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Southern belle: New Orleans

With little warning, New Orleans will steal your heart. Prepare to be seduced by her creole feasts, her boozing and merry making; her easy-going nature and working class roots; and, of course, her music, which makes every street corner an unmissable event.

Southern belle: New Orleans
Image: Jen Judge

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This is a city that exists despite the odds. Partially built on reclaimed swampland, Hurricane Katrina cruelly exposed New Orleans’ geographic vulnerability to the world in 2005, when a storm surge breached many of its man-made levees, flooding 80% of the city.

Arriving in town, you half expect to find a city still traumatised. But talking to locals, you realise Katrina is just one chapter in the city’s narrative. Despite the Gulf oil spill and the global financial crisis, it’s staged a determined comeback. Hotels and theatres are opening, museums are expanding their collections and the city has emerged as one of America’s top culinary destinations. Most importantly, visitor numbers have risen significantly.

It’s easy to understand the destination’s appeal. Affordable, hospitable and fun, New Orleans’ lively reputation as a wild child is balanced by a strong cultural backbone of music and literature. The French Quarter lies at the heart of the city, tucked around the curve of the Mississippi River. But for a real taste, you’ll need to head either Uptown or Downtown, Riverside or Lakeside. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with a different and varied New Orleans, from the manicured mansions of the Garden District to the eclectic nightspots of the Faubourg Marigny neighbourhood, and the spontaneous tradition of second-lining — dancing beside a brass band.

Most people associate the city with Mardi Gras, held before Lent. But festivals and parties run every week in New Orleans, from the Bayou Boogaloo to the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival and the popular Vieux To Do.

However, if you look beyond the glitter, glamour and vice of these events, you’ll find the core of what makes this city stand out: the sense of community that drives these almost weekly celebrations.

See & do

■ New Orleans School of Cooking: Grab a local Abita beer and settle in for a traditional cookery demonstration. Preparing classic dishes such as gumbo, etouffee (shellfish over rice) and pecan pie provide an insight into the history and culture of the city. www.neworleansschoolofcooking.com

■ Graveyards: Badly damaged by time and hurricanes, New Orleans’ cemeteries, or the ‘Cities of the Dead’, are built above ground due to the high water table. Inside, you’ll find the final resting place of music legends, voodoo queens and lost tourists. Book a tour through Save Our Cemeteries, whose profits go to conservation work. www.saveourcemeteries.org

■ National World War II Museum: Focusing on US involvement in the Second World War, this museum is the city’s most under-appreciated attraction. Chat with veterans in the lobby, and don’t miss the gut-wrenching 4-D Beyond All Boundaries presentation, held across the street at the Victory Theatre. www.nationalww2museum.org

■ Southern Art: The city’s vibrant art scene thrives in the Warehouse District. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art has an expansive collection of regional creations, while the Contemporary Arts Center presents artistic reactions to the disasters that have hit the city. www.ogdenmuseum.org  www.cacno.org

■ Sunday Brunch: Forget breakfast; in New Orleans, you do brunch. Two of the best include The Court of Two Sisters’ outdoor jazz buffet, and Brennan’s, where the boozy dessert dish Bananas Foster was invented. Don’t forget to order an ‘eye opener’ breakfast aperitif — locals favour Bloody Marys, but stick to a Brandy Milk Punch if your stomach’s not up to strong early morning drinks. www.brennansneworleans.com  www.courtoftwosisters.com

 Stroll the Garden District: Hop on the St Charles Avenue Streetcar and explore the South’s most beautiful homes, gardens and gaslit porches. Can’t tell a raised centre hall cottage from an antebellum mansion? Book a tour. www.tourneworleans.com

■ Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World: Unapologetically touristy and absolutely fantastic, Mardi Gras World is the next best thing to actually being at the carnival. Tours include a short video on Mardi Gras history and traditions, but the highlight is touring the workshop where the giant floats are constructed. www.mardigrasworld.com 

■ Cajun Country: A short drive from the city, the plantations and their ornate mansion houses offer a fascinating glimpse of 18th- and 19th-century Louisiana culture. Various companies offer half- and full-day tours, often combined with airboat rides and trips into the outlying swamps. www.graylineneworleans.com

Eat

Food is a crucial part of New Orleans culture. Locals will be delighted to share their tips on the best places to eat, so ask around for recommendations.

£ Head to Café Beignet for a paper bag of freshly baked squares of puffed creole pastry covered in powdered sugar. For those wanting more than beignets, the cafe has an affordable, $10 (£6) and under menu. www.cafebeignet.com

££ Fried green tomatoes and Louisiana blue crab gnocchi are just some of the set menu dishes at Upperline Restaurant, located Uptown. Be sure to view its extensive collection of regional art, considered one of Louisiana’s best in private hands. www.upperline.com

£££ For the classic New Orleans dining experience, book a private dining room at Arnaud’s, one of the oldest eating establishments in the city. Rooms are ornately decorated and include access to the restaurant’s Mardi Gras Museum. www.arnaudsrestaurant.com

Buy

■ Art lovers: Spend hours prowling Royal Street’s galleries, including Craig Tracy’s eye-popping Painted Alive Bodypainting Gallery and the Impressionist works at Mann Gallery. Be sure to peek inside the smaller galleries, where runway exhibition spaces give way to secluded courtyards filled with art. www.craigtracy.com  www.vincentmanngallery.com

■ Dress up: Garish masks, feather boas and plastic beads litter souvenir shops in the city, but for a souvenir with a touch of class, head to the House of Orleans for its stylish collection of home decor and silver jewellery themed around the city’s symbol, the fleur de lis. www.houseoforleans.com

■ Antiquities: Located Uptown, Magazine Street runs for six miles and offers a mix of antique stores, funky cafes and vintage shops. Lili Vintage Boutique is another favourite for elegant dresses, twin sets and ballgowns from the 1920s to the ’60s, along with a selection of antique jewellery and bespoke pieces. www.lilivintage.com

Like a local

 Frenchmen: When the locals want to party, they head to Frenchmen Street in the Faubourg Marigny district, home to some of the best gin joints and jazz clubs in the city, including Apple Barrel (at 609, T: 00 1 504 949 9399), Snug Harbor and Blue Nile. www.snugjazz.com  www.bluenilelive.com

■ Po’ boy: These traditional subs are served on French bread, packed with meat or fried seafood, and are usually the size of an NBA player’s shoe. Ask to have yours ‘dressed’ with lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and mayonnaise.

■ Creole: Head to the Treme neighbourhood for a bite at Dooky’s Chase. Open mid-week for lunch, it serves southern classics such as fried chicken, gumbo and beans and rice — but leave room for its famous peach cobbler. 2301 Orleans Ave. T: 00 1 504 821 0535.

After hours

New Orleans knows how to party, but for an authentic night out, don’t just stick to Bourbon Street. Unlike in most places in the US, street drinking is legal here, so don’t be shocked if your bartender asks if your drink is to go.

■ Vaughan’s Lounge: On a Thursday night, it would be criminal not to take a cab three/four miles out of the Quarter to catch jazz musician Kermit Ruffins’ regular gig at this laid-back bar. 800 Lesseps St. T: 00 1 504 947 5562.

■ Preservation Hall: Watch the city’s finest jazz musicians do their thing at this venue’s nightly shows, just a block from Bourbon Street. www.preservationhall.com

■ Carousel Bar: Drink in the history of New Orleans at the favourite gin joint of Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. 214 Royal St. T: 00 1 504 523 3341.

Sleep

Accommodation is plentiful and reasonably priced but book in advance during holidays and festivals.

£  Built in 1850, the Royal Street Courtyard Bed and Breakfast is located in the Faubourg Marigny and offers a flavour of old-world New Orleans. The nine-room B&B is conveniently situated close to Frenchmen Street’s nightlife. www.royalstcourtyard.com

££  Steeped in history, the family-owned Hotel Monteleone is the pick of the places to stay in New Orleans, with a perfect location in the French Quarter, lavish rooms and a reputation as one of the city’s most haunted hotels. www.hotelmonteleone.com

£££  Opened in November 2011, the 1,100-room Hyatt Regency New Orleans includes hypo-allergenic rooms, lifts controlled by electronic keys and even its own Starbucks. Stay on the top floors for a view from the 30-storey atrium over the Superdome and Warehouse District. www.neworleans.hyatt.com

ESSENTIALS

New Orleans

Getting there

Delta flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to New Orleans via Atlanta. American Airlines flies via Chicago. www.delta.com  www.americanairlines.co.uk

Average flight time: 11h10m.

 

Getting around

The French Quarter is accessible on foot, scooter or rental bike; three Streetcar lines operate in the centre. Use cabs outside the Quarter at night.

 

When to go

September and October, along with spring, remain the best times to see the city.

Festivals run all year, with Mardi Gras (12 February 2013) being the most popular.

 

Need to know

Visas: For stays of fewer than 90 days, UK residents can apply for the Visa Waiver Program, which costs $14 (£9). https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta Currency: US dollar (USD) £1 = $1.57.International dial code: 00 1 504.

Time difference: GMT-6.

 

How to do it

Expedia.com has a five-night stay at the Queen & Crescent Hotel (including breakfast) flying return with American Airlines from London from £844 per person.

 

More info

www.neworleansonline.com

Rough Guide to New Orleans. RRP: £13.99

 

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)