New Orleans is a significant city for historic and cultural reasons. The Cajun capital of the country has 72 distinct neighborhoods, each with its own character and destiny. This can be overwhelming for first-timers, so here's a guide that incorporates the best of mainstream and insider advice for navigating New Orleans' finest neighborhoods.
The first thing to know is that the great Mississippi River cuts through the city. Many, but not all, of the most popular neighborhoods are situated along the banks of the river. Due to this unique geographical feature, neighborhoods are categorized based on whether they fall on the East or West bank.
The majority of New Orleans is contained on this side of the Mississippi.
One of the most famous areas in New Orleans is Vieux Carré, also known as the French Quarter. Louisiana was claimed by the French in the 1690s, and Vieux Carré was the first established neighborhood in New Orleans. There are several remnants of the French colonial days, such as the infamous Bourbon Street, which was named after the House of Bourbon, the French ruling family at the time. Other remnants include the unique dialect, French creole, as well as the local French cuisine that has syncretized with African cuisine and American ingredients in order to survive the changes in demographics.
Despite the name, visitors will immediately notice that almost all the architecture in this very old and very French neighborhood is Spanish. This is because the city was ceded to the Spanish in 1763, after the Seven Years' War. While under Spanish occupation, the Great New Orleans Fire of 1788 occurred, which burned most of the French colonial houses that were mostly made of wood.
After the fire, the Spanish administrations created new laws that forbade the use of flammable construction materials, which explains why buildings and houses are made of fire-resistant brick, and the galleries are fitted with cast iron.
- Fun Fact: Galleries are similar to balconies, but are supported by external pillars and poles instead of the building itself.
Today, Bourbon Street is a classic tourist trap. It's filled with overpriced bars and strip clubs, and plenty of souvenir shops. Even if visitors are not interested in cheap thrills, the street is worth checking out for the iconic two-story buildings painted in colorful pastel hues.
Apart from that, walking along the Mississippi is quaint, festive, and beautiful all at once. Also, the French Quarter is a neighborhood with a lot of historical value, so haunted tours are a good way to see the darker aspects of the city. After all, Louisiana and the Mississippi River typify the Southern Gothic aesthetic.
Just north of the French Quarter, Tremé is the oldest black neighborhood in the country. Initially, it was a settlement for free people of color, which imbibes the area with great cultural significance. Additionally, Tremé is the birthplace of Jazz.
Visitors are sure to feel the cultural energy of the neighborhood. There are open-air jazz concerts in every park, and jazz bars on every street. A lot of otherwise regular restaurants and cafes have resident jazz quartets as well. A great place to visit is Louis Armstrong Park, where locals congregate to enjoy outdoor movies and concerts.
For a more formal look at the history of Tremé, the Backstreet Cultural Museum displays priceless artifacts that reflect local African American traditions, focussing on jazz funerals and Mardi Gras Indian Parades.
- Interesting Fact: Mardi Gras Indians refers to the New Orleans tradition of African Americans dressing up as Native Americans to commemorate Mardi Gras.
Upriver, East Bank
In New Orleans, uptown refers to upriver, just as downtown refers to downriver. The Garden District is uptown, but it's distinct from the Uptown neighborhood, which is nearby.
While the French Quarter was initially settled by the French and Iberians, the Garden District was largely settled by American protestants. It is the richest and most affluent neighborhood in the city, rife with sprawling mansions and luxurious apartments. Much of the architecture is Victorian, Greek, and Gothic-revival, with Gingerbread-decorated archways and porches.
- Fun Fact: Gingerbread architecture is a decorative style of elaborate and opulent embellishments.
A good way to see the houses is to take a streetcar (a kind of tram) from St Charles Avenue.
Lafayette Cemetery No.1, in the Garden District, is the creepiest and most beautiful graveyard in the city. Due to its low elevation and high water table, the dead are exclusively laid to rest in Gothic mausoleums and raised tombs. Stroll through the city of the dead, past all the rotting swampy plant life that creeps over the stone graves.
This is the second oldest black neighborhood in New Orleans, after Tremé. It was initially owned by a private French colonial company that built a plantation and powder magazine on the land. The name, Algiers, comes from the fact that slaves were imported from West African countries, primarily Algeria, to work on the plantation, cultivating rice and tobacco.
Due to its size and location on the other side of the Mississippi River, Algiers is sometimes referred to as the Brooklyn of the South, as the two boroughs are similarly separated from the main city by a river. The area is a significant cultural center for African American history and jazz. More than that, it was settled by veterans of the civil war and second world war, which adds an additional layer of complexity to its cultural character.
- Fun Fact: Algiers Point is home to the highest concentration of people with African ancestry in the region.
To get there, visitors have to take a ferry across the river. The Algiers Ferry is one of the oldest ferries in the country, having been in operation for almost 200 years. To this day, it only costs $2 to get across and catch a magical and unique view of the city.
It's clear that New Orleans has a lot to offer. Hopefully, this guide has familiarized readers with a general layout of the city as well as some must-see neighborhoods.