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Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

New Orleans, Louisiana

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New Orleans is wholly unlike anywhere else in America. Some would say it’s wholly unlike anywhere else in the world.

It’s like this most probably because of the eclectic mix of nationalities and ethnicities that have made up its population for two centuries: it must have the most diverse gene pool on the planet. You can hear French and Spanish spoken on the streets, and the cooking contains influences from a dizzying variety of world cuisines. It’s a little like Noah’s Ark. A little of each bit of the whole world exists within the city limits.

French Quarter

A vacation in the Crescent City (or The Big Easy, or any of a host of other nicknames) essentially means a vacation in the French Quarter. In fact, straying far beyond the French Quarter may not be such a good idea; New Orleans may feel like a cultured European city at times, but it’s not as safe as most transatlantic destinations. It suffers from many of the same problems as L.A. – poverty, ethnic violence and drug crime. Stay in the French Quarter, however, and use your common sense, and you should be fine. The city places a high value on tourists, and much is done to make them feel secure.

French Quarter

The French Quarter is essentially the New Orleans you’ve seen in the movies: intricate wrought-iron railings, balconies, hanging flower baskets, and gently fading pastel stucco walls. It feels a lot like Trastevere in Rome, or the Left Bank in Paris. Just within a few hundred yards of Jackson Square there’s a huge amount to see and do.

Before you get started on wandering around, however, it’s a good idea to get used to the city’s peculiar geography and the way the locals describe it. New Orleans sits on primeval swampland (now drained, thankfully) between the salt Lake Pontchartrain and the Caribbean. The mighty Mississippi winds through this strip of land and residents of the city use it as a point of reference. Giving you directions, they may refer to ‘upriver’ (roughly south) and ‘downriver’ (roughly north). A good map is pretty much essential in the city. It may be in principle laid out according to a traditional U.S. grid pattern of streets, but those streets seem to bend and twist off in the strangest directions following the line of the Mississippi as it grinds its way toward the sea.

Mississippi River Steamboat You can take a cruise on the river. If you’ve a little money to spare, and you really feel like recreating the heyday of New Orleans high society, you can take a trip on the SS Creole Queen. The Queen is a restored paddle steamer that plies her trade through the city most nights, usually with a live jazz band playing.

Mississippi River Steamboat

How did we get so far into this article and not mention jazz? New Orleans is the home of this most American of music – and a lot of residents will tell you that real jazz has never truly left. It’s hard to tell you exactly where to go to hear great jazz, as it’s absolutely everywhere in the city.

And jazz pervades the place not just as an art-form, but as a state of mind. You can taste it, for example, in the cooking. While you’re in Louisiana make sure you try some Creole food. Not the stuff you buy in boxes in Wal-Mart that claims to be Creole. Try the real stuff. And remember that Cajun and Creole is not the same thing. Gumbo, Jambalaya and red-beans-and-rice come from a cultural background miles away from the French-inspired roux dishes of most Cajun cooking. It’s in the kitchens and cafés of the city that you see the real evidence of its diversity.

Jackson Square

A great way – and a safe one – of seeing the city is to take one of the regular guided tours that set off from Jackson Square. One of the good things about these is that the knowledgeable and streetwise local guides can take large groups to places not mentioned in the guidebooks, or to see sights in areas you might not necessarily want to visit by yourself.

Jackson Square

New Orleans Cemetery
New Orleans Cemetery One of the absolute highlights of one of these tours is a visit to one of the famous New Orleans cemeteries. This may sound pretty grim and boring, but actually they are wonderful places. Years ago it was discovered that if people were buried in the swampy ground on which the city is built the bodies would pop to the surface again before very long – not really something that would meet the approval of the local real estate industry. So dead folks got buried in above-ground structures. Some of these mausoleums are richly decorated and spectacular, revealing a lot about the city’s varied history. Kids will love the spooky atmosphere.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? Well, maybe not yet – but you will do when you leave!

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