Celebrate New Orleans style all year long
By Beth D'Addono
New Orleans Local Expert
Nobody knows for sure, but New Orleans just may have invented the festival.
People in this town dress up at the drop of a hat, show up at the opening of a door and party like rock stars for no discernable reason, other than it may be a Wednesday. Some of the more oddball fetes including the running of the bulls, a harebrained recreation of the San Fermin scramble, given a New Orleans spin. The July festival replaces bulls with Big Easy Rollergirls and participants from other roller derby leagues across the country. You have to see this to believe it. Then there's the annual Red Dress Run in August, with more than 100 charities benefiting from runners sprinting in bright ruby dresses. And the weird list goes on.
So give New Orleanians a reason to congregate, and there’s no doubt that something special is brewing. Here are just a few of this town’s top fetes coming at you throughout the year. Depending on the season, you may get hot and sweaty, so dress for the weather, pack your sunscreen and a hat, slip into some dancing shoes, and get ready to rumble. Although Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest are the biggest of the year's events, there is still plenty of partying to catch whenever you come to town.
10 Essence Music Festival
The Essence Music Festival, the largest African American music and culture celebration in America, happens annually in New Orleans over 4th of July weekend. Known as "the party with a purpose" because of its daily inspirational and educational seminar series, Essence started in 1995 as a one-time event to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of ESSENCE magazine. Main stage performers on the main stage have included Aretha Franklin, Lionel Richie and Mary J. Blige, with talent in the standing-room only superlounge stages including the likes of Eve and local all women-brass band The Pinettes. Big Sam's Funky Nation is another example of a local group in the Essence limelight. (1-800-672-6124)
9 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival
This literary festival brings in more than 100 prominent writing and publishing figures -- and, of course, thousands of Tennessee Williams fans and scholars -- for a fun, informative five days of classes, seminars, theater productions and discussion panels. Of course, the events aren't all erudite in nature. There are plenty of chances for festival-goers to loosen their ties and take in food and wine tastings, guided walking tours of the writer's old stomping grounds, and even a concert or two. Staging Williams' plays in offbeat venues adds an interesting twist to the proceedings. The Hermann Grimma House in the French Quarter was transformed into a hotel for the 2014 festival, with three of Williams' sultry shorts showcased in the mansion. (504-581-1144)
8 Southern Decadence
The biggest bash of the year for Crescent City's gay community, this flamboyant festival draws more than 120,000 attendees each year. Parties and concerts are held in clubs and along the streets throughout the weekend, but the main attraction is Sunday's parade and related festivities along Bourbon Street mostly at St. Ann. Costumes are always over the top during this full on GLBT party event that takes over the French Quarter Labor Day weekend, with drag contests and sky high wigs and eye popping bling the norm. Expect everything from street parades and sassy body part contests to all night dance parties. Buy weekend passes in advance! (504-522-8049)
7 New Orleans Wine and Food Experience
This five day event brings local and visiting A-list chefs, oenophiles and culinary pros to town for a Memorial weekend of nonstop feasting and foodie events. There's a Chinese menu list of events from which to choose, including champagne brunch, wine dinners and tastings, cooking demonstrations and seminars conducted by premier chefs, vintners and wine consultants. At the Royal Street stroll, local galleries open their doors to ticketed guests who sip samples while browsing the collections. Live jazz bands provide street side entertainment. Past participants include the Food Network's Dave Lieberman along with chefs Alon Shaya, John Besh and Susan Spicer (504-529-9463)
6 Satchmo SummerFest
Is it hot in New Orleans in August? You bet - but so is the music at this terrific three day outdoor jazz festival. People who let the summer heat and humidity keep them away from New Orleans miss out in a huge way when it comes to this awesome jazz festival. You may know Satchmo better as Louis Armstrong, and this FREE weekend celebration pays tribute to the legendary musician's life, legacy and love of music. Associated events range from exhibits to panel discussions, and there are also organized club crawls, food stands operated by local eateries, and plenty of great live performances. The action takes place primarily on the grounds of the Old U.S. Mint, conveniently situated on the edge of the French Quarter between the French Market and Esplanade Avenue. (504-522-5730, 800-673-5725)
5 Tales of the Cocktail
Eat, drink and be merry! This festival celebrates the art of the cocktail. Syrups, tinctures, flower essences, barrel-aged cocktails, herbaceous elixers - it's all part of the world's premier cocktail festival, bringing together the international spirits community for five days of what's now, what's new and what's next in bartending. Events are hosted by a captivating group of experts, such as mixologists, chefs and authors. Dinners, cocktail parties, walking tours and seminars are among the annual festivities. Although geared to the cocktail and spirits industry, Tales now draws passionate drinking fans from all over the U.S. for this decadent weekend. (504-948-0511)
4 French Quarter Festival
Some 21 stages of music spread the gospel of jazz throughout the French Quarter, showcasing the best local music in town, from jazz and blues to brass at this mega-watt free April event. Literally hundreds of musicians keep the beat and most of the special events, from the art show to the children's activities are free. Festival-goers can enjoy the Crescent City's fine food dished up by vendors all over the Quarter. Then there's the chance to tuck into the World's Largest Jazz Brunch, with plenty of Bloody Mary's to go around. More than 560,000 people danced to the sound of French Quarter Fest in 2013. (504-522-5730, 800-673-5725)
3 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
You'd get an argument from an more than 350,000 brightly clad fest goers that this one is the cream of the festival crop. A bold statement, but once you've been, it's tough to contradict. What's so special about Jazz Fest? Depending on who you talk to, it's a tie between the music and the food, followed by, in no particular order, the people watching, the after fest shows around town, and did we mention the food? Held on the oval of the Fairgrounds Race Course, a horse track that can be quite pungent when muddied, Jazzfest, held for seven days at the end of April and beginning of May, is an annual tradition for a legion of locals and fans from all over the world. Despite the thrumming crowds and weather than can range from gorgeous to blistering and torrential, the vibe is pure love fest. (504-410-4100, 504-558-6100)
2 Mardi Gras
New Orleans' trademark festival originated as a religious holiday, but it's best known for its spectacular parades and frenetic party scene. Locals know that Mardi Gras isn't just a day, it's a season that officially begins on Twelfth Night, or January 6. The always irreverent Krewe du Vieux is the first major parade to roll about three weeks before Fat Tuesday, with more than 60 parades in neighborhoods all around town leading up to Mardi Gras day. The major processions travel the family-friendly route from Napoleon Avenue to St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. More than 15,000 masked riders toss buckets of bead, throws and dubloons to the crowds. (800-672-6124)
1 New Orleans Film Festival
It's no surprise that film festing NOLA style is, well, more fun than festivals in other towns. Sorry, but where else is there a second line of joy and brass to celebrate a movie like "12 Years a Slave," filmed partly in Louisiana and a fest-opener in recent years. Nowhere, and that's enough. The parties are better, the events are zippier, the content is moving and alive. There are lots of reasons New Orleans is Hollywood South, but beyond the tax credits and the nuts and bolts, there's the passion and the natural grit and beauty in New Orleans and its environs. This festival lets everybody be a part of the story. (504- 309-6633)
About Beth D'Addono
Beth D'Addono is a food and travel writer obsessed with flavor, exploring cultures, street music and the city of New Orleans. After spending years flying in regularly to research stories, attend festivals and eat the city's amazing cuisine, this New Orleanian at heart moved to the Crescent City full time in 2012. Beth writes about New Orleans and other destinations for outlets including USAToday, AAA Traveler, Wells Fargo Conversations, the Boston Globe, Newsday, Philadelphia Daily News, Taste, Jewish Exponent, Fodor's and others. She is the author of Must Sees New Orleans (Michelin) and co-author of City Tavern Cookbook (Running Press).
Read more about Beth D'Addono here.