This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
When to go
A visit to cosmopolitan New Orleans is a vital part of any fashionable tour of the United States. Not for nothing is it called the Southern Queen. Enriched by its port and the steady flow of steamboats and cotton down the Mississippi river, the city has risen to an extraordinary level of prosperity.
But be warned: avoid New Orleans in the summer months like – or rather, because of – the plague. Yellow Fever is a constant threat, and recent epidemics have been particularly damaging. Almost 8,000 died in 1853 alone. And that’s not to mention the hurricanes that blow in on an all-too regular basis.
So why not travel in the spring, at carnival season? In (historically Catholic) New Orleans, Mardi Gras has always been a time of exuberant celebration, and the introduction last year of innovations like street parades and floats have reinvigorated festivities.
This is a city that delights in opulence and excess, and a proper sampling of its pleasures requires deep pockets
What to take with you/costs
There is nothing that can’t be purchased in New Orleans, so visitors need only ensure they are well supplied with money. This is a city that delights in opulence and excess, and a proper sampling of its pleasures requires deep pockets. Accommodation in the best hotels, for example, might run to five dollars a night.
Sights and activities
Even though the United States took possession of New Orleans from the French in 1803, there are times when you will imagine yourself in Europe. You will notice, too, that the city’s original French neighbourhood – and its inhabitants – remain quite distinct from the newer American parts of town.
Begin your visit with a walk on the steamboat levee, marvel at the scale of commerce, and wonder at the babel of languages and peoples on display (not least, the recent arrivals from Germany and Ireland).
Then, head into the French Quarter, with its distinctive balconies and courtyards, and visit the cathedral in Jackson Square, or the vibrant French Market. A promenade along Canal Street – the dividing line between the French and American districts – is a must: it boasts some of the best shopping in the United States.
At night, the city offers other delights. Its theatres are rightly famous, surpassed only in New York – and the opera, its French supporters argue, is the best in the country. Heading out of town, make time to visit the famous battlefield where, in 1815, Andrew Jackson foiled a British invasion.
Dangers and annoyances
Unfortunately, this modern Babylon is rich in hazards. Disease and disaster aside, the city has an unenviable reputation for violence and vice. Duels are common. Gambling parlours operate day and night. Alcohol is omnipresent, and prostitution is rife.
For a city famed for glamour, the cleanliness of its streets (not to mention its lack of sanitation) leaves a lot to be desired. And visitors who are unfamiliar with the institution of slavery may find that its cruelties rather overshadow the city’s pleasures.
New Orleans boasts some of the grandest hotels in the United States. Visitors seeking luxury have a choice between two rival establishments. The St Charles – “a palace for creature comforts”, a recent visitor informs us – is the centre of social life in the American sector. The similarly lavish St Louis, based in the French Quarter, boasts a splendid rotunda under which much of the city’s business is transacted. This includes slave auctions, a popular spectacle. Many will recognise this location from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s enormously popular anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).
Those on a more modest budget will be well served by the city’s innumerable boarding-houses, where a room costs around ten dollars a week.
Eating and drinking
William Makepeace Thackeray recently declared New Orleans to be “the city of the world where you can eat and drink the most and suffer the least”. The city certainly offers something to delight the palate of any epicure. Restaurants abound, and the city’s cuisine, though clearly shaped by its French past, incorporates influences from all its diverse inhabitants. Try the gumbo – a local soup, nationally famous; sample a ‘cocktail’; and do your best to get a table at Antoine’s (established in 1840).
While New Orleans is a walking city, no visitor should leave without taking the famed carriage drive along the Shell Road to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Similarly, visitors must board one of the city’s street railways and take a ride along St Charles Avenue, through the mansion-filled Garden District.
You should be aware, however, that the political situation in America remains unstable. The national division over slavery becomes increasingly bitter, and talk that the southern states might secede from the Union no longer seems frivolous. If secession and war do come to pass, then New Orleans, a place of tactical importance, will be a focus for military action. So make your visit now, to catch the Southern Queen in all her glory.
Thomas Ruys Smith is the author of Southern Queen: New Orleans in the Nineteenth Century, published by Continuum this month.
New Orleans today
In some ways, not much has changed in New Orleans. The French Quarter is still the Big Easy’s distinctive heart and opportunities to eat and drink well abound. New Orleans certainly dances to a different beat from other American cities, and the sound of zydeco, Louisiana Creole folk music, continues to waft through the streets, even if it’s joined by jazz, funk, indie and punk today.
Nightlife is a big draw, whether boozing on Bourbon Street or spilling out of a live music joint in the small hours. Mardi Gras is a spectacular reaffirmation of the city though there’s a year-round festival calendar to complement the carnival.
In other ways, New Orleans has had to reinvent itself time and again. It’s hard to write about the city without mentioning that least welcome of visitors, Hurricane Katrina, who smashed up much of the city in 2005. But visitors won’t find a city feeling sorry for itself. The fortunes of New Orleans, like the Saints, its much beloved gridiron team, have risen again. And while areas like Fauborg-Marigny and the Garden District are full of heritage buildings, there’s a keen sense of energy and revival about the city too.
Safe, friendly and exciting, New Orleans is still an unmissable and unique part of America’s past, present and future.