New Orleans

World Facts Index > United States > New Orleans

Home to dynamic music, world-renowned cuisine, vampires, voodoo, and Mardi Gras, "the world's largest party," New Orleans is, to say the least, unique. Indeed, you'll probably feel it when you arrive: there's something special in the atmosphere--and it isn't just the thick humidity that catches every smell, from magnolia blossoms to river sewage, and holds it in the air for all to encounter, fully.

Attitudes, accents and customs are different from anyplace else in the United States, including other cities of the surrounding Deep South. New Orleans' colorful past incorporates French, Spanish, Caribbean, immigrant Italian and Irish, African and Confederate cultures into one giant stew; the result is a town that can be everything from difficult to magical.

New Orleans is a relatively small city of approximately 1.5 million that threatens to grow significantly every few years or so, but then something, or rather nothing, happens, and things stay pretty much the same. For the most part, this suits the locals just fine. Part of the city's charm lies in this laid-back, anti-serious attitude toward progress. There's always tomorrow. No reason to hurry ("It's too hot, honey"). And no need to worry dawlin', "It's all good."

Getting Around
From the airport, cabs will take you anywhere in the city for a flat rate of $21, or jump on a airport shuttle that will take you to any of the major hotels for $7. You can, of course, rent a car, but if your plans mainly involve staying in the city, best to leave the car behind and avoid costly parking and potentially dangerous New Orleans drivers; this is, after all, the city that invented the drive-through Daiquiri window.

Public transportation, in this case buses and the oldest continuously operating streetcar line in the world, are efficient ways to get around New Orleans, although for safety reasons it makes more sense to call a cab in the evening hours. The most popular buses for sightseeing are the Uptown to Downtown Magazine bus and the Mid-City to French Quarter Esplanade bus. The streetcar runs from the Downtown starting point at the corner of Carondolet and Canal Streets (across from the French Quarter's Bourbon Street), up St. Charles Avenue and onto South Carrolton Avenue, terminating at South Claiborne Avenue. Bus/streetcar fares are $1.25 and exact change is required.

The Riverfront Streetcar, which runs between Esplanade Avenue and the Morial Convention Center also costs $1.25. Visitor passes offer unlimited rides for a flat fee (a one-day pass is $4; a three-day pass is $8) and can be purchased at most major hotels and at New Orleans Tours and Gray Line Tours locations. Both buses and streetcars run on fairly regular 15-20 minute rotations during the day, but there can be an hour wait at night.

During temperate spring and fall months walking or renting a bike from Olympic Bike Rental & Tours or Bicycle Michael's are highly recommended ways of exploring the city. City maps are fairly straightforward but discard notions of north, south, east or west when asking directions. The local sense of direction is based on orientation to the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. You are "riverside" or "lakeside," and Canal Street divides the Uptown and Downtown sections of the city.

French Quarter/Downtown
For its historic significance, architectural beauty, fine dining and kinky, decadent ways the French Quarter is by far New Orleans' number one destination. Other than the small community of Quarter residents and the odd corporate power-luncher, daytime belongs to the tourists and the conmen, the homeless and the street performers who make their living off of tourists. Nighttime adds college students, street punks and suburbanites to the mix.

Canal Street near the River
Harrah's Casino and an expanded convention center have turned this part of Canal Street into a strip of hotels interspersed with Radio Shack-esque chain stores. The Canal Place Shopping Center and adjacent Riverwalk Mall area make this a popular site for tourists and locals alike.

Central Business District
Scattered, mismatched skyscrapers and the superbly odd-shaped Superdome sports arena dominate the landscape here. Bustling during the day with business types, this area dries up at night and turns into a deserted land of pitch-black buildings and empty parking lots.

Faubourg Marigny
A largely gay and artistic area right at the edge of the Quarter across from Esplanade Avenue. The nightclubs and restaurants of Frenchmen Street attract an eclectic culture-loving local crowd.

Faubourg Treme
The nation's oldest black neighborhood is slowly making a comeback as local developers put money into saving this historically important but decaying zone. Noted by locals to be a dangerous place to hang out, Treme offers secret treasures including St. Augustine Church on Gov. Nichols Street, where Mardi Gras Indians meet and Jazz funerals have been known to start.

Garden District
Top-notch New Orleans residential living in all its lush splendor--only a walking tour will do this district justice. Lush, overgrown gardens are tempting to lean into, but watch out for ants! Vampire LeStat fans make pilgrimages here to take part in all things Anne Rice, the famous author of vampire novels who opens one of her district residences for tours.

Irish Channel
Situated between the Garden District and the river, the Irish Channel is named for the Irish immigrants who settled there in the 1840s. Street names like Constance, Annunciation and St. Mary will help you mark the territory. Blocks range from dangerous to lower-middle income residential. A fun place to be on St. Patrick's Day.

Lower Garden District
A small neighborhood between Downtown and the Garden District that contains a typically (for New Orleans) odd mixture of wealthy, historic homeowners, tattooed/pierced artists, and the wandering mentally deranged. Magazine Street is becoming a great place to find antiques, cheap food, funky clothes and comfortable coffeehouses.

Mid-City
Mid-City usually goes unnoticed by the average tourist, except during Jazz Fest season when thousands take the Esplanade bus to the fairgrounds through the neighborhood's quaint residential environs. Besides being a peaceful part of the city to live in, Mid-City is a popular spot for locals who enjoy the City Park, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and a fun selection of moderately priced "little-gem" restaurants.

Uptown
Oak lined streets, mansions and college cafes are mostly what Uptown is made of. People who frequent this Tulane/Loyola University student-heavy 'hood tend to look as though they are doing well: healthy, tan and fit. Could be the two-mile jogs through Uptown's gorgeous, Spanish-mossed Audubon Park.

Warehouse District
A conflicted area that mixes fancy art galleries and fine dining with machine shops. It works though, especially during festivals such as Art for Art's Sake, when the neighborhood turns into one big wine and cheese, art appreciatin' block party.

History of New Orleans

The story of New Orleans officially began in 1682, with the "discovery" of Louisiana by Rene Cavelier Sieur de la Salle. The area, named in honor of King Louis XIV of France and his wife Anne, comprised all lands drained by the Mississippi River, a substantially larger plot than the modern day state of Louisiana.

Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans, then Regent of France, gave his name to New Orleans, but Sieur d'Iberville founded the city itself, some 20 years later. A port city that united the Mississippi with the Gulf of Mexico was a strategic dream, but the site's actual physical landscape, an improbable 15 feet below sea-level, was a swampy, malaria-ridden nightmare. The French had their work cut out for them constructing and populating La Nouvelle Orleans, and it turned out to be a Scotsman, royal counselor John Law, who stimulated interest in France's newest colonial addition. Law mounted an 18th-century equivalent of today's full-blitz PR campaigns, complete with phony eyewitness accounts of gold-rich lands. Of course, when hopeful immigrants arrived at the non-city with no sight of any gold prospects, they had little choice but to stay and erect something themselves.

Working, as the new arrivals did, in the humid, unsanitary conditions of the time led to the creation of New Orleans' famous above-ground cemeteries. City builders expired left and right under the harsh conditions and it was soon discovered that coffins had an unpleasant propensity to pop out of the ground with every hard rain. Above-ground tombs and mausoleums were the only recourse.

The city's living residents set themselves up in a square-like grid now called the Vieux Carre, or "Old Square, centered upon an open area known as the Place d'Armes, today's Jackson Square. The societal make-up of the time, known as Creole society, was a mix of French aristocrats, merchants, farmers, soldiers, indentured servants, African and Caribbean slaves and free-people of color. Eventually, it became fashionable for male Creole aristocrats to have black or mixed-race mistresses. Children sired from these unions were often treated well, and sometimes given property or European educations. This generous-for-its-time attitude towards race set New Orleans apart from all other major North American colonial cities.

In the 1760s, New Orleans would undergo its first major social transformation with the arrival of two new groups: the Acadians and the Spanish. The Acadian immigrants, or Cajuns, ousted from their native Nova Scotia by the British, settled the bayou country west of New Orleans. The Spanish arrived in the city proper, prodded by the transfer of the Louisiana Territory to Spanish King Charles III, royal cousin to King Louis XV of France.

The Spanish reign was short and most notable for the building codes enacted to spare the Vieux Carre from the devastating fires that swept the city in 1788 and 1794. Architectural trademarks of the area frequently attributed to the French, including rear courtyards and elaborate wrought iron balconies, are actually Spanish contributions.

Despite the prosperity that developed during Spanish occupation, New Orleans remained predisposed to its French heritage. The city happily reunited with its original founders in 1800, when the Louisiana Territory returned to France. The reunion was short-lived, however. War debts forced Napoleon to sell the territory to the United States in the $15 million Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Louisiana later achieved statehood in 1812.

American settlers, and soon thereafter Irish and Italian immigrants, rushed into New Orleans. Rebuffed by the city's Creole society, the Americans settled upriver from the Vieux Carre, known by this time as the French Quarter. Skirmishes between new and old city residents occurred frequently, and the dividing line between the Quarter and the American sector, an empty canal that never was to be, became known as "the neutral ground" and eventually Canal Street.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, New Orleans became a city of great prosperity. Cotton, tobacco and sugarcane plantations ran at full throttle, as did the steamboats along the Mississippi that transferred the raw materials to the rest of country. It was during this economically comfortable period that New Orleans began to develop its party reputation. Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday," the celebration preceding Lent, began to develop its modern form. By 1823, balls commemorated the season. Secret aristocratic groups, known as Mardi Gras Krewes, formed to add structure to what had become a loose, sometimes violent, holiday season. In 1857, the first Krewe, the Mystick Krewe of Comus, debuted the first theme float. Some years later, after the formation of the second Mardi Gras Krewe, Rex, Comus introduced the first Mardi Gras Queen, Mildred Lee, daughter of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

New Orleans, loyal to the Confederacy, fell quickly to Union forces in the early years of the Civil War. City morale may have suffered, but the French Quarter continued to thrive as saloons, gambling parlors and bordellos began to overtake the Vieux Carre. Vice became somewhat regulated towards the turn of the century, when alderman Sidney Story proposed setting up a red-light district next to the French Quarter, along Basin Street. The area became known as "Storyville" and its resident entertainers "King" Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton would later contribute to the birth of the national musical art form known as Jazz.

The beginning years of the 20th century were difficult ones for New Orleans as a series of natural disasters--a hurricane in 1915, a flu epidemic in 1918, and a flood in 1927--devastated the city. Legendary governor and beloved scoundrel Huey P. Long rescued the city with successful bids to the state legislature for expansion of public works and services. Long's legally questionable but ultimately successful methods also put an odd, somewhat corrupt stamp on city and state politics. "Folks have a certain way of doing things 'round here," the famous line given by a charming, corrupt cop in the movie The Big Easy, is a fairly accurate assessment of the local bureaucratic mindset over the past century.

Oil, natural gas and tourism became New Orleans' largest post-Depression industries. In 1969, the first Jazz Fest, a 10-day period known as one of the world's largest musical celebrations, was held, and contiues to draw record numbers of visitors to the city. The 1984 World's Fair Exhibit was a less successful commercial venture, but did lead to the development of the Warehouse District wharves, now site of the ever-expanding Convention Center.

The Weather

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 60 64 71 78 84 88 90 90 86 78 71 64
Avg. Low 41 44 51 58 65 70 74 72 68 58 51 44
Mean 51 54 62 68 75 80 82 82 78 68 61 55
Avg. Precip. 5.1 in 6.0 in 4.9 in 4.5 in 4.6 in 5.8 in 6.1 in 6.2 in 5.5 in 3.1 in 4.4 in 5.8 in

 

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