Why do we visit cities when we travel? Are we looking for specific attractions? Does the history of the place intrigue us? Does the city host unique activities or events? All these features and more make certain cities special destinations. The most memorable ones I have visited fit this description, but the ones that stand out have something else that is less tangible but even more appealing. They have a soul. Perhaps there are more appropriate words to express this quality, but I believe most people know it when they experience it. For me, the city that best embodies this kind of magic is New Orleans.
Vegas has its casinos; L.A. has its tinsel; New York has its skyscrapers; well, you get the idea. Admittedly, the sites of New Orleans are not necessarily distinguishable from those of other major cities in the U.S. There is the National World War II Museum, the famed Garden District, the Louisiana State Museum, the Mississippi River, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Zoo, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. These attractions are fine, but the rich history, the clash of cultures, the musical heritage, the religious undercurrent, the culinary delights, and old-world architecture all come together to breathe life into New Orleans.
New Orleans certainly has a soul, but it also has a heart: the French Quarter. Dating from the early 18th century, this neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city. It is famous for its fine restaurants, charming hotels, the French Market, quirky antique stores, and of course, the bars. It is an area steeped in tradition, and millions of visitors to the city each year can’t resist taking advantage of opportunities like a late-night run for mouthwatering, powdery beignets and coffee served at Café Du Monde, an establishment dating back to 1862!
The heart of New Orleans has a sound, and it is music. As is true with most large cities, almost all musical genres are represented here, from full symphonic to alternative rock and country. However, it is jazz that people from around the world most associate with New Orleans. Although its roots come out of Africa and some areas of Europe, jazz as a formal style was born in New Orleans in the early 20th century. Perhaps the best-known jazz spot in New Orleans is Fritzel’s European Jazz Club, hosting live traditional performances every night of the week. We took my older son to New Orleans in 2010 to see one of his favorite bands, Pearl Jam, perform at an annual weekend festival that offers a wide variety of musical forms but pays tribute to the city’s original creation. The event is officially called New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but most folks know it as JazzFest.
What keeps the heart of New Orleans beating? Anybody who has ever been there knows, without a doubt, it is Bourbon Street. The street is not named for the whiskey, as many people assume, but for the French royal family ruling at the time this district was established, decades before the birth of America as a nation. Perhaps the most familiar street in the country, this thoroughfare extends thirteen blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue and is lined with bars, music halls, boutique hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and a menagerie of street performers, artists, musicians, and bohemians. Just about anything goes – if you can’t find it here, you won’t find it anywhere.
Our sons are grown men now, but we still look for opportunities to all get together whenever possible, especially near the holidays at the end of the year. In 2016, we decided to splurge and enjoy a nontraditional Thanksgiving away from home. We chose New Orleans for the occasion, and it was fabulous. We stayed at Hotel Chateau Lemoyne, a historic property one block off Bourbon operated by Holiday Inn that had its own little jazz bar. What a treat! We had Thanksgiving lunch at Red Fish Grill, which was transformed into a magnificent buffet with various “stations” located throughout the restaurant – the food was amazing. We took in several of the sites near and around the French Quarter mentioned earlier, including a cocktail at the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. Mostly, we spent our time meandering down Bourbon Street, “drinking” in the atmosphere of the places, and listening to the heartbeat of this wonderful city.