We’ve all heard some of the lore that shrouds New Orleans, but on day 2 in the Big Easy, we’ve decided to take some tours and learn the city’s story on location. We plan to take several, but our first covers one of the city’s most prolific legends: Voodoo. And today, we are on a roll with parking and find a free spot pretty close to the tour’s start. We have some time to kill, and our spot just happens to be near a park. Curious, we venture inside.
New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park
Here, we see a few buildings with the familiar architectural style of New Orleans. However, that’s not all that we find. It features several man-made ponds, one of which features a fountain gushing water in the pattern of a fleur-de-lis, a symbol which we have grown accustomed to seeing. Staircases and walkways lead to various garden areas. At one point, we find a sign that says “New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.”
After a brief exploration, we head to the start of our tour, a nearby coffee shop. I always find it difficult to describe tours. On the one hand, I’m eager to share my experiences and inspire others to try it themselves. Yet on the other, I don’t want to ruin it for those willing to give it a try. So, I’ll try to strike an acceptable balance.
The Free Tours by Foot Voodoo tour
Our first is the Voodoo Tour offered by Free Tours by Foot. It’s an obvious choice for a city like New Orleans, as the full scope of its culture cannot be understood without knowing its voodoo history. It starts off in the park that we just finished exploring. Here, we are each assigned a “family role” as our guide uses the metaphor to teach us the history and background of voodoo (for the record, I’m a voodoo doctor). We learned what Voodoo actually means to adherents, how slaves practiced it in secret, and how slave owners reacted when they found out. Fear was certainly a common reaction, and one that would later work to the practitioners’ advantage. We then take to the streets of the French Quarter, passing in front of Marie Laveau’s house. She used her wit and the misunderstandings of her beliefs to greatly benefit the slaves of her era. I am appalled at how influential this woman was during her time and how much her actions continue to influence the culture of New Orleans even now.
To be clear (as confirmed by the guide), this tour will not interfere with any visitor’s religious beliefs. While each participant is given a role, we are not actually expected to act out any sort of ritual. The tour guide says and acts out all that is necessary for understanding. So if there are any concerns of the voodoo tour infringing on one’s religious beliefs, rest assured that they are unnecessary.
After explaining the somewhat underwhelming purpose of “actual” voodoo dolls (nothing evil or mystical), we continue further down the street before the tour ends at a voodoo shop. Here, our guide offers some tips on what to look for inside and reminds of the purpose a few items inside actually served.
Lunch Time, New Orleans Style
We have some time before the next tour, so we decide to explore the French Quarter a little more. After all, most of what we’ve seen so far, apart from the tour, was at night. During the day, streets are still crowded, but much less rowdy. We enjoy a view of the Mississippi River and a battleship stationed therein. Then, we search for a restaurant for lunch and end up at the Crescent City Brewery.
The ribs (served with a salad and mac & cheese) are phenomenal; quite possibly the best I’ve ever had. The Cesar salad, however, not so much. It’s essentially a sprinkle of cheese over a few croutons shoved into a stock of lettuce. A line of dressing is the drizzled over the top. Two of these compose your salad. That’s it. And it costs $14. So as long as you’re not a vegetarian, this place is a great choice.
The French Quarter Tour
Beginning in Jackson Square, our next tour offers a look at the history and architecture of The French Quarter. This was once largely New Orleans proper, and so much of the city’s story began here. Our guide offers insight into the French and Spanish influence for the surrounding architecture and describes the history of why that is. Apparently, both nations spent enough time controlling the city to ensure a lasting legacy. We also learned about the desperate measures that each nation used to convince people, under a false perception, to live in New Orleans. Given the beautiful city that surrounds us and the life that fills the air, it’s hard to imagine what those immigrants faced. But at that time, New Orleans was a hot, humid swamp filled with annoying pests and inadequate facilities. You may love or hate the city now, but it’s certainly improved since then.
The Courtyards of New Orleans
It is also during this tour that we learn about a side of the Crescent City that tends to go unnoticed: the courtyards. From the streets, most commercial and residential buildings appear connected. Given this layout, you can’t really see behind them and tend to assume that it’s just like that all the way to the street on the other side. However, this is frequently not the case. Courtyards are often built as “backyards” within rows of buildings. Many are cut off from the public, but some can be reached through an ally. Our tour group visits one to learn about this unique feature of the city and to take a quick break. We access the courtyard through a small ally. Stepping out, we are surrounded by balconies.
This courtyard features patio outdoor furniture and various plants. It’s certainly much more relaxed than the bustling streets, which is likely the point. I can definitely see how residents would need a quick escape like this in a city where the party never seems to end.
The rest of the tour introduces historical sites that, in one way or another, contributed to New Orleans’s prominence as a cultural center. Though rich, I’m not surprised to find that the city’s history matches its unique reputation. It is, however, interesting that so many facets of its historical culture remain alive and well even today. This city has certainly stood the test of time in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before.
A quick visit to the French Market
The tour ends at the French Market. We are eager to explore its offerings, but have arrived just as the shops are closing. I do manage to score a few beignets and walk around a bit before it completely shuts down. It’s mostly as I imagined, with largely independent sellers offering the same odds and ends found for sale under white tarps at special events.
After leaving the French Market, we decide to spend a little more time exploring the streets of New Orleans. As always, we come across some interesting characters and stunning architecture. At one point, we even stumble upon the actual home of Madame LaLaurie, made infamous by Kathy Bates in American Horror Story. It’s overwhelming to consider what has happened in the very building standing before me and, as we would learn the following night, what still happens there.
Shortly after, we return to my car, relieved that it survived the day without tickets or vandalism. It really isn’t late yet, but we’re both pretty tired from a long day of traveling through New Orleans. After a horrible pizza delivery experience, I turn in for the night.