This Time I'm Walkin' to New Orleans
I’m not sure where Bobby Charles was walking from when he wrote Walking to New Orleans for Fats Domino in 1960 but what I do know is walking is one of the best ways to get an up close and personal perspective of NOLA’s history. Whether you walk, bike, or take one of the many street cars located in New Orleans, you’ll get to experience a city with a rich, one of a kind history.
In our last blog post, This City Won’t Wash Away, we touched on the history of New Orleans and what makes it a city that’s different from any other in the United States. In the 16th Century North America was being colonized by three major countries; Spain, Great Britain, and France. Spain secured Mexico and a large portion of the Southwest including Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Great Britain took up most of the East Coast of upper North America. France originally colonized areas in what is now Canada and then traveled down the Mississippi River colonizing from The Great Lakes down to Louisiana and out into the West Indies. While the Spanish and British settlers opted to kill and displace the Native North Americans, the French took a somewhat friendlier approach (mostly because they really needed to procreate and there weren’t enough French people), coexisting with the Indigenous people like the Houmas and Choctaw who inhabited what would become New Orleans.
After the French and Indian War, which was fought between the British and the French along with their Native American allies, ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 New France got split up between Spain and Britain with Louisiana and New Orleans going to the Spanish Empire. The Spaniards held onto Louisiana until 1803 when they gave it back to France, and Napoleon promptly sold it all to the newly formed United States of America in the Louisiana Purchase. At that point the region had a mix of French and Spanish Creole people, Native people, and African slaves. Around the time of the Haitian Revolution in 1804 New Orleans saw an influx of Haitian immigrants, which double the city’s population and introduced free people of color to New Orleans which became one of the largest communities of its kind at that time. As a port city it saw an influx of immigrants from Italy, Germany, and Ireland and was the United States’ largest slave market bringing slaves from Africa to the U.S..
New Orleans has held onto this mix of cultures throughout the years. This is visible in the surviving 18th Century Spanish Architecture in the Vieux Carre (French Quarter), the wide array of creole food at restaurants, burial techniques in the city’s many cemeteries, the music that rose out of Congo Square, and the general “laissez-faire” attitude of the city. If you want to experience and learn more about the history of New Orleans and all it has to offer, you’re in luck because there is a litany of tours, websites, and museums to help you learn all about NOLA.
Before our first trip to New Orleans, Lindsay and I spent a lot of time researching the city and things to do while we were there. Actually, I did the research and Lindsay listened to my long winded ideas for our inaugural trip, but I digress. One website I used frequently, and continue to use for every visit, is GoNola.com. Not only does GoNOLA keep you up to date on the latest events around the city, but it also gives you a look at the history and life of NOLA locals in the “My NOLA” section.
Once you’re actually in New Orleans there’s more ways to explore the history and sites than one could list. Much like Fats Domino sang, you might just “need two pairs of shoes” with all the walking you can do in New Orleans. It’s a walkable city with an abundance of walking tours that can give you an up close look at NOLA’s rich history. Our favorite company to use for walking tours, in New Orleans and many other cities is Free Tours By Foot. We have taken tours of the Garden District, several cemeteries, the French Quarter, night time Voodoo tours, and more. Some tours we have taken multiple times and each time we learn something new. Free Tours is great because you register online and pay at the end, instead of booking and paying ahead. Personally, I’ve found that this leads to the tour guides really working hard for their money. The tours are always engaging and fun.
If you’d like to cover more ground, a bike tour might be for you. Lindsay and I enjoy biking anywhere we can and New Orleans is no exception. Even if you don’t do a tour, renting a bike to get around the city is a great idea. Whether you’re looking for a tour or a daily rental Confederacy of Cruisers bike tours has you covered. We have done their cocktail tour (drinking and biking starting at 10am? yes please!) and their culinary tour, twice. Imagine biking all over NOLA, eating at some of the best local eateries and drinking at the best bars, with a tour guide that not only knows the city’s history in depth but can give you the inside scoop on the best of everything New Orleans. In a nutshell, that’s what CoC provides.
After discovering the city one the ground, you can get a new perspective by taking a tour on the water. Rolling along the Mississippi river on the Natchez steamboat is a great way to learn about the history of the city. While I can’t say if the food option is worth the cost, the tour itself is great. Of course, if you’d like to save a few bucks and just experience what it’s like to float down the river you can take the Algiers Ferry across the river from Canal St. Once you get over to Algiers Point you can do one of the Algiers Historical Society's self-guided walking tours to learn all about the second oldest neighborhood in the city and grab a pint at Old Point Bar ($1.50 PBRs!). If you’re a bit more adventurous you can do a kayak tour of the Bayou St John and Lake Pontchartrain with Kayak-iti-Yat. Or get out of the city a bit and explore the Bayou Manchac and the Honey Island Swamp on a kayak with New Orleans Kayak Swamp Tours. Our Honey Island Swamp Kayak tour was one of the highlights of our Honeymoon in NOLA, even though it involved giant banana spider. I hate spiders.
After a day of walking, biking, and kayaking in the New Orleans heat it might be time for you to get indoors and enjoy the air conditioning. The city has a wide array of museums showcasing art, New Orleans history, war history, and even quirky medical history. We have visited The National WWII Museum in NOLA twice and each time we have been impressed. It’s a must do if you are a history buff. Two of our favorite art museums in NOLA are NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. NOMA, located at the beautiful City Park, housing 46 galleries with art history spanning over 4000 years. If you visit, take time to walk through the Besthoff Sculpture Gardens around the museum. The Ogden explores the art, history, and culture of the American South. You can also listen to live music while you explore the galleries during the weekly Ogden After Hours every Thursday from 6pm-8pm.
If an art museum seems a bit stuffy for your style you can always drop in and check out Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World and take a look at all of the beautifully decorated Mardi Gras floats. Another great place to for Carnival history is The Backstreet Cultural Museum which houses the largest collection of Mardi Gras Indian costumes and gives an insight so some uniquely NOLA traditions. Located in the Treme, it's a bit out of the way but worth the visit. Or if you’re in the Jackson Square area you can pop in to The Presbytere to check out the Louisiana State Museum’s exhibit “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana” to learn all about Carnival season and Mardi Gras day. While you’re in Jackson Square don’t forget to stop into St Louis Cathedral and head into The Cabildo to get an in depth look at New Orleans history. If you want something really quirky, stop by the Pharmacy Museum just up the road for a look at an 1800s apothecary shop filled with hand blown bottles with “medications” and Civil War era surgical instruments. The 1PM guided tour is free with your $5 admission.
Now that you’ve cooled off a bit in one or the cities museums, it’s time to learn more about the history of music in New Orleans. One of the best ways to do this is by checking out WWOZ’s A Closer Walk website. With 17 curated walking tours to choose from you can visit and learn the history of everything from Congo Square to The Dew Drop Inn to Fats Domino’s home. You can also check out the New Orleans Jazz Museum located in the Old U.S. Mint. With over 25,000 jazz artifacts and frequent live music, this museum is a great way to experience jazz in all its forms. And if it’s live music that you want, you can finish off your day catching a show at Preservation Hall, which has been dedicated not only to preserving Traditional New Orleans Jazz but also reviving it. They have concerts featuring some of NOLAs finest musicians every night at 5pm, 6pm, 8pm, 9pm, and 10pm. Stand in line for a show, bring a drink in a plastic container if you choose (no food allowed and no drinks sold inside), try to grab a front row seat on the floor, and leave your cell phone off because you’ll want to focus all your attention on the amazing musicians. Oh, and always drop a tip in the hat on your way out.
Up next we will explore the food and drinks of New Orleans. Get ready to loosen those belts, Adventurers!