Since 2010, visitor numbers to New Orleans have soared to pre-Hurricane Katrina levels. Traditionally, tourism has focused on the city’s oldest and most historic neighbourhood, the French Quarter. However, intrepid travellers are pushing beyond the plastic beads and bad hangovers of Bourbon Street, the epicentre of most tourist debauchery, keen to discover a different side of the city. And as any resident will tell you, if you really want to find the heart of the Big Easy, you have to look outside of the French Quarter
The Faubourg Marigny neighborhood,
just a few blocks away from the French Quarter, is
home to a cosmopolitan mix of immigrants and working class, artists and
musicians, along with some of the best-preserved architecture in New Orleans.
While some grumble about its growing gentrification, the area still has an
edginess about it, especially at night, when the city’s hallmark gas lamps cast
strange shadows through the lacy ironwork of the Creole cottages and shotgun
Locals let loose on Frenchman Street, a three-block
music strip that is home to one of the best collections of jazz clubs in the
world. Stop by the Blue Nile, where locals cheer from the
balcony and revellers carrying cups of indiscriminate liquor spill into the
Franklin Street marks the official boundary where
Faubourg Marigny gives way to bohemian Bywater, and like most neighbourhoods in
New Orleans, the line between slightly dodgy and do-not-walk-here-at-night
begins to blur. However, on a Thursday night, it is worth the cover charge and
cab fare to see jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins blow his horn at Vaughan’s (4229 Dauphine Street,
504-947-5562). During the day, the neighbourhood is best known for the grassroots St
Claude’s Ave Art District, where you will find art co-operatives like the Good Children Gallery and the NOLA Art
House, an art colony that lives beside and works within a sycamore treehouse.
However, the city’s official arts district is located in the
Warehouse District, which is home to the renowned Ogden Museum of
Southern Art, the Contemporary Arts
Center and one of the city’s best attractions, the National World
War II Museum.
In many respects, the Warehouse District best
exemplifies the city’s post- Katrina renewal, with a curious collection of
world-class galleries and high end restaurants scattered among empty lots.
Award-winning restaurant Cochon opened in 2006, offering a
contemporary twist on traditional Cajun cuisine, and a new 1,100-room Hyatt hotel and conference centre opened
in November 2011 next door to the re-branded Mercedes Benz
The focus of global media attention during Katrina,
the Superdome now glitters bronze during the day and dances in coloured lights
at night. In a major coup for the city, it will host Super Bowl
XLVII in 2013, along with a number of other high-profile
national sporting events.
Hop on the historic St Charles Avenue Street Car, which threads through the centre of the Warehouse District, and
stay on the line until you reach the elegant Garden District, a neighbourhood
that emerged largely unscathed from the storm.
Set up in the 1830s as a residential area for those
who did not want to associate with the Europeans living in the French Quarter,
the land parcels were large, the money used to fund the buildings was new, and
each white-columned mansion was built to outdo the one before it. Framed by
pristine gardens, a picture-perfect Southern neighbourhood was created.
Those who invested in large homes also invested in
grand crypts at the nearby Lafayette Cemetery Number One, where tombs were built above ground due to the high water table.
Today, they stand in varying states of decay, ravished by time, vandals and
Across from the cemetery is the shockingly aqua and
white Commander’s Palace, open since the
1880s and still offering a $0.25 lunchtime martini special. There is a limit of
three, because as the menu tells you, three martinis at lunchtime is enough.
While many movies have featured the grandeur and
glamour of the Garden District throughout the years, more recently, US cable
network HBO has turned the spotlight on the grittier side of New Orleans life
in their critically acclaimed series Treme.
The Faubourg Treme was one of the first places in the southern
United States where free African Americans owned property at a time when
slavery still existed. It was also where the roots of modern jazz took
hold. Slaves were allowed to gather each Sunday in Congo Square, an old slave
market in Louis Armstrong Park, to drum and practise their music. Today, the
site is still a spot for both impromptu and arranged musical celebrations and processions.
The history of the African American community’s
processional traditions is chronicled at the Backstreet Cultural
Museum. Costumes belonging to the Mardi Gras Indians -- the “tribes”
of African Americans who dress as Native Americans each Mardi Gras -- are
displayed, as are photographs of Second Line Parades. A New Orleans tradition,
the Second line is a raucous and impromptu street parade that follows a brass
band through the street in celebration. The museum also looks at the charitable
role played by the social aid and pleasure clubs (better known today as
benevolent societies) that gained popularity at the turn
of the century, and their struggle to maintain tradition in the aftermath of
To dig into the soul of the Treme, you have to rely on
your stomach. Tuck into classic New Orleans gumbo, etouffee or red beans and
rice at favourites like Willie Mae’s Scotch House (2401 St Ann Street, 504-822-9503), Li’l Dizzy’s (1500 Esplanade
Avenue, 504-569-8997) and Dooky Chase (2301 Orleans Avenue,
504-821-0600). It is neighbourhood restaurants like these,
supported and patronised for decades by the local community, that add flavour
to the true New Orleans experience.