New Orleans Mardi Gras may only happen once a year, but you can learn about and experience certain aspects of it year round!
In New Orleans, the city famous for its French Quarter and Bourbon Street, for Creole cuisine and for cool Dixieland jazz, one event surpasses them all - Mardi Gras! It's a season of revelry and romance, of madness and music, of parades and parties, of comic costuming in the streets and grandiose private masquerade balls. Mardi Gras is a time when the gaudy and the gorgeous all come together for one all-encompassing blowout. From the regal to the ridiculous, New Orleans Mardi Gras has it all!
Since the first modern-day pageant was presented in 1857, with time outs occasioned by World Wars, more than 1,800 Mardi Gras parades have been staged in metro New Orleans. The festivities have grown into one of the world's grandest tourist attractions. Yet for all its international acclaim, it can be difficult for a first-timer to grasp. The celebration has its own vocabulary, and Mardi Gras day is scheduled on a different date each year!
The history of New Orleans reads like a fantastic novel. Here are a few of the highlights to help you better understand the historical dynamics that have shaped this utterly unique city.
FRENCH FOUNDERS: 1718
In 1718, the Frenchman Sieur de Bienville founded a strategic port city five feet below sea level, near the juncture of the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. The new city, or ville, was named La nouvelle Orleans for Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, and centered around the Place d'Armes (later to be known as Jackson Square). The original city was confined to the area we now call the French Quarter or Vieux Carre (Old Square).
SPANISH RULE: 1762-1801
In 1762, either because he lost a bet or because the royal coffers were exhausted, Louis XV gave Louisiana to his Spanish cousin, King Charles III. Spanish rule was relatively short -- lasting until 1801 -- but Spain would leave a lasting imprint on the city.
In 1788, the city went up in flames, incinerating over 800 buildings. New Orleans was still recovering when a second fire in 1794 destroyed 200 structures. One of the only French structures to survive these fires is the Old Ursuline Convent (1100 Chartres). Completed in 1752, it is the oldest building in the Mississippi River Valley. This means that most of the buildings you see in the French Quarter were actually constructed by the Spanish and feature distinctly Spanish architectural elements.
LOUISIANA PURCHASE: 1803
In 1801 Louisiana ceded back to France, but only two years later Napoleon sold the territory to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, effectively doubling the size of the U.S.A. At a cost of only $15 million, it was considered one of the greatest real estate bargains in history.
THE AMERICAN SECTOR AND HAITIAN IMMIGRATION
After the Louisiana Purchase, Americans arrived en masse as did European immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Sicily.
Tension existed between the European Creoles concentrated in the French Quarter and the new American residents. As a result, the Americans settled across Canal Street in what was known then as the American Sector, known today as The Central Business District. The two factions skirmished often, and the Canal Street median became a neutral area where the two groups could come together to do business without invading the other's territory. Ever since, all city medians have been called neutral grounds.
And the Haitian Revolution of 1804 meant that for years to come thousands of Afro-Caribbean descent would come to call New Orleans home. These immigrants further diversified the population of New Orleans and made colorful contributions to the city's culture.
THE WAR OF 1812 AND THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS
The war of 1812 culminated in the Battle of New Orleans three years after the war began. In January of 1815, 8,000 British troops were poised to attack and overtake the City of New Orleans. The American forces lead by General Andrew Jackson were grossly outnumbered. Due to the circumstances an unusual union formed - the notorious pirate Jean Lafitte and his men joined the American forces to defend New Orleans. On January 8, a polyglot band of 4,000 militia, frontiersmen, former Haitian slaves and Lafitte's pirates defeated the British at Chalmette Battlefield, just a few miles east of the French Quarter. The battlefield remains a place worthy of a visit.
THE NEW PARIS
By the mid-1800s, the city in the bend of the river became the fourth largest in the U.S. and one of the richest, dazzling visitors with chic Parisian couture, fabulous restaurants and sophisticated culture.
Society centered around the French Opera House, where professional opera and theatre companies played to full houses. In fact, opera was performed in New Orleans seven years before the Louisiana Purchase, and more than 400 operas premiered in the Crescent City during the l9th century.
A CULTURAL GUMBO
Under French, Spanish and American flags, Creole society coalesced as Islanders, West Africans, slaves, free people of color and indentured servants poured into the city along with a mix of French and Spanish aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, freed prisoners and nuns.
New Orleans was, for its time, a permissive society that resulted an intermingling of peoples unseen in other communities, and it is New Orleans' diverse heritage that is the driving force behind this unique and exotic city. The contributions of Africans, Caribbean peoples, the French, Spanish, Germans, Irish, Sicilians and more created a society unlike any other.
Over the years New Orleans has had a powerful influence on American and global culture. Our cuisine is known across the world and rock and roll was born from the sounds of our sultry jazz. Literary giants from Tennessee Williams to William Faulkner have flocked to the city for inspiration. Our food, music and cultural practices will capture your imagination and your heart. Diversity, creativity and celebration are at the core of the New Orleans way of life. All are welcome - the more ingredients, the more we can feed.
New Orleans is a garden that is always in bloom. In the spring, flaming azalea bushes and the intoxicating scent of magnolias, giant white blooms nestled amongst dark green waxy leaves greet a new season of nature's rebirth. Carolina jasmine and wisteria climb along wrought iron fences. Rose bushes that have been tended to for generations stand out against small shotgun houses and community gardens full of herbs, vegetables, and homemade sculpture testify to residents' pride in their neighborhoods.
Spring and summer showers open up the heavens almost every afternoon while crepe myrtles - pink, purple and white confetti-like flowers - dust neighborhood sidewalks. With its lure of cool breezes, Lake Pontchartrain draws people to its shores for sailing, fishing and picnicking. Others take advantage of the slower pace to enjoy day trips to small towns throughout South Louisiana, hugging lakes, bayous and marshes, all part of "A Place Called America's Wetland," one of the world's richest eco-cultural destinations. Right in the heart of New Orleans, City Park presents landscapes typical of the State of Louisiana. Here are found giant Oak trees dripping with Spanish moss; egrets, heron, geese, swans and ducks cruise lagoons and ponds; and azaleas, magnolias, camellias and crepe myrtles fill the park with color.
Late September brings the promise of cooler weather, and, once again locals can be seen tending to their gardens, or sitting on their front porches as the late afternoon light fades into brilliant orange and magenta sunsets. Banana trees seem to be everywhere, heavy with fruit. Sweet olive trees begin to fill the air with a scent that lingers well down the street, and a light breeze breathes energy into the city.
As the temperature continues to drop, New Orleans dresses up for the winter holiday season. Walking around the city is a feast for the eyes as camellia bushes explode with blooms, streetcars wear holiday wreaths and garlands, the live oaks in City Park are illuminated and decorated with huge ornaments.
Regardless of what time of year one arrives in the city, there are always plenty of outdoor adventures waiting to begin.
The French Quarter and Treme
The French Quarter is famous for its wrought iron balconies draped in ferns and cascading flowers, and discreet sub-tropical courtyards. Just walking down the residential side streets of the old city is a wonderful way to soak in the ways that New Orleanians blend their gardens into the urban geography. To experience a public garden, Jackson Square is a great place to get a sense of the heart of New Orleans. Iron benches in the park provide excellent seats for people-watching against a backdrop of beautifully landscaped garden beds, with the Mississippi River just a short walk away.
Right next door to the French Quarter in Treme is Armstrong Park, named in honor of the city's most famous jazzman, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. A statue of Armstrong holding his beloved instrument stands in the center of the park amidst the splendid oak trees and the nearby Mahalia Jackson Theatre, home of the New Orleans Opera and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Mighty Mississippi
There are a number of ways to experience one of the greatest rivers in the world, in the oldest part of the city. Walk along the Moonwalk, or relax in Woldenberg Park. Watch huge freighters and tankers travel up and down the great river, see the countless tugs and barges as they pass through one of the largest ports in the world; listen to the music of a steam-driven calliope as it serenades the city and its visitors.
Take the Canal Street Ferry for a ride to Algiers Point, a beautiful residential neighborhood with a number of great cafes and a coffee shop overlooking a town square. Looking at the city from the other side is like stepping through the other side of a "looking glass." For a longer trip, the Natchez Steamboat and the Paddlewheeler Creole Queen offer daily and nightly cruises on the river.
It's home to the St. Charles Avenue Streetcar, Tulane and Loyola Universities, Audubon Park and the Garden District. The streetcar rides along one of America's most splendid avenues. In the middle of the Garden District, on Washington Avenue and Prytania Street is Lafayette Cemetery, one of the oldest burial grounds in the city. A particular time to visit this (and most other cemeteries in the city) is Halloween and the day after, All Saints, when residents visit their gravesites with fresh flowers. Just about every afternoon visitors wander through aisles of above-ground tombs under the shadows of live oak and cypress trees and the stone eyes of angels.
Audubon Park is located on 400 acres of land across from Tulane University and stretching all the way to the river. The park was once the site of the 1884-85 World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition. Today it brings together a diverse array of uptown residents who come to read in pools of sunshine, stroll along its scenic paved oval path, or picnic by lagoons. It boasts a world class zoo, an equestrian center and a golf course.
On the far end of the park, at the levee of the river, is what locals call "The Fly" - batture land formed by the river and now offering a grand view of ships, tugboats and tankers traversing up and down the "big muddy." It is a lovely place and particularly a weekend haven for New Orleanians to bike ride, walk their dogs, or simply stretch out and escape yesterday's problems.
Longue Vue Gardens
Not far from City Park, and a stone's throw from Old Metairie, Longvue is one of the South's most grand private homes and formal gardens. It's well worth the cab ride, especially when one of the wonderfully informative lecture series is being presented. The gardens of Longvue are magnificent and the former home of the late Edgar and Edith Stern is open for public tours.
Bayou St. John
Running from Jefferson Davis Parkway in Mid-City to Lake Pontchartrain, Bayou St. John is an historically significant waterway. Both Native Americans and French colonists used this bayou as a portage between the Lake and the Mississippi River. Today, it meanders through Mid-City, passing beautiful examples of French antebellum residences as well as early 20th century cottages. Perhaps the best view of this section is from the "pedestrian only" Magnolia Bridge. Or, drive along the bayou all the way to its origin at the Lake where remnants of an old military fort can be seen. The Bayou is a favored place for residents to bike ride, paddle a canoe, or enjoy a sunset with a picnic and a glass of wine.
The Bayou runs parallel with City Park, the fifth largest urban park in the USA with 1,500 acres of land. During the 1930s, the park became the site of the largest Works Progress Administration (WPA) project in Louisiana, employing 20,000 during the Great Depression to build a series of winding roads, artistic bridges, tennis courts, sleepy lagoons and pavilions. Today, City Park is home to many natural and cultural wonders. The New Orleans Museum of Art and the Sidney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden share the grounds with great live oaks, giant pine and cypress trees, and a golf course that once hosted The New Orleans Open with the likes of Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer.
Tourists and locals can easily spend a day wandering through the park to visit the New Orleans Botanical Garden, where over 2,000 native plants of Louisiana and the Gulf South make their home. The garden is known for its themed areas full of azaleas, roses, orchids and camellias. Other features in the park include the Popp Music Stand, designed by Emile Weil in 1917, the Peristyle's dancing platform facing a lagoon, and a 25,000 seat football and track stadium that housed an Olympic Track and Field trials in the early 90s.
On weekends, the park is filled with soccer, baseball, softball and tennis enthusiasts. Children clamor through Storyland and ride the historic carousel. Much of City Park has been wonderfully restored from Hurricane Katrina, thanks in part to armies of "voluntourists," who have come to New Orleans to help in the recovery while enjoying our authentic culture. The state's Delgado College is close by and the largest Mardi Gras parade, the Krewe of Endymion, begins its trek to downtown at the Park's edge each year, at City Park and Orleans avenues.
The St. Tammany Trace
For outdoor lovers with an auto access, the St. Tammany Trace on the northern side of Lake Pontchartrain is a great escape from the hustle and bustle of downtown. This 31-mile trail is loved by horseback riders, cyclists, joggers and walkers alike. Converted from an old railroad line, its paved path travels from Covington to Slidell through Fontainbleau StatePark, through historic towns and horse farms. Along the way there are many chances to glimpse a deer, fox or wild turkey and swamp rabbits that are a part of the area's wider ecosystem.
New Orleans was built on cypress and tupelo swampland that has long been cut down and filled in as the city area expanded. To gain a sense of what the natural environment used to look like, two popular destinations for visitors outside the city are Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge on the southeastern border of Orleans Parish, or across the river into the Lafitte National Historic Park.
Bayou Sauvage contains 23,000 acres of fresh and brackish marsh, all inside the city limits of New Orleans. The largest urban wildlife refuge in the country, Bayou Sauvage is a highly regarded bird watching area - an enormous bird rookery can be found in the swamps of the refuge from May until July, while tens of thousands of waterfowl winter in its bountiful marshes.
Jean Lafitte's Barataria Preserve is another very accessible natural area. Only half an hour drive from downtown New Orleans, the Barataria Preserve features natural levee forests, bayous, swamps, marshes, and in the early spring, fields of blue iris. The preserve is a great way to get a feel for the vast deltaic eco-system of which New Orleans is a part. There are boardwalks that traverse the swamps, allowing the visitor to really imagine how the entire landscape appeared to the first European settlers that carved out the streets of the French Quarter, while a short film shown in the visitor center showcases the many people that still live directly off this highly productive land.
Select a short trail from the network of more than 8 miles to get a taste for the landscape, or spend the entire day and walk all of them to really get immersed in the swamps of south Louisiana. For those who prefer paddling to walking, canoes are available for hire. With more than nine miles of waterways in the preserve that are closed to motorboats, there is no better option for those who want to get up close and personal with alligators and turtles sunning themselves.
Whether in town, or on the outskirts, New Orleans offers grand vistas, hidden treasures, and roman-tic haunts for visitors willing to linger and roam beyond the excitement of the clubs and restaurants for which we are better known. For those who run out of time, the landscape urges a return visit. For the athletic and eco-tourist, New Orleans may well become a second home.