Travelling to New Orleans, now and in 1858
French Quarter architecture of New Orleans. (Dallas Stribley/LPI)
Thomas Ruys Smith imagines what advice a guidebook might have given for those thinking of visiting New Orleans back in the year 1858.
When to go
A visit to cosmopolitan New Orleans is a vital part of any fashionable tour of the United States. Not for nothing is it called the Southern Queen. Enriched by its port and the steady flow of steamboats and cotton down the Mississippi river, the city has risen to an extraordinary level of prosperity.
But be warned: avoid New Orleans in the summer months like – or rather, because of – the plague. Yellow Fever is a constant threat, and recent epidemics have been particularly damaging. Almost 8,000 died in 1853 alone. And that’s not to mention the hurricanes that blow in on an all-too regular basis.
So why not travel in the spring, at carnival season? In (historically Catholic) New Orleans, Mardi Gras has always been a time of exuberant celebration, and the introduction last year of innovations like street parades and floats have reinvigorated festivities.
What to take with you
There is nothing that can’t be purchased in New Orleans, so visitors need only ensure they are well supplied with money. This is a city that delights in opulence and excess, and a proper sampling of its pleasures requires deep pockets. Accommodation in the best hotels, for example, might run to five dollars a night.
Sights and activities
Even though the United States took possession of New Orleans from the French in 1803, there are times when you will imagine yourself in Europe. You will notice, too, that the city’s original French neighbourhood – and its inhabitants – remain quite distinct from the newer American parts of town.
Begin your visit with a walk on the steamboat levee, marvel at the scale of commerce, and wonder at the babel of languages and peoples on display (not least, the recent arrivals from Germany and Ireland). Then, head into the French Quarter, with its distinctive balconies and courtyards, and visit the cathedral in Jackson Square, or the vibrant French Market. A promenade along Canal Street – the dividing line between the French and American districts – is a must: it boasts some of the best shopping in the United States.
At night, the city offers other delights. Its theatres are rightly famous, surpassed only in New York – and the opera, its French supporters argue, is the best in the country. Heading out of town, make time to visit the famous battlefield where, in 1815, Andrew Jackson foiled a British invasion.
Dangers and annoyances
Unfortunately, this modern Babylon is rich in hazards. Disease and disaster aside, the city has an unenviable reputation for violence and vice. Duels are common. Gambling parlours operate day and night. Alcohol is omnipresent, and prostitution is rife.
For a city famed for glamour, the cleanliness of its streets (not to mention its lack of sanitation) leaves a lot to be desired. And visitors who are unfamiliar with the institution of slavery may find that its cruelties rather overshadow the city’s pleasures.
New Orleans boasts some of the grandest hotels in the United States. Visitors seeking luxury have a choice between two rival establishments. The St Charles – “a palace for creature comforts”, a recent visitor informs us – is the centre of social life in the American sector. The similarly lavish St Louis, based in the French Quarter, boasts a splendid rotunda under which much of the city’s business is transacted. This includes slave auctions, a popular spectacle. Many will recognise this location from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
Those on a more modest budget will be well served by the city’s innumerable boarding-houses, where a room costs around ten dollars a week.
New Orleans with Lonely Planet
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