Like Spanish moss on a live oak tree, history hangs thick in the streets of New Orleans. Settled by the French in 1718, the city was volleyed between Spanish and French control before 1803, when it was sold to the United States with the Louisiana Purchase. Since then, the Crescent City has kept the good times rolling. Stroll through “the birthplace of jazz,” and you might hear the sounds of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet intertwined with the pounding piano of Fats Domino. Icons have a way of living on in these storied neighborhoods—just ask the ghost hunters outside the tomb of voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.
While much has changed since playwright Tennessee Williams purportedly declared that “America has only three great cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland,” the Big Easy remains one of the world’s most celebrated destinations. This year, spirits will be running especially high during the city’s tricentennial celebration—and the festivities go way beyond raising a Sazerac (America’s first cocktail) on Bourbon Street. Taste Creole cuisine, explore celebratory exhibitions, and immerse yourself in the storied culture—there are a plethora of ways to “time travel” through 300 years of this city’s rich history. Put on your party hat; this is one birthday you won’t want to miss.
New Orleans’s musical roots stretch back to the early 1800s, when slaves would gather in Congo Square on Sundays to drum and sing. By 1910, brass bands were marching through the streets in second-line parades, and the term “jass” was coined to describe the style of music that flourished in the red-light district. For a taste of the city’s turn-of-the-19th-century rhythm, catch a show at Preservation Hall in the French Quarter. Established in 1961 to protect traditional New Orleans jazz, the venue transports visitors to the days when cats like Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden drew crowds. Inside, you’ll find yellowed peeling walls and rustic benches. A no-photography policy forces you to put away your phone and appreciate the legendary house band.
During the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (running April 27 to May 6, 2018), head to the festival grounds and step inside the tricentennial-themed Cultural Exchange Pavilion, which celebrates 300 years of multicultural creativity. Expect performances by Vietnamese lion dancers and Haitian vodou drummers, plus daily parades by the Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleans second lines.
Do the voodoo
Voodoo (or vodou) has been practiced in New Orleans since the early 1700s, but in the 1830s Marie Laveau turned it into a spectacle. She began hosting annual summer feasts on St. John’s Eve and topping them off with head-washing ceremonies (basically a voodoo baptism). The holy day became one of her legacies, and modern-day voodoo practitioners have continued the tradition. Sallie Ann Glassman will be leading this year’s St. John’s Eve ritual in the lobby of the International House Hotel on June 22, 2018. Guests are encouraged to wear all-white and bring an offering to Marie Laveau. Afterwards, head over to the hotel’s voodoo-inspired Loa Bar to sip cocktails steeped in history and mixed with locally sourced ingredients. Creative director Alan Walter even created an herbal elixir called “John’s Way” for the occasion.
Seek out the stories
The history of New Orleans is like a blockbuster movie complete with romance, tragedy, vampires, and pirates. To get a lay of the land, explore by bike with FreeWheelin’ Bike Tours’ “Creole & Crescent” tour on your first day. Later, dig deeper into the city’s origins at the Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC). This fall, the HNOC will open its third campus in the French Quarter with Art of the City: Postmodern to Post-Katrina. The retrospective will feature works by 75 artists that reflect on the past three decades. From June 23 to September 14, the New Orleans Museum of Art will hold its tricentennial exhibit, Changing Course: Reflections on New Orleans Histories, which consists of seven immersive installations that center on forgotten and marginalized stories spanning over 70 years.
The historic mansions of the Garden District have long attracted architecture lovers, but to truly appreciate these storied domiciles, you’ll have to sleep inside one. While the area boasts a few quaint inns, the Henry Howard Hotel gets top marks for style. The double-gallery, Greek revival townhouse, designed in 1867 by famed architect Henry Howard, has been reimagined as an 18-room boutique hotel. Inside, custom wallpaper and second-line instruments decorate the walls; the lobby, which feels more like a living room, welcomes guests with soaring ceilings, vintage furniture, and Moscow mule cocktails. For the tricentennial year, the property has curated a self-guided walking tour of the Garden District’s historic landmarks, including other buildings designed by Henry Howard, celebrity homes, a party house once frequented by Mark Twain, and the Lafayette Cemetery #1.
Somehow, it’s possible to eat your body weight in crawfish and beignets without gaining a pound in New Orleans (thank you, three-hour walking tours). Many of the city’s restaurants double as historical sites, such as Ralph’s on the Park. Built in 1860 as City Park’s first concession stand, Ralph’s now aims to tell a regional story through Gulf seafood and classic cocktails. In the French Quarter, Brennan’s is an institution. Try the Bananas Foster, which the restaurant invented in 1951 and still flambés to perfection today. This year, it will host a Tricentennial Dinner Series, featuring guest speakers and chefs; the next event, in June, will focus on Creole cuisine. For lunch with a side of history, visit Napoleon House for a Pimm’s Cup and a classic muffuletta sandwich. The building’s first occupant was mayor Nicholas Girod, who offered the residence as a refuge to Napoleon in 1821. The exiled emperor never made it, and while the city rolls on around it, the landmark still stands waiting, as if frozen in time—right down to the 200-year-old walls, Beethoven soundtrack, and ghosts rumored to haunt the attic.
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