Ten reasons to visit New Orleans
The colorful, casual Red Fish Grill is an oasis of calm on Bourbon Street. Photo by Bob Krist/Corbis
T here are 1001 reasons to visit New Orleans, which is the only city, as far as I know, to have a 1001 Nights Story Festival.
The storyteller Scheherazade set up shop here because the city is a rich source for stories, and has been one since its founding in the 18th century by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Chevalier de Bienville.
I have several shelves of books about the city, from Lyle Saxon’s mythical 1920s guide, Fabulous New Orleans , to Tom Piazza’s 2005 Why New Orleans Matters . In between there is Tennessee Williams (who also has a yearly literary festival) with A Streetcar Named Desire and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces , whose hero, Ignatius Reilly, has a statue on Canal Street, and whose author committed suicide when he couldn’t find a publisher.
The owners of Faulkner House Books, which is located in the French Quarter building where 27-year-old William Faulkner wrote his first novel, Soldiers’ Pay , produce the Faulkner Festival. An equally young F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote his first novel, This Side of Paradise , in a small apartment looking over Lafayette Cemetery, which may have inspired his title. Add to this literary cornucopia the fact that almost everyone in the city will tell you his life story if you ask (and even if you don’t), and you have Reason No. 1 to visit New Orleans:
It is the story capital of the United States.
History. Much was collected and published since the founding, but a simple walk in the French Quarter will take one through the Spanish, French, and American layers of the city. The French Quarter is also Spanish. The original French buildings burned down for the most part, and Spanish colonial owners rebuilt in a style reminiscent of Havana. Cuba and Louisiana have other history in common: Until 1848, the city was the northernmost port of the trade in sugar, rum, and slaves, a route that began in Martinique and crossed the Caribbean. After slavery was outlawed, rich planters took their sugar mills to Cuba. The Civil War lasted only a short time before New Orleans surrendered: Its multiethnic population of descendants of the French and Spanish, Creoles, and Africans saw little reason to put up a fight. They would rather eat, drink, and make merry. Which brings me to
Eating. You can contemplate the city’s history from a table at the Napoleon House, a building offered as a residence for Napoleon Bonaparte after a group of local conspirators sprung him from his exile. They failed, but like everything in New Orleans, history (or legend) turned into a restaurant. Food in New Orleans, just like literature, runs the gamut from the lofty to the lowly. You can dine in the majestic salons of Commander’s Palace, which commands the view of Lafayette Cemetery from the side opposite that of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s apartment, and feel well fed and aesthetically confirmed, or you can eat the shrimp creole at late-night bohemian Coop’s Place on Decatur Street and feel the honest sweat of your fellows among the click of the pool table balls and pings of the poker machines. Oysters are still the bedrock of a New Orleans in-between snack, whether you have them Rockefeller at Mr. B’s or raw at the Acme Oyster House. Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf, the mollusks come at a steep price. The shells that built the original roads around the city (there being no rocks, only Mississippi mud) are now worth their weight in gold. Since the other great tragedy of the modern era, Katrina, New Orleans has done its best to uphold its unique cuisine, but it is a battle the tourist can fight by eating as much and as often as possible. Dishes tend to be spicy and salty, so it is advisable to drink a lot of Dixie beer, which is
Dixie beer goes with oysters like mule-drawn carriages with honeymooners (you’ll see many), and this is the city that invented the cocktail. Among the many cocktails it is known for, New Orleans’ oldest is the Sazerac, a concoction of bitter herbs and mysterious alcohols. Absinthe, the drink of the French decadent poets, has been enjoying a vogue lately, and it’s best to consume it in Pirate’s Alley. The bar at the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue, an antebellum mansion, is also a terrific place to dream in with a cool mint julep or a melon mojito. This hotel has its share of history, its best known being the location for Brooke Shields’ first movie, Pretty Baby . There is always music playing on the veranda, which brings me to what may be reason No. 1 to be in New Orleans, but which, for some odd reason (it’s the Sazerac), ends up being
New Orleans is as full of music as a barrel full of hooch, to coin a phrase, and you can’t go wrong at Tipitina’s, Snug Harbor, the Maple Leaf, Checkpoint Charlie’s, or any of the other dozens of venues. Music in New Orleans is like the estates of Polish aristocrats: You can’t throw a stone without hitting one. The birthplace of jazz never stopped innovating. If you’re a true aficionado, you’ll be at jazz fest every year, and you won’t have to read DownBeat to know which new sound blows from where. If you’re only a mild aficionado, I can tell you that the latest sound that conquered America from New Orleans is called bounce, and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art had a great show on this local version of hip-hop. Cool, high-class jazz coexists peacefully with the latest styles. On weekends, Royal Street is a haven for street musicians, and you’ll be surprised to hear highly learned music along with the raunchiest rhythms. And that’s another thing about New Orleans: You can never separate high from low, street from salon. Street music makes its way into museums, and high society goes straight from mighty social functions to the dives without missing a beat (or changing out of evening gowns and tuxes). Music in New Orleans is also about dancing, and this propensity to enjoy life intensely has doubtlessly saved the city in its most trying times. Dancing is then
Even if you’ve never been to Mardi Gras (which begins on 6 January, reaches its apex on Fat Tuesday, and ends in church with penitent ashes on Ash Wednesday), you know that dancing is what it’s all about. The “social season” begins on the first of the year, with the creation of costumes and balls that lead to the elaborate parades two weeks before Fat Tuesday. These balls range too from high to low, from elegant society affairs to satirical bohemian parties that last until dawn. The members of the krewes that organize the festivities dance while they organize, dance to the bands they hired for the balls that take place before the parades, and dance, of course, while parading and at the after-parade parties. New Orleans has Mardi Gras in common with many of its spiritual kin from Havana to Rio de Janeiro. Music and dance pervade the city, and recent disasters have intensified them. Since Katrina, New Orleanians have added even more carpe diem to their unusually large holdings of it. The non-rowdy spirit need not experience any of this, but take instead a streetcar to view the mansions and parks of Uptown. And this is without a doubt
The streetcar goes past some magnificent antebellum houses with lush gardens, each one with its own history. You can get off at Audubon Park, one of the most imaginative green spaces of any American city (designed by Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm, which also designed Central Park in New York), and visit the Tulane University campus, or go to the Audubon Zoo, where rare white alligators study the passersby with sleepy interest. There is a detailed and beautifully re-created swamp environment at the zoo, and one can eat a bowl of jambalaya above the alligator pond. The lush animal life of the Louisiana marshlands is both diverse and delicious, which brings me to
Fusion sensibility. This is one of the few cities where aesthetics and gourmandise can be experienced without conflict. The insect museum on Canal Street has the largest bug collection in North America. Iridescent beetles and fabulous butterflies accompany one to a lovely cafe where different New Orleans chefs prepare exquisite small portions of chocolate-dipped grasshoppers, salsa caterpillars, and crispy batter-fried worms. Children scream as they dare each other to taste the bugs, so the place is often a lovely bedlam of expressions of terror, disgust, and delight. This insectarium and cafe are a favorite date locale too. You can sit here and be amused, or you can be thoughtful and in need of making notes, writing letters, or scribbling a poem. If the latter is the case, we get to
Cafes. There are many terrific sidewalk cafes to spend idle hours watching the passing parades. The staff is never in a hurry, and the locals never mind being watched. Even if one wasn’t interested in literature, one might find compelling and as-yet-unwritten stories by eavesdropping on an afternoon in Molly’s on Decatur, a bar in the French Quarter where the wits of the city are known to gather on weekends. The French Quarter boasts several dreamy cafes, from Pravda, a mysterious goth-cum-debutante bar serving odd coffees, to the Abbey, a dim and vaguely dangerous dive, and Cafe Envie, which serves a great breakfast (with a bloody mary if you need it). The cafes are known for their yarn-spinners and dreamers, which brings me to the last reason to be in New Orleans:
Digressing. New Orleans is a digressive city, always willing to explore byways, to stray into stories, to bring out the anecdotal and the romantic in a person. The city on the Mississippi is the collecting point for a Mississippi river of stories that come down the mighty water to stop and blossom here. In addition to being the recipient of the nation’s floating lore, the city produces its art from a unique and vivid history. Mark Twain, who is our first and best storyteller of the river, wrote in Life on the Mississippi that “after De Soto glimpsed the river, a fraction short of a quarter of a century elapsed, and then Shakespeare was born ... and when he had been in his grave considerably more than half a century, the second white man saw the Mississippi.” From then on, Spanish, French, and then American writers wrote the city up and down, noting her every historical moment, her passage through various colonial hands, and describing in detail her calamities. New Orleans may be the most overwritten city in the world, short of London and Paris, but the interested visitor can easily find wonders neither yet noted nor yet articulated.