New Orleans: a city of resilience

It’s early March, 2020. Phrases like “coronavirus”, “n95 mask”, “lockdown” and “social isolation” still only belong to epidemiologists and scientific circles. They’re inching their way into our vocabulary like an invasive weed. Without much thought or worry, I board a flight to the USA.

New Orleans, NOLA, the Big Easy, was the perfect last hurrah before the world crumbled upon my return to London. It was a bit quieter after the party-going festival tourists had returned home and she welcomed me with open eyes. Secret bars, haunted streets, live music and gorgeous food staged a lesson that has become ever more pressing in the times of coronavirus. Resilience.

I want to honour the city that’s made me value the privilege to travel more than ever before, so here’s a neighbourhood by neighbourhood guide for your next trip.

The French Quarter

The French Quarter is a living museum of the melting pot of cultures and religions it once was. It’s where the original city of New Orleans was first established and has been rebuilt twice after fires rampaged through the city. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a hub for immigrants and artists but now hotels, inns, and holiday rentals have taken over.

Most of the remaining original buildings date from the late 18th Century, but the famous and much beloved neighbourhood has plenty of historical, esoteric and social mementos scattered around that speaks to the resilience of its citizens. 

You’ve got the catholic Cathedral in the town square, the Voodoo Museum and the Voodoo Temple (just at the edge of the quarter), plus all the wiccans and tarot readers that will lure you in – with different degrees of reliability. Religion, gods, and deities can be felt and breathed throughout the streets. You’ll run into restaurants that claim there’s a resident ghost and ghost tours operators that will spookily ask you to listen very carefully to the fog, in case you hear a howl.

The French Quarter was one of the social battlegrounds pre, during and post the civil war for the rights of black citizens (enslaved or free). Many walking tours will acknowledge this time of history in their itineraries, and speak openly about the horrors committed by slave owners. The vibrant music and art scene also honours the town’s ancestors with a wealth of events and shows directed to locals and tourists. 

Can’t miss…

  • anything by Goat in The Road, an immersive theatre company that stole my heart with their production of The Uninvited
  • a night time tour with Haunted History Tours – ideal for solo travellers with a pang for ghosts, walking and history
  • spend the morning with Nola Tour Guy to get to know the city, including the cemeteries

Faubourg Marigny and Bywater

Marigny is, or at least to me, the quieter sister to the French Quarter. It’s more residential, the architecture is photogenic stuff of dreams and a sprouting ground for coffee shops, restaurants and art. 

Studio Be takes the crown in this neighbourhood. Brandan “Bmike” Odum’s first solo project and featuring a permanent exhibition on the aftermath of 2005 hurricane Katrina, here’s a loud and clear statement on social injustice in the USA. Some of the pieces call for viewer interaction, and you’ll see everyone getting involved: social activists, backpackers seeking an off the beaten path museum and influencers alike.

Faubourg Marigny is also home to Frenchmen Street, a strip of jazz bars and arts markets. Originally named as such after the execution of three French political rebels after the Spanish came in control of the city, now it’s full of dance, jazz and even some burlesque. 

By far, walking around the streets of these neighbourhoods just outside of Downtown New Orleans was a highlight of the trip.

Can’t miss…

  • St Roch’s cemetery – a very small public cemetery, and a perfect place to really take in the city’s burial tradition. Please bear in mind it’s still in use by locals and in a very residential area. It goes without saying that being respectful is paramount.

Tremé

Faubourg Tremé, Treme, Tremé-Lafitte. It has many names but this neighbourhood is unique. Home to Louis Armstrong Park and St Louis Cemetery 1, it’s the heart of Black History in NOLA. It was the nucleus of social life for free people of colour (Black American, Spanish or Native Americans who were not enslavedIn the 19th century), where brass bands first started and the birthplace of jazz.

I did not spend enough time here, so I’m weary of making too many recommendations. I know I’ll be back and finally visit the Free People of Color museum, absorb history at Louis Armstrong Park and Congo Square, and explore Lafitte Greenway.

Can’t miss…

  • Backstreet Cultural Museum is inconspicuous inside a home just off North Rampart Street, but one of NOLA’s best kept secrets. Owner Sebastian has dedicated his life to preserving Brass Band and Mardi Gras traditions, now curated into an eclectic storm of Kings and Queens dresses, recordings and altars in honor of lost members of the community. Entrance is $10 only, and definitely worth the detour.

Final thoughts and directory

The world has turned upside down in the seven weeks since I was in New Orleans. My heart aches for her, my senses are deprived of live music and the contentment of strong drinks and rice and beans. Of all the cities I’ve visited, the Big Easy is one of the few that has surfed the wave of overtourism without losing her essence. If you’re looking for an inspiring city break once this is all over, you can start plotting your route now.

Here’s a selection of all the places I loved during my stay, in no particular order. This is my own list and I haven’t had any sponsorhip from any business or attraction listed. 

Visit

  • A Gallery for Fine Photography, 241 Chartres Street
  • Backstreet Cultural Museum, 1116 Henriette Delille St
  • Voodoo Museum, 724 Dumaine St
  • St Louis Cemetery 1, 425 Basin St (only available with tour guides)
  • Studio Be, 2941 Royal St
  • St Roch Cemetery, 1725 St Roch Ave

Eat and Coffee

  • Johnny’s Po Boy, 511 St Louis St
  • Antoine’s, 713 St Louis St
  • Morrow’s, 2438 St Claude Ave
  • Dat Dog, 601 Frenchmen St
  • Commander’s Palace, 1403 Washington Ave
  • Felix’s, 739 Iberville St 
  • Petite Amelie, 900 Royal St
  • Who Dat Coffee, 2401 Burgundy St
  • Flora Gallery & Coffee shop, 2600 Royal St

Dance

  • Spotted Cat Bar, 623 Frenchmen St

Shop 

  • Frenchmen Art and Books, 600 Frenchmen St
  • Boutique du Vampyre, 709 St Ann St
  • David G Spielman, 1332 Washington Ave

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