New Orleans has come along way since a French explorer stumbled upon a swamp settlement back in 1699. Its history and architecture is a vivid aspect of the Big Easy’s colorful personality.
Founded in 1718 as a walled military outpost, the French Quarter was a colonial oasis in the New World, a rich tapestry of French, Spanish and African cultures that combined to create a hybrid personality all its own. The passing of more than three centuries has seen it ravaged by fires, floods, misguided development, benign neglect and gentrification, yet through it all, the Quarter has never lost its identity, its human scale, its bohemian soul.
In a world of Disney-esque attractions, the French Quarter is unfailingly authentic. This continuous residential neighborhood nestled on the bend of the Mississippi River is not an interpreted historic attraction, it is 120 blocks of the real deal. And that's just the beginning of the history lesson you can take everytime you start on a wander. In New Orleans, there are an astounding 20 historic districts on the National Register, more than any other city in the United States.
While there is plenty to keep you occupied in New Orleans proper for days on end, there are a host of excursions that provide valuable insight into the history and culture of the region. A visit to the Chalmette Battlefield, just seven miles downriver from the French Quarter, delivers compelling insight into the storied conflict. After you've seen the famous statue of Andrew Jackson in Jackson Square, pay a visit to this historic site just seven miles downriver from New Orleans, a free attraction good for diving into history or getting some fresh air and a walkabout for a different view of New Orleans.
Now serving as the city's official welcome center, Basin Street Station was formerly the New Orleans Terminal Company, a historical touchstone that remains in what was once the transportation crossroad of the city of New Orleans. Today Basin St. Station embodies the preservation of a rare vestige of the five railways stations and their associated buildings that served Downtown New Orleans in the early 20th century. Developed by the locally owned Valentino New Orleans Hotels, Basin Street Station includes a visitor information center, educational community exhibit and performance venues, a walking tour kiosk, a coffee shop and Louisiana gift shop. There are super cool old photos of the city, train memorabilia and lots of helpful bits for visiting New Orleans.
Founded in 1833, Lafayette Cemetery stands out as one of area's earliest and perhaps the city's first planned cemetery. It was specifically designed to accommodate funeral processions and is distinguished by its intersecting avenues and lush greenery. Noted in Anne Rice's book "Interview With The Vampire," Lafayette has since become a highly popular tourist attraction. One of the more recent highlights to the cemetery's history happened in July 1995 when Rice staged her own funeral here, complete with a horse-drawn hearse and a brass band - an effective publicity stunt thatcoincided with the release of one her novels. Tours are available with interesting lore about burial practices, area history and who's who in the tombs.
The New Orleans Streetcar is the most historic mode of transportation in the Crescent City. Traveling through the middle of major streets such as St. Charles, Canal and Carrollton and soon Rampart Street, the streetcar is an affordable method of transportation that allows you to soak in the sights as you move closer to your end destination. $1.25 gets you aboard, and if lucky, you'll have a street car operator that will act as a pseudo tour guide, pointing out important landmarks. The streetcar itself is of historical significance to the city. It is the oldest continually operating street railway system in the entire world, moving city-goers around since the 19th century.
What began as a military parade ground known as Place d'Armes in 1721 is now the colorful heart of the French Quarter, a meeting place for musicians, voodoo queens, fortune tellers, artists, grifters, historians and tourists – you can usually hear it before you see it, as the historic square is always a beehive of activity. The square was renamed Jackson Square in 1851 to honor Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), hero of the notorious battle of New Orleans and seventh US president. Jackson, who served two terms in Washington, led a ragtag group of volunteers to victory against the British in 1815.
It looks like a fairy tale castle, but in fact, St. Louis Cathedral is the oldest continuously operating cathedral in the US. Originally built in the late 1700s, the present structure, with its white, three-steepled façade, is actually the third church on this site; hurricanes and fires destroyed the first two. The outside is grander than the inside, but step in for a quick look or take one of the free tours offered several times a day. Behind the cathedral you'll find a small garden that contains a memorial to the victims of yellow fever, which plagued the mosquito-infested city in the 18th and 19th centuries. Called St. Anthony's Close, its main feature is a white statue of Christ with uplifted arms.
Wrought iron fences, exquisite gardens and lush antebellum homes line the streets of the Garden District. The area, bordered by St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street, as well as Jackson Avenue and Louisiana Avenue, is where the city's original aristocratic class settled. Highlights include the St. Charles Streetcar line, which offers affordable transit to the French Quarter, and Lafayette Cemetery. The Garden District is home to some famous names like novelist Anne Rice. The best way to enjoy the scenery is on foot, so you can view the intricate architectural detail of the mansions as well as the garden landscaping.
A museum, research center and publisher, the collection was founded in 1966 to preserve the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Located in a historic complex of French Quarter buildings, the Historic New Orleans Collection also includes an impressive staffed research center for checking up on famous residents like voodoo queen Marie Laveau should you get the urge. The research archives are especially focused on documents relating to the Battle of New Orleans and the War of 1812 in the South, including rare books, maps and plans that collectively tell the story of one of the greatest military upsets of all time. You can also tour the historic Williams home, which is full of gorgeous Louisiana antiques and a collection of Chinese porcelains.
The New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park takes guests on an informative, enthralling journey through the history of jazz. Free and always open to the public, this site's Visitors Center - across from the French Market – serves as the ideal base for jazz walking tours, films, lectures and regular live performances. Take the Jazz Walk of Fame and follow lamppost markers of famous jazz venues, recording studios and musician birthplaces. At the U.S. Mint near the French Market, you'll find a treasure trove of memorabilia, including Satchmo's first cornet. The New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park was created in 1994 to commemorate the city's memorable musical legacy.
A national landmark celebrating the development of music in America, Preservation Hall specifically strives to "to protect and honor New Orleans Jazz." It may not look like much at first glance, and those bench seats are anything but comfortable, but Preservation Hall is Mecca for jazz fans interested in traditional, New Orleans style jazz. Folks start lining up early to get a seat - the trick to avoid the line is to get there either just as the doors open or later in the evening. This is one of your must-sees when you come to town. And it's one of the few family-friendly jazz joints in town. There's no bar and please leave your go-cups at the door.