5 Must-Visit Places in New Orleans
New Orleans, the big easy, Crescent city, the birthplace of jazz, R & B, funk, rock and soul. If you are a lover of music, food, and sweet humid air, put New Orleans at the top of your bucket list NOW. Teeming with the sights, sounds and smells of celebration, in NOLA you can wander between beautiful neighborhoods rich with cultural history.
We arrived after dark on Friday night at our Treme apartment, ditched our bags, hit up the local corner store for a couple of ‘travelers’ (Aussie for beer while on the move) and headed down Governor Nichols toward the French Quarter. It was a cool 90 degrees, the sky rumbled with anticipatory thunder, flames burned in glass lanterns. So began our time in this beautiful city. A city so inspiring that years would not unveil its secrets, but for a start, we present you with five must-visit places in New Orleans.
1) Frenchmen Street
When you take your first walk down Frenchmen Street, you know you have truly arrived in New Orleans. The sounds of brass bands of many descriptions float in the air as you pass crowded bar after crowded bar—and crowded in a good way, where the room is heaving with happy people who are all in the moment and buzzing off what is going down in that small room. And this is coming from someone who generally hates bars, especially crowded ones. But these bars are different. The atmosphere is heightened and lively, and the music is exciting.
The bars are cosy enough that nearly every band on stage can be observed from the street, allowing you to ‘window-shop’ your musical experience for the night before diving on in. We glimpse some western swing at the Spotted Cat and an all-girl brass band at the Maison. Not all of it’s good—we duck into less-packed place and grimace through a few off-tune minutes of the Beatles covered by brass.
We go up and down the block a few times before settling on the Blue Nile, just as Corey Henry & Treme Sextet hit the stage. It’s old-school New Orleans jazz funk, and Henry towers over the crowd, leaning back and pumping his trombone’s slide back and forth like a jackhammer. His backing band are a tight six-piece that doesn’t miss a beat. It doesn’t take long for guest trumpeters, saxophonists, jazz divas and young hip hop MCs to grace the stage with Henry. It seems he is in a generous mood tonight, giving a lot of upcoming talent their chance to share the stage with him. Some young kids with instruments stand at the back but don’t play, clearly in the early stages of their jazz apprenticeships.
Afterwards, the calories lost while dancing are adequately replaced at Praline Connection with shared servings of gumbo, jambalaya, fried chicken and the richest apple pudding ever. Even the walk home is scored to the strains of various up-and-coming bands performing out on the street. It’s the only city in the world where you’ll see young men in baseball caps and singlets hanging out on the sidewalk with trumpets and sousaphones in their hands. And not a DJ to be seen.
2) Backstreet Cultural Museum - 1116 Henriette Delille Street, Treme
If the expression ‘Mardi Gras Indian’ makes you picture a buffalo-robed Native American in headdress, you’ve clearly never watched HBO’s Treme series. Confusing to anyone unfamiliar with New Orleans’ way of life, Mardi Gras Indians are an African-American tradition and regarded as one of New Orleans’ unique cultural treasures.
The history of Mardi Gras Indian tribes is rife with secrecy and folklore. The adoption of Native American tribal traditions by African Americans is said to have been inspired by the native American tribes who sheltered escaped African slaves, as well as out of a general affinity towards native American culture and its themes of resistance against white persecution (personified by the popularity of touring wild-west shows among African Americans after the civil war).
Every Mardi Gras Day, each tribe parades through the streets and its chief unveils his spectacular new suit that takes all year to create and sew. The suits are intricate in both their attention to details like beaded mosaics, and impressive in their size and multi-layered scale, tending to engulf and tower over their wearer in a labyrinth of feathers. Some suits are so heavy it takes serious effort for the tribal chief to make it through a parade. Each chief battles it out for the title of being the ‘prettiest’.
This fascinating tradition is all documented in the grass-roots Backstreet Cultural Museum in the heart of Treme, just down from Louis Armstrong Park. It’s a pillar of the Treme community and the Mardi Gras Indians will pass by it on Mardi Grass Day to show off their suits. The museum houses the world’s most extensive collection relating to New Orleans African American community-based traditions: Mardi Gras Indian regalia, jazz funerals, social aid and pleasure clubs, Baby Dolls, and Skull and Bone gangs. There is the opportunity to inspect a selection of suits up close, and the staff are super friendly, eager to show you around and share stories about their culture and history.
3) Congo Square - 700 N Rampart St, French Quarter
Do you like jazz? How about good old rock ‘n’ roll? Maybe you’d rather get your groove on to some R&B and funk? Perhaps hip hop is more your thing? What about soul? Some reggae anyone?Well, the answer doesn’t really matter, because if you listen to any of the above, it will owe a lot to what happened hundreds of years ago in Congo Square. Brutally kidnapped from their homeland and deprived of their freedom, African slaves in New Orleans gathered one afternoon a week in Congo Square to keep their decimated culture and folklore alive. While slaves were banned from congregating in almost all other parts of America, New Orleans’ unique mix of French and Spanish settlers brought a more laid-back attitude to the treatment of slaves that didn’t require cultural assimilation or forbid cultural gatherings.
So while outside of New Orleans the music of slaves’ homelands was discouraged or explicitly suppressed, in Congo Square it thrived, as hundreds—and quite possibly thousands—of Africans gathered in a place where they could fleetingly be African again. Accounts from white witnesses to the square describe wild and frenetic dances of massive scale, with a dense crowd pulsing in circular groups to drums, banjo-like stringed gourds, bells, triangles and tribal chants.
What did it sound like? We don’t really know, but it established the roots of American music and the beginning of its crossing into European culture. Today the square is part of the Louis Amstrong Park. It is unremarkable, and, with the exception of a few telltale statutes, could resemble a modest public square in any city in the world. But there is probably no other single place on earth that has such a powerful legacy to the evolution of modern music. If Congo Square hadn’t kept African tradition alive in America, whatever you’re listening to right now would likely sound a hell of a lot different.
4) Baccanal Wine - 600 Poland Ave, Bywater
Bacchanal is special. Don’t be put off by the zerg-rush of mosquitos fresh out of the nearby Mississippi and gunning hard for your limbs as you lock your bike up outside, those bites will soon be forgotten once you step inside.
At first you enter a dingy cellar lined with wine racks and you wonder what the fuss is about. After selecting a fine bottle of wine and picking some cheese out of the fridge, you retreat to a delightful courtyard filled with trees and oozing old-world charm. It feels classy, like stumbling into a tropical resort somewhere expensive. You pick a cosy table beneath the citronella candles and turn your attention towards the stage, where a woman is laying down live loops of her cello and singing in French. A short time later the cheese you chose earlier appears on a platter with bread, olives, spreads and almonds.
Gazpacho follows, refreshing and cool against the humid summer night. Outside the courtyard you can hear frogs and insects adding their own harmonies and polyrhythms to the music. You were already excited about the squid ink pasta and oyster mushrooms topped with ricotta and pistachio, and it tastes even better than expected, a rich and deep flavour that just brings happiness.
The chocolate bark for desert drenched in extra virgin olive oil, marcona almonds and sel gris rounds things out nicely. As you sink deeper in your chair, relishing your food and wine coma, you wonder why such a simple combination of outdoor music, fine food and wine doesn’t exist in your hometown and you’re already thinking about quitting that day-job.
5) Voodoo Spiritual Temple - 828 N Rampart St
After a midday Bloody Mary (or 2) at Bar Tonique we wander up North Rampart St in the direction of the old J & M Studio, stumbling upon Priestess Miriam’s Voodoo Spiritual Temple. Emanating from the doorway is a welcoming sweet aroma that beckons us inside where we discover a distinctive collection of hand-crafted item: spell kits for love and health, magic soap to wash away negative energy, and candles blessed with intention. Miriam, the resident Voodoo Priestess and I become engaged in a lively conversation about earth magic and indigenous elders that has an intoxicating effect on my senses.
Miriam leads us through a hallway flanked by shelves overflowing with herbs, oils, spices, and materials for crafting Voodoo Dolls, Mojo Bags and potions. Beyond the courtyard the sweet scent of incense summons us into a temple of many altars, dripping with offerings and spiritual paraphernalia from across the globe. It is here amidst shrines to Buddah, Allah, Jesus, Ganesh and co. that Miriam carries out her readings. Transfixed by thousands of visual details, we pore over the altars and tune in as Miriam shares her philosophy: to restore harmony to those who are challenged by conflict so that they may serve themselves and others with the best of respect. Before leaving, I buy a few voodoo dolls for good measure.
Feature article by Jacob Coppel & Aurora Jane
Photography by Aurora Jane