Many people may not know this, but here is a little secret about me that may shock you. During my middle school and high school years, I was really into goth. I wore only black, listened to bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees, and embraced all the darker things in life. This was very reflective of the hard times I was going through during that period. When my tortured soul felt misunderstood, the goth scene embraced me with open arms. Although that may seem depressing, I actually look back fondly at this time because I had a LOT of fun and it made me who I am today.
Obviously I am very different these days. I am generally a very positive and bubbly person that openly identifies as a hippie, I wear vibrant colors and floral prints, I’m tan, and I listen to a wide variety of music. On the outside, some would say I look “normal” but anyone who really knows me knows that I am definitely not a conventional person. Deep inside, the goth girl is still very much alive. I still love the music and fashion, which will never ever change. Some are surprised to learn that I still go to punk and metal shows whenever I can. And while my sense of style is quite bipolar and varies based on my mood, the truth is my favorite thing to wear is still all black, combat boots, leather jackets, band tees, etc. And above all else, I have a fond appreciation for alternative lifestyles that deviate from the mainstream. There is simply no way to classify what I have become or who I am today. The best word I have come up with is multi-faceted.
One thing that has remained constant throughout my life despite phases and changes I’ve went through is my obsession with all things spooky and dark. Very little gets me more excited than Halloween, horror movies and Tim Burton. Just ask my poor husband, who is forced to watch scary movies he hates.
Because of this dark side of mine, New Orleans is a city I have always been fascinated with and dreamt of visiting. It’s full of dark history and a very distinct French flavor, which is another culture I’m obsessed with. As a kid, I would read Anne Rice books and fantasize of visiting the same streets where tales of vampires, ghosts, and voodoo queens took place. The Big Easy was always at the very top of my bucket list.
In 2014, I finally got to visit for the first time and fell in love. I have yet to come across a city that so deeply satisfies so many of my biggest interests and fascinations at the same time… food, history, culture, music, architecture, and especially the scary/spooky/horror/occult/macabre obsession. More than three years later, I am still delighted with how I planned a flawless and unforgettable trip, and I remember every detail vividly. As my favorite holiday, Halloween, approaches, my New Orleans nostalgia is especially great as I look back on what became one of my favorite travel experiences to date.
Here are my top highlights of an unforgettable New Orleans trip that earned it the top spot on my favorite U.S. cities list:
French Quarter – There is truly nothing else like the world renowned French Quarter. Here I marveled at this incredibly historic and beautiful neighborhood- eating delicious beignets at Café du Monde and taking in the sights of Spanish and French architecture from centuries ago, the bold sounds of live music all around, the mouthwatering smells of Cajun cafes lining every street, and the electric energy of the bustling area and its unique and unmistakable Creole flair. Although I typically avoid tourist traps, the Hop on Hop off city bus was an unbeatable deal that offered the most convenient and inexpensive way to see as much of the city as possible. It stops at all the important places you need to hit, where you may get off the bus to wander around and then catch the next bus, and even offers a live tour guide explaining the history and significance of the many points-of-interest. My favorites stops were Jackson Square (where you will find the symbolic St. Louis Cathedral), Basin Street (home to the famous St. Louis Cemetery with above ground tombs this city is known for, including that of voodoo queen Marie Laveau), and the Garden district (where you can see Anne Rice’s house and beads all on the trees and power lines from years of Mardi Gras parades). I still get chills thinking about how incredible it felt to experience all of this, even despite the intense Louisiana heat.
Bourbon Street – It’s just as crazy as everyone says it is, maybe even more. I had the time of my life drinking “hand grenades”, bar hopping to hear live blues playing, watching street performers, eating the best fried chicken of my life, and I even got to randomly witness a jazz wedding with a second line parade taking place, which I believe to be one of the coolest traditions ever. And even though it wasn’t Mardi Gras, people were throwing beads and partying as if every moment is a celebration. I personally believe that is something every American should experience in their life. It’s impossible to NOT have fun on Bourbon Street.
Food – As always, the highlight of any trip for me usually revolves around the cuisine. New Orleans completely blew away the very high expectations I had set for the city’s dining. Cajun and Creole food is filled with flavor and spice, which is right up my alley. This is not a place to go when you’re trying to diet or eat healthy. All of that went out the window and I am sure I gained quite a few pounds, but I thoroughly enjoyed po’ boy sandwiches, jambalaya, gumbo, and all the savory goodness that this city is famous for. Not to mention delicious desserts. Hands down one of the best and most memorable food experiences of my life, comparable only to Paris. I only wish I had taken more photos to drool over for years to come.
Music – New Orleans is heaven for any music fan. This city is widely known as the birthplace of jazz, which has influenced the world and planted roots for every style of music we enjoy today. Not only a very historic place in music history, but the spirit of creativity and artistry remains incredibly prominent. You cannot walk more than a block without running into some very talented musician playing the violin, saxophone, drums, trombone, guitar, or any other instrument you can think of. They do it not just for a meager income, but purely for love of music. It’s one of the most beautiful things I can ever remember witnessing. This is a city with so much soul that it’s hard not to be moved in some way by all the talent and passion you encounter.
Tremé Tour – Speaking of musical history, Tremé is one of the oldest and most famous neighborhoods in the city, and is regarded as a very significant place for African American history and culture. I became a huge fan of the HBO Series Tremé and made sure to quickly finish all four seasons before visiting to increase my appreciation for this city even more. The show follows characters in Tremé rebuilding their lives following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and digs deep into the heart and soul of New Orleans. It’s even more significant because this is one of the most, if not the most, historic neighborhoods in music history. Definitely one of my favorite series ever. While it was a fictional drama, the show was spot on when it came to depicting New Orelans and capturing the spirit of this city, its struggles, and its rich culture, especially amongst local musicians. Being able to go on a walking tour throughout Tremé to see firsthand all the famous places I saw on the show was incredible. However, many of the places you’ll visit here are not exhilarating in the slightest, but rather very somber and emotional. Due to its strategic location along the Mississippi river, during slavery years centuries ago New Orleans was the largest slave market in the southern U.S. If you survived the middle passage (where an estimated 2 million died during the journey from Africa across the Atlantic to the New World) you would be auctioned here like a piece of meat to slave owners for your new fate as less than human. In Tremé, you can visit Congo Square, where African slaves would gather if they were lucky enough to receive a day off, and the Tomb of the Unknown Slave, a chilling memorial outside of St. Augustine Catholic Church with shackles to symbolize the countless unmarked graves that lie below the streets of the city. I got to pay my respects and was moved to tears. This tour was the most important part of my trip to be honest. It’s easy to get caught up in the glitz of all the great fun and excitement that this city has to offer, but to neglect attention to its true history is to completely misunderstand the entire city and overlook how it came to be. All the traditions we know and love about New Orleans, including Mardi Gras and jazz music, were a result of slavery and its descendants. While we can recognize, celebrate and enjoy all these contributions and treasures, we must also acknowledge the painful history that brought all of this to be. Many believe this very dark history of slavery is the very reason the city is so haunted and maybe even cursed.
Ghost, vampire, witch, and voodoo tour – New Orleans is often called the most haunted city in America. So while this tour may seem cheesy, it’s rated as one of the top things to do here and was probably the first thing I booked and my favorite part. There are MANY tours you can find, some more gimmicky than others. Our particular tour guide openly admitted she was a practicing witch. She also made sure to explain the difference between true voodoo and the black magic that people commonly mistake as witchcraft. After dark, we took off on our walking tour to explore the exact places where so many ghastly stories took place, including the Lalaurie mansion, many of which are still rumored to be haunted to this day. As we went through, I was writing down and looking up the actual history of each story we were being told and though exaggerated and dramatized, they were all legit, which made the tour even spookier. I thoroughly enjoyed it of course. I even came back the next day to visit one of the famous voodoo shops that was pointed out. Aside from the stories and legends, there is a very eerie and creepy vibe present throughout the city that I felt strongly and unmistakably. It was something I had never before experienced in my life and it stayed with me even months after my New Orleans trip.
Swamp Tour – Yet another thing New Orleans is known for is its proximity to the bayou. So I had to make sure we took a 1/2 day trip down to go on a swap tour. It was a lot of fun experiencing this part of Louisiana’s culture and I even got to hold a baby alligator. We saw tons of them in the swap and got to learn a lot. Definitely an adventure that is not for the faint of heart.
River Cruise – A final thing I enjoyed was a jazz dinner cruise on the Mississippi River. The Steamboat Natchez and the Paddlewheeler are the two most popular ones. It included a buffet of delicious Creole food and live jazz music, plus great views on the river. An overall awesome experience for an evening activity if you want a break from Bourbon Street festivities.
There is no doubt that New Orleans is one of the most culturally rich and highly valued cities in America. If I have not yet convinced you to someday visit the Big Easy to experience all of this for yourself, I want to close this by mentioning that another highlight of this destination is that it’s relatively inexpensive. Unless you go during special events (i.e. Mardi Gras and Essence Festival), flights and lodging are usually very reasonable. Plus if you get a hotel in or around the French Quarter, you can walk or take public transportation to most points of interest. You absolutely must grab a streetcar on Canal Street to truly experience the city.
New Orleans is the perfect destination for a long weekend or quick getaway, sure to deliver LOTS of good times. Not everyone believes in the hype surrounding all the stories of ghosts, voodoo magic and vampires, and not everyone is even aware of the very important historical context of this city. But either way, it’s indisputably a can’t-miss in the US that everyone should experience for themselves. Just be forewarned that you may fall in love like I did.