New Orleans is one of those cities with a fierce sense of identity. Sitting at the mouth of the Mississippi River and looking out over the Gulf of Mexico, this city could be its own republic, such is its independent nature. It barely feels like part of the USA, such are the European, Caribbean and African influences all playing a part of its unique make-up.
The heart of New Orleans lies between the river and Lake Pontchartrain and, from this approximately 13km (8-mile) core, its suburbs spread out into the surrounding expanse of drained swampland.
The river's shape, as it curves around the central district, gave rise to the city's nickname, 'Crescent City'. New Orleanians are less impressed with the city’s other common nicknames of 'The Big Easy', or, even worse, ‘The City That Care Forgot’. Better just to stick to ‘New Orleans’, even though that in itself provides an amusing minefield of pronunciation options.
August 2005 was a pivotal moment for the city. Hurricane Katrina blew in with merciless force, overwhelming the city’s failing levees and causing one of the worst man-made disasters of recent times. Many neighbourhoods have now recovered, the historic French Quarter and the beautiful Garden District included. Some of the worst-hit places (most notably the Ninth Ward) are still subject to a slow healing process, though celebrities such as sometime resident Brad Pitt are spearheading the renaissance.
New Orleans faces adversity with celebration though, whether it’s the citywide carnival of Mardi Gras (late February or early March), the omnipresent soundtrack of the street musicians or the moving energy of a jazz funeral. There aren’t many weeks in the year when there isn’t some festival or other, and you can officially celebrate everything from the humble po boy sandwich to St Patrick’s Day to pet dogs.
Thanks to its historical importance as a port, the city is truly cosmopolitan. The mixing of French, Spanish, African and American cultures has created a refreshingly bohemian environment, blending the genteel elegance of the colonial Creoles, the music and cuisine of the peasant Cajuns, a touch of voodoo and a big dollop of Dixieland jazz.
The cultural hub is the historic French Quarter (Vieux Carré), though the graceful houses with ornate wrought-iron balconies are actually Spanish in style. New Orleans has 17 National Historic Districts, with more than 35,000 listed buildings. The finest examples of these are mostly situated in the Garden District, and best viewed from the rattling streetcar.
This previously very traditional city has taken the opportunity to rebuild and innovate with gusto, and besides the old institutions, there are now world-class, modern restaurants and hotels. The backdrop is timeless though, with the clattering streetcars and the whistles of the riverboats.
New Orleans is a city dedicated to pleasure and indulgence, from the outstanding cuisine (the only truly regional cuisine in the country) to the 24-hour bars to the sheer wealth of music and the arts. As the locals say: “Laissez les bons temps rouler” or “Let the good times roll”.