New Orleans is a party all year round, but during the Carnival season, the whole city cranks it up to another level. Each year, sometime around February/March, the streets that typically already buzz with concert promoters, street performers and hoards of drinkers open up to millions of visitors and the biggest party in America. But while the party is definitely bizzonkers, there’s so much else to discover in the place they call NOLA – historical affiliations with France and Spain give the city a distinctive European flavor that lasts to this day in architecture and dialect, the cuisine (a mix of French, Spanish, Portuguese, Native American and African influences) is continually championed by native sons and supported by the tasty offerings of the sea, and the music scene is proudly the home of Jazz music (Dixieland and New Orleans style predates most other forms). So go to New Orleans anytime, but if you’re gonna go, go while it’s real hot. Here’s what you need to know about NOLA during Mardi Gras.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, contrary to popular belief, falls on only one day, the last day of the Carnival season right before the fasting period Lent. The other misconception is that Mardi Gras is a celebration of drunk crowds and bare-breasted ladies (certainly it becomes that after the parade on Bourbon Street, but it’s easy enough to avoid). It’s so much better than that. It is: an extravagant parade of purple, green and gold, a hit with families of all ages, some of the best live music one will ever hear on the streets, gorgeous floats, elaborate costumes, and tons of excitement. This giant party excludes absolutely no one – high school and college marching bands, city officials, all citizens of New Orleans, visitors from every corner of the world, old people who remember the golden age of the proper Southern debutante balls, young people who aim to replicate them, parents, babies; everyone gets involved in the Carnival season and they prepare for it even in the months leading up to the events.
Not for the sensitive of sound, a stroll through the French Quarter is an event itself. The oldest neighborhood in the city, established in 1718, this district is known equally for its night time debauchery as well as its gorgeous historic architecture. Intricate ironwork drapes the balconies, lush green spaces, gardens and preserved statues and fountains all lend an insight into French and Spanish influences, while the Dixieland jazz and blues played by expert street performers embodies true America. Bordered by Canal Street, Decatur Street, Esplanade Avenue and Rampart Street, the French Quarter is a registered National Historic Landmark and is still where the action happens.
In the center of the French Quarter, this 13-block street was initially named after France’s ruling family at the time, the House of Bourbon, but now its name is spun to reflect the nights of wild partying and street parties aided by the quarter’s open container laws. Bourbon Street is where visitors can patronize the oldest bars in America, try unique and historic restaurants, and discover local history while getting drunk in public. The 1806 Old Absinthe House building has been serving this dangerous libation since 1874 and is now famous for their modern version of the once hallucinatory liquor. The Galatoire Restaurant, founded in 1905, still specializes in French Creole cuisine. Or shimmy over to Lafitte-in-Exile, the oldest gay bar in the country and once the regular stomping ground of Tennessee Williams. Known for its historical involvement with vaudeville, burlesque, jazz joints, gentlemen’s clubs and all forms of exotic nightlife, Bourbon Street hasn’t yet let any generation down and it certainly isn’t going to now.
A funky bar on the Bourbon strip:
Located in the calm and cool Garden District, Commander’s Palace is one of the oldest continuously running restaurants in the country. It’s still housed in the gorgeous turquoise Victorian building that it was originally conceived in since 1880, and over the centuries its quality has only improved. Tory McPhail, its current chef has been internationally lauded by the James Beard Foundation, the Zagat guide, Gambit’s Best of New Orleans list, Wine Spectator, and a handful of other valued media outlets. Serving up modern New Orleans cooking and haute Creole, the staff at Commander’s Palace honor the "dirt-to-plate within 100 miles" policy and respect the history that goes into their flavor of Southern cooking. For a truly festive experience, swing by for Jazz Brunch every Saturday and Sunday and dive into their flambéed shrimp and grits, or black skillet seared gulf fish.
One of the most grand and illustrious hotels in America, the Hotel Monteleone, built in 1886, is a testament to the Golden Age of New Orleans, not least because of its gilded decorations and opulent finishes. Tennessee Williams, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner never booked a room at any other hotel in this city, a devotion that extended to Williams’ description of it in his play The Rose Tattoo. Truman Capote used to claim that he was born at the Monteleone, and Liberace performed in the Swan Room, once a popular nightclub in the hotel. Visitors can lap up history and luxury at its majestic location right on Royal Street in the French Quarter – their 600 guest rooms include 55 luxury suites and literary author suites which pay homage to their favorite writerly guests.