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New Orleans, is the largest city (some 480,000 in the city, 1 million in the metropolitan area) in Louisiana, as well as the state's top visitor destination. The city has a reputation for historical roots, hot and muggy weather, good food, good music, and over-the-top debauchery.
New Orleans is known for a host of attributes like its famous Creole food, abundant alcohol, music of many styles, nearby swamps and plantations, 18th & 19th century architecture, antiques, gay pride, streetcars, museums. Nicknamed the Big Easy, New Orleans has long had a reputation as a city of vice. However, the city also offers many attractions for families with children and those interested in culture and the arts. It is a city with a majority Roman Catholic population owing to its European origins.
Famous festivals like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest bring in tourists by the millions, and are the two times of the year when one needs to be sure to book well in advance to be sure of a room. The city also hosts numerous smaller festivals and gatherings like the French Quarter Festival, Creole Tomato Festival, and Satchmo SummerFest, the Essence Festival hosted by the magazine, Halloween parading and costume balls, Saint Patrick's Day and Saint Joseph's Day parading, and so many more. The city takes almost any occasion for an excuse for a parade, a party, and live music, and in New Orleans most events often have a touch of Mardi Gras year round. Like they say, New Orleanians are either planning a party, enjoying one or recovering from one. Party down!
After Hurricane Katrina
New Orleans suffered major damage from Hurricane Katrina at the end of August 2005, but the good news for travelers is that the historic districts of most interest to visitors, being on naturally slightly higher ground, came through in fairly good shape compared to other sections of town (which suffered severe to cataclysmic damage).
As of early November 2005, limited tourism has returned, but conditions are still far from the pre-Katrina normal.
The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is functioning again. Highways in and out of town are open and all major and most minor streets are clear. Taxi companies are functioning, and a limited number of public transit routes have been restored.
Having cash is recommended, because due to continuing problems with phone lines many businesses are not taking cr cards or checks. Banks are open in the city, but like many businesses may have more limited hours than usual.
The state of the amenities is highy dependent on neighborhood. The portions of the old city closer to the river have been reviving fairly quickly, with a representative sample of restaurants, bars, hotels, grocery stores, and other business back open, with more opening every day. This area includes the French Quarter, most of Uptown, Carrollton, Marigny, Algiers, the portion of the Central Business District closer to the River, and the area of Bywater on the River side of Saint Claude Avenue. Safe drinking water and regular electric power are back in these areas, although land line telephone service may still be spotty. Within the city proper, at present visitors will do well sticking to these neighborhoods.
Other parts of town such as Mid-City and Lakeview, and particularly east-end communities like the 9th Ward, were devastated (or, in some cases, almost obliterated) by flooding. While the first few business are starting to reopen in the formerly flooded areas, wide parts of the city still have few if any amenities, and may take months or years to return to normality, if those areas ever do.
In the nearby suburbs of Jefferson Parish, Kenner, parts of Metairie, and Gretna on the Westbank are also in fairly good shape. The North Shore on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain is also returning to normal quickly. Suburbs and outlying areas in St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes were very hard hit and were virtually obliterated by Katrina's flooding, and will take years to rebuild - if they do.
Even so, the most severely devastated parts of town should generally be avoided by visitors unless they have specific business there and they have checked on local conditions in advance.
For those wishing to visit and see the devastation possibly the best option is offered by Gray Line Tours 1 (http://www.grayline.com/franchise.cfm/action/details/id/69) with their Hurricane Katrina - America's Worst Catastrophe! tour that seeks to inform visitors about the reasons behind the disaster.
New Orleans and the Acadians
Despite what many visitors expect, the population, food, music, and traditions of New Orleans are not predominately Cajun. The Acadian or Cajun (from 'Cadien, pronounced ca-jen) people developed their rich culture in rural parts of Louisiana, south and west of the city. There are some good places for Cajun food and music in the city-- mainly these are branches of famous Southwest Louisiana Cajun places that opened up locations here.
The main culinary tradition in New Orleans is Creole - which tends to mean the peoples already resident when Louisiana was purchased by the United States in the early 19th century. Creole has a mixture of influences, including French (not Cajun) and Spanish as well as African-Caribbean. Creoles cook with roux and the "trinity," a popular term for green pepper, onion and celery. These are the base for many savory dishes.
Since the Louisiana Purchase, major other immigrant groups and influences on local cuisine and culture have included Italian (mostly Southern and Sicilian), Irish, and Latin American. In the late 20th century a sizable Vietnamese community was added to the New Orleans gumbo.
Parts of town
Nearby communities and suburbs:
The city's main airport is Louis Armstrong International Airport, located in the suburb town of Kenner, Louisiana, a fair distance from the city. To get into town a taxi ($28 for one or two people) is quickest; that's the flat fee from the airport to any spot in the French Quarter or Central Business District.
Many major hotels have shuttle buses from the airport. Even if you're not staying at one of those hotels, the shuttles can often be a value for those getting in to town if their destination is near one of the hotels. There is a public transit bus from the airport to Loyola Avenue in the New Orleans Central Business District; the stop is a fair walk from the luggage pickup, and you'll probably have to ask at an information desk to find it.
The main artery into and out of town is Interstate 10, going to the east and west.
By bus or train
Bus and train stations are next to each other at the edge of the Central Business District
With a car
Be alert that the streets of much of the city were laid out before the automobile, especially in the older parts of town of most interest to visitors. There are many one way streets, and in some neighborhoods two-way side streets may be so narrow that cars going one way may need to pull to the side to let vehicles going the other way pass when someone has parked on the street.
Potholes are common and road condition is often poor for a developed country.
Street signage is sometimes unclear or missing, although the city has improved this situation significantly in recent years, but Katrina set the situation back, which much signage yet to be replaced.
Parking is often hard to find around many areas of interest to tourists, but there are generally pay lots in the area.
Those who don't know how to parallel park may wish to just leave their car in a pay lot when visiting much of the city.
Without a car
Public transit varies from good to poor depending on what part of the city one is in, but the good news is that many of the prime areas of interest to visitors are on the better end of this scale.
The streetcar lines are generally more reliable than the buses, and run 24 hours a day, but after midnight usually cut back to just one an hour.
Public transit is by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority ("RTA"). RTA website: http://www.norta.com/index.php
Fares for buses or streetcars are $1.25, 25 cents extra for a transfer (good only on another line, not for a return trip on the same line). Express buses are $1.50. Have exact change ready, please.
Visitors who expect to take more than one or two rides on public transit while in town can get a transit pass, available at most Whitney or Hibernia Banks and many other locations around town, as detailed on the RTA site. The NORTA has regular express bus service between the airport and the French Quarter/Downtown. At 1.50 a ride, it's the best deal in town. The trip takes about 40 minutes.
Those staying in or near the French Quarter can easily get around by foot, with optional occasional trips by streetcar or cab if they wish to visit other parts of town.
Visitors can find out more information about what is available via the New Orleans Streetcar Lines at: http://www.ridetheroutes.com
Knowing which way is up
The older neighborhoods of the city, the ones of most interest to visitors, were laid out along the banks of the Mississippi River. Except for the grid of the French Quarter, streets were laid out either following to the river's curves or perpendicular to them, not according to compass directions or a grid.
For this reason, locals in these parts of town often don't give directions according to "north, south, east, and west". The four directions, instead, are "up" (or "up river" or "up town"), "down" (or "down river" or "down town"), "river" (or "towards the river" or sometimes "in"), and "lake" (or "towards the lake" or "back" or sometimes "out"). Don't be daunted, this makes sense when you take a moment to understand it.
Look at a map of the city. If, for example, you are taking the streetcar that runs along Saint Charles Avenue from the French Quarter to Carrollton, you see that the route starts off going south, then over some miles gradually turns west, and winds up running northwest. This is because Saint Charles reflects a bend in the river. From the local perspective, the entire route goes one way: up (or on the return trip from Carrollton to the Quarter, down).
Know that Canal Street is the up river boundary of the French Quarter. (Keep going further "up" away from the Quarter and you'll be in "Uptown".)
Some streets are labeled "North" and "South", this reflects which side of Canal Street they are on (despite the fact that Canal Street runs from southeast to northwest). The part of Rampart Street on the French Quarter side is North Rampart Street; the part on the Central Business District side is South Rampart.
A majority of New Orleans streets are divided, with a "neutral ground" (median) running down the middle. For this reason, the traffic lights have no dedicated cycle for a protected left turn. On streets with a wide neutral ground, there is a solution. Imagine turning from an avenue to a street; the solution is to turn left on green, queue in the stretch of the street between the two halves of the avenue, then proceed once the traffic light on the street has turned green. On streets with a narrow neutral ground, there is not enough room for cars to queue. In these situations, left turns are often prohibited; the solution is to go straight, take the next U-turn, then take a right turn when you arrive back at the intersection. Streets such as Tulane Avenue famously have "No Left Turn" signs posted for miles.
Detailed listings of attractions are mentioned in the "Parts of Town" sections listed above. Highlights include:
Day trips outside of town
In addition to year-round attractions, a series of celebrations and festivals provide additional interest:
New Orleans is justly famous for the music it produced. There are usually several good performers somewhere in town even on a slow night. Understand that most of the good stuff is not along the tourist strip of Bourbon Street.
The best ways to keep informed about who is playing where and when:
OK, So You're Hungry. You've come to the right place. New Orleans is a culinary delight, but don't look too hard for healthy food; some would say don't look at all (although those demanding, say, vegetarian, vegan, or kosher food can with effort find it). You're on vacation, so take advantage of what they prepare best here. New Orleans has good food for people on any type of budget.
The seafood is fresh and relatively cheap compared to many places. Some think it is often best fried, but you can try seafood of a wide variety cooked many different ways here.
Oysters are a popular specialty, gulped down raw, battered and fried, in a po' boy sandwich, or elegant Rockefeller style.
There may on occasion be some exotic items on the menu. Yes, you can have alligator if you’d like - it mostly tastes like chicken! (but chewier). Try nutria only if you’re very adventurous; many who've tried it say there's good reason eating nutria has never caught on. The softshell crab, on the other hand, can be excellent.
Crawfish (don't say "cray" fish) is a popular dish here, usually boiled in a huge pot of very spicy water and served in a pile with corn and potatoes. If cracking open the shells and sucking the heads isn't your thing, try them with pasta or in sushi or any other way they’re prepared.
Po' boys or Po-boys are the distinctive New Orleans variation of the sandwich. Unless you request your sandwich put on something else like sliced white bread (while you're in New Orleans, don't bother), it will be served on a po-boy loaf, similar to French bread; bread pedants debate whether the New Orleans po-boy bread is the same thing as the baguette of France or qualifies as its own unique type of bread (some say it actually IS French bread but because of the extreme humidity, the bread ferments very quickly and gets its distinctive sour taste and odd texture). Either way, it's good, but only part of what makes the sandwich tasty. The rest is what is put on it, of course. Roast beef with "debris" gravy, fried shrimp, oysters, etc... You'll probably be asked if you want it "dressed". No, this has nothing to do with clothing being optional. In New Orleans, "dressed" means with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. Every neighborhood in New Orleans has its favorite po-boy places; the better ones butcher, slow cook, and season their own meats. The po-boy is a great and filling taste of New Orleans at a reasonable price.
One distinctive local sandwich not served on po-boy bread is the muffaletta a rich creation of the local Italian-American community, with a variety of sliced meats and cheeses topped with olive salad on a big round Italian roll. Unless you have a very big appetite, half of one will probably be plenty for a filling meal.
Gumbo is a tasty Louisiana traditional stew, which comes in various varieties. The vegetable base can be okra or filé. Seafood is the most common meat; there is also chicken, duck, sausage, and other types of gumbo. It is usually served with rice.
Red beans and rice sounds bland, but is a tasty comforting treat prepared in the New Orleans way. The beans are slow cooked until they reach a creamy texture, with a mix of onions, bell pepper, celery, and spices. Especially traditional on Mondays. It can be vegetarian but may not be; ask. It is often served with spicy sausage.
Local fresh produce: Have you heard of Louisiana strawberries and creole tomatoes? If not, it's probably because they're so good that locals eat most of them right here! The strawberries come in around Jazz Fest time, and the creole tomatoes in early summer. You may spot "mirliton" on the menu, a vegetable not common in most of the United States, though travelers to Guatemala may recognize it as the same thing that's called "hisquil" down there. Of course, when the crop comes in there are parties, festivals, and parades commemorating the strawberries, creole tomatoes, or mirlitons.
Every restaurant will have hot sauce as a condiment on the table (even Chinese and fast-food restaurants). It is not true that New Orleans food will all be very spicy hot. Many locals do like to add hot sauce to many dishes, and say it helps keep them cool in the summer. If you can take it, give it a try.
In many of the fine restaurants around town, people take their clothes as seriously as their food. Despite the obnoxious heat and humidity in the summertime, don’t go to these restaurants dressed in shorts/jeans; they won’t let you in. This applies only to the nicest (and some say best) restaurants in town but there are plenty of places that you can wear shorts to (many of which are great too). This is what you've been saving your pennies for.
Snow balls or sno-balls are the New Orleans take on the northern "snow cone" or flavored ice done with more finesse. Ice is not crushed but shaved into microscopically fine snow in special machines, and flavored with syrups, fresh made at the better places. The flavors need not be overly sweet, and can come in a wide variety ranging from striking to subtle, including such treats as wild cherry, lemonade, chocolate cream, coffee, orchid vanilla, and dozens of others. Locals almost worship the better neighborhood sno-ball stands during the city's long hot summer; try the refreshing treat as a snack or desert and find out why. Note, many snow ball shops will close in the winter, as New Orleans is surprisingly chilly between November and February and the demand dies down.
Did we mention drinking? New Orleans has no "blue laws" or mandatory closing times; there is always somewhere to get alcohol any hour of day or night every day of the year.
You can head out the door with an open container of alcohol-- but not in a bottle or can; to try to keep broken glass and jagged metal from filling the street, local laws mandate you use a plastic cup while on city streets and sidewalks. These are known locally as "go cups", and every local bar provides them, usually has a stack of them by the door and the bouncer will take your drink from you and pour it into the cup because bars can be held liable if they don't. Use them, because New Orleans Police are not fun to deal with.
However, drinking does not have to be about quantity. Beer lovers should try local brews like "Abita" on tap, from light Wheat to dark "Turbodog" to the quirky "Purple Haze", a raspberry beer loved by some. Local cocktails include the "sazerac" and the tourist favorite "hurricane". There is also the famous "Hand Grenade" which is billed as "New Orleans' Strongest Drink" and is only available at Tropical Isle (they patented it). Beware, most think the lime green concoction tastes like a weak punch but then are well buzzed after a few sips. New Orleanians also love wine.
Those not accustomed to the Southern heat and humidity should be sure to drink more water or other drinks without alcohol than they usually do during the day to avoid dehydration.
Listings of some top choices of the city's famous bars can be found in the neighborhood articles.
The numerous hotels in the French Quarter and Central Business District are most centrally located for most tourists, but there are good accommodations in many other parts of town as well. Hotels on or near the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line in Uptown are popular with many visitors, and the smaller hotels and guest houses in neighborhoods like Marigny and Mid-City can provide an immersion in New Orleans away from the larger masses of tourists.
The telephone area code for New Orleans and the nearer suburbs is 504.
There are cyber-cafes throughout the city, with the greatest number in the French Quarter and CBD. Many coffee houses and some bars offer wireless internet connection.
New Orleans Public Libraries (http://nutrias.org/) has branches around the city. Out of towners can get 1 hour of internet access on library computers for $3; try to go at a time when school is in session to minimize risk of long waits.
Hurricanes: The Federal Emergency Management Agency ranks New Orleans as its most pressing problem, as proven by Hurricane Katrina. Because most of New Orleans lies below sea level, waters that flood the city cannot exit the "bowl" without pumping. A hurricane-induced storm surge could overwhelm and disable the pumps that keep the city (relatively) dry in normal weather.
So if a hurricane is in the forecast (particularly a strong or strengthening one), leave the city for actual high ground (which lies about 60-100 miles away) and do not return until the danger has passed. Evacuate as early as possible--preferably at least a few days before landfall; hurricanes can develop and strengthen rapidly, raising the waters to flood the roads that lead away from the city.
Hurricane season is from June to November, however, the greatest threat to New Orleans is from mid-August to late October.
Other: A famous 19th century sign from the Quarter reads: "Beware Pickpockets and Loose Women." Tourists can be so overwhelmed they are separated from their common sense... and, theoretically, other things. Keep things in your front pockets-- not your back-- and be careful with your digital on Bourbon. Its the same with any city, be smart and keep your wits about you.
I-10 runs east west through the city, I-55 dumps into I-10 West of the city and Pontchartrain; I-59 outflows into I-10 on the East side.
The local airport, which is the suburb Kenner, is Louis Armstrong New Orleans International (acronym of MSY, Moisant Stock Yards). The airport is approximately 11 miles from the Central Business District, the Riverwalk, and the French Quarter. Usual suspects for exit: taxicabs, shuttle buses, and public transportation have routes that can get you to Armstong 24-hours a day. General Aviation traffic is served by both MSY and New Orleans Lakefront on Lake Ponchartrain.
If your goal is getting to know the area, River Road is home to a stretch of Plantations. Sugar plantations brought in a nice bit of income, and there are some lovely homes with the archetypal oak collonades at the entrance. Plantation owners were the first to institute levee constructions, and one of the first levees is actually just outside of New Orleans, right behind Oschner Hospital (along River road). When the area would flood, the levee would be the highest ground, and would crowd with refugees.
You can also arrange for a swamp tour. Spring at Jean Lafitte swamp is a lovely time to see the swamp iris. Also, the first and longest running prison rodeo is just up the way at Angola http://www.angolarodeo.com/ . Before and after the rodeo, the inmates sell crafts, such as belt buckles, wallets, original paintings, and the inmates earn money for their families.