The first rule of New Orleans is that you always talk about New Orleans. The southern American city is the greatest in the world, and every local you meet will be happy to tell you why – as well as give you a strong opinion on the best place for music, drinks, and Creole cuisine.
After living in the Big Easy for six months, I’ve put together the best tried and tested advice I’ve been given, broken down by area.
The French Quarter
Bourbon Street: you’ll have to do it at some point, so you might as well start here. Open container laws mean you can enjoy the city with a drink in hand, so pop into a bar, grab a ‘to go’ cup of your favourite poison, and stroll down New Orleans’ best known party street, where there is always something going at any time of the day or night.
Most of the best music has now moved away from here with the exception of Fritzel’s Jazz, which has been going strong since 1969 playing NOLA’s finest jazz in an intimate setting every night of the week.
New Orleans’ street music scene is perhaps unrivalled anywhere in the world. Bands jostle to play at the corner of Royal and St Peter streets just off the central Jackson Square, visible from most points of the city by its gorgeous cathedral. There may be many tourists here, but it’s no trap: professional musicians, as well as visual and theatrical artists, make their living here on tips alone. The quality doesn’t make it much of an ask, but if you see a hat going round, a dollar goes a long way for your pleasure.
The premiere street for live music in New Orleans, Frenchmen Street in Marigny is walkable from Bourbon and less chaotic, hosting a dozen or so venues in a small stretch of road – not to mention the best street bands in town. At sundown you’ll find crowds gathered around the Young Fellaz Brass Band, an eight-piece group unmistakable with their giant French horn and upbeat sounds, who play on the corner of Chartres and bring an exceptional vibe night after night.
When you need a bar stool to rest on, any of the clubs on Frenchmen will serve you well, but the musicians’ choice is d.b.a. – which, despite being an offshoot of the famous New York club, plays some of the finest and most up-and-coming sounds of the Easy.
Bywater and beyond
Over the last few years, the old working class suburb of Bywater, east of Marigny, has become the artists’ quarter of New Orleans. Some of the city’s most beautiful shotgun houses are here, so make an afternoon of wandering around, and head down towards the Mississippi, where Euclid Records on Chartres Street is open until 7pm each night. A music museum of sorts, you could spend hours here scratching through the LPs and posters; they also have a notice board out the front advertising the best gigs around town.
It’s hard to turn more than a few corners in Bywater without finding a dive bar with a kicking jukebox, complete with a group of old-timers who will adopt you until tomorrow’s hangover. Intimate venues BJ’s and Vaughn’s Lounge host great bands in intimate venues, perfect for enthusiasts who want to get away from the tourist crowds.
Almost every weekend, the city hosts a festival of some sort, usually centred around food and music, and featuring a live stage playing local bands throughout the day. The world-famous Mardi Gras parades usually run throughout February, while in early May, NOLA Jazz Fest brings musicians from around the world to their spiritual home for a week-long celebration. Satchmo Summerfest each August is a tribute to Louis Armstrong, and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience, timed around Halloween each year, is a three-day festival fast becoming a mecca for young people from across the South who are ready to let their hair down.
Rebirth Brass Band is one of the city’s most famous exports, but they still call New Orleans home. Founded by the Frazier brothers in 1983, when they’re not touring, they’re playing at the Maple Leaf in the west of the city every Tuesday night, accessible by the historic St Charles streetcar (which runs 24 hours a day).
The Treme Brass Band, born out of the iconic suburb of the same name just north of the Quarter, are another must-see if your paths collide. In the daylight hours, spend some time at Treme’s Backstreet Cultural Museum to understand the unique history and wonder of New Orleans’ parade culture, which culminates in Mardi Gras each February. Ask nicely, and they will let you know if there are any second line parades coming up in their community.
The most important thing to know when you’re in New Orleans is that if you see a crowd, follow it! According to local custom, the ‘first line’ of a parade consists of a band and the family or organisation hosting the party, and the ‘second line’ is for anyone to join in along the way. Second lines are the city’s lifeblood; it’s not unusual to be strolling through the Quarter or Treme and stumble upon a street parade with a full brass band, be it for a wedding, funeral, or an obscure local tradition. New Orleanians will welcome a stranger into any party, so jump into the procession and start dancing.
Feature photo by Ryan Bolton.