Courtesy of a fellow Catholic Worker delivering a conference lecture, I had the opportunity to head south to New Orleans in January. Yup, piggy-backing on someone else’s trip. I must admit that I came into the trip pretty blind. All I knew of New Orleans was voodoo, beignets, Bourbon Street, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (which we all know wasn’t simply a natural disaster).
In spite of my ignorance, after 14 hours in the car and some crash-reading of guide books, I was ready to hit the streets. Here follows a few highlights on places to go, foods to eat, and ways to get the most bang for your buck in this flashy town.
Let’s start with the food…
Beignets are everywhere. Of course, Café du Monde is a must on any traveler’s to-do list and their chicory coffee is great, as well. The other sweet treat of New Orleans seems to be pralines. These are basically sugar with pecans smushed into an oval. The cheapest way to try one? Head to Royal Pralines and dip in for the samples!
Coop’s near the French Quarter market served up some decent rabbit jambalaya and local brews. Being from Wisconsin, I’m always down for trying the local beers. Pleased to say that Louisiana did not disappoint (there have been stinkers. Looking at you, Washington D.C.).
Obsessively scrolling local guides, I kept running into Verti Marte. This place is not over-promoted! Sorry there’s no pic of the crazy delicious sandwich. I was too busy eating it. One thing that was reassuring when talking to locals: there’s no use trying to find the secret, locals-only food haunts. In New Orleans, good food is just as good no matter how popular.
Cheap cocktails can be found during happy hour at most bars. If your martini is more than $3, move along. We stayed in the convention center area. Not a whole lot going on. The Bakery Bar, however, was just the kind of local, homey bar that pulls at my heart strings.
Besides these highlights, there’s oysters, hot sauces, po’boys from corner store kitchens ($5 cheaper and just as good as a restaurant), the list of great food in NOLA is endless. Oh! I almost forgot about brunch. Never forget about brunch! Head to Atchafalaya for a duck hash that will remind you why eating is like being in heaven. Worth the walk, wait, and the check!
What does one DO in New Orleans in January!?
Short answer: wander. The weather was perfect for walking around. New Orleans in January is neither too hot nor too cold. As you’re weaving through the streets of New Orleans, checking out the big trees and the wrought-iron balconies, you’re surely already heading down Royal Street (antiques n’ art galleries), Frenchmen Street (way more chill than Bourbon St.), and Mitchell Street (hipsters, coffee, and friendly Art Market vendors).
Thanks to our theological leader, we included St. Augustine’s Catholic Church in our meandering route. Check out their history, it’s pretty rad. Plus, if the memorial outside the church doesn’t shake you, I don’t know what will.
If you’re hankering to see some real voodoo without any of the appropriation nonsense, include the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in your wanderings. (It’s near the St. Roch Market, so there’s really no excuse) Priestess Miriam was very hospitable. She welcomed us all in to ask questions and talk about the temple, her experience, and voodoo.
I’m pretty cheap, so I skipped Whitney Plantation. Plus, I struggle visiting any place that preserves years of human suffering (Nazi concentration camps, Khmer Rouge killing fields….American slave quarters). However, if you’ve got the dough and courage to face the past, it’s highly recommended by my fellow travelers. The tour is set up to address the plantation’s past in a realistic and honest manner. This tour isn’t simply of a pretty house.
When you need to get out of the city, head to the Barataria Preserve. Swamps on one side, armadillos (!!!!!!) on the other. Jean Lafitte National Historic Parks has some good things going on. And we all love our National Parks, don’t we? I mean, who doesn’t love a good park!? Support your park, folks.
In the evening you might catch a few parades as the festival season kicks off for New Orleans in January. We huddled up to for the Joan of Arc Parade (the burning dress was the coolest!!) and collected dozens of knickknacks, candles, and cards.
Now let’s dig deeper…
New Orleans is a strange town. With a history built on slavery and an economy built on tourism, it is a place where excess and dispossession seem to coexist. At first glance, the flashing lights and music-blaring daiquiri bars give one the sense of a watered-down Las Vegas….or that one street which every city seems to have where all the out-of-towners and college kids go to get wasted.
If you’re not particularly keen on being one of the walking-wasted (at least, not all of the time), I highly recommend reading up on what’s going down in New Orleans. For instance, Take Em Down NOLA, fighting to take down the statues of oppression. Learn about Fight for 15 New Orleans and maybe even visit Saint Thomas House – New Orleans Catholic Worker. Know that if you’re staying in a big hotel, Loews Hotel and Casino Harrah are the only hotels with union contracts in place (report 2014).
Dang. Just read these before you go:
- The Big Easy is Harder Than You Think – crime, tourism, poverty in NOLA
- Tourism industry booms, but income inequality remains – this article is very, very good
- KatrinaTruth – the real reasons Hurricane Katrina caused such devastation
- New Orleans recovery – African American Left Behind
- Know his name: Eric Harris
- Cultural vibes photo blog
The food, music, and entertainment of New Orleans is certainly something at which to marvel. Hopefully, some of the above resources will help you decipher the atmosphere while you’re enjoying the sights, sounds, and tastes. If New Orleans in January doesn’t sound appealing, you can always go during the warm, muggy months and still see the same great sites!