New Orleans is a town saturated in culture. In fact, I have never visited a city with such a deeply-rooted, persistently rich culture in the United States. It goes back hundreds, even thousands, of years and has influences from all over the world, each contributing equally heavily to the city that exists today. At times, it’s almost overwhelming. But it certainly helps explain my experiences while exploring the various neighborhoods.
And yes, even with the abundance of tourist shops, tours and sites, the city’s culture remains alive and quite well.
Pit Stop in Biloxi
Before actually heading into New Orleans, we decide to stop by Biloxi, MS. It’s on the way, and we had a little extra time, so why not? Despite visiting in mid-November, temperatures are pretty warm. The weather is beautiful (following a persistent drought), but unfortunately, I didn’t bring my swimming trunks for this trip. For a popular vacation destination, the city really isn’t that crowded.
Ever heard Jimmy Buffet’s song “Margaritaville”? In Biloxi, you can actually go there in a more literal sense. While I’m not much of a drinker, his famed resort is a staple of the city, so I have to at least stop by. Walking in, the place is filled with state-of-the-art arcade games. I found myself wanting to play all of them, but time just wouldn’t permit it. There was even a rock wall shaped like a volcano with black lights bringing its paint to life.
Going up one more floor, we find ourselves at the restaurant. It’s upstairs from the arcade at the top of the volcano rock wall. TVs all around switch between music videos and beach scenes. At one point, alarms sound, red lights flash, and volcanic activity appears on every screen as “smoke” pours from the top of the rock wall. I enjoy it all with a buffalo wrap and side of Margaritaville’s signature fries (and yes, I know, every restaurant has their “signature fries”).
Gambling at Hara’s
After that, it’s time for my first visit to a casino. I decide to visit Hara’s because, well, it’s convenient and I’m pretty sure they’re all the same anyways. It isn’t too crowded inside, but enough for a layer of cigarette smoke to permeate through the air. Most of the tables are empty, and a few of the slot machines are occupied by people who didn’t really seem to have anything better to do with their time. I try a few, win about 1/7th of what I pay, and consider my first casino experience complete.
Finally Arriving in New Orleans
That little visit to Biloxi also ensures that our first New Orleans experience is a night time one. Not a terrible idea, as this seems to be when the city comes alive. The streets are well lit, and we find a free parking spot right at 6PM, the exact time when streets become available for parking. It’s along Decatur Street in the French Quarter, which turns out to be a great place to start.
Even on a weeknight, the streets are crowded and the bars are open. Wide open, in fact. Every door to every bar is open, allowing patrons to come and go as they please. This is the Big Easy, after all, and there are no laws against public drunkenness.
We begin our exploration in the French Quarter. Right away, I’m amazed with the streets of New Orleans. Everything I’ve heard about this city is coming alive all around me. The streets are filled with many interesting characters. The architecture has clearly stood the test of time, as reflected by the city’s vintage charm. However, the style is reflective of more than just traditional American structures. Each street sign features its French counterpart, and the architecture clearly shows a European influence (though more than just French).
The Hidden Treasures of New Orleans
Every so often, a break between the buildings will reveal an alley or courtyard. In one of those alleys, we found this:
It’s an interesting combination. Although items are for sale, it looks more like an alley that was decorated to reflect the owner’s unique sense of style. Visitors would occasionally mosey in and out, with a few hanging around to enjoy the ambiance. A small, makeshift van in the corner offers pictures. The words “bizarre” built into the back provide a quick, yet honest, description of this small area and the city in general (not to say that’s a bad thing, of course). An open door in one of its walls leads to a gift shop.
Continuing past the alley, I notice that New Orleans is definitely more active on a weeknight than any other city I’ve visited (so far). We stop by a few gift shops, each offering souvenirs that reflect different aspects of the city’s culture. And, as mentioned before, there are quite a few. Most won’t allow patrons to take pictures, though we did get this Christmas scene from one. It seems that not even New Orleans is immune to the persistently earlier start of Christmas celebrations (though personally, I’m fine with this).
As I observe the architecture, I notice another alley along the side of a hotel. It was eerily quiet in this area, with streets that certainly weren’t as crowded as we were growing accustomed to. Looking in, past a gate, I see what appears to be a well manicured courtyard. As I observe as much of it as I can from the gate, the hotel’s manager walks out and invites us to bypass it through the lobby and actually explore the courtyard on our own. Oddly enough, though, he seems a bit eager to get us back there and off of the streets. As we enter the alley, we pass a spiral staircase before entering the courtyard garden.
A Beautiful Courtyard becomes an Unexpected Safe Haven
Even at night, it’s a beautiful place. We would later learn that these hidden gardens and courtyards are a staple of New Orleans. You could almost see them as the other side of the city, a side that largely remains unseen. It’s well lit and features plants, patio furniture and a pool surrounded by European style architecture. While enjoying the unique find, we hear some shouting coming from the streets.
Curious, we make our way back to the gate, but the crowd has moved on. Some other visitors told us that it was a protest group. As we return to the streets, we see an anarchy sign spray painted on a wall and a glass window partially busted. Needless to say, I was grateful that we had somewhere else to go as they passed through.
Our First Walk Along Bourbon Street
Walking further down, we finally reach Bourbon Street. If anyone ever said the party never ends here, they were right. It’s so bustling that cars have no hope of driving down the street. Crowds move in and out of bars before gathering around the many side street performers who seemingly set up randomly on the sidewalks and even in the street. It almost seems chaotic, but I still find myself getting caught up in the excitement. This is probably the best place in the world for people watching, as I see an eclectic mixture of styles and personalities that would likely get people rejected in any other part of society. But not on Bourbon Street. Here, it seems, everyone has a place. Except, perhaps, the timid.
Party in the Streets
The street performers, from dancers to jazz bands, are actually quite talented. They certainly help enhance the festive vibe permeating through the night. Occasionally, I see people standing on the galleries above with beads in hand. If this is Bourbon on a week night in November, I can hardly imagine what it during Mardi Gras.
Another alley reveals itself as the New Orleans Legends Park. Food is served as live bands perform. Statues pay tribute to Al “Jumbo” Hirt and a couple of his legendary cohorts. Though I had heard of this, I didn’t expect to just walk right up on it in a random alley. These hidden surprises are definitely becoming one of my favorite aspects of New Orleans.
Beyond Bourbon Street
While heading back to the car, we pass the massive St. Louis Cathedral. The doors are closed, but lights illuminate its exterior In front of it, and to our left along the gates of Jackson Square, psychics have pitched tables and offer their services right in the streets. I’m not one to have my fortune read, but many others were indulging them, even if only for the novelty of it. It is an ode to what many believe to be the other side of the Crescent City’s night life. After passing Jackson square, we take a moment to observe the statue built as a memorial to Joan of Arc.
Cafe Du Monde
After, we decide to take the advice of so many and stop by the legendary Cafe Du Monde. Per tradition, we order some coffee and beignets. Despite being November, it’s still warm enough to sit at a patio table. Christmas music carries from the streets as our treats arrive. The coffee and sweets are definitely on par. If you’re curious, beignets (in my opinion) taste just like funnel cakes, though obviously much smaller. Unfortunately, they also tend to be just as messy, as my shirt was soon covered in powdered sugar.
It’s amazing to have already discovered so much in a single night. I eagerly await my first full day, during which we have planned tours and set aside some extra time for spontaneous exploration.