After a long train journey south from Memphis, following the Mississippi, I finally arrived at the mouth of the river to spend four days in New Orleans. This is a city I’d been really looking forward to on my cross-country USA trip since it’s so famous and so iconic. I was expecting it to be pretty different from a lot of other American cities, and I was not to be disappointed.
New Orleans was a melting pot of cultures, owned by the Spanish and the French at different times, and late to join the British-owned United States. It also had (and still has) a large Black population who lived freely here long before slavery was abolished in the rest of the USA. All these cultures came together to create a unique city, where music and food and magic infuse the streets. There was a lot to fit into my four days in New Orleans!
Cajun vs Creole
After arriving late the evening before, my first day in New Orleans, naturally, had to start in the French Quarter. I was staying at a hostel on Canal Street, so it was just a short walk away. I was off to join a food tour first to get plenty of restaurant recommendations for the rest of my long weekend! I’d heard of many of the most famous dishes from New Orleans before – gumbo, jambalaya, beignets – and was eager to try them. Our guide did have a few surprise dishes I wasn’t familiar with as well though!
New Orleans is home to both Cajun and Creole cuisines, so it was interesting to learn about their differences. In short, the Cajuns were French Canadians expelled from Acadia (in Nova Scotia) who settled in rural Louisiana. While Creole simply meant anyone of mixed heritage – French with Spanish, African or Native American usually – and are more populous in New Orleans.
The tour started in Jackson Square beneath St Louis Cathedral at the heart of the French Quarter. While food was the focus of the tour, we got a little history and culture along the way too. We started with calas from Bon’s Street Food, which are a sweet fried rice treat and a lesser-known alternative to beignets! We walked a little ways along the Moonwalk Riverfront Park, talking about the importance of the Mississippi River, before heading to our next stop. As the name suggests, we were at the Gumbo Shop to try gumbo, with the option of rabbit or seafood (I took the latter). It turned out to be as tasty as its reputation suggested!
Next up was Pere Antoine, one of the oldest restaurants in New Orleans. Our guide got a few different dishes for us to share and taste here; crawfish cakes, red beans & rice, and alligator! The latter isn’t something I’d be eating regularly for sure, but when else would I ever try it? Also turns out, you only eat the tail meat! Our next classic New Orleans dish was po’boys, a type of sandwich, which we got from NOLA Poboys. The restaurant is on Bourbon Street and I enjoyed seeing their room full of Mardi Gras parade throws and souvenirs! Finally, the tour headed towards the French Market, where we got praline (which is also how my Savannah food tour ended!), available in several flavours, from Southern Candymakers.
Next, it was time to continue exploring the French Quarter. As mentioned, we got some history on the food tour and passed quite a few notable sights, but I wanted to learn more. Rather than joining another in-person tour (especially since I had several more coming up), I found this self-guided tour online instead. Using this to guide my route, I meandered through the French Quarter, admiring all the beautiful cast-iron balconies and galleries and the Spanish-style architecture. It’s actually not a huge neighbourhood and easiest to get around it on foot!
The LaBranche House is probably the most photographed of them all, its multiple floors of galleries wrapping around a street corner. It sits on Royal Street, which is full of shops to browse and is pedestrianised at weekends. Other notable stops on my walking tour included the house where Tennessee Williams wrote ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, the oldest building operating as a bar in America. It also took me back round Jackson Square, where artists and psychics ply their wares, to see the Cathedral and adjacent buildings, the Cabildo and Presbytère.
My tour also led me along Bourbon Street, New Orleans’s legendary party street. Naturally, afternoon isn’t the busiest time, but I saw it at night another day. It was just as busy and chaotic as I expected! New Orleans, along with Savannah and Las Vegas, is one of the few American cities where public drinking is legal, so the bars do a roaring trade in takeaway drinks. There’s also a strong LGBTQ community in New Orleans. It turned out I had accidentally come the same weekend as Southern Decadence, a huge LGBTQ festival. Which meant the city was very busy, and full of even more rainbows than usual!
St Louis Cemetery No.1
New Orleans is full of ghostly and supernatural legends (much like Edinburgh!), and its cemeteries only add to that. Since the city is built on a swamp, it’s barely above the water table, making it near-impossible to bury bodies underground. So instead its cemeteries are full of tombs above ground, bodies stacked up and locked away inside mausoleums. St Louis Cemetery No.1 is one of the most famous, situated just north of the French Quarter. You can only access it by joining a guided tour, starting just across the road.
Our guide led us through the narrow paths between the tombs, explaining how people can sign up for “Perpetual Care” so their grave is taken care of and maintained by the cemetery even after their family are gone too. He led us to some of the more notable tombs, telling us about the lives of the people now buried there. Marie Laveau is one of the famous names in here, the legendary Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, who healed people and was rumoured to have supernatural powers. More on her later! Nicolas Cage is another famous name – he’s still alive, of course, but purchased a tomb here years ago. The large white pyramid he will one day be interred in is definitely one of the most unusual tombs!
After the tour, I headed over to Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park nearby. There are various statues and sculptures to see here and it was a peaceful break from the hectic streets of the French Quarter!
In the late afternoon, I ventured back into the Quarter, specifically to Bourbon Street. No, I wasn’t going for a wild night of partying here, but I did manage to find one of the few jazz places on this street! New Orleans is famous for jazz music – continuing the musical tour I’d been on since Nashville and Memphis – but you won’t find much of it on Bourbon Street. There are lots of street musicians around the French Quarter who play it though. The whole quarter just seems to be filled with music all the time, floating out of venues or street corners. However, Fritzel’s European Jazz Bar is one of the exceptions on Bourbon Street, and I grabbed a couple of drinks here while enjoying the live band. Then I grabbed another po’boy for a quick dinner before heading to my main destination for the evening.
Preservation Hall is a venue of legend in New Orleans. Since 1961, it has nurtured live jazz music, with countless musicians playing in its storied hall. It’s not a huge venue – about twenty people file into the small room, sitting on benches or standing around the walls. I actually had a standing ticket, but as there was space free on the benches, the staff allowed me to sit! The band play 4 shows per night usually, for about 45 minutes each. There are a few different Preservation Hall bands that take turns playing throughout the week. Of course, the musicians we got to witness were incredibly talented, as well as being pretty fun when chatting between songs. I thoroughly enjoyed the show and was excited by my first taste of live New Orleans jazz, which is still alive and thriving in the city!
The second of my four days in New Orleans started with a hotel pick-up to be whisked out of the city. Louisiana is famous for its swamps and bayous, an integral part of many people’s culture and livelihoods. And yes, I really like ‘The Princess and the Frog‘! There are numerous companies that offer swamp tours, though many only do it by airboat. These seemed very loud and very fast and not what I had in mind! I found a tour company with a regular boat option instead. I was a bit thrown by the early pick-up though, as we then had to wait for half an hour at the tiny shop and check-in counter before actually starting.
Anyways, once on board, we cruised through the narrow channels of the swamp, many of which are man-made to allow access through the thick foliage. Our guide was born and raised by the swamp and explained how people live and work here. It’s a pretty unique ecosystem too and he told us about some of the flora and fauna native to the area. It’s definitely super interesting to see such a unique environemnt and how it has shaped the local culture!
Of course, another big draw for tourists going to the swamp is alligators. And we weren’t disappointed, as it didn’t take long to find several swimming around. We stopped the boat to allow them to approach. However, the guide also started tossing marshmallows to lure them closer and trying to touch them, which was quite off-putting to me. I definitely don’t agree with feeding wild animals a processed product they’d never get in the wild! I wouldn’t have chosen this business (Louisiana Tour Company) had I known that would happen. But that aside, I enjoyed getting to see the swamp overall.
Back in the city by early afternoon, I hopped on one of New Orleans’s iconic streetcars and headed over to the Garden District. This neighbourhood is known for its resplendent Southern mansions, many of which had famous inhabitants or featured in films. I started off on Magazine Street for brunch, since I hadn’t had a huge breakfast, at the Ruby Slipper Café. They have a huge menu of breakfast items, and I continued to sample Southern fare by choosing the fried chicken eggs Benedict – delicious! I then wandered along Magazine Street, browsing the shops, many of which were crammed with local artisan goods. I ended up coming away with a few souvenirs, including a crescent moon necklace (for the Crescent City) and an art print.
Once I stopped spending money, I moved on to the rest of the neighbourhood. Using the same self-guided tour website as I had in the French Quarter, I followed their instructions through the tree-lined streets. Most of the houses are beautiful, and you could easily just wander and admire them. But having the tour gave me a little more context and guidance for each one, and there’s some fascinating history here. For instance, I had no idea Anne Rice, author of ‘Interview with a Vampire’ lived in New Orleans and her house is still here! I also saw the house used to film ‘Benjamin Button’ and Lafayette Cemetery, where scenes for ‘The Originals’ were shot, though the gates were closed.
It was a pleasant way to pass a couple of hours, wishing I could have a house like one of these! Though maybe not in the scorching humidity – why did I come here in August? Then I headed back to the streetcar stop to return to my hostel and relax.
Frenchmen Street Jazz Tour
This evening, I resumed my discovery of American music and it was New Orleans’s turn to show me jazz. I stopped for dinner along the way, tucking into crawfish cakes at Cafe Maspero on Decatur Street. Then I continued along to the end of Frenchmen Street, east of the Quarter, to meet up with the jazz tour. It was like a pub crawl, a good way to meet people for a night out instead of going solo!
The tour guide himself was also a local jazz musician, so it’s definitely an authentic experience. He took us to some of his favourite venues and to see musicians he knows personally. This is less of a historic music tour, and more an experience seeing live jazz as it continues today. The tour would be different every time, just depending on the guide and which musicians are performing that night. All of the ones we saw were excellent and you can tell they’re in New Orleans because they love jazz and what they do. They were all a little different to each other as well!
The tour also included a cocktail demonstration at the first bar, which was a fun addition. Plus, we stopped off at the Frenchmen Art Market between bars. This outdoor, night market hosts many local artists selling their creations, which was fun to browse. The tour lasted a couple of hours, visiting four venues. However, when it ended, many people in the group, including the guide, stuck around longer. Some of the musicians we’d seen earlier even appeared, showing how close-knit the jazz community is here! We drank and chatted and enjoyed the music for a while longer, before turning in for the night.
St Louis Cemetery No.3
This morning, it was time to venture to another neighbourhood. Much as the French Quarter is lovely, there’s plenty other places to explore with four days in New Orleans! I hopped on another streetcar from Canal Street and headed north to Bayou St John. My first stop here was Parkway Bakery, a long-standing institution that’s been around since 1911. It’s most famous for its po’ boys, considered one of top places in the city. I guess we can call this my brunch? From there, I wandered along the banks of the bayou to find St Louis Cemetery No.3. Yes, another cemetery!
This one is free to enter and was pretty empty while I was there. Funnily enough, each of the St Louis Cemeteries were opened in consecutive order as they’re numbered, when each one got full. This one has wide avenues between the tombs, feeling much more spacious than No. 1 did. The elaborate marble and granite stonework is so interesting too, making the hundreds of tombs all unique. I followed another self-guided tour to learn a little backstory. However, maybe it was me, but this one was trickier to follow than the previous two! I definitely got disorientated and didn’t find all the graves it talked about. But for those I did, it was interesting nevertheless!
New Orleans City Park
Just across the bayou from the cemetery, I entered New Orleans City Park, a vast green space. It was too huge for me to explore all of it, as well as too humid to walk outside for that long. I mostly stuck to the southern end, where there is plenty to see. Ambling around Big Lake, I encountered the Singing Oak. This ancient tree has huge chimes hung from its branches, sending music through the park as the wind blows.
Looping around the lake, spotting ducks and swans as I went, I came to the Museum of Art. I decided not to go inside, after plenty of other art museums this summer, but there is a free sculpture garden behind it. As with any art, I liked some of them better than others, and some were pretty bizarre! Though I think weird & wonderful kind of sums up New Orleans in general. On the other side of the museum, I roamed under the shade of the Historic Oak Grove, following the abandoned railway tracks and waterways. This was a peaceful corner of the park and these trees are remnants of a forest that pre-dates the city, hundreds of years old.
Café du Monde
It was time for a snack before leaving the park and beignets from Café du Monde is practically a rite of passage for tourists in New Orleans. Most people get them from the Café at Jackson Square in the French Quarter, so it’s always packed. However, less people know about the City Park branch and it’s therefore far less busy. With next to no queue to wait in, I was served my bag of beignets, drenched in powdered sugar, in just a few minutes, with an iced coffee to go alongside them. I sat at an outdoor table in the shade, munching on the sugary goodness – yes, they’re worth the hype! Then I hopped back on the streetcar to return to my hostel for a rest again.
I headed out again for the evening, returning to the Gumbo Shop for a full portion serving of gumbo this time! It’s a pretty cool venue too, a converted house where you can eat in the central courtyard. I had a bit of spare time before my next activity too, so I popped into Pat O’Brien’s, next door to Preservation Hall. I’d heard about their “duelling pianos” and was intrigued to hear them. I ordered a Sazerac, the official cocktail of New Orleans, which I had yet to try and snagged a table for half an hour or so.
The stage had two grand pianos facing each other, with a musician on each one. They would receive requests from the audience and take turns selecting a song from their pile to perform. Both would play together though, so they had to improvise their way through each one, with no time to prepare! Each over was slightly jazzy, regardless of what the original song was, as befits this city and the pianists were so talented at what they do! I really enjoyed and and would have stayed longer if I didn’t have other plans…
Haunted Pub Crawl
I was back on the supernatural theme again tonight. In case you hadn’t noticed, I love the weird, magical and supernatural and New Orleans is a hotspot for all of it! As a former ghost tour guide myself, I have high standards for ghost tours, and I was intrigued to see what New Orleans had to offer. I chose the pub crawl version where we stopped at bars every couple of stories to grab takeaway drinks.
I’d hoped this would make it easier to meet people and maybe continue on after the tour. But the group was pretty clique-y with everyone already with their friends. I got chatting to a few people, but when the tour ended, everyone dispersed pretty quickly. There’s no way I would guide a haunted crawl myself either, because people were talking over him and the group kept shrinking as people dropped out. I guess he is used to wrangling drunk groups, but I’d get pretty annoyed if it were me! So while I enjoyed the tour, in hindsight I probably would’ve chosen the non-pub crawl version.
Anyways, the actual stories were super fun. Our guide led us through the French Quarter, to back alleys and enclosed courtyards I’d have never seen otherwise. There were the vampire girls in the Old Ursuline Convent, the table set nightly at Muriel’s for its resident ghost, and the debauchorous pirate ghost, Lafitte. All culminating with LaLaurie Mansion, the most paranormal house in the Quarter, with a dark, twisted history and a long legacy of supernatural happenings – no spoilers here! Whether you believe these sorts of stories or not, I think they’re so fascinating and intriguing and I was hanging on the guide’s every word!
I really ran with the magical theme, ok? Although, voodoo is technically a religion! I think everyone is familiar with voodoo dolls as objects to punish people, from movies & TV shows. But this is actually a misconception and the true nature of voodoo is really interesting! I joined a tour this morning, to learn the real history of it in New Orleans. However, the other booking dropped out last minute so I ended up getting a 1:1 tour with the guide. It meant we finished a bit quicker than the 1.5 hours scheduled, but he still covered everything and I found it fascinating!
Voodoo is a religion brought to New Orleans by Africans by way of Haiti, with its own gods, rituals and beliefs. Practices such as voodoo dolls and possession rituals are for healing, not for punishment! The guide gave me an overview of its history and explained some of the most important locations around the French Quarter. This included Congo Square, where possessions took place under the huge oak tree. People still leave offerings under the tree and drumming circles take place on Sundays normally.
The tour also covered the life of Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. I’d already seen her grave of course, but the tour went to her former house. People leave hair accessories here, as she was a hairdresser by trade! But she was also a voodoo practitioner, who performed healing rituals for many people. Her life has inspired a lot of exaggerated legends, but the truth of who she was is still equally interesting! I would definitely encourage people to join a tour like this and learn about the reality of voodoo, which is even more fascinating than the Hollywood version I think!
Southern Decadence Parade
After the tour, I had another Ruby Slipper Café brunch, but this time at their Burgundy Street location (above). This one is cool because the building is a former bank, which the legendary Bonnie & Clyde once robbed! Then, I made my way back to the Quarter to find a viewing spot for the afternoon’s parade. As mentioned, Southern Decadence, a big LGBTQ+ festival happens on Labour Day weekend in New Orleans, and there’s a parade as part of it. So although it wasn’t the more famous Mardi Gras, I did get to see a New Orleans parade – I even caught a set of throw beads!
The parade had participants from lots of groups and organisations, each of which had chosen their own theme. The costumes were truly outstanding from all of them, so much colour and sequins and feathers. Some of them were pretty revealing too (for 3pm on a Sunday afternoon!) but also, why the hell not? Every group was unique and it was so fun seeing what was coming along next! Plenty of them also had choreographed dance routines, were passing out throw items (not just beads, all sorts of things!) or had props and floats.
The crowd watching was huge too and I loved seeing how many families with kids had come out to watch. I’d noticed homophobic protestors around town a few times that week already, but they were such a minor proportion compared to the huge amount of participants and supporters. Truly, it seemed like no one cared about the protestors and the biggest “screw you” to them was just how much fun everyone was having at the parade. It was so fun and uplifting and positive, and everyone was having a blast!
Once the tail end of the parade had passed me, I snuck away from all the crowds. It was fun, but so busy! Wandering back down towards Jackson Square, and probably still inspired by the voodoo tour and all the supernatural elements of New Orleans, I decided to try my luck with one of the psychics there. I’ve never spoken to a psychic before and while I do believe there are forces in the world beyond human understanding, I don’t know that I entirely believe psychics. But I thought if I’m ever going to try, this was the time and place for it, as a bit of fun in a highly paranormal city! I took the cheapest reading option, palm and tarot cards. Some of what she told me didn’t quite line up but other parts were plausible. Only time will tell if her predictions were true!
I then headed across the square to the French Market, near the riverbank. I’d passed by here a few times this week already, but hadn’t done much exploring yet. Starting at the end closest to Jackson Square, the market is full of permanent, indoor shops all lined up against each other. Then, it transforms into a covered walkway full of temporary, pop-up stalls. There were food vendors and lots of table of souvenirs and crafts to browse. I didn’t buy anything, but wandered through for a look. After several busy days and nights, I was pretty tired so I picked up some dinner to takeaway. This time I got jambalaya, the last iconic New Orleans dish I had yet to try, from Olde Nola Cookery and took it back to the hostel common room for a quiet night in.
Long Weekend in New Orleans
The next morning, I was off to the bus station to leave Louisiana and continue my journey west, crossing into Texas. I was very glad I had taken time off work to coincide with New Orleans! I had been really looking forward to visiting it on this trip, probably one of my top destination, and it didn’t disappoint. There was so much to see and do that I easily filled my four days in New Orleans, and fortunately was able to take some rest time in there too.
New Orleans is definitely touristy and busy, but for good reason! I loved the array of options to explore and that make it unique. From its Creole and Cajun cuisine to its legacy of jazz music. From swamp tours full of alligators to above-ground cemeteries stacked with tombs. And of course, the ghosts, vampires, psychics and Voodoo Queens that fill the city with stories of magic and the supernatural. All of it I found fascinating and so fun! New Orleans is truly one of the most unique cities in the USA (maybe in the world?) and despite the crowds, it lived up to expectations and I really enjoyed my time here!