New Orleans is known for a host of attributes like its famous Creole food, abundant alcohol, music of many styles, nearby swamps and plantations, 18th & 19th century architecture, antiques, gay pride, streetcars, museums. Nicknamed the Big Easy, New Orleans has long had a reputation as an adult oriented city. However, the city also offers many attractions for families with children and those interested in culture and the arts. It is a city with a majority Roman Catholic population owing to its European origins.
Famous festivals like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest bring in tourists by the millions, and are the two times of the year when one needs to be sure to book well in advance to be sure of a room. The city also hosts numerous smaller festivals and gatherings like the French Quarter Festival, Creole Tomato Festival, Satchmo SummerFest, the Essence Festival hosted by the magazine, Halloween parading and costume balls, Saint Patrick's Day and Saint Joseph's Day parading, Southern Decadence, and so many more. The city takes almost any occasion for an excuse for a parade, a party, and live music, and in New Orleans most events often have a touch of Mardi Gras year round. Like they say, New Orleanians are either planning a party, enjoying one or recovering from one. Party down!
It is a city of great culture with a clash of French, Cajun and some Spanish designs. You may see some voodoo activity at night. The trolley rides are fun and many of the stores carry exclusive cultural art such as the blue dog collection.
In the late 1600s, French trappers and traders began settling in what is now New Orleans, along a Native American trade route between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John. In 1718 the city was officially founded as "Nouvelle-Orléans" by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, Governor of the French colony of Louisiana, with the intent to build it into a provincial capital city. The early French city grew within the grid of what is now the French Quarter. Louisiana was transferred to Spanish rule in the 1760s, but much of the population retained French language and culture. After briefly returning to French rule, Louisiana was purchased by the United States in 1803. At first the new "American" settlers mostly built their homes and shops upriver from the older French parts of the city, across wide "Canal Street" (named for a planned canal that was never built). Canal Street was the dividing line between the Anglophone and Francophone sections; the street's wide median became a popular meeting place called "the neutral ground"—and "neutral ground" became the common phrase for the median of any street, still in use in the New Orleans dialect today.
A British attempt to seize the city in 1815 was repelled downriver from the city in Chalmette by local forces led by Andrew Jackson, whose equestrian statue can be seen in the square named after him in the center of the old Quarter.
Early New Orleans was already a rich melting pot of peoples and cultures. French Spanish African and Anglos were joined by immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and the Caribbean. While a center of the slave trade before the American Civil War, New Orleans also had the USA's largest population of free people of color. The city grew rapidly as a major trade center on the mighty Mississippi River. In the American Civil War of the 1860s, New Orleans fell to the Union early in the conflict without battle within the city, sparing the city's rich historic architecture from the destruction suffered by much of the American South.
At the start of the 20th century, the then largely neglected old French Quarter started gaining new appreciation among artists and bohemians for its architecture and ambiance. Around the same time, a new musical style developed in the city; the music developed and swept around the world under the name of "jazz".
Although far from the big battlefronts, New Orleans is proud of its contributions to the Allied victory over Fascism in World War II, especially the development and construction of landing craft such as "Higgins Boats" which made rapid landing masses of troops on hostile beaches possible. This legacy is why America's National World War II Museum is located in the city.
In August 2005 New Orleans and the surrounding area was hit by Hurricane Katrina. Much worse than the hurricane was the failure of the federally designed levee system; in what has been called "the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history" when some 80% of the city flooded.
New Orleans was not destroyed, but the flood was a severe blow, perhaps the worst disaster to hit a U.S. city since the great San Francisco earthquake 99 years previous. Six years later, many visitors might notice little or no sign that anything bad happened. For locals, however, rebuilding is still an ongoing process. The French Quarter and other oldest parts of town most popular with visitors were built on comparative high ground, and were less damaged and have been more quickly restored. However, not everything is back to normal in the city; scenes of devastation can be still seen in many neighborhoods. More than two-thirds of the city's pre-Katrina population is back living in the city; most of them have a fierce love of their city and have faced many hardships in their continuing efforts to rebuild it bit by bit.
The city's public services - especially police - have struggled to return to their full strength, and are dealing with a city where decades of neighborhood stability have been disrupted. The city overall has experienced an increase in crime as a result. (See "Stay safe" below.)
While some visitors decide to confine their trip to the more fully intact parts of the city or just visit the worse hit areas as part of a half-day "disaster tour", for others the historic events of Katrina and its aftermath are the focus of their visit.
Volunteer projects such as New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity which builds new houses has attracted volunteers doing good work. Organizations such as Levees.org are vigilant in encouraging further investigation into the flooding and hurricane protection issues surrounding New Orleans, and visitors to the city are encouraged to tour ravaged areas and help keep alive the attention needed to restore New Orleans to its original grandeur.
A local joke has it that New Orleans really does have four seasons: Summer, Hurricane, Christmas, and Mardi Gras. Summer is certainly the longest; for about half the year, from about late April to the start of October, the days are usually hot, or raining, or hot and raining. Winters are generally short and mild, but subject to occasional cold snaps that may surprise visitors who mistakenly think the city has a year round tropical climate. The high humidity can make the cold snaps feel quite penetrating. Snow is so rare that the occasional light dusting of flakes will make most locals stop what they are doing to stare; they'll excitedly show the phenomenon to local children too young to remember the last time snow visited the city. If you happen to be visiting town during a rare freezing event, be forewarned that most locals have no idea how to drive on iced or snowy roads.
The Atlantic hurricane season (which includes all of the Gulf of Mexico) is June 1 through November 30. The most active month is September.
Some say the best time to visit New Orleans is between late November and early June. However New Orleans has things going on all year long. A rewarding visit can be made even the hottest part of the summer: Start your day early, and do your outdoor sightseeing in the morning. The lush local flora can display a wealth of colorful flowers. Mid-day and afternoon, retreat to air-conditioning; visit a museum, have a leisurely visit to a cafe or restaurant, or take a siesta at your hotel. Come back outside when the sun gets low. After dark the night shift of flora comes on duty; especially in older neighborhoods such as Esplanade Ridge, Carrollton, the Garden District, etc. with an abundance of night-blooming jasmine, the sweet deliciously scented air can be almost intoxicating.
Despite what many visitors expect, the population, food, music, and traditions of New Orleans are not predominately Cajun. The Acadian or Cajun (from 'Cadien, pronounced kay-juhn) people developed their rich culture to the west of the city, in the Acadiana section of Louisiana. While there are some good places for Cajun food and music in the city—some are branches of famous Southwest Louisiana Cajun places that opened up locations here—understand that Cajun food and culture are a recent import that has no roots in New Orleans. Unfortunately a number of businesses in the most tourist heavy parts of town decided to profit by selling visitors what they thought they wanted, slapping the term "Cajun" on dishes and products with little to do with Acadiana.
The oldest aspects of New Orleans culture are Creole—which here designates the people that were already here before the city became part of the United States with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. French, Spanish, and African are the primary ethnic and cultural groups in old Creole culture, with additional input from Native Americans and early German immigrants (who became much more numerous later in the 19th century).
Since the Louisiana Purchase, other major immigrant groups and influences on local cuisine and culture have included Italian (mostly Southern and Sicilian), Irish, German, Caribbean and Central American. Hondurans are traditionally the largest Hispanic group in the metro area, but after Katrina, there is now an influx of Latinos, mostly hailing from Central America and Mexico who have decided to stay after helping in the construction boom in the aftermath of Katrina. Smaller populations of Cubans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans are also sparsely located throughout the area. In the late 20th century a sizable Vietnamese community was added to the New Orleans gumbo. They can be found in greatest concentrations in New Orleans East and portions of the Westbank suburbs (Marrero, Harvey, & Gretna).
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