Beignets, Jazz and Antebellum Architecture in New Orleans

In Destinations, North America by Leslie Moore

The best way to explore any city is by foot and New Orleans lends itself to accommodate that philosophy perfectly. Schlepping Bourbon Street, wandering aimlessly through the French Quarter, indulging in beignets at Café du Monde or strolling along the grand boulevards in the Garden District, are just a few of the great ways to experience this city’s rich, multicultural heritage.

There is something liberating about the ability to walk the streets at any time of day or night with an adult beverage in hand while being jostled along by groups of drunken revelers with foot tall drinks called Hand Grenades or Hurricanes. As we walked along this world renowned street, we were drenched with music, beckoned by entertainers of all types and amazed at the many ways you can take a jello shot! To think all of this was happening before nightfall! There is endless energy day and night with spectacular people watching. Grab a cocktail, find a perch and watch the wild side of New Orleans drift by.

Every afternoon, maybe because we arrived the week before Mardi Gras, the streets at the heart of the French Quarter were blocked off to car traffic so small bands, jazz ensembles and singers can set up their instruments and entertain the crowds. As you stroll down the street it’s as if you have your iPod on shuffle. It is all very uplifting and almost impossible not join in on the fun and dance in the streets. Eventually you will wind up in Jackson Square were young artists were hawking their vibrant, culturally inspired paintings in the warm sunshine. You get the impression that this city is healing and that these young musicians and artists are essential to the process.

New Orleans is well known for Mardi Gras, the food and the music but if you like architecture, the French Quarter is full of hidden gems. After the fires of the late 18th century, the previous wooden buildings were rebuilt from brick in Spanish and French influenced Creole styles. In the center of it all you can find the traditional Creole townhouses, which are brightly colored two-story buildings with beautiful courtyards, arcades and the iconic wrought iron balconies.  As you move away from the center, there are rows of Creole cottages which are small multi level homes with characteristic four-opening fronts and lacey woodwork surrounding the facade. These have, in many cases, been restored and seem to be representative of the up and coming, hip neighborhoods of the French Quarter. Through-out the French Quarter you will also find the Shot-Gun House. The original shotgun house was only about 12 ft wide and simply put, a series of rooms built in a row with a door at each end. In other words, you could shoot a shotgun from the front door straight through each room and out the back door. Some of these houses have been creatively renovated to preserve the style while updating their usability. We found that people were very proud of their homes and if they saw you admiring their home, were not averse to letting you have a peek inside.

A full day or even a half day on a bus tour doesn’t inspire much enthusiasm but the plantations were a must see, so we rented a car and ventured out on our own tour. With a little research, we planned a day that allowed us to take in several plantation tours. The most interesting was the Laura Plantation, a restored historic Creole plantation where we learned about the 7 generations of the Plantation’s Creole family and what life was like for a Creole plantation owner and their slaves.

To experience the true elegance of antebellum architecture, a visit to Oak Alley or Houmas House Plantations is a must. Take a tour with a costumed guide through these historic rooms filled with period antiques and you almost feel as if you are eavesdropping in on the times of great beauty and deep tragedy that imbues the south.

On our last evening, we set out to Frenchmen Street to listen to live jazz. If you appreciate jazz music then we highly recommend this music experience over Bourbon Street. The waitresses don more than just tassels, there are no drunken frat boys and local cocktails with names like Sazerac and Ramos Fizz replace the ubiquitous Hurricane! Again, the streets are saturated  with live jazz pouring out of every bar find the most inviting and stop in for a drink and then move on to another bar and another cocktail. In a city that never sleeps, this system could get you into a lot of trouble but we had an early flight back to reality the next morning. This evening was the perfect finish to a fabulous week in what is arguably one of the most unique cities in America.

Cover photo credit: NewOrleansOnline.com.