New Orleans has been through a lot. In the five years since Katrina and four months of the BP drilling disaster, we have seen more than our share of trauma and loss. But this is still a city where the streets are always alive with music and culture. In New Orleans, we dance at funerals because we mourn through celebration. It’s a city of kindness and community, where bars never close, where you can find great live music with no cover (and sometimes free food) on any night of the week — and almost every weekend has a festival or some kind of street party.
In an early episode of Treme, the HBO drama dedicated to embracing New Orleans culture, a character based on local musician Davis Rogan advises some young Christian volunteers to check out a neighborhood bar named Bullets, where every Tuesday night the much beloved musician Kermit Ruffins plays. When Davis runs into the volunteers the next afternoon, they haven’t slept. They’ve been out all night, having the time of their lives, forgetting all of their volunteering responsibilities.
This will happen to you in New Orleans, if you let it. There is always something to do here, and you can always catch up on sleep when you get home.
New Orleans is also a city of tremendous cultural and historical importance. This is the city that birthed jazz and bounce music and still keeps supplying the world with more Branford Marsalises and Lil’ Waynes. This is the city that claims the oldest black neighborhood in the country — the Treme, where free black people began settling as early as 1725.
Often called North America’s African city, New Orleans is steeped in traditions both African and Caribbean. This rich background can be attributed in part to the legacy of French colonialism, which — while still brutal and racist — allowed enslaved black people to buy their freedom. This enabled African cultural traditions to be maintained in New Orleans in a way that they weren’t elsewhere in the United States.
If you want to experience New Orleans the way the locals do, the first thing you need to do is get a handle on the culture, with a visit to the Backstreet Cultural Museum or the House of Dance and Feathers, two small institutions dedicated to celebrating and educating the public about New Orleans’ unique African-American cultural traditions. Next, stop by a small arts space like the Ashé Cultural Arts Center or a spot where locals gather for conversation and debate, like the Community Book Center.
With food, music, cultural traditions and holidays that are distinct from the rest of the U.S., New Orleans sometimes seems to be a country unto itself. You may have heard of Mardi Gras, but unless you’ve lived in a city that celebrates carnival, you don’t really know what it’s like. For starters, the locals celebrate Mardi Gras in several different ways. Some are public spectacles, while others are shrouded in secrecy.