After Hurrican Katrina, it was hard to imagine how people could get themselves to return to New Orleans. To my mind, it seemed like too great a risk to take, but after visiting the city, I can see what drew people back despite their tribulations there. New Orleans is not only a city vested in a history older than our country itself, but it is a place of unique culture and a charm found nowhere else. After having had the chance to experience it myself, I find myself feeling utterly grateful that people had the courage to return to that place and rebuild it.
My first day in the city involved a cursory exploration of the French Quarter, as I had made a point to stay in the area as per the suggestion of several locals and travelers on Tripadvisor. Not only was this wonderful because the French Quarter is so characteristic of the New Orleans that visitors hope to see, but it allowed me to avoid renting a car, as many of the city’s attractions were within walking distance. For those that were further away, I had easy access to the New Orleans Streetcar, which can get a traveller to almost any other landmarks that they would like to visit.
The walk down Royal Street was an early introduction to the atmosphere that draws so many people to New Orleans. The street was lined with beautiful French buildings, with their lovely wrought-iron balconies, and art galleries and antique shops. Street performers filled the mild air with the sounds of banjos, guitars, and cheerful song, and small cafés beckoned with the smell of fresh beignets. It was in stark contrast to the walk that I took home through Bourbon Street though.
I have heard enough about this infamous place to be somewhat apprehensive about walking it, as I had little interest in partaking in the activities that it provided, but I didn’t think it was something that should be missed. As it was, I ended up regretting the decision, and avoided the street for the rest of my trip. My experience doesn’t compare to some of the stories that other travelers have shared with me about this trip, but the pervasive smell of alcohol drying on the old street corners, and gathering in the gutters was enough of a deterrent for me. Especially when this was coupled with the harassment I received from bar employees attempting to get early customers through the door. I can certainly see the appeal of this place for people interested in partying, but I would highly suggest doing some research on this area before braving it. It certainly isn’t for everyone.
After realizing just how much there was to see in New Orleans, I decided that it would be a good idea to take a city tour, in order to get a lay of the land. The tour itself was enjoyable, but for anyone with a similar thought about something like this, I would suggest sticking to guidebooks. The tour didn’t really show me much of anything that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, but it did offer me the chance to briefly visit the Ninth Ward. It felt a little invasive, and I could only wonder if the local people were somewhat resentful for the surface-level attention, but I appreciated the opportunity to take in some of the real damage that had been done to the city. The tour also offered us a chance to explore a New Orleans cemetery, which I would highly suggest to anyone travelling there (although I have heard that some caution is needed in cemeteries with high, solid walls which can put visitors in some danger by concealing them and any potential attackers). We also stopped at the City Park, which was fun, but this park is accessible to travelers staying downtown by the streetcars.
Determined to do some exploration on my own after the city tour, I spent a few days on foot (or streetcar) seeing the city. The French Quarter is a great place to wander, and it can easily take up an entire day (if not more if you enjoy shopping). This area is a photographer’s dream. Every building has its own unique charm, and every street is a new visual treat. Even without a camera, the French Quarter is just a very special place. Of the main attractions that we made sure to see while in this part of town were the French Market, Jackson Square, and the two national park visitor centers. The French Market was an airy, outdoor market, which lacked the pressing crowds of Charleston’s Rainbow Market, and thus it was a much easier market to shop. Most of the friendly sellers there had unique wares. I would suggest that anyone planning on visiting this area prepare by bringing some cash, because you will almost surely find something worth buying at one of the stalls. There is also a plethora of delicious food in this area, which provides a slightly cheaper alternative to some of the more expensive restaurants lining the streets of the French Quarter.
Close to the French Market is the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, which isn’t much to see, but they do have free concerts here, and the building is staffed by friendly, informative park rangers. The Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve Visitor Center was a better place to spend some time, as there was a small, free museum here. Information about the past of New Orleans, and the various cultures that have created this beautiful place are provided here, as is some information on Hurricane Katrina. As its name suggests, there is more to the Lafitte park than just the visitor center, and there are actually several preserves and cultural centers scattered around southern Louisiana that make up the full extent of the park. I didn’t have the means to visit any of them on this particular trip, but they all look like they are well worth visiting. Both of these places seemed to be minor attractions of the area, but I found them to both be worth stopping by, and most tourist maps of the French Quarter will mention them.
A must-see sight of the French Quarter, which is also pretty hard to miss if you walk from one end to the other, is Jackson Square. Here a small park fronts the lovely St. Louis Cathedral. In the morning, the square is fairly calm, but by the time that the air begins to warm up with the coming day, a variety of street venders begin to set up shop along the outside of the square’s fence. Palm readers and street performers were also common here, drawing little crowds and giving the place much of its character and attraction. Many people told us not to miss the Cathedral either, but it seemed to me that they were too busy for visitors to properly explore. This may have just been the luck of our timing, but both times I tried to see the inside, there was something going on inside, and visitors were relegated to the back of the church.
What turned out to be more interesting were the museums on either side of the cathedral, which are part of the Louisiana State Museum. I ended up visiting the Presbytere part of the museum, which had exhibits about Hurricane Katrina and Marti Gras. The Hurricane Katrina section of the museum was simply amazing. Outside of the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, I have never been to a more emotional, powerful exhibit. I would highly suggest visiting this place. The Mardi Gras section of the museum was well done as well, but it was hard to switch gears from Katrina to that, so it might be wise to visit the more light-hearted portion of the museum first.
I also visited the Audubon aquarium and zoo, and both were worth seeing if you enjoy animals, although at the time that I visited both were being renovated, and that did take away from the experience a little bit. The zoo was particularly nice, in that it was located at one end of the large Audubon Park, which had some nice walking tracks as well as an artificial lake, and they made a great effort to create a wide variety of environments in the zoo itself. It reminded me of the San Diego Zoo on a smaller scale. So that was really nice. The aquarium was similar, and I really enjoyed that. They also had a nice variety to the animals on display there, with a whole room of parakeets, as well as owls, otters, and turtles. One thing that I wasn’t too fond of was a completely lack of recycling bins in the aquarium. Seems like a small complaint, but I do think it is important to link informational signs about the importance of recycling to actual opportunities to recycle. I was also a little concerned about the size and quality of some of the exhibits. For example, the otter in the aquarium didn’t seem to have any access to natural sunlight, and it didn’t have very much enrichment in its enclosure either. At any rate, the good outweighed the bad, and both are nice places to spend an afternoon.
Finally, I took a day to tour Oak Alley Plantation and Laura Plantation. Both are about an hour outside of the city, and since one is a classic American plantation and the other is a Creole plantation, they were great to see together. Oak Alley Plantation lets its visitors wander its grounds freely, and I really appreciated this. They have reconstructed slave cabins that the plantation has turned into a memorial for the people that once suffered there, and I personally found their treatment of this particular part of plantation to be very respectful and informational. Besides that, there is a car garage with some vintage Fords from the last residential owner of the plantation, a beautiful garden, and an area covering the civil war. A guided tour is provided to explore the big house, and the tour guides were dressed in character, and they were very polite and knowledgeable. Laura is a Creole plantation, and the only way to see it is during a tour. I found the architecture here to be utterly beautiful, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the tour. It was pretty long, and they covered a lot of ground really quickly. That being said, I think seeing both plantations is a great way to go, because it really illustrates some important things about the culture of the New Orleans area at that time. There are a couple different tour companies that offer similar tours, and I would highly suggest choosing the longer of the ones provided. The more time offered, the more time that can be spent exploring Oak Alley, and the grounds there are simply breath-taking.
When I left New Orleans, I was fairly happy with what I was able to see, but there are a couple things that I would have liked to have done, and that I would suggest other people check out. First, I loved the walking tours that we did in Charleston, and I think that doing one of these in New Orleans would have been wonderful. I would have also like to see the nearby parts of the Laffitte Preserve, and walked the Garden District.