Way down yonder in New Orleans you’ll find the roots of jazz and a blossoming culture that is unlike anything else on Earth. Here, the laid-back atmosphere of the riverfront South has mixed with French sophistication, Spanish style, and African-American energy to create something greater than the sum of its parts.
Though hit hard by Katrina, “NOLA” remains the largest city in Louisiana and one of the top tourist destinations in the United States.
“Laissez les bons temps rouler” is what they say here in the Big Easy, and you too can “let the good times roll” with a cool stroll down Bourbon Street, a hot Dixieland band, and even hotter Creole cuisine. Mardi Gras may be the city’s calling card, but that’s just one day out of the hot and muggy year in New Orleans.
Go ahead, take a riverboat down the Mississippi, munch on some beignets, and watch the Saints go marchin’ in. But when it’s time to leave, you, too, will know what it means to miss New Orleans.
In the late 1600s, French trappers and traders began settling in what is now New Orleans, along a Native American trade route between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain via Bayou St. John. In 1718 the city was founded as “Nouvelle-Orléans” by Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, Governor of the French colony of Louisiana, with the intent to build it into a provincial capital city. The early French city grew within the grid of what is now the French Quarter. Louisiana was transferred to Spanish rule in the 1760s, but much of the population retained French language and culture. After briefly returning to French rule, Louisiana was purchased by the United States in 1803. At first the new “American” settlers mostly built their homes and shops upriver from the older French parts of the city, across wide “Canal Street” (named for a planned canal that was never built). Canal Street was the dividing line between the Anglophone and Francophone sections; the street’s wide median became a popular meeting place called “the neutral ground”—and “neutral ground” became the common phrase for the median of any street, still in use in the New Orleans dialect today.
A British attempt to seize the city in 1815 was repelled downriver from the city in Chalmette by local forces led by Andrew Jackson, whose equestrian statue can be seen in the square named after him in the center of the old Quarter.
Early New Orleans was already a rich melting pot of peoples and cultures. French Spanish African and Anglos were joined by immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and the Caribbean. While a center of the slave trade before the American Civil War, New Orleans also had the USA’s largest population of free people of color. The city grew rapidly as a major trade center on the mighty Mississippi River. In the American Civil War of the 1860s, New Orleans fell to the Union early in the conflict without battle within the city, sparing the city’s rich historic architecture from the destruction suffered by much of the American South.
At the start of the 20th century, the then largely neglected old French Quarter started gaining new appreciation among artists and bohemians for its architecture and ambiance. Around the same time, a new musical style developed in the city; the music developed and swept around the world under the name of “jazz”.
Although far from the big battlefronts, New Orleans is proud of its contributions to the Allied victory over Fascism in World War II, especially the development and construction of landing craft such as “Higgins Boats” which made rapid landing masses of troops on hostile beaches possible. This legacy is why America’s National World War II Museum is located in the city.
A local joke has it that New Orleans really does have four seasons: Summer, Hurricane, Christmas, and Mardi Gras. Summer is certainly the longest; for about half the year, from about late April to the start of October, the days are usually hot, or raining, or hot and raining. Winters are generally short and mild, but subject to occasional cold snaps that may surprise visitors who mistakenly think the city has a year round tropical climate. The high humidity can make the cold snaps feel quite penetrating. Snow is so rare that the occasional light dusting of flakes will make most locals stop what they are doing to stare; they’ll excitedly show the phenomenon to local children too young to remember the last time snow visited the city. During a rare freezing event, you’ll see that most locals have no idea how to drive on iced or snowy roads.
The Atlantic hurricane season (which includes all of the Gulf of Mexico) is June 1 through November 30. The most active month is September.
Some say the best time to visit New Orleans is between late November and early June. However New Orleans has things going on all year long. A rewarding visit can be made even the hottest part of the summer: start your day early, and do your outdoor sightseeing in the morning. The lush local flora can display a wealth of colorful flowers. Mid-day and afternoon, retreat to air-conditioning; visit a museum, have a leisurely visit to a cafe or restaurant, or take a siesta at your hotel. Come back outside when the sun gets low.
After dark the night shift of flora comes on duty; especially in older neighborhoods such as Esplanade Ridge, Carrollton, and the Garden District, with an abundance of night-blooming jasmine, the sweet deliciously scented air can be almost intoxicating.