The Big Easy is not just a place for excellent eats and daytime boozing, it's also one of our nation's most delightfully different cities, perhaps because NOLA was French until 1803. Whatever the reason, all things non-conformist, unusual and just plain spooky seem to thrive here, from voodoo (or rather, "Vodou") to vampires. Read on for the ways to maximize the unique factor on your next trip.
1. Experience Voodoo first hand
The first thing to learn is that it should be written "Vodou." The other spelling comes from confusing this legitimate Haitian religion with "hoodoo," a kind of West African spellcasting and folk magic. So explained Vodou priestess Sallie Ann Glassman when I visited her cheerful and eclectic shop, the Island of Salvation Botanica, which offers everything from handmade magic wands to candles, Haitian art, and items with names like Love Drops or Money Soap.
Glassman is of Ukrainian Jewish heritage, from a line of "people who were always seers and mystics," she says, and she grew up in Maine. After learning about Vodou when she moved to New Orleans in the 70s, Glassman later studied the religion in Haiti and became one of a handful of Americans to be ordained in a traditional Haitian initiation. She later wrote a well-respected book, Vodou Visions. "I could always see the spirit," she told me. "The world doesn't look very real to me. There's this other level of the spirit and energy." Pop into her shop and you might feel compelled to chat with Glassman or at least pick up some incense. If you're trying to achieve something specific, the priestess can select a candle for you and dress it with medicinal herbs. She also offers crystal ball readings in person or over the phone (book well in advance).
2. Visit a cemetery
Just as you've probably heard, the cemeteries in New Orleans are super beautiful/creepy/cool. Since the city is built on a swamp, early New Orleanians discovered the hard way that burying bodies underground wasn't such a hot idea. "There were a lot of unplanned family reunions," one of my Uber drivers deadpanned, telling me that buried bodies and coffins would often float back up above ground thanks to the high water table. The solution: Above-ground mausoleums, usually made of marble or granite and sometimes huge and impressive. Or, in the case of Nicolas Cage's giant white pyramid of a future gravesite in the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, more than a little eccentric.
Though it might seem real-estate issues would crop up quickly in these compact urban burial grounds, fear not. Although the Catholic Church forbade cremation until 1963, bodies disintegrate quickly in the NOLA heat, leaving plenty of space to bury more folks in the same tomb! The imposing white-marble tomb of the Italian Benevolent Society in St. Louis No. 1, for example, is said to hold 1,000 bodies. "Voodoo Queen" Marie Laveau, who died in 1891, is also buried in St. Louis No. 1, and this profusion of notable tombs plus proximity to the French Quarter makes it the most popular cemetery. Because of vandalism, visits here are now limited to guided tours only. Book online with the nonprofit Save Our Cemeteries, or just hang around the entrance with cash on hand and hope to join a group. If you don't do tours, Lafayette Cemetery is a lovely place for an afternoon stroll. It's conveniently located across the street from the venerable Commander's Palace (where you should definitely treat yourself to a boozy lunch) in the Garden District.
3. See the Mardi Gras Indians's bling-tastic costumes
If you caught the David Simon TV show Tremé, you already know a bit about Mardi Gras Indians (pictured at top), since the character Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) spends a lot of time working on gorgeous beaded parade costumes. Mardi Gras Indian costumes are indeed a spectacle and delight to behold, with their bright colors rendered in feathers, beads and other bling, from the hand-made moccasins to the often towering headdresses.
Even if you don't make it to Crescent City during Carnival, you can scope costumes from past years at the Backstreet Cultural Museum, a funky little shrine to the Indians and other unique NOLA traditions, including second-line jazz funeral parades. Backstreet is housed inside a former funeral home just above the French Quarter. There you can not only behold the costumes, but also learn about the history of Mardi Gras Indians, which goes back to the runaway slaves who sometimes took refuge with native tribes, as well as to the figures of steadfast strength that Native Americans represented for some slaves and free blacks. Slightly farther afield, the House of Dance and Feathers in the Lower Ninth Ward is another place to view costumes and learn about the Mardi Gras Indians.
4. Find ghosts, vampires and other spookiness
"Pretty much everyone in New Orleans claims their house is haunted," remarked a local friend. And it's true: Ghost stories seem to abound here more than in any other American city. You can skulk the city's spirits on any number of ghost tours, or just cover the whole shebang with French Quarter Phantoms' ghosts and vampires walking tour. (French Quarter vampire legends are the inspiration for Anne Rice's famous Vampire Chronicles book series, on which the 1994 Brad Pitt movie Interview With the Vampire is based.)
For a little DIY ghost-spotting, stop by the LaLaurie Mansion at the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls Streets in the French Quarter. A cruel and twisted Madame LaLaurie is said to have tortured slaves inside the house, leaving behind a ghostly curse destined to affect future owners. Former proprietor Nicolas Cage proved no exception; he lost the house in 2009 to foreclosure after running into financial trouble. If you just want to buy some oddball N'awlins souvenirs, stop by Magazine Street shop AKA Stella Gray to peruse the selection of snake vertebrae necklaces, artsy voodoo dolls and even a tiny taxidermied bat (oh, and gorgeous antiques and local art, too).
5. Visit a museum about leprosy
This small museum about an hour and 15 minutes' drive from NOLA chronicles the history of the National Leprosarium, or National Hansen's Disease Museum, in Carville, Louisiana—where patients were treated for Hansen's disease (i.e., leprosy) from 1894 to 1999. You can see medical devices and a re-creation of a patient room, and learn about daily life inside the columned mansion, back when leprosy was an incurable, deadly disease. If you want to make a day of it, combine your visit with lunch at the Cabin in nearby Burnside, a restaurant located in the former slave quarters of an old plantation.