8/01/2009

Top 10 Reasons to Visit New Orleans

Forget New York City, forget Hollywood; forget Nashville, San Francisco, or Washington D.C.  In honor of the big Saints victory in the Superbowl, here are the top 10 reasons New Orleans is the absolute coolest city in the United States.
  1. The music.  New Orleans isn't just the home of jazz, it's the wellspring of jazz ... not to mention blues, brass and zydeco.  In a fashion almost parasitic, the music feeds off of the lives and experiences of the city's people.  Forget the booze: just stand anywhere on Bourbon Street and let yourself become intoxicated by the music wafting from the open doorways of half a dozen bars.
  2. The cuisine.  Make no mistake - New Orleans may have a laid-back attitude about most everything else, but they take their food very seriously.  They've figured out that the chickory in the cafe au late perfectly balances the sugary sweetness of a beignet.  That seafood is meant to be enjoyed every meal of the day. That everything tastes better with a rich, buttery sauce. That, no, you don't have to eat your vegetables. And that there's simply no such thing as "too hot."
  3. The architecture. Part sophisticated European city, part sleepy southern town, part gaudy Caribbean port, the  major architectural influences on New Orleans haven't so much fused as figured out how to coexist.  Gorgeous creole townhouses with lacey trimwork and ornate iron balconies exist aside ancient wooden claphouse structures with sagging shutters and doors that stay open year round - not so much because the city never sleeps (though it doesn't), but because their frames have become so warped they simply don't close any more. And yet New Orleans not only makes this cacaphony work, but makes it appear somehow genteel, rather like an aged but still upright and fiercely elegant dowager.
  4. The attitude. "The Big Easy" isn't just a nickname; in New Orleans, it's a lifestyle. Maybe it's having successfully withstood centuries of hurricanes, yellow fever, pirates and multiple invasions. Maybe it's the fact that 7 different flags have flown over the city in the course of its long history. Or maybe it's just growing up knowing that you're living below sea level and, therefore, everything you have could be wiped off the earth at any time. ...Whatever the cause, there is a "live for the moment" attitude in New Orleans that you just don't find in any other city.
  5. The parties. No city knows how to party like New Orleans. Sure, Mardi Gras gets all the attention, but the Mardi Gras spirit infuses this city year-round. In the French Quarter of New Orleans, the bars never close, the music never stops, dancing in the streets is not only expected but encouraged, and strings of plastic beads never go out of style. 
  6. The ghosts.  New Orleans is called the most haunted city in America and even in broad daylight, it's apparent why. The whole city seems to exist in a timeless space between past and present.  And at night ... well, just try walking through a New Orleans neighborhood and tell me which scares you more: being attacked by a mugger, or being accosted by the sallow shade of an old yellow fever vicitim.  (Anne Rice lives in New Orleans ... enough said?)
  7. The Mississippi.  It's vast. It's murky.  Much of the time it manages to look like a busy interstate at rush hour.  But it connects the busy, relatively modern seaport of New Orleans to the city's antebellum roots, and its placid surface does little to conceal the enormous and terrifying forces that the river's inadequate levees strain to keep contained.  
  8. The bayous.  Sprawling cypress trees, their roots protruding from the water like vestigal limbs. Spanish moss eerily wafting in invisible breezes.  Fish and nutria slicing through the water beneath your boat. That telltale "V" of water indicating the passage of something much larger - something huge and green, with lots of teeth.  Much like the city itself, New Orlean's bayous are ancient, majestic and more than just a little bit unsettling.
  9. The Voodoo. Think of New Orleans as the Vatican of voodoo.  The city isn't just home to voodoo - it is saturated by voodoo, from the haunting drumbeats of the local music, to the african god figures sold in most of the local gift stores, to the gris-gris bags hanging around the necks of many of the inhabitants.  Marie Laveau, arguably the most famous voodoo priestess, practiced in New Orleans, and she is buried in one of the city's fabulously creepy cemeteries (see next entry). If any city will make you believe in zombies, New Orleans will.
  10. Death. When I die I want to go out the way they do it in New Orleans: with music, singing, dancing, and a parade through the streets. The people of New Orleans seem intuitively to understand that funerals need to be a celebration of life, not a celebration of death.  Maybe that's because no city embraces death quite so nonchalently as New Orleans. The city is riddled with cemeteries in which the dead inhabit beehive-type above-ground crypts, resembling nothing so much as little apartment houses of the dead.  It's as if, even in death, the inhabitants of this astonishing city can't bring themselves entirely to leave, but remain eternally in New Orleans' thrall.

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