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New Orleans Louisiana
© US Army Corps of Engineers

Aerial view of New Orleans and the Mississippi River.

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans is located in Louisiana at the southern end of the Mississippi River just before the river enters the Gulf of Mexico. The weather remains relatively warm all year. Snow and ice rarely travel that far south, but the middle of spring and fall are known for their rainy seasons. Summers can be extremely hot and humid even though the city benefits from coastal breezes.

Hurricanes can present hazardous weather conditions in New Orleans. Prime hurricane season along the Gulf Coast is from June until September. Originally built along canals (called bayous), the city is actually an island encompassing 363 miles, and it is the only major American city built below sea level (-4 to -6 feet). On August 29, 2005 New Orleans encountered Hurricane Katrina, the most devastating hurricane in its history. Towns in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama were all affected by Katrina. Over 1,836 lives were lost and there was billions of dollars worth of damage.

New Orleans' levee system (flood control) failed during the storm and subsequently flooded 80% of the city. Even today you can see water lines from the floods in parts of the city. The most popular tourism area, the French Quarter, was built on the city's highest ground and was not flooded, whereas, the lower Ninth Ward, the lowest section of the city, was the most devastated area and still in ruins.

Despite the destruction, the people of New Orleans are pushing forward and restoring the city. Many buildings have been repaired and repainted. As a tourist it is unlikely you will see any of the city's devastation unless you go searching for it. Nearly all attractions, shops, and restaurants are reopened. New Orleans' tourism is reviving and the wonderful culture is alive and well.

The Creole and Cajun People

The French first settled New Orleans in 1717, based on a land grant given to Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, who named it after Phillipe, the duc d'Orleans. The land was literally a small island surrounded by the Mississippi River, huge Lake Pontchartrain, and swampy land. The thriving port city that emerged became the center of high society in the region. In 1762, all of Louisiana was given to the Spanish court but eventually reverted back to the French government before being sold to the U.S. as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers are still referred to as Creoles, with their own cuisine and style of living.

The Cajun culture descended from the French settlers called "Acadians" who originally colonized Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada. Expelled by the British in the 18th century, they fled south, ending up in colonies throughout Louisiana, particularly in the crown colony of New Orleans.

Together both cultures create New Orleans' distinctive atmosphere. The accent here is exclusive to the area and sounds nothing like a typical Southern accent. New Orleans itself is pronounced "N'awlins," and directions are never given in reference to North-South but rather by upriver or downriver.

New Orleans also boasts its own unique type of music. New Orleans jazz is brassier than that of Memphis and more upbeat playful than what you'll hear in New York or Chicago. Its roots are in rural Cajun music called Zydeco, a happy dance music that uses violins, accordions and washboards.

Cajun food is hot and exotic. Often known as "country cooking," it usually involves a roux of fat and flower that adds body and color to the dish. Creole cooking is not as hot as Cajun, but it is very spicy and is famous for its sauces. The two styles are converging into a cuisine that is uniquely Louisiana. And no matter what is served for dinner, a praline, made of sugar, butter and pecans, is a great dessert treat.

New Orleans Districts

When local folks talk about the different sightseeing events, they often refer to the different neighborhoods, called districts. Each district is distinct from its neighbors and has its own assortment of wonderful sights.

French Quarter of New Orleans Louisiana © David Lewis
The French Quarter is the heart of downtown and a National Historic Landmark. Many restaurants, hotels and drinking establishments can be found in the area and nearby districts.

The famed French Quarter is at the heart of downtown. The structures there are mostly tightly-knit two-story structures of Spanish-style brick and wrought iron. There, boutiques, art and antiques stores, and souvenir shops are open in the daytime, but at night that the Quarter comes alive with restaurants, gentlemen's clubs and blues bars. This area also includes the Jackson Square shopping area, the dock area for paddleboat and steamship river cruises, and the Aquarium of the Americas.

The Garden District is approximately five miles to the east of the French Quarter, bordered by St. Charles Ave. to the north and Magazine Street to the south. Here you will find lovely historic homes that look like dollhouses, with their large porches, fancy trim and wrought iron fencing.

Loyola and Tulane Universities are located in the University area, as is Audubon Park, the site of the Audubon Zoo and Aquarium. On the nearby banks of Mississippi River, you can board the air-conditioned Riverboat John James Audubon for a seven-mile river cruise.

Outside of New Orleans there are many historic plantations homes with sprawling gardens and beautiful oak trees covered with moss, some of which have been turned into bed and breakfasts museums, or restaurants. Other popular attractions include the "Cities of the Dead", the 42 decorative above ground cemeteries.

Mardi Gras celbration in New Orleans © Doug Webb
Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to New Orleans during Mardi Gras to revel in the French Quarter and catch highly-coveted bead necklaces thrown by masked float riders along the six parade routes.

Mardi Gras and more

By far, the most popular time to visit New Orleans is during the twelve days of Mardi Gras, which starts around January 6th and ends on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This is a time of parades, parties and masked balls that can best be described as a fun frenzy. However, if you can't visit during these times, you can still get a taste of the elaborate decorations by crossing the river by ferry to Newton Street where there are wonderful displays of classic floats and costumes at Mardi Gras World.

Other celebrations include St. Patrick's Day in March, French Quarter Festival in the spring, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival in May. October includes several Oktoberfests, and all of December is celebrated as Creole Christmas with parades, pageantry and the Garden District shimmering with lights and decorations. New Orleans also plays host to major college and professional sporting events, most of which happen in December and January.

Accommodations

New Orleans has some of the most unique lodging options in the Unites States. The French Quarter and Garden District are teeming with historic hotels with wrought iron balconies and beautiful architecture unique to New Orleans. The typical chain hotels are found throughout the city and even they frequently display the elegant New Orleans style. Bed and breakfasts are common throughout New Orleans including plantation homes found on the outskirts of the city.

Transportation

The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is the main airport serving New Orleans. The airport is about a 20 minute drive from the Central Business District and the French Quarter.

There are several driving routes including the main east-west artery Interstate 10 (I-10). Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses also serve New Orleans with regular schedules.

Shopping

Typical of a tourist center, New Orleans has a large variety of shopping areas. The French Quarter boutiques, souvenir shops, and art galleries do big daytime business, as do the shops at River Walk where you will find all of the well-known national chain stores. Within walking distance of the French Quarter is the Jackson Brewery, located at the end of St. Peter Street and on the river. It houses fifty restaurants and shops, many of which feature art, antique and craft items made by local artisans. Magazine Street boasts six miles of galleries, boutiques, jewelry stories, and antiques dealers.

Cooking Classes

For culinary delights, the famed New Orleans School of Cooking holds classes in two locations, an old molasses warehouse at 524 St. Louis Street, in the heart of the French Quarter, and at the Jackson Brewery on Decatur St. For a modest $20, you will receive informative and entertaining lessons in Cajun cooking, and, when the class is over, you get to eat the food that has been prepared, along with plenty of draft beer. Elsewhere in both buildings there are shops where you can buy everything you'll need to try the dishes at home.

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Holidays

By far, the most popular time to visit New Orleans is during the twelve days of Mardi Gras, which starts around January 6th and ends on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. This is a time of parades, parties and masked balls that can best be described as a fun frenzy. However, if you can't visit during these times, you can still get a taste of the elaborate decorations by crossing the river by ferry to Newton Street where there are wonderful displays of classic floats and costumes at Mardi Gras World.

Other lesser-holiday celebrations include St. Patrick's Day in March, French Quarter Festival in the spring, and the Jazz and Heritage Festival in May. October includes several Oktoberfests, and all of December is celebrated as Creole Christmas with parades, pageantry and the Garden District shimmering with lights and decorations.

Climate

Because New Orleans is on the Gulf of Mexico, the weather remains relatively warm all year. Snow and ice rarely travel that far south, but the middle of spring and fall are known for their rainy seasons. Summers can be extremely hot and humid even though the city benefits from coastal breezes.

Hurricanes present the only important weather hazard in New Orleans. The Gulf Coast is in hurricane season from June until September. The city hasn't been hit head-on by a hurricane for many years, but any tropical storm visiting Eastern Texas or Mississippi can cause torrential rain and possible flooding in New Orleans.

Whether you are visiting for a family vacation, the Cajun food, or the frenzied fun of Mardi Gras, you won't be disappointed in the wonders and charm of this city.

Written by: Elizabeth Blair
Top Photo Credit: © Jan Kronsell
Photo Description: Bourbon Street in French Quarter