east of the French Quarter, on the other side of Esplanade Avenue. Over the past decade, the neighborhood has become a hot spot, with young urbanites mixing with old-time residents to create an organic, happening feel. Some of New Orleans best bars and nightspots are along Frenchmen Street, including the great jazz club Snug Harbor, the wonderful R Bar and the Royal Street Inn, the wonderfully named music club Ray's Boom Boom Room, and d.b.a., the city's best beer bar (with music too).
Taking a Cemetery-and-Voodoo Tour
If vampires were real (and American), New Orleans is where they'd live. Who knows which came first, the city's murky, spooky vibe or the Anne Rices, voodoo priestesses, butoh dancers, and other characters who have capitalized on it, but the fact is, it's a perfect marriage.
There are dozens of tour operators operating tours that take in the city's ghosts, cemeteries (whose evocative, above-ground tombs are a vital stop on your visit), voodoo legends, and other assorted spookiness, but Historic New Orleans Tours (www.tourneworleans.com/cemetery_set.html) is always a good bet, offering a cemetery and voodoo tour that visits St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 (and, FYI, devotes a portion of your ticket price to the cemetery's restoration fund), the site of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau's home, the former site of Storyville (the city's red light district), and what they describe as "a sincere Voodoo temple."
Grooving to a Brass Band
There's no sound quite so New Orleans as a brass band in full flight. On my visit last week, I heard a great one right on the street in the French Quarter, but those less serendipitously inclined can often find brass bands (including the famous Rebirth Brass Band) playing at the Maple Leaf Bar and many other New Orleans music clubs.