Soon to celebrate its 300th anniversary, New Orleans dates to 1718, and counts French, Spanish, African, American, German, Irish, Italian and Vietnamese among its gumbo of cultural influences. With its close proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, subtropical climate and easygoing lifestyle, the “northernmost Caribbean city” stands out from its U.S. counterparts, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the nation—and the world. Though peak travel months are October through May (when average temps are in the 70s), good times are on the New Orleans calendar year-round.
Dubbed the “Queen of Southern Culture” during the 1800s, New Orleans continues its reign in the 21st century. Home to the nation’s first opera house and oldest active community playhouse, the city also lays claim to the birthplace of jazz and a number of the region’s leading fine-arts institutes. Music is a mainstay here, pouring out of clubs and bubbling up from the streets, and local football fanaticism borders on religion. Rich in history, New Orleans also offers a wealth of architecture and culinary talent, with seven of the past decade’s James Beard Foundation’s “Best Chef: South” awards going to locals.
Start where the city did—at Jackson Square, near another must-do, Café Du Monde, where the café au lait and beignets are de rigueur. A stroll along the Mississippi riverfront affords incredible views and helps put New Orleans’ “Crescent City” moniker into perspective, or take in the skyline from aboard an authentic steamboat. The St. Charles streetcar is an ideal way to view the opulent Garden District, while cemetery tours offer insight into the city’s past. A night out on Bourbon Street is a first-timer rite of passage, but for the real nightlife beat, hit Frenchmen Street.
Many visitors to New Orleans never step foot outside of the French Quarter, and that’s a shame. There’s much more to the city than just 13 short blocks. Cross Canal, and you’ll discover a number of notable restaurants populating the Central Business District. On the other side of Esplanade, the music-minded Marigny morphs into bohemian Bywater. Just across Rampart from the Quarter is Tremé, the nation’s oldest African-American neighborhood, which connects to scenic Bayou St. John and Mid-City. The Garden District’s grand homes continue Uptown, where retail-packed Magazine—aka “the street of dreams”—offers six miles of great shopping.