I'm going to preface this post with a bit of shameless self promotion. I don't know exactly how many people are reading this blog and I'm not terribly fussed because I'm not making money on it or anything. However...
The following post is very important to me and I would appreciate anyone who reads this to pass along the URL so that others can read it. No, I do not work for the New Orleans Visitor and Convention Bureau, although that would be my dream job, it just happens to be my favorite city in the world and I'm frightened at what could happen to it if people assume the worst.
There is a lot of misinformation about post-Katrina New Orleans and it needs to stop. New Orleans is not dead yet, but fear and ignorance could kill it pretty quickly.
Yes, it's true, the city has had a centuries long history of being dangerous, full of criminal activity, and has been lauded with the title "murder capital of the world" on more than one occasion. Name a large city that doesn't have problems. Heck, Las Vegas is just as riddled with mob lore, high crime rates and poverty, yet millions flock there all the time. The point is, any place can be dangerous, it's a a matter of using common sense.
Now I am also going to preface this with the fact that the one time of year I would not recommend going to New Orleans is during Mardi Gras. Or, if you do go, stay off of Bourbon St. Nothing, in my opinion, is more of a powder keg waiting to explode than a six block stretch of city street packed beyond capacity with drunken rabble-rousers of all walks of life, many of whom don't care much for each other, and many of whom are likely armed (this IS the south) or just plain dangerous (like the 250 lb college boys too strung out to know their own strength).
There are also several other city wide events, like the Jazz festival, that bring in crowds. These events tend to be a lot more tame, but bear in mind that finding accommodations may be harder and you may spend a lot more than you would have otherwise.
Now that I've scared the bejeebus out of you, let's move on to the myriad of wonderful that is the Crescent City (note: the Big Easy is not a term used by the locals).
If you've never been to New Orleans I can not accurately describe it to you. The best I can come up with is imagine a place as laid back as the Caribbean, as sophisticated as New York, as hospitable as Southen Hospitality is supposed to be, as foreign as Paris, with as much character as the west coast and as warm and welcoming as a Snuggie on a cold night.
The first thing to consider in taking a trip to New Orleans though is when to take the trip. If price is an issue, I highly recommend a summer visit. Flights and Hotels are going to be a fraction of the cost at any other time, and there will be less of a crowd. Do keep in mind though that there is a reason you are getting this deal. Summer in New Orleans is miserable. Temperatures generally hover around 90 degrees with 100% humidity. Considering that the majority of your time will be spent outdoors exploring you may want to rethink this.
*I will note, though, that we went to New Orleans in July of 2007 and spent many a wonderful meal downing fried, greasy, carbohydrate and transfat filled food. I came home 10 lbs lighter than when we left.
Spring and fall can still be warm, but bearable, and winter is usually perfect with temperatures ranging from the 50s to low 70s with the occasional cold day thrown in. You will pay more for a hotel, but you will still find rates to be some of the most reasonable in the world. Also these are great places! I've never had to "settle" for a cheap motel in New Orleans. I recommend Trip Advisor as a great resource for finding hotels. They offer reviews, ranking, pictures and videos all by their members. I tend to take the reviews with a grain of salt. Remember that people will complain 90% more often that they will compliment. I find the pictures to be the most helpful. If the user pictures show something entirely different than the hotel website does, I'm not going to stay there.
As with any trip, research is must. Be prepared to create a complete itinerary prior to the vacation, and then be prepared to detour from the itinerary often. The CVB (Convention and Visitors Bureau) is a fantastic resource for information, photos and most importantly: discounts and coupons. Arm yourself with coupons for everything, even things that you think you might not be interested in. You never know, you may change your mind once you get there.
The city itself is divided into several districts, as I am sure you are aware. As a visitor, especially a first time visitor, you will want to find lodging within the French Quarter, Garden District, and some sections of the Central Business District. There are also some great properties in the Warehouse District, Arts District and Riverfront, but unless you are familiar with the streetcars and well lit pedestrian areas , or you are the type to turn in early, I would shy away from these. Not that they are dangerous, but they are not as well traveled. The "dangerous" areas are going to be residential neighborhoods, so you have no fear of accidentally booking a hotel in the "bad" part of town, because really, there are no hotels there. There are hotels in the suburbs though, and unless you plan to drive and pay a lot for parking, I would stick with something in the city.
I strongly suggest staying in a French Quarter/CBD hotel near Canal St, but south of Bourbon St. In this area you can find 4 and 5 star properties along side economy class options and you will be in a safe, well lit area close to everything, but far enough away to get some sleep at night.
New Orleans taught me to be a tourist. It's true. I've previously prided myself on going on "non-touristy" vacations and finding something other than what is expected to do. This explains why I have never been to the Statue of Liberty, Empire state building nor did I ever visit the World Trade Center, despite growing up less than 3 hours from the city. I was too cool.
And in the beginning I was too cool for New Orleans as well. I went on a few occasions and simply walked the Quarter, searched for hidden gems like coffee houses and bars, walked the streetcar tracks as far as I could along the river, and other things like that. I had a fabulous time each visit, but I really did miss out on a lot.
My advice: Take the tours.
Especially the tour of St. Louis Cemetery #1. Remember how I said that New Orleans is not dangerous if you know what you are doing? This is the best example. St Louis #1 is not a dangerous place, per se, but the narrow walk ways and large crypts provide pickpockets places to hide out. More likely though, without a guided tour you may be accosted by an opportunist who will offer a guided tour at a discount. Don't do this. I am all for the free market (yeah, yeah, I know that's something of a lie, but that's another rant), but you are not going to get an informative tour and you will likely be encouraged to behave disrespectfully. Not to mention that you will miss out on some very interesting information and some amazingly heart wrenching stories of a more personal nature. I recommend Haunted History or Save Our Cemeteries for the best tour with the most accurate information. Both of these groups are established and dedicated to the preservation of not only the history of New Orleans, but it's continued existence as a safe and fun place to visit.
Please also note that St. Louis #2 is not recommended as there are no tours and it is in a rougher neighborhood and a bit run down though restoration efforts are in the works.
Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District is safe for private exploration, provided that you treat it with the same respect it deserves, though again, a guide is going to provide insight and entertainment that you will not get by merely walking among the graves.
The most beautiful cemetery is in Metairie, which is not accessible without means of transportation, but there are some tours that will take you from the city center out there.
Since I've mentioned Haunted History, I highly recommend their walking tour of the Quarter. I do, however preface this with a warning that haunted history does not necessarily mean strictly ghost stories. The tour gives you the true or speculated to be true stories from which the ghost stories sprang and one of these stories is a truly gruesome tale of a twisted woman and the cruel and unusual torture she inflicted on the slaves in her home. Speaking as someone who spent a great deal of her life as a "goth" and horror enthusiast, this gave me nightmares and creeps me out just thinking about it.
Moving away from the macabre, there's a lot more to experience here in the French Quarter including, rather, especially the food. No trip is complete without a bowl of the Gumbo Shop's finest, or a true po'boy. And for the meat eaters there's the muffuletta, which is a sandwich, not a spell that allows you to speak without being overheard ;)
Beignets, the French "doughnut" like pastry are a must and the best are to be found either at Cafe Du Monde or Cafe Beignet. I will warn you though, do not enter either establishment and attempt to eat said pastry while wearing black. They put enough powdered sugar on these to kill a diabetic. You can ask for a plain beignet and add your own sugar. You may get a funny look but they will do this for you.
As a coffee addict I have to of course mention the coffee and chicory blend that is brewed here. It's like nothing else. Order a cafe au lait and add just the slightest bit of sugar if you need to.
A great way to spend a few morning hours is in a class at the New Orleans School of Cooking. Not only do you get to take home some amazing recipes but you get a huge meal, free beer and yet another colorful glimpse into the local culture. Classes are $27 but they offer discount coupons on their website.
Here I have only scratched the surface of what New Orleans has to offer. There is also steamboat tours, architectural tours of the Garden District homes, even tours of the 9th ward and other areas affected by Hurricane Katrina*. I could go on but this blog has gone on longer than planned already.
*Yes, the residents of New Orleans WANT you to take this tour. They want you to see first had what happened, and more importantly what has NOT happened (ie: recovery) in the years since.
At the end of every tour that Haunted History offers, the tour guide takes a moment to solicit the crowd with the following (paraphrased) message:
If you have enjoyed this tour and found the information to be entertaining, please, tell others. Without you we do not exist, and our city suffers.
Though I do not live in New Orleans, nor do I work for the city or its tourism groups, I give you the same message. New Orleans needs you. Get beyond the misinformation and get yourself down to New Orleans. If the tourism shrivels up and dies then I won't have my favorite place in the world to go to ever again.
Thank you for reading, and please pass this along.