It’s not a bad effort to go from a city known primarily for utter devastation to becoming The New York Times’ No. 1 place visit in just over 10 years.
But that’s the case with New Orleans, Louisiana, which in 2018 is enjoying not only its status as the top of the Times‘ annual list of 52 best places to visit, but is also celebrating its 300th birthday.
Hit by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005, the city was inundated, with up to 80 per cent of the land flooded. The third deadliest hurricane in US history, the weather event killed more than 1700 people across Louisiana and Mississippi and displaced hundreds of thousands.
It took years for New Orleans to recover, but in recent years the city has not just bounced back, it has become one of the hottest tourist destinations in the US. Last year set a record for visitors, with nearly 11 million people heading to the city.
Part of the city’s success has been through embracing its own long history, something that has been particularly focused on in this anniversary year.
For the first time visitor to New Orleans, there are three key areas to explore.
Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery.
New Orleans has always been known for some its more famous dishes, with its blending of Creole and Canjun cuisines and dishes like seafood gumbo, jambalaya and po’ boys, but recent years has seen a surge in upmarket restaurants bringing modern style to traditional recipes. At the forefront of this is former Top Chef runner-up Nina Compton, with her restaurant Compere Lapin at the Old No. 77 Hotel and Chandlery (old77hotel.com). DTB (Down the Bayou, dtbnola.com) is more casual and focuses on new interpretations of traditional Cajun classics.
Riverside by the French Quarter you’ll find quite touristy spots. Some of these are institutions, such as Cafe du Monde by the French Market, which serves only beignets and coffee – nothing else. Queues form from early morning for these famous French pastries, but it’s more of a tourist attraction than a taste sensation. The beignets, buried in icing sugar, aren’t really worth waiting around for.
Traditional jazz at Preservation Hall. Photo: Alamy
While Bourbon Street is the city’s most famous strip, these days it feels more like an artificial approximation of the real New Orleans, in the same way that Las Vegas can feel like an imitation of a real city. Bar after bar promises drinks specials and live music, but most of the performers are cover bands playing the type of classic rock you’ll find in Australia’s suburban pubs.
However, there are pockets of more authentic music to be found around Bourbon Street and the French Quarter. Preservation Hall (preservationhall.com) hosts performances every night from a collective of local jazz musicians, playing classics of the genre. There are five shows a night, lasting an hour each. It’s a popular spot so it’s a good idea to book tickets in advance if you want one of the limited seats ($US35-50), otherwise join the queue for standing room ($US20). For something a bit more comfortable, the Royal Sonesta Hotel is a classy establishment despite its location on Bourbon Street and its Jazz Playhouse bar hosts talented local performers nightly. Entry is free (one drink minimum) though you can reserve the best seats for $20. See sonesta.com/us/louisiana/new-orleans/royal-sonesta-new-orleans
Further afield, the Maple Leaf Bar (mapleleafbar.com) in Carrollton has been running for more than 40 years and features nightly live music. Here you’ll find a younger, less touristy crowd than around Bourbon Street and bands to match. The Rebirth Brass Band has a residency and, although the band has existed in various forms since the early ’80s, it offers a more modern take on New Orleans jazz, integrating elements of funk, soul and hip-hop.
Despite the damaged caused by Katrina, New Orleans architecture, one of the city’s highlights, has remained largely intact. The buildings of the French Quarter, despite its name, are actually Spanish in style, originating from a period in the late-1700s and early 1800s when the Spanish ruled the region. Fortunately the neighbourhood was not severely damaged during Katrina and the historic buildings have been well preserved over the centuries. A walking tour, telling the stories of some of the most significant buildings, along with the city itself, is well worth doing. See graylineneworleans.com
The Garden District is a short streetcar ride away from the downtown area and the French Quarter. The neighbourhood is home to some of the best preserved southern mansions in the US. This is a residential area, so for the most part you can’t visit the homes in question, though many of them have plaques detailing some of their historical significance. Various rich and famous folks live here, including actress Sandra Bullock and you’ll also find the former home of writer Anne Rice, whose vampire southern gothic style was inspired by the location. You’ll find a decent free guide to some of the more significant properties here.
Various airlines offer connections to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport from the major US airports. flymsy.com
The fashionable Old 77 Hotel is a short walk from the French Quarter Close and close to many of the city’s other highlights. Rooms start from $US148, including taxes. See old77hotel.com
Read our full review of the hotel here.
The writer stayed as a guest of New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.