National Geographic Ranks New Orleans as one of the Best Trips in 2014

The Imperishable City

New Orleans, like Rome or hope, is eternal. Visit Louisiana’s filigreed, fleur-de-lis city twice or 20 times, and the scent will be as unchanging as the air is unmoving: a humid mix of confederate jasmine and fried shrimp, diesel fuel and desire. The French Quarter? Always rolling. At Galatoire’s, Uptown lawyers still get “liquor-store-robbing drunk” on five-hour Friday lunches of oysters Rockefeller and Pouilly-Fuissé, while farther down Bourbon Street, exhibitionists hooched-up on Hurricanes play to the balconies. The Garden District remains quieter than sleep—the whitewashed tombs of its cemetery still shelter the dead and fascinate the living. The St. Charles Avenue streetcar? Forever un-air-conditioned. Its open windows frame America’s most beautiful boulevard. Last year’s Mardi Gras beads will be there, too, dangling from the live oaks.

The music remains unrivaled. Rebirth, or maybe a Neville or two, should be playing Frenchmen Street; in the Treme a jazz band sends a second line snaking past the Creole cottages painted cantaloupe, carmine, and chartreuse.

Immutable. Imperishable. As predictable as seersucker after Easter. Yet change has arrived like Blanche DuBois, suitcase in hand and a tad dishabille. The Crescent City has always depended on the kindness of strangers, but now they’re staying. Some 20,000 in the past four years have settled along the Mississippi, revitalizing whole faubourgs, or neighborhoods. They’ve Brooklyn-ized the Bywater with Banksy murals and hipster clubs. Audubon and City Parks are replanted, and the theater marquees for the Joy and the Saenger shine again on Canal Street. The Lower Garden District now claims French antiques and molecular gastronomy. Freret Street sports fancy franks and cocktails. Mercedes-Benz got its mitts on the Superdome (or, at least, the name). Those who love this town may worry that the change will overpower the charm. Relax. What’s new will just join the party, Sazerac in hand.

“Goodness, sugar,” says Marda Burton, doyenne of the French Quarter. “New Orleans just excites the senses. It always has. It always will.” New Orleans! Storied past. Bright future. Hot mess. Here’s mud in your eye. —Andrew Nelson

Travel Tips

When to Go: A subtropical climate makes New Orleans a year-round destination. July and August, typically hot and humid, are the best months for hotel deals. Book well in advance and prepare to pay higher prices during Mardi Gras March 4, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival April 25-May 4.

How to Get Around: Take a private shuttle or taxi from New Orleans International Airport to your hotel. From there, walking and riding streetcars should get you most anywhere you want to go. Streetcar lines run along St. Charles Avenue, Canal Street, Carrollton Avenue, the riverfront, and Loyola Street (connecting the city’s bus and train terminal with the Canal Street line).

Where to Stay: Escape French Quarter crowds, noise, and prices at Jazz Quarters in the adjacent Treme neighborhood. The collection of historic Creole cottages, suites, and guest rooms is clustered around a leafy courtyard and was extensively renovated by the new owners in 2011. Rates include daily breakfast (Saturday’s sweet potato bread pudding soufflé is reason enough to stay a Friday night) and gated, onsite parking. Leave your car for the duration and walk to Bourbon Street, the French Market, and the riverfront.

Where to Eat or Drink: If New Orleans were a meal, it would be prepared at Antoine’s. Continuously operated since 1840 by the family of founder Antoine Alciatore, the French Quarter landmark serves French-Creole classics, including oysters Rockefeller and pommes de terre soufflés, both invented in the kitchen. There are 14 dining rooms (many decorated with memorabilia from the dignitaries and celebrities who have dined here); however, reservations are strongly recommended.

What to Buy: All things Haitian voodoo, including tarot readings by priestess Sallie Ann Glassman (appointments required), are available at Island of Salvation Botanica. Situated away from the well-trod tourist paths in the New Orleans Healing Center on St. Claude, the shop stocks herbs and spiritual supplies ranging from spirit-calling sticks (made with sticks collected from the levee) to Mexican papier–mâché skeleton masks.

Cultural Tip: Learn about the ongoing post-Katrina rebuilding efforts in the “Lower Nine” with Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours. The four-hour tour helps support revitalization efforts by connecting visitors with residents, restaurants, and businesses typically left off tourist itineraries.

What to Read Before You Go: Sample New Orleans’ rich literary tradition with John Kennedy Toole’s classic, A Confederacy of Dunces (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987); The Feast of All Saints (Ballantine Books, 1986) by Anne Rice; and Nine Lives: Mystery, Magic, Death and Life in New Orleans (Spiegel & Grau, 2010) by Dan Baum.

Helpful Link: New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau

Fun Fact: In New Orleans, medians are known as neutral grounds. The term is thought to have originated in the early 19th century on Canal Street, where the green space in the middle was considered neutral ground between the Creole and American neighborhoods.

Insider Tip From Andrew Nelson: The Mississippi River is often hidden behind dock walls and levees, but not at a public park called the Fly. At this park, located behind the Audubon Zoo in Uptown, you can sit and enjoy the play of sky and water.

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