10 Things To Do as a First-Time Traveler To New Orleans
1. Get up close to the area where the levees broke.
2005’s Hurricane Katrina wasn’t just a natural disaster, it was a manmade one. While the storm brought incredible amounts of rain and wind, it was a crack in the levees that flooded areas of the city such as the Lower Ninth Ward.
A bike ride through this area gives you an up-close perspective on the devastation, as well as the efforts to rebuild. You’ll see student volunteers making repairs and the Brad Pitt-sponsored Make It Right homes, and you’ll likely get to chat with the residents who loved their community enough to return. At the same time, a leisurely bike ride will also show you the damaged roads and abandoned homes that are a constant reminder of Katrina’s wrath. It’s both an inspiring and sobering experience.
2. After your bike ride, have lunch at Café Dauphine.
There’s a lot of great food in New Orleans, but Café Dauphine is unique because it’s one of the few businesses thriving in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely devastated after Hurricane Katrina. The owners are dedicated to providing a dining option for the community, creating jobs, and fostering community pride. The menu features Southern comfort cuisine with some interesting twists. Try the deep-fried bell pepper, stuffed with crabmeat and shrimp.
3. Join a second line.
Second lines are traditional parades in which a brass band leads a group of participants down city streets. People dance or walk with a lot of attitude and rhythm, and it’s common to see colorful suits and twirling parasols. Second lines are typically Sunday affairs, and the neighborhood participates by standing on their porches and cheering, or joining in as the parade weaves its way around the community.
Local radio station WWOZ publishes a detailed list of upcoming second lines, and check out this etiquette list to make sure you participate respectfully. You can also practice first, at a second line dance class with local dance celebrity Dancing Man 504.
4. Do Sunday church in style.
Check out St. Augustine’s Church in the Treme. They have a jazz mass at 10am on Sundays, where you’ll see the neighborhood’s long-time African-American residents rubbing shoulders with hipster newcomers while you worship to some of the best church music around. The area the church is in, which was featured in the HBO show Treme, is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States, where free people of color first gained the right to own property.
5. Get to know the African-American side of Mardi Gras.
Historically, Mardi Gras parades excluded non-whites, so people in black neighborhoods such as the Treme held alternative celebrations. They developed a tradition of dressing up or “masking” as American Indians as a way of paying respect for their assistance in escaping slavery. Today, the Mardi Gras Indians make their own elaborate costumes, which are paraded starting on St. Joseph’s Day. Different tribes face off with each other to determine which chief is the “prettiest.”
At the Backstreet Cultural Museum in the Treme, you can see the 100-plus-pound costumes and hear stories about this unique aspect of African-American culture.
6. Hang out with the hipsters.
Hipsters come to New Orleans for the music, the historical homes, the entrepreneurial opportunities, and the relatively cheap standard of living. They’re revitalizing parts of the city with new bars, restaurants, art galleries, and cafes.
What exactly is a hipster, and is their influence positive or negative? Those are debates you could spend hours having with those born and raised in New Orleans. In any case, if you want to commune with the skinny jean, old-fashioned hat, vintage T-wearing crowd, head out to the Marigny and Bywater areas. Mimi’s, Euclid’s Records, Orange Couch Café, Frenchman Art Market, Piety Street Market — all are hipster approved.
7. Head out to the “Far East” for the best bread in town.
New Orleans East is home to a vibrant and growing Vietnamese-American community. Many of the first generation came as fishermen, working down in the bayous. The community is largely Catholic and you can find tons of Asian restaurants, grocery stores, and services around the Mary Queen of Vietnam church, which is their spiritual and practical hub. This area was heavily damaged after Hurricane Katrina, and the Vietnamese are known to have been among the first to return and rebuild.
Locals from all backgrounds swear that some of the best bread in the city is made by the Vietnamese. Buy yours right out of the oven at Dong Phuong Bakery. Or try a Vietnamese-style po-boy (otherwise known as bánh mì) made to order. Keep on going east to hit the bayou communities, and see how high the houses are being built in order to survive future floods.
8. Have a stuffed plantain in Little Honduras.
Kenner, which is just west of central New Orleans, has the highest population of Hondurans living outside of Honduras. The Hispanic population of this area, including other Central Americans, Mexicans, and Brazilians, has grown to 22%, a huge increase over the last decade. Drive down Williams Boulevard and you can visit Hispanic grocery stores, restaurants, doctors, tax preparers, and banks. Try Mi Pueblito’s on Florida Avenue for traditional stuffed plantains, pastelitos, and yucca.
9. Volunteer at an urban farm.
Hurricane Katrina left behind a lot of ruined homes that stayed abandoned and, over time, became blighted areas. Urban farms and community gardens are popping up in areas that were hit hardest and are economically challenged. They make use of areas that were once an eyesore, growing food for neighborhoods that might otherwise have limited access to fresh produce. Some provide herbs and vegetables to the biggest-name restaurants in town. These gardens are bringing a renewed sense of pride to communities that have struggled to rebound.
10. See where the musicians live.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans natives Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis wanted to establish a community for displaced musicians, making sure they didn’t abandon the city due to economic hardship. Their vision was to provide a home for the artists and their music that has defined the city’s culture. In partnership with Habitat for Humanity, they started the Musician’s Village, which provides affordable housing near the recently-built Elis Marsalis Center for Music.
As you stroll through this area in the Upper Ninth Ward, you’ll see examples of vibrantly painted houses that reflect the traditional shotgun style. If you’re lucky, you may walk into an impromptu jam session on somebody’s front porch.