There’s nowhere else quite like New Orleans.
I’d always wanted to go to New Orleans. Something about this unique and enigmatic city on the Gulf of Mexico has always intrigued me. Everyone I know who’s been there said the same thing: there’s nowhere else quite like New Orleans.
And what better time to go than during Mardi Gras? This ancient Catholic festival didn’t start in New Orleans, but it has attained a unique flavor in the Big Easy. In New Orleans, cultures collide and melt together, producing a vibe you won’t find anywhere else.
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras is one of the world’s biggest parties. So going to the city at this time of year requires planning. It also requires cash. Hotel rooms fill up fast, and everybody wants to sell something to the millions of tourists that descend on the city. But that’s all part of the fun.
For our introduction to New Orleans, Mardi Gras was truly unforgettable. And when the party finally ended, all we wanted was to start planning to visit again next year.
The French Quarter
New Orleans’ French Quarter is the tourist hub of the city. It’s not hard to see why. Home to attractions such as the French Market, Bourbon Street, and Pirate Alley, it’s one of the most charismatic areas of any town in the United States.
The narrow streets and old buildings with their wrought-iron balconies make for an atmospheric place to hang out. However, those same narrow streets mean that the Mardi Gras parades can’t pass through the French Quarter. The nearest they get is Canal Street.
Still, we decided we wanted to stay in the French Quarter anyway, at the Hotel Maison de Ville. On your first visit to New Orleans, you need to visit the French Quarter. Besides, it remains one of the best places to party once you’ve had your fill of parades. So we knew that was where we wanted to stay.
Unfortunately, we arrived in the city in the morning, and the hotel didn’t have a room ready. Deciding to head out and explore soon as possible, we tracked down a luggage storage service in New Orleans so that we could dump our bags and be lighter on our feet. The French Quarter is vibrant and bustling and busy throughout the year, but especially so during Mardi Gras. You don’t want to be carrying more than you absolutely need.
Our first stop was the French Market. This classic attraction has been a fixture in the city for hundreds of years and is one of the best places to get an introduction to the vibe of the city. Produce stalls and food vendors compete with the eclectic offerings of the daily flea market. It all makes for a great place to do some shopping or just hang out and experience the energy.
We could have eaten lunch at the French Market. Café du Monde, situated right next to the market, is a famed New Orleans restaurant. But instead, we decided to see more of the area. And since we wanted to try beignets, the legendary deep-fried fritters the city is famous for, where better to go but Cafe Beignet?
Cafe Beignet has more to offer than its namesake treat. It specializes in Cajun food paired with delicious café au lait. Additionally, its patio seats make the perfect place to soak up the delirious charm of the French quarter.
As tempting as it was to while away the afternoon in the café, we’d come to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans. And that means attending a parade.
The French Quarter is very walkable, and indeed, that’s the best way to enjoy this part of town. As we made our way toward Canal Street, we were immersed in the charm and excitement of this festival. Musicians played instruments on the street. Vendors worked the crowds, selling snacks and drinks to hordes of tourists. The city crackled with energy.
By the time we reached Canal Street, the parade was already in progress. Drums pounded. Music played. And towering two-story parade floats made their way slowly down the packed street. Masked revelers, representatives of New Orleans’ long-established ‘krewes’, manned the floats, tossing beads and toys and other keepsakes, known as throws, to the enthusiastic crowd.
The effort people put into the spectacle of Mardi Gras is truly impressive. But it’s a testament to the pride the residents of New Orleans take in this famous festival. The people of New Orleans know how to have a good time. It’s impossible not to be swept up in the excitement of Mardi Gras in the city.
When the parade was finally over, we joined the flood of people heading back into the French Quarter. Our lunchtime beignets had long since worn off, and as the sky darkened above the old rooftops, we knew it was time to eat. Olde Nola Cookery is an unpretentious restaurant in the heart of the district, and offers Cajun and Creole cooking that’s as New Orleans as it gets.
Try the Taste of New Orleans, with gumbo, crawfish etouffee, red beans and rice, and smoked sausage. It’s classic New Orleans, stick-to-your-ribs cuisine. Perfect for powering you through a long night ahead.
After dark, the French Quarter really comes alive. Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop is a bar that dates back to the 18th century and should definitely be checked out. But if there’s one thing New Orleans isn’t short of, it’s bars. Carousel, The Black Penny, Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub – all are great places to party the night away. And that’s without even going to the slightly seedy but always intriguing Bourbon Street with its endless choice of clubs and bars.
By the time we finally made it back to our hotel, we were exhausted. We were both glad that we chose to stay somewhere within walking distance of all the French Quarter has to offer. Our first experience of Mardi Gras, and of New Orleans as a whole, had only whetted our appetite to see what else the city has to offer.