I felt like I knew New Orleans before I even got there. It has such a strong identity in films, books, and TV that I had very set expectations. The jazz, southern hospitality, beignets, and everything that’s in The Princess and the Frog (probably including a saxaphone-playing alligator). It doesn’t have the same fictional magic in the air that cities like New York do; New Orleans is a grittier version of it’s stereotypes. There’s binge drinking, poverty, and some unsavory places to be. It wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was amazing in different ways.
First of all, though, I have to tell you about one of the most surreal experiences of my life which happened on my first morning in this city.
On our first morning in New Orleans, we grabbed some breakfast at a lovely cafe opposite our hostel and waited for the bus to take us downtown. It took me a few minutes to realise that the people waiting with us were all dressed very similarly. There was a concerning amount of people, both men and women, wearing red dresses and trainers. They were hanging around on street corners, and when the bus arrived it was absolutely packed with more people all clad in the same thing. Deciding to walk instead of waiting, we followed a bunch of red people to Canal Street, marvelling at the all the beautiful houses. Just like I imaged them to be.
As we walked, we seemed to pick up more and more people in red dresses. Feel like I was in a dream, we concluded that something odd was going on. And we were right. Somehow we were in the middle of the biggest red dress run in the world. The famous Bourbon Street, which is packed with bars and jazz music, was full of drunken people, and it was barely after midday. It was completely crazy. And smelly. That really summed up the whole of this city – completely bonkers (and drunk). Throughout the day the party-goers gradually got more and more rowdy, but they never caused us any bother.
Unlike most touristy cities, unlimited public transport is $3 per day. To make the most of this, we caught one of the lovely streetcars to the famous above-ground graveyards. The tombs are so beautiful, and it is very spooky to walk through the deserved elaborate tombs, reading about those who will stay there for the rest of time. While we were visiting, a lightning storm started and we found ourselves having to shelter among the graves since the fork lightning could be attracted by the metal of my umbrella. It definitely felt like the opening to a cliche horror film.
For a more optimistic use of our unlimited travel passes, we rode the other streetcar to the end of the line and had a walk around City Park. The day, like most others in August in Southern America, was hot. We took some pictures and then recovered with a much-needed ice cream. I enjoyed the trip back on the streetcar just as much as the destination; they’re a really enjoyable mode of transport.
I was really looking forward to seeing the Mississippi river for the first time, but rather than being picturesque, it looked more muddy and industrial, but unequivocally mighty. Equally as exciting is what is next to the river – a market of exotic foods, with alligator being a popular sandwich filling.
Bizarrely, restaurants in downtown New Orleans are hard to find, unlike alcohol. We got some world-famous beignets from Cafe Du Monde and ate them beside the dark and heaving Mississippi river, listening to the distant sounds of live music and drunken revelers. It was a great moment.
- Stay in the Magazine District, as it has some hipster coffee places and burger joints that made me feel right at home. It has a very young vibe, too, and feels fairly safe.
- Do your research before you go. I wanted to go on a day trip to see one of the nearby plantations, but it was too expensive for our budget. So decide what excursions you want to do beforehand and put money and time aside.
- Taxis can be easier than buses, but use the streetcars for the novelty.
- Prepare for the weather. If you’re visiting in summer, it will be very hot and sticky, and air conditioning is few and far between.
- Also, prepare for the smell. It may have been particularly stinky since we visited during a major event, but Bourbon Street has a very distinct stench to it. I’m sure it won’t be too noticable after a few drinks. Either way, you have to walk down it at least once (and if you’re doing it right, crawl back down in the early hours of the morning).