Why you should care
This is the NOLA you don’t know.
New Orleans is a wine you savor as you drink in the thick, humid air. Whether it’s the smell of beignets wafting in from a courtyard terrace or the sound of blues spilling onto cobblestone streets from a neon-lit bar, one of your senses will draw you to where you need to be. So forget what you’ve heard: The closest you should get to bullet-pointing your way through the city isn’t by checking off a list of destinations, but by following a list of things you want to accomplish. Like:
Eat Damn Good Food
Don’t worry about getting “real” or “authentic” food. Bland doesn’t exist in NOLA. Find a small place with a respectable line and a few natives chatting familiarly with the staff, in no hurry to go elsewhere. (For po’boys, go to Avery’s. For gumbo, go to the Real Pie Man.) Otherwise, strike up a conversation. Louisianans will invite likable strangers to a cookout. Better yet, play six degrees of separation: Find someone with family in NOLA. They’ll appreciate a gift from, and a few stories about, their out-of-town family. You’ll appreciate home-cooked food.
Learn About Vodou (and Not Voodoo)
Skip the kitschy souvenir shops. Want to learn about a religion carried on the backs of slaves? Check out the Voodoo Museum. Afterward, stop by Sallie Ann Glassman’s Island of Salvation Botanica. A former Jewish Mainer, Glassman was initially wary of Vodou — until witnessing Haitian Vodou ceremonies and a friend’s shrine to La Sirena the mermaid. “Beneath it she had placed offerings of fresh, pink rose petals. It just threw me.” Since studying in Haiti, Glassman has become one of NOLA’s most respected, albeit unorthodox, figures on Vodou.
See the Scars of Katrina
The Ninth Ward, a postapocalyptic, largely abandoned residential neighborhood, is where mud-streaked scars from Katrina meet NOLA defiance in the form of new infrastructure and houses (some built by Brad and Angelina). “Bourbon Street, the French Quarter and the Garden District — these a lot of time aren’t very deep into the culture that drives us,” says Lycia Ferguson of Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours. When you’ve taken a tour, which costs around $60 (a portion goes to charity), be sure to visit Jazzland, an abandoned theme park that now serves as a solemn and unnerving post-Katrina landmark.
Listen to NOLA’s Rhythmic Heart
Frenchmen Street used to be the go-to place for good music, but over the past five years, poor-tipping hipstery tourists have turned the area into a fledgling Bourbon Street. To catch some good ol’ NOLA-style jazz, the place to be is the Maple Leaf. For blues, go to DMac’s Bar. If you’re the kind of person who prefers to get lost in good music without the noisy brand of drunken tourists and frat boys, you’ll feel right at home. Or find a place with a cover — this keeps clubs from getting too touristy — to hear jazz, blues or zydeco calling your name.
Hang With Do-Gooding Vampires
You don’t have to have porphyria — an extreme skin sensitivity to light, which many claim is helped by consuming blood — to join the New Orleans Vampire Association. NOVA accepts all self-identifying vampires, and has become a subject of fascination for sociologists. For locals, NOVA is just an odd collection of blood-drinking philanthropists who occasionally hold food drives for the poor.
More New Orleans
- Kayakable Forts: Forts Proctor and Macomb are sinking ignominiously into the bayou, allowing kayakers to paddle through them and to nearby swamps.
- Atchafalaya Basin: One of the most productive ecosystems in the world, this massive swamp is by far more ethereal than any other in America.
- Cafe Beignet: The shop selling the city’s best beignets is tucked away in a courtyard that always seems to have one gray and one white cat. You can sit and sip café au lait until the morning jazz bleeds into evening blues.
- Tomb of the Unknown Slave: Sitting outside St. Augustine Catholic Church of New Orleans is the city’s most evocative memorial to slavery: a cross of thick steel chains and medieval shackles.
- Pharmacy Museum: This 19th-century apothecary is a great example of the first generation of modern pharmacies.
- Faubourg Tremé: This neighborhood was once Storyville, 19th-century America’s most infamous red-light district and a 20th-century stronghold of the civil rights movement.