There is something about New Orleans that gets under your skin. There are not many places I hanker to go back to a second time, but New Orleans (affectionately referred to as NOLA – New Orleans Louisiana) is the exception. Built on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River, it is history, culture, colour, vibrancy and life in a neat package.
I was in New Orleans with my sister and brother-in-law. We were booked on a 7-night, paddle steamer cruise on the Mississippi River. As we were embarking the cruise in New Orleans, we had decided to spend 6 days exploring New Orleans before taking the cruise.
The following itinerary was ours of the making, but easy enough for anyone to follow or manipulate to their individual liking. We allowed ourselves lots of free time while still doing all that we wanted. The plantations tour and that of the bayous were organised from Australia before we left on this trip. 6 days was an ideal length of time to see New Orleans and surrounds for the first time. Enjoy this visit through my eyes.
Sleeping in New Orleans
We stayed at New Orleans Jazz Quarters. This is a delightful Creole-style bed and breakfast dating from the 1800s. It is in a fabulous location opposite Louis Armstrong Park on the perimeter of the old French Quarter; with easy walking access to much of the city.
Jazz Quarters comprises of 11 unique cottages and suites; all accommodated in a gated complex with a high level of guest security. Free parking and WiFi are available.
We had the Marsalis Luxury Cottage, with its high ceilings and decorated with classic period furniture from the 1800s. At the time of visit, the cottage comprised of two bedrooms, a large living room, a big bathroom with a very deep bath, and kitchenette. We were very comfortable in this cottage and found the living room a great place to relax.
New Orleans is home to a number of architectural styles. The Marsalis Cottage reflects the Shotgun House style. These are narrow rectangular homes raised on brick piers, with a covered narrow porch supported by columns. The term “shotgun” comes from the suggestion that when standing at the front of the house, you can shoot a bullet clear through every room.
For and excellent resource on New Orleans’ architectural styles, refer to: City of New Orleans, Historic District Landmarks Commission, “Building Types and Architectural Styles”.
Initially we felt housekeeping was very poor as our rooms weren’t serviced and cleaned daily. When we questioned the lack of servicing, we happily accepted the explanation that the cottages are only serviced once guests have checked out. However, they did sweep the floor for us when requested as we had brought leaves into the cottage.
The staff were very friendly, and breakfasts were a two-course, home cooked affair.
Note: At the time of writing (upon checking Jazz Quarters’ website), it appears the Marsalis Cottage no longer has a living room; having been replaced with an additional bedroom. And breakfast is no longer included.
Day 1: Exploring the French Quarter
Note: We arrived in New Orleans the night before.
This morning we took a self-guided walking tour of the French Quarter – thoroughly exploring the Lower French Quarter. Being set in a grid pattern, the French Quarter, the historic heart of New Orleans, is easy to walk around and find your way. My sister was our guide and Eyewitness Travel was her resource.
Heading from Jazz Quarters to the Mississippi River, we walked down Esplanade Avenue – a broad, tree-lined, 2-kilometre-long residential street bordered by beautiful old Creole homes. Our first stop was the flea market within the French Market where I couldn’t resist buying a t-shirt emblazoned with a transfer of a voodoo doll with a pin stuck in it.
Places of interest we visited included:
Walking the length of the French Market, which also incorporates a farmer’s market, and runs parallel to North Peters Street, we turned right into Ursulines Street. Our destination was the Old Ursuline Convent on the corner of Ursulines and Chartres Streets. Built in 1752, the Old Ursuline Convent is the oldest building in the Mississippi Valley. We took a walk through the Convent. Of most interest were the rooms telling the history of the Battle of New Orleans between Great Britain and the United States. We never did find the stained-glass window depicting the Battle of New Orleans which Eyewitness Travel wrote can be admired in the Convent’s chapel.
Opposite the Ursuline Convent is Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden. Built in 1862, many famous New Orleanians have lived in the house; the most notable being the Confederate General, Pierre Beauregard. General Beauregard only lived in the house for 18 months but because he was such a famous Civil War hero, the house still bears his name.
The ‘Keyes’ part of the house’s name is attributed to the author, Frances Parkinson Keyes. I have to admit I have never heard of this author but have heard of General Beauregard.
The Beauregard-Keyes House is built in the ‘raised center-hall cottages’ architectural style – a style reflecting urban versions of French-Colonial plantations. Raised Center-Hall Cottages are typically raised on piers to five feet or more above ground level. They have deep, covered front porches supported by symmetrically placed columns and accessed by a central stair.
We were not able to go into the house or gardens this day as there was a film crew onsite.
We then made our way to Jackson Square. This is a great place to sit and people watch as there is so much going on. Around the Square are artists selling their paintings, tarot card readers, and jazz bands competing with each other for tourist attention. While my sister and brother-in-law went into St Louis Cathedral on Jackson Square, I spent a lovely half hour watching a band entertain the crowd who were obviously enjoying their music.
St Louis Cathedral, formally called the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, is said to be the oldest cathedral in the United States. Originally built in 1724, due to destruction from a hurricane and from fire, the cathedral has been rebuilt twice. Visitors are reminded this is a working church, with mass held daily.
We were now well and truly ready for coffee and headed to Café du Monde on Decatur Street; famous for its beignets. Beignets are square pieces of dough, fried and covered with powdered sugar. Café du Monde has been serving them since 1862. They were yummy and worth fighting the crowds for a table. But, then again, I do have a sweet tooth. I got the feeling my sister and brother-in-law did not share in my ecstasy.
Heading back to Jazz Quarters, my final stop was at The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. Voodoo was brought to Louisiana by enslaved Africans from West Africa and is now counted as one of New Orleans’ many tourist attractions. According to the guide books, the museum provides insight into the mysteries of Voodoo in its hallway and two small rooms packed with voodoo artifacts and examples of voodoo practices. I have to admit that I left the museum as bewildered and ignorant as I entered. And, if I am going to be honest, I found the museum a bit bizarre. Voodoo remains a mystery for me. Even so, I recommend visiting the museum as it is really quite unique where museums are concerned. I doubt you will experience anything else like it.
The Voodoo Museum, at 724 Dumaine Street, is open 10.00am to 6.00pm, 7 days a week. General admissions is $7.00 USD. However, entrance to the gift shop is free. There is no formal tour of the museum.
Before leaving Australia, I had done some research on voodoo dolls and was keen to buy one as my memento of New Orleans. The Voodoo Museum’s gift shop sold voodoo dolls, but they were made of moss – Spanish Moss to be exact. I was informed by museum staff that the dolls made with moss are the more traditional voodoo dolls; and I really wanted a traditional voodoo doll. However, I was worried that if I bought one, I wouldn’t get it back into Australia even with declaring it. Australia has very strict biosecurity requirements regarding plant material. I would need to think about this one.
Walking around the streets of the French Quarter, it was the cast-iron balconies that caught my eye. I never tired of admiring them and taking photos.
Day 2: Voodoo and Wealth (and not in the same sentence)
This afternoon we went out to the Garden District. But this morning I was on a mission to buy a voodoo doll.
My research in Australia had come up with 8 voodoo shops I could buy voodoo dolls from. As I walked from shop to shop, two were closed, leaving three to find a doll I liked and would not be confiscated by Australian quarantine. I ended up buying one of the voodoo dolls made with moss that I had seen in the Voodoo Museum yesterday. I decided I would risk how quarantine in Australia were going to deal with it. Just to be sure I ended up with something to put in my home, I bought a voodoo doll from Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo on Bourbon Street that is made of calico and stuffed with cotton. No Spanish Moss anywhere! According to the label on the doll, it is a “voodoo doll for spiritual strength”. Marie Laveau (1794-1881) was the most powerful and eminent voodoo queen in New Orleans.
Catching a bus this afternoon to Canal Street, we took the St. Charles Streetcar out to the Garden District. Streetcars are icons of New Orleans and similar to Melbourne’s trams. The St. Charles Streetcar is the most famous as it is said to be the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world.
The Garden District provides great insight into how wealthy New Orleanians live – in grand mansions on large blocks of land, with beautiful, lush gardens and well-kept lawns. These were the homes built by wealthy city merchants, bankers and planters.
On a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District, our first stop was Lafayette Cemetery. However, we failed to realise there are two Lafayette Cemeteries. Turning right into Washington Avenue after getting off the St. Charles Streetcar instead of left, we ended up at Lafayette Cemetery No. 2. Our intent had been to visit the famous, walled Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 with its lavish, ornately decorated tombs; where tombs tell the story of a yellow fever epidemic.
This was our first introduction to above-ground tombs and vaults, for which New Orleans is famous. Burying people in the ground is not manageable in New Orleans due to the city being below sea level.
What the walk to Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 did reveal was a very clear delineation between the haves and have-nots in the Garden District, as noted in the houses on either side of St. Charles Avenue.
Walking back up Washington Avenue and crossing St. Charles Avenue, we explored the area around Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 – the area of the Garden District we had set out to sightsee.
Our focus was on the homes of the Garden District, with their typical “raised center-hall cottage” architectural style. The Garden District provides great insight into how wealthy New Orleanians live – in grand mansions on large blocks of land, with beautiful, lush gardens and well-kept lawns. These were the homes built by wealthy city merchants, bankers and planters.
Our walk took us to:
The Gothic Revival styled Briggs-Staub House, at 2605 Prytania Street. This style of architecture is rare in New Orleans because Protestant Americans say it reminds them of Roman Catholic France.
Colonel Short’s Villa, at 1448 Fourth Street. Built in 1859, this historic residence is one of the most stunning in the Garden District. The house is famed for its cornstalk, ironwork fence.
Robinson House, at 1415 Third Street, was built for a Virginia tobacco merchant. It is one of the grandest and largest residences in the Garden District.
Finally, we stopped outside Carroll-Crawford House, at 1315 First Street, with its ornate cast-iron balconies.
Day 3: Bury Them High
After a morning of leisure, we took an afternoon tour of St Louis Cemetery No. 1. The entrance on Basin Street, just outside the French Quarter, was a 5 minute walk from Jazz Quarters.
It is not possible to enter St Louis Cemetery No. 1 without a licenced tour guide. This is because the cemetery has been subjected to much vandalism over the years. We chose a tour with, Save Our Cemeteries. At $25.00 USD per adult, the tour of St Louis Cemetery No. 1 conducted by Save Our Cemeteries is more expensive that that provided by others (with a going rate of $20.00 USD). However, Save Our Cemeteries is a not-for-profit organisation “dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and protection of New Orleans’ historic cemeteries through restoration, education, and advocacy”. This appealed to us as we felt we were contributing in a small way to the conservation of New Orleans’ history and culture.
Tours with Save Our Cemeteries operate 7 days a week at 9.00am, 11.00am and 1.00pm. Allow 1.5 hours for your tour.
Opening in 1789, St Louis Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, and the most famous. There are many renown New Orleanians buried here, none of whom I have heard of. The exception is that of Marie Laveau, the most famous of all (or infamous, depending on where your views lie), and only known to me because I visited the Voodoo Museum yesterday. According to our guide, many believe she continues to work her magic from beyond the grave. That’s why people leave ‘offerings’ at her grave.
Eyewitness Travel tells you the above-ground tombs are due to New Orleans being below sea level; that, prior to above-ground tombs, when the Mississippi River flooded, the bodies would float to the surface. However, our guide told us that having above-ground tombs was to copy the French style of burial. Who do you believe? There is, no doubt, truth in both versions. Whatever the reason, the above-ground tombs are fascinating to see. Some are very ornate; some have fallen into decay; whilst the largest contains 70 vaults. Generations of families are interred in the one tomb, in vaults on top of each other.
In the know:
- The going price for a plot at St Louis Cemetery No. 1 is $40,000 USD (approximately $58,518 AUD).
- The actor, Nicholas Cage has purchased his future, pyramid-shaped tomb in St Louis Cemetery No. 1
A word of warning:
The tour of St Louis Cemetery No. 1 takes 1.5 hours. There is very little shade in the cemetery and New Orleans can get hot. I recommend you take plenty of water, dress lightly, wear a wide-brim hat and use sunblock.
The jazz scene:
New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz. The two are synonymous. As such, we felt we could not come to New Orleans without experiencing a jazz club. With this in mind, we had dinner this night at Three Muses on Frenchmen Street – a jazz club offering tapas-style share plates, cocktails and live music all under the same roof. Bookings are essential.
The food was very good. I recommend the mac and cheese if it is still on the menu. However, jazz is not a genre of music I like. So, I can’t say I enjoyed it.
Day 4: A Step Back in Time
Once again, a lazy morning before taking an afternoon plantations tour with Tours by Isabelle. This tour (“Small-Group Louisiana Plantations Tour from New Orleans”) took in two sugar cane plantations – St Joseph Plantation and Houmas House Plantation and Gardens – with pickup from Jazz Quarters.
We deliberately chose a tour that took us to different plantations from that offered as a shore excursion on the river cruise – the famous Oak Alley with its much-photographed tree-lined walkway to the front door. We wanted to get a varied view of Louisiana’s famous plantations.
Built in 1830, the 1000 acre St Joseph Plantation is a historic plantation located on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is one of the few fully intact, still working sugar cane plantations in Louisiana. I enjoyed the tour of St Joseph Plantation house. Our guide was a distant family member and you got a real feel for how the families lived and their relationships. She brought the rooms we explored alive with her stories.
The grounds include buildings (cabins, kitchen, schoolroom), which can be explored, that were a part of the historical slave quarters. And there is a gift shop if you are so inclined.
Houmas House, built in 1840, is set in beautiful gardens with huge, old oak trees leading up from the river (from the levy bank to be precise) to the front of the house. Called (according to its brochure) the “Crown Jewel of Louisiana’s River Road”, the 16-room house and gardens reflect the opulent lifestyle and grandeur of the successful sugar barons who once lived in Houmas House. The house itself has been better restored than the house on the St Joseph Plantation. Although well organised, I found the tour of Houmas House, conducted by guides in period dress, to be very boring as it primarily focused on descriptions of the furnishings. I left the tour about halfway through (had seen enough and had enough) to explore the extensive, formal gardens on my own. The gardens alone are worth the visit to Houmas House.
This half-day tour was booked through Viator before leaving Australia. A check of Victor’s and Tours by Isabelle’s websites show this exact tour is no longer on offer but there are still a variety of plantation tours available.
Day 5: Rivers, Swamps and Bayous
Our organised tour today wasn’t until early afternoon. So, we spent the morning resting, reading, and laundering (not me).
This afternoon we were picked up from Jazz Quarters by Pearl River Eco-Tours for their 3-hour, “Six Passenger Swamp Tour”. After an hour’s drive from New Orleans we arrived at the Pearl River and Honey Island Swamp. We chose this particular tour because we thought the smaller boat (skiff) would give us a more personal tour than the larger, 20/25 passenger boat. And it did. Being a much smaller boat, it was able to go into swamps and bayous that the bigger boats are not able to navigate.
The Mississippi River Delta is famous for its bayous; particularly the bayous of Louisiana and Texas. They are wetlands and eco-systems like I had never seen before. We saw alligators, bald eagles and other bird life, snakes (venomous and non-venomous), diverse plant life, and hardwood (Cypress) swamps. Many trees were shrouded in Spanish Moss. [There’s that moss again!] This is true Cajun country. Our guide was very informative, and I came away knowing much more than when I started. We all thoroughly enjoyed this tour and definitely recommend it to others.
The Six Passenger Swamp Tour was organised from Australia without a hitch.
On the day, Pearl River Eco-Tours was well organised and our pick up from Jazz Quarters was on time.
Day 6: A Unique Sculpture Garden
We weren’t required to board the boat for our Mississippi River cruise until mid-afternoon. So, we took the Canal Street streetcar to City Park at the end of the line.
Covering an area of 1,300 acres, City Park is one of the biggest urban parks in the United States. Situated in the park, in the New Orleans Museum of Art, is the Sydney & Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden. This sculpture garden now occupies approximately 11 acres of City Park, with over 90 sculptures from national and international artists. I found some of the sculptures quite bizarre. There are two I will remember for a long time to come:
- The first being a sculpture of a man covered in small birds pecking him.
- The second was also of a man but this sculpture is a man hanging from a scaffold by his feet.
I kick myself now for not taking photos of these sculptures.
The Besthoff Sculpture Garden is free and open to the public 7 days a week. Summer opening hours are 10.00am to 6.00pm, while winter hours are 10.00am to 5.00pm.
Before embarking our boat, I couldn’t resist buying a bracelet from Tiffany’s.
Our time in New Orleans was relaxed and set at a leisurely pace. We gave ourselves time to see all what we wanted without being rushed. What a great city.
With hindsight, our time was truly well spent. There was nothing I regretted doing and nothing I wished I had done.
As reflected by my sister and brother-in-law…
Overall, we loved New Orleans’ atmosphere of fun, liveliness and colour. We enjoyed walking around areas of old suburbs, the bayous boat trip and lunch at the famous restaurant, Galatoire’s. Also, it is a very easy place to walk around.
A word on safety:
As a female traveller, I did not go out at night on my own (usual precaution) but was always accompanied by my sister and brother-in-law. And, on most occasions at night, we took taxis. However, during the day I always felt comfortable and safe walking around on my own. And did so a number of times for several hours.
Footnote: The moss-made voodoo doll did not make it past quarantine in Australia. I was not even allowed to have it zapped – gamma radiation to make safe for keeping.
Disclaimer: This post contains no affiliate links. All views and opinions are my own and non-sponsored. Unless specifically stated, all photos are my own and remain a copyright of Joanna Rath.
Prices and opening times quoted in this post are correct at the time of writing.