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North America

N'awlins, City of the South

Jonathan van Bilsen



March 12, 2024

N'awlins, City of the South

With Mardi Gras just behind us, New Orleans is now a much quieter place, and a visit to this southern Louisiana city is a great opportunity to enjoy some sun, great food and a lot of fun.

New Orleans, with a population of 400,000, is a bustling city, which enjoys a huge tourist trade. It is world-renowned for its distinct music, Creole cuisine, unique dialects, and its annual celebrations and festivals. The historic heart of the city is the French Quarter, known for its French and Spanish Creole architecture and vibrant nightlife along Bourbon Street. The city has been described as the ‘most unique’ in the United States, owing in a large part to its cross-cultural and multilingual heritage.

New Orleans is a magnet for artists such as painters, sculptors, weavers and ceramicists. You can shop their works on Julia Street in the Warehouse District, or Royal Street in the French Quarter. If you are into sports, you can watch the Saints play at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, which holds up to 78,000 people.

My favourite section is the French Quarter, the city’s main attraction, famous for its vibrant nightlife and colourful buildings with cast-iron balconies. Crowd-pleasing Bourbon Street features jazz clubs, Cajun eateries and reverberating bars serving potent cocktails. If you need a break from the noise, there are quieter streets that lead to the French Market, with gourmet food and local crafts.

In over 200 years of existence, the French Market has been built, destroyed, and rebuilt many times over, but what remains unchanged is the Market’s community spirit and culture, irresistible to visitors from near and far.

New Orleans prides itself on various distinctive housing styles. The oldest are the Creole Cottages, which date back to 1790. They are single-story homes with steeply pitched roofs and front porches that almost touch the street. They are a distinct blend of Caribbean and French Canadian design.

Walking through the French Quarter, it is great to admire the Creole Townhouses, which date back to the late 1700s. Creole Townhouses often have shops below and homes above, brick or stucco exteriors and arched windows. Built after the Great Fires of 1788 and 1794, these two to four-story structures have a strong Spanish influence in the details.

Found all over New Orleans are shotgun houses, which are long and narrow, single-story homes with a wood exterior.  The term “shotgun” originates from the idea that when standing in the front of the house, you can shoot a bullet clear through every room.

Music plays a vital role in the way of life of New Orleans. Jazz, is of course, the number one style and many musicians such as Bo Diddley, Louis Armstrong and Trombone Shorty, all got their start here. There are over 5,000 registered musicians in New Orleans.

One of the reasons so many tourists flock to New Orleans is the food. Whether you enjoy Gumbo, Jambalaya or one of the famous Beignets from the Cafe Du Monde, there is no shortage of eateries. People think nothing of lining up for an hour, just to enjoy the famous ‘French donuts’.

If breakfast is your thing you can enjoy grits most anywhere, followed by sweet potato-pecan waffles or Pain Perdu, a traditional Cajun breakfast dish. Alternatively, you can simply walk around enjoying some street food while you admire the art.

The heart of New Orleans is Jackson Square, with the steeples of Saint Louis Cathedral visible from almost anywhere. The statue of Andrew Jackson boldly stands in the front courtyard, and is a remembrance of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans.

No matter whom I talk to about New Orleans, the first thing that comes up in conversation is Mardi Gras. This fun-filled Carnival celebration leads up to the last day of Lent, on the Catholic calendar. It is a time for partying before 40 days of fasting begins. Carnivals are held all over the world at this time, but next to the one in Rio de Janeiro, the New Orleans Mardi Gras certainly tops the list.

I have only been once during this wild and crazy time, and must admit, once is enough. Most days, during the two week event, have several large parades with the largest and most elaborate ones taking place the last five days of the season. People throw each other strands of beads or other trinkets, based on 150 year traditions.

By the 1730s, Mardi Gras was celebrated openly in New Orleans, but not with the parades we know today. In the early 1740s, the governor established elegant society balls, which became the model for the New Orleans Mardi Gras balls of today. The earliest reference to ‘Carnival’ appears in 1781.

Another side of New Orleans not to be missed, is the Garden district with homes on a much grander scale. This beautiful neighbourhood was originally developed between 1832 and 1900 and is considered one of the best preserved collections of historic mansions in the southern United States.

Originally, the area was developed with only a couple of houses per block, each surrounded by a large garden, giving the district its name. In the late 19th century, some of these large lots were subdivided, which produced a pattern for much of the neighbourhood, where any given block has a couple of early 19th-century mansions, surrounded by ‘gingerbread’ decorated late Victorian period houses.

A trip to New Orleans is not complete without a visit to the cemeteries, which may sound morbid, but is extremely interesting. Burial plots are shallow because the water table is very high. Graves were kept above ground, following the Spanish custom of using vaults.

The hot, subtropical climate, causes the tombs to effectively become ovens, and the high heat causes the remains to decompose rapidly. Within about a year, only bones are left and if another member of the family is in need of a burial spot, the previous remains are re-arranged in a lower chamber of the tomb. The law states remains have to be entombed for at least one year. It is not uncommon for two remains to share a vault, if someone in the family dies within that year.

Louis Armstrong Park was home to the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. More recently the park has been the home of the "Jazz in the Park" free concert series.

Staying within North America makes travel much easier, and a visit to ‘Nawlins’ will be sure to create a satisfying experience.

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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