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.
New Orleans is famous for its food, and if you want to eat where civil rights workers gathered to plan strategy and President Obama stopped by to eat some gumbo, sit down for soul food at Dooky Chase, a Creole restaurant across the street from a public housing development torn down after Katrina. If you want to have lunch where black politicians and local celebrities go to network, stop by Lil' Dizzy's on Esplanade Avenue, in the heart of the Treme neighborhood. New Orleans cuisine doesn't offer much for non-meat eaters, but there are some options. Bennachin, an inexpensive West African spot in the French Quarter, offers meat, fish and vegetarian options.
Live music is a central part of life in New Orleans. You can always find a range of performers, and several bars and restaurants that never close, on Frenchmen Street. On a Saturday night, listen to old-school hip-hop from the upstairs balcony of the Blue Nile, dance to salsa at Lazziza or cram into the cozy Apple Barrel for some live jazz. If you want to step farther away from the tourist zone, head a few blocks over to St. Bernard Street, where several black-owned clubs, including Sidney's Saloon — owned by Kermit Ruffins — and Perfect Fit, a more mature spot that often features live R&B, keep the party going till the late hours.
Nearly every Sunday in New Orleans, from September through June, you can find (if you know whom to ask) a second line. What is a second line? It's a cross between a parade, a giant roving street party and a family barbecue. The larger second lines involve three brass bands and thousands of people traversing several miles over the course of four or five hours, dancing the whole time.
New Orleans has other cultural traditions all its own. One example is the Mardi Gras Indians — black men, predominantly, and some women — who dress in elaborate costumes that they have spent all year designing and constructing. The costuming originated as a tribute to Native American communities to acknowledge the support they provided to black people during the times of slavery. For example, native communities served as stops on the Underground Railroad, offering refuge for those escaping from slavery.
If you want to celebrate civil rights history, New Orleans offers a lot to choose from. The largest uprising of enslaved people in the U.S. happened in 1811 just outside the city limits. After the Civil War, Louisiana had the first African-American governor in U.S. history, P.B.S. Pinchback, who served for a mere four weeks in office. In 1892 a black New Orleanian named Homer Plessy participated in a direct action that brought the first (unsuccessful) legal challenge to the doctrine of "separate but equal" — the challenge that became the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson.
In 1970 the local chapter of the Black Panther Party had a standoff with the police in the Desire housing development, and hundreds of residents came out and forced the police to retreat. You can connect with some aspects of this history through Louisiana's African American Heritage Trail, which even has its own iPhone app.
In short, New Orleans is a city to visit whether you want to celebrate a history of civil rights struggles or dance all night to live music. A city of stunning architecture, music and food unlike anywhere else in the world. A place you may never want to leave.
And when you do leave, note that our airport is named Louis Armstrong International Airport. Who is your city's airport named after?
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans. His new book is Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six (floodlines.org).
Check out The Root's Guide to Having Fun in New Orleans by clicking the link to our Google map.